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Howard Rheingold

Mini net interview with the grandfather of the virtual community

TRP: With your background at the Well and HotWired, you're often referred to as the father of the "Virtual Community." As virtual communities continue to grow and become more diverse, can you foresee them having a real impact on our culture's values and beliefs? Can virtual communities ever be as influential as organized politics, religious movements, or corporate mass-media?

Howard Rheingold: No. But many-to-many communications make every computer connected to the Net a potential printing press, broadcasting station, and place of assembly. Unfortunately, most people who get their news from television and the newspapers think the Internet is a place teenage boys download porno and pipe bomb recipes, and don't know that a tool for democratic discourse might be slipping out of our hands.

TRP: How do you feel about using the Internet as a tool to democratize state, local, or world politics? Do you think there will ever be net referendums that allow average citizens to vote on national or global legislation?

HR: Anything that gets people up from their televisions and communicating with each other about what is going on around them is a step in the right direction. Communication among citizens is the great promise of many-to-many media. But using it for instant voting would be a disaster. Plebiscites are the tools of dictators. Get the population stirred up with well-crafted images, then get them to vote, and you can invade Poland the next day.

TRP: Just as in many real world communities, net communities often become overrun with loudmouths and know-it-alls who just want to suck up bandwidth. The coping mechanism for this behavior used to be the flame war, but now we can simply delete, gag, filter, or outright ban undesirable people or ideas at the push of a button. Do you think this is a productive way to deal with information you may not particularly enjoy or agree with?

HR: I don't believe undesirable people should be banned. Because the definition of undesirable is open to interpretation. For better or worse, one of the survival skills of the too-much-information age is the critical faculty necessary to know who is a moron and who knows what they are talking about.

TRP: How big is the language barrier to achieving a "Global Village" scenario? Will world unification start under the simple auspices of a standardized net-commerce language? If so, should we be suspect of the bodies who control these standards and languages?

HR: Who said anyone wants a global village? Nobody controls language.

TRP: How do you feel when you hear stories about people who are addicted to internet chats or on-line communities - so much so that they actually neglect their families, friends, and other real-world responsibilities? Can you foresee net-addiction becoming an epidemic, and if so how do we avoid it?

HR: I think these people need help! But so do all the people who drink too much, smoke too much, beat their families and watch too much television. If we want to turn our energy to worrying about epidemics, there are plenty of real ones to go around!

TRP: From your personal experience in the digital underground, would you say that there is some kind of cultural overlap between exploring psychedelics and exploring new net technologies? These two very different disciplines often seem to attract the same types of people. Why is that?

HR: People who think for themselves tend to be more exploratory.

TRP: Why the funny shirts?

HR: Why does everyone else wear unfunny shirts? There are ten billion shoes in the world. Almost all of them are black or brown. Doesn't it ever occur to anyone else that there is something terribly wrong with this?

Tags : psychedelic
Rating : Teen - Drugs
Posted on: 2001-05-01 00:00:00