Rheingold | High Stakes In Cyberspace | FRONTLINE | PBS
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[IMAGE OF HOWARD RHEINGOLD]


HOWARD RHEINGOLD -- Interviewed June 15, 1995 in San Francisco, CA.

Rheingold is the editor of the Whole Earth Review and author of "The Virtual Community." He also has launched a new Web site, Electric Minds which is part computer technology magazine and part digital age community board.




Q: What's so revolutionary about this medium?

HR: Many-to-many media, I think, are a revolution in the way the printing press was a revolution. Before the printing press, there were a few tens of thousands of hand-picked people who could read and write. After the printing press, there was a literate population in Europe of millions. You can't have an industrial revolution, you can't have democracies, you can't have populations who can govern themselves until you have literacy. The printing press simply unlocked literacy. What's important is not how you put those words together in a machine, what's important is what a population does with it. When you collect computers and telecommunications together, you created a global many-to-many medium that unlocks the access to other people's minds You no longer have to be a television network or own a newspaper, take a little computer bulletin board system and publish a manifesto or an eyewitness report, you could be in Tienamen Square, you could be anywhere in the world where news is happening and broadcast that news to the world. I believe that it is as fundamental a power as the printing press was. And I think ultimately, if you believe in democracy, it's a very important step forward.

Q: What is the potential of this revolution?

You know democracy is not just voting for your leaders, it's really premised upon ordinary citizens understanding the issues. That means getting good information and being able to communicate with each other. Well, in the mass media as we have it today, we're not getting good information, we're getting sound bites and we're not talking with each other, we are passive consumers of what is told to us. We have 70,000 little bulletin board systems in the United States alone. That's grass roots democracy, that's people talking about what are they going to do about the city council or how can they organize politically. I believe that that is a way that we could revitalize citizen interest in democratic institutions. There's nothing really more important at the end of the 20th century than keeping citizen involvement in democratic institutions alive. Let's not lose an opportunity to revitalize democracy on our way to make a buck.

Q: You were there at the beginning...

HR: Well the Internet started as the ARPANET which was a government project for researchers who were working for the defense department. Very quickly those researchers discovered what millions have discovered since--that you can use the computer networks not just to do research but to conduct conversations among groups of people. That grew so wildly far beyond the dreams of people who created the original network that eventually it dawned on the people who were running the big communication companies that this was the next communications medium. It really was not originally planned in the board room. It was something that just grew because people wanted to connect with each other. The same thing by the way was true of the telephone which was originally conceived as a broadcast medium, where somebody would play a violin in Carnegie hall and everyone would listen through their telephone. And actually it was humans wanting to communicate with each other. The same thing is happening with the new media.

Q: Is there a feeling among the original inhabitants of the Internet that the "neighborhood" is being ruined by overdevelopment?.

HR: The people who really built the Internet which is becoming this information superhighway thousands and hundreds of thousands of people who have voluntarily put information out there and moderated discussions with each other are worried about the way the big companies are pushing it as just another conduit for pumping out the same old product whether it's news or entertainment or home shopping. But that's not what made the medium valuable in the first place.

What made the medium valuable is that every desktop can be a broadcasting station or a printing press. You no longer have to rely on a central authority. Everybody can communicate with everybody else. It's not really the vision we're seeing with 500 channels and video on demand. Do we really need to save the trip half a block to the video store and therefore spend billions of dollars for a new infrastructure? Or are there educational and democratic and social uses for this technology that we're really not hearing about because that's really not in the big profit picture.

The primary way that the spirit of cooperation and really democratic discourse could be damaged would be in the architecture of the new network. If they put these new cable boxes in our homes and we can get 10 million bits per second into our homes so that we can get video on demand, but we can only put a hundred bits per second back out onto the network, in other words, just a channel clicker that will enable us to chose between packages that are sold to us, then we will lose that capability of the medium that makes every person a publisher.

If the architecture is two way and I can put video out from my home or I can set a little computer bulletin board system or a news service or other people can, then we might have a kind of platform that hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs can build on similar to the way that original personal computers enable people in garages like Bill Gates to build on that platform and create their own industries. If the big companies that sell the content and own the conduits that come into our home tell us that they're the only authorized people to put content on this medium, then it will really kill that spirit of cooperation that has made this medium valuable.

Q: What would have be done to insure the openess of the medium?

HR: There are two things that it's important to safeguard in order to keep this medium open. First of all, the architecture of the medium, the way the technology is created has to enable people to send information out from their homes as well as to receive it. And secondly, the companies that own the conduit--the means of sending information from place to place--should not be able to tell people what kind of content to send through it. What if a company that owns a lot of cables also owns a lot of entertainment news media? Will they favor their content over your content and my content? If there were rules that prevented them from being favorable to theirs against mine, I don't care whether the company that provides the conduit also sells content. I just don't want them to be tempted to prevent me from competing with them or you or any other American citizen.

Q: If I'm someone that's running a broadcast network, your vision is a little scary to me.

HR: Well you know, the railroads had an opportunity to know that they were really in the transportation business and not in the business of running great big metal things from place to place and they may have bought the airplanes when that was a tiny industry. And Western Union lost the opportunity to buy the telephone for $20,000. Old industries always tend to drive into the future looking into the rear view mirror. It's as if we're arguing about will this new highway be good for buggy whip manufacturers. We're not thinking about all of those service stations and road builders and all of the other industries that will go along with a whole new way of doing things.

You know personal computers were created by some teenagers in garages because the, the wisdom of the computer industry was that people didn't want these little toys on their desk. Well the wisdom of the communications industry now seems to be that they know what's best for us, they're going to give it to us and forget this amateur stuff that the Internet used to be. I think that they'll be surprised the way the computer giants were surprised when Apple came along.

Q: What's wrong with the big companies doing what they want as long as you can still have your little corner to chat with your friends?

HR: I'm really not anti-big business. I think that we really need the economies of scale that these big companies can bring but looking back at the way previous communication technologies have been misjudged by the companies that first try to sell them, I think the lesson is people want to communicate with each other, sell that to them and stop worrying about concocting some content. What's the content of the telephone network? It's the conversations that citizens have with each other. I contend that those who recognize this whether they're a giant company or a little entrepreneurial company, are going to succeed in the new medium. And those who see it as just an extension of the old 'let's broadcast some more of the same old product' are probably going to fail.

Q: So do the big monopolies understand this?

HR: I think that those big companies who recognize what I'm saying, that if you empower your customers, they will make you rich, they're going to have a competitive advantage over those companies that cling to the old paradigm of 'we know what's good for you and we're going to sell it to you and you passively consume it.' So as long as it is a market place and not a monopoly, I really believe that the market place is going to prove these predictions to be accurate.

Now I think we forget with all this talk of fiber optics and giant superhighways that if you connect people to computer, you can buy a PC a hundred dollars these days, $50 that's ten years old and a hundred dollar modem and connect it to a telephone. You now have a tool that a poor community can use to organize food buying coops, that they can use to organize information about employment opportunities and health care. This is something that could benefit our entire society including the poorest members of it. We need to create something that's accessible enough and inexpensive enough that those opportunities are not blocked out.

Q: You're telling some big monopolies to be generous.

HR: You know I think if you lower the bar and you enable hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs to take their shot at making a fortune, they're going to make you rich as well. So if you're too greedy at the beginning by charging ten dollars when you could charge $1, you're going to lose an opportunity to make a hundred dollars when those customers create a reason to use the medium.

Q: Revolutions come with a lot of pitfalls and victims. Does this one have any?

HR: I think the biggest pitfall of this new telecommunications revolution is that people don't really understand what it is about and those who would seek power or profit are manipulating that ignorance. The congress of the United States is passing laws that would censor the Internet in ways that the Supreme Court does not allow us to censor speech or writing. Most people don't understand what's going on. We're not being told about it in all of the commercial advertisements and our journalists have failed to explain that this important to democracy. So what I fear is not the revolution of the people with new tools in their hands, what I fear is that we are ignorant about a major change in our lives and the people who are getting the ears of congress are those who have millions to spend, not the citizens who don't understand what's at stake. It's going to be regulated and censored and monitored and back to us before we get a chance to know what it is we lost.

We're being sold a vision of a future that a lot of money has been invested in by very big companies. It's estimated that PACs have contributed over $40 million to congress people over telecommunications issues. Citizens don't understand that democracy is at stake, that our opportunity to get a little piece of that pie as entrepreneurs is at stake so we are not talking to our congressional representatives about what we want. So, who are they going to listen to, the citizens who don't understand and aren't talking to them? Or, the big companies who have a lot of stake, who understand and who are spending tens of millions of dollars? This is not just a technology issue. This is a citizen issue. The way we communicate with each other as citizens, the kind of democracy we live in, the kind of speech we will be allowed to make and the kind of businesses we will be allowed to engage in being determined right now in the halls of the U.S. congress and the board rooms of major corporations, we need to hear the citizens side of this and we need to talk about where the public interest lies in these very sweeping regulations.

Q: Democracy is at stake?

HR: Forty years ago television came along and it really changed the political process. We get presidents, we get representatives and we get issues that are attractively packaged and sold to us just as any other commercial good is sold to us. We no longer gather as citizens and talk about issues and candidates. We sit there an we watch what the tube passively sends us. We now have an opportunity to break that passivity, communicate with each other, to have debates and town hall meetings and to question whether what that senator just said on television matches the voting record that we can get right up on the same screen. I think democracy really is at stake. Are we going to have a medium in which citizens communicate with each other and have an ability to have access to complex information we need to run our society? Or is this just going to be another way to sell us more entertainment, more news, and we don't have any way of talking back to it? Are we going to have a healthy democracy if we just sit here as couch potatoes or is it going to be a healthier democracy if millions of people can let their opinions be known?

There's really a three-pronged attack on the foundations of American democracy that's happening because of our ignorance about the technology. Surveillance capabilities are being built into all communications technologies. The digital telephone bill that was signed into law last year guaranteed that. Very few Americans understand that the FBI now has very broad technical surveillance powers over citizens. Censorship. The internet is being censored by legislation now in ways that Americans have never been permitted to censor speech or writing and our privacy is being invaded and our means of protecting ourselves as citizens using encoding methods to have private conversations are being prevented by the government. So if you look at those three things, censorship, surveillance, and monopoly, the regulations that favor very large businesses and don't' favor smaller businesses, then I think American democracy is really under attack and we need to understand this.

Q: So is there something subtly threatening about all the commercial hype surrounding the revolution?

HR: Well these images of the future that are being sold to us on these commercials about the information superhighway, they're not really mentioning the important part. And then I think it's a danger. If most people get the idea that this is something that these big companies are going to sell us with this new technology we don't understand and we will consume it as passive consumers, rather than a new communication medium that could enable citizens to put up their business, create their own entertainment and have their own political platforms, then I think that's a real disservice. The mind space of the American public is being occupied by a commercial, it's not being occupied by a debate about the public interest communication media, democracy and the future.

Q: I want you to do a little selling for me. What on earth is so inviting about talking to people via your computer screen?

HR: There's a misconception that using a computer to communicate with people is kind of a sterile way of distancing yourself from them. We're already distanced, we're living in these concrete boxes and watching the tube seven hours a day. For a lot of reasons we live in alienated society. We now have an opportunity for butterfly collectors or Alzheimer's care givers, local activists, teachers and students to make connections with each other. Instead of just passively sitting there watching the tube. There's a real potential for computers to connect people together. It's not an instant utopia. It's a tool that humans can use to build communities, just as the telephone is a tool that humans can use. It's a relationship between the people, whether they reach out through that to help each other in real life that determines the communities. To deny that this is possible and to dismiss people who use computer networks as soulless nerds is really to deny a life line to people with life threatening illnesses who are isolated in their apartments because of disability or old age or if they live in a bad neighborhood. To deny educational opportunities to people just because they don't live in big cities, to deny the opportunity for small businesses to do global business. The image of a superhighway versus the image of a community. Don't let anybody convince you that that image of a community is totally phony. Because that information superhighway is just as phony in its own way.





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