Howard Rheingold

By Jack Kenny
Howard Rheingold has been the chronicler of the creative technology surge in the San Francisco area that changed the dynamics of our world. His contribution has been to try to understand and analyse it and now he is one of the world's foremost authorities on, and teachers of, the social implications of technology.

For the last 20 years Howard has travelled the world, observing and writing about trends in computing, communications and culture. He is also heavily involved in education and learning. His innovations come from his continuous forensic analysis of the digital world.

"My whole career for 25 years has been involved with personal computers, education and social communication online. I have been concerned about what all this means," he says. "Critics ask, scholars ask, online commentators ask and I ask myself: 'Are they helpful or harmful to social relationships?' Whether digital media will be beneficial or destructive in the long run doesn't depend on the technologies, but on the literacy of those who use them.

I am convinced that it is not access to hardware that is important but access to knowledge. I have become convinced that just as the invention of the printing press enabled people to do things together and become interactive, to do well in this new world now there are at least five essential inter-related literacies that are needed: attention, participation, collaboration, network awareness, and critical consumption."

Howard was brought up to value libraries and librarians and that colours his thinking. "We live at a time when we can get almost any information from the Internet: In the past we used libraries and we knew that everything had been checked. Now if it comes from the Internet it is up to you to decide whether it is information, misinformation, disinformation, urban legend, hoax or promotion or propaganda. The authority of the text has been overturned.

'No one in high schools or college is teaching the new skills'

"Readers of online texts have to be critics and enquirers. The ability 'to know' requires that you have the ability to search and sift. How do we know, with all the weight of information, what we pay attention to now and what we save for later? Focused attention is important but so is multitasking. We have to know how and when to use both appropriately."

Recent experience informs his thinking and he bemoans the fact that no one in high schools or college is teaching the new skills - the skills that we need when we are always connected.

"When I first faced students in a classroom, I was surprised to discover that the stories about 'digital natives' were not entirely accurate. Learning the alphabet requires further education before a literate person can compose a coherent argument. Learning the skills of effective social media use requires an education that today's institutions and teachers are ill-prepared to provide."

As a teacher at Berkeley and Stanford universities Howard found that many of his students, although technically literate with laptops and mobile phones, knew little about the literacies. He downplays the importance of informal learning such as game playing and questions how far it will take students. "They are good at learning software by just clicking around but that does not mean they understand how to advocate, how to organise, how to use the rhetoric," he warns.

"Digital natives does not accurately describe what most young people can do. Just because they're on Facebook and chat online during class and can send text messages with one hand does not mean young people are acquainted with the rhetoric of blogging, understand the way wikis can be used collaboratively, or know the techniques necessary for vetting the validity of information discovered online. The digital divide is less about access to technology and more about the difference between those who know how and those who don’t know how."

Howard is convinced that what’s most important is not access to the Internet but access to knowledge and literacies for the digital age. He says, “The ability to know has suddenly become the ability to search and the ability to sift and discern." And like the American author Ernest Hemingway, he believes a person should have a built-in "crap detector".

"I start with crap detection. None of this is rocket science; it is not even algebra. You have to know how to ask a question. How do you know if what you find is accurate? I begin by giving my students some URLs to look at and find out what they think. I give them They think it is about the civil rights leader; it is actually run by Nazis.

The thing is: how do you know what you find online is accurate? It is like a detective story, you have to be a detective. Who are they? What are their biases? Who links to the author? Who is behind the site? If you can't find an author, downgrade it. If you can find an author, search. There are many other strategies that good librarians will tell you about."

'The hardest thing to learn as a teacher is when to shut up'

Howard Rheingold worries about the schools system in the US. He feels that the influence of the schools boards creates conservatism. "It is a miracle that we can teach Darwin. It is difficult for teachers to innovate; the system seems to be against it. I am constantly reminded of how institutionalised many students are. Lots of people have been schooled but not much educated."

So what has he learnt about teaching? "The hardest thing to learn as a teacher is when to shut up. A lot of kids are used to receiving, rather than being active participants in their learning. I start by asking them to commit to a new way of learning. Sitting in a circle is important, there is no back row in a circle. Firstly I want them to know what they are getting into. Secondly, I require the students to teach with me."

So where does the Rheingold innovation come from? "I made a choice when I was young that I wanted to be free to think. The trade-off for that kind of freedom is the absence of security. In the present economic downturn lots of people do not know where the next dollar is coming from. 'Welcome to my world,' I think. I have to be aware of the market. If no one is interested then nobody buys what I have to say. I am a learnaholic but at the same time I have to be emotionally prepared for failure. When you are going to try new things then you are going to fail. I have failed a lot. When you get used to failing a lot you get more freedom to innovate."

"We have some significant problems to solve if we're going to get through the 21st century. Mobilising and educating the minds of the largest number of people that we can is our only real route to finding some kind of solution."

Conditions for innovation

  • Learn from failure.
  • Doing things together is more powerful than doing things alone.
  • Insecurity is the mother of invention.
  • Cultivate your crap detector
  • The technology is in your hands. Use it well if you want to keep it that way.
  • Open is good.
  • Protect people who are innovative.
  • With this technology people have the means of production, and the means of distribution, not only of culture but of
  • innovation in their hands.

Sources of inspiration

Doug Engelbart
Inventor of much of modern interactive computing, including the mouse, word processing and hypertext, he has given his approval to the Hyperwords add-on (

Stewart Brand
He was one of the key influences in the 1960s in San Francisco. He edited the Whole Earth Review. One of his most quoted concepts is: "Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine — too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about price, copyright, 'intellectual property', the moral rightness of casual distribution, because each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better."

Kevin Kelley
Kevin Kelly is 'senior maverick' at Wired magazine. He co-founded Wired in 1993, and served as its executive editor from its inception until 1999. His next book called, What Technology Wants, is due in 2010. He is also editor and publisher of the Cool Tools website, which gets half a million unique visitors per month.

Neil Postman
He wrote the book Teaching as a Subversive Activity. "I don't think any of us can do much about the rapid growth of new technology. However, it is possible for us to learn how to control our own uses of technology. The "forum" that I think is best suited for this is our educational system. If students get a sound education in the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, they may grow to be adults who use technology rather than be used by it."


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