this article was published in a 1998 issue of the quarterly Instititute of Noetic Sciences Review
Are we awake to the world we're building, or are we, as an old Sufi saying goes, merely asleep in life's waiting room? That was the question that brought me to the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) in 1982, and years later, after a long immersion in the world of digital technology, that was the question that brought me back in 1998.
In the sixteen years between my first and most recent collaborations with IONS, I was associated with Xerox PARC, the Whole Earth Catalog, and the online arm of Wired magazine, wrote a syndicated column about technology, even started up an Internet company. Lately, I've been doing a lot of thinking about technology in terms of three questions: Where are we going? Do we really want to go there? Is there anything we can do about it?
These questions about where we should go with our technological power, on which bases could we use our knowledge wisely, lead back to the fundamental questions about the nature of human nature and the nature of knowing that IONS has always pursued.
People who live within and benefit from modern industrial civilization have forgotten, and have been encouraged to forget, about the origins and provenance of fundamental thinking tools we all benefit from—rationality, progress, democratic self-governance, universal acceptance of the superiority of the scientific method to other ways of knowing. A specific manner of systematically examining the world, extracting knowledge, and applying that knowledge to extend power, a system that was developed only a few centuries ago, has been so extraordinarily successful that it has totally sucked our attention away from other, crucially important ways of knowing the world. Our technologized culture shapes and fascinates us to the extent we don't even see other ways of knowing and interacting with the world and each other. As Langdon Winner claims (see below), people in industrial, megatechnological civilization seem to sleepwalk through the world we've created, oblivious to the worlds that have been destroyed, never really thinking about the worlds technology will engender in years to come.
I joined IONS to help Brendan O'Regan, then vice president for research, organize and facilitate the development of new understandings in the emerging science of human consciousness, and to help Willis Harman write a book about the connection between consciousness and social transformation—Higher Creativity—which we published in 1984.
Harman had been instructing futurists at Stanford Research Institute for years that we could understand today's paradigm shift by looking more closely at the last time an entire civilization changed the way it knew about the world. People didn't know how to think systematically about the material world until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, despite millennia of attempts by philosophers to understand the nature of the energy and matter. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in an unpleasant era of plagues, witch-burnings, inquisitions, devastating religious wars and civil conflicts, a small number of European philosophers proposed that if we could discover a better method of thinking about the world—a systematic means of discovering truth—we could govern ourselves in a more equitable manner, we could relieve the suffering of disease and hunger and improve the living conditions of many, if not all.
These thinkers postulated, not too many centuries ago, that the human condition could be improved by way of a magical mental operation that had yet to be discovered. In their search for this mind-magic, the founders of modern science drew their hints from the alchemic, hermetic, cabalist magical traditions of the past. The search for meaning in the stars or in the manipulation of magical symbols turned to the search for meaning in matter and the manipulation of mathematical symbols. The heretical thought that humans were perfectible, that we had not yet fully learned the full extent of our mental capabilities, was the most important of the ideas that passed from ancient mystics to the first modern scientists.
A Crisis of Knowledge
Science and technology seem to have trumped metaphysics, but it's important to know that metaphysical inquiry is what triggered the quest that led to science and technology. We take it for granted now, but the premise of this quest was a radically new view of human nature when it emerged, four hundred years ago: Humans are perfectible, are capable of discovering the means of our own perfection, and human institutions thereafter can be improved by perfected people. This was the blueprint for the modern idea of progress, in its original form.
One of the reasons technology's shadow side is more or less invisible is because progress has been such a winner. The seekers found their grail, and it proved to be as potent as the alchemic philosopher's stone had promised to be. Introducing rationalism into human affairs and scientific enterprise was a noble vision, with many successes. A great deal of human misery has been relieved because those European thinkers began concocting this notion of perpetual discovery, perpetual change, perpetual improvement—and inventing tools for bringing about this transformation of the human condition.
At the end of the twentieth century, it is easy to see that technological progress based on systematically gathered scientific knowledge, coupled with industrial capitalism (or socialism, for that matter), requires continuous growth, damages the environment that supports life, diminishes both biological and social diversity, elicits alienation and social pathologies, and everywhere seems to move us toward societies in which humans learn how to be components in larger social machines. No matter how convenient it makes life for billions, this process of extracting resources, expanding power, and stimulating perpetual growth in energy consumption seems to be headed for ecological, political, economic catastrophe within the next few decades, at most.
Although our present crisis is so threatening precisely because it plays out on the physical plane, it is a crisis of knowledge. We lack a crucial mental skill. Or perhaps it is a crucial noetic skill—a way of knowing and being that is not necessarily designed by the thinking, analytic frame of mind, but which grows from a different realm of consciousness. I contend that our position today regarding the way we make decisions about technologies is similar to the dilemma that pre-Enlightenment scientists faced in the sixteenth century. We simply don't have a good method for thinking and making decisions about how to apply (and not apply) the powerful tools of rationality, the scientific method, reductionism, the combination of logic and efficiency embodied by technology.
That we don't now know how to think and make decisions about technology doesn't mean we are incapable of discovering a "new method" for thinking about technology. If ever our species needed thinkers of the caliber of Descartes and Newton, it is now. But first we need to think about a new way to think about technology.
Perhaps the answer is not in the realm of "problem -> solution." Perhaps we need to think/feel outside that frame.
Learning New Technology
While Willis and I were writing Higher Creativity, one of the board members bought the institute a personal computer. It came with a Diablo Impact printer that sounded like a machine gun. The institute was leasing a big house overlooking San Francisco Bay. In the basement was a built-in redwood hot tub. We never used the tub, so it was dry. It smelled like redwood. That's where we put the new computer. I put on my Walkman earphones, itself new technology at that time, climbed down the ladder into the hot tub pit, and sat myself in front of the computer screen, feeling futuristic.
Word processing didn't just save me the effort of retyping my revised drafts over and over again—retyping drafts over and over again is an excellent writing exercise, but by 1982, after ten years, I had learned enough from the typing part of it. WordStar, with its clumsy user interface, was my first experience of the computer as a mind-amplifier. It took me another fifteen years to even notice how quickly I had been sucked into spending most of my working day sitting in front of a computer, increasingly engaged with the things computers were making possible.
My trains of thought were no longer limited to the linear requirements of type on paper. Compositional experiments that simply were too much trouble to attempt in typewriter days became possible: Looking at different alternative words or sentences or paragraphs, moving blocks of text around, toggling back and forth between versions of a phrase had not been possible with a typewriter. Word processing doesn't make you any more intelligent or creative than you already are, but it makes it easier to play with words and ideas. If you aren't a decent writer, this tool is only going to augment your typing, and might even muddle your writing by making it easier for you to mess with it without knowing what you're doing. If you do have some grasp of the craft of writing, however, a word processor is like a power saw to a carpenter. You can do things with this new tool you weren't able to do without it.
Around the time I finished working on Higher Creativity I read an article in an old Scientific American on "Microelectronics and the Personal Computer" by Alan Kay. His vision of a "Dynabook" of the future captured my imagination, and so did the place he worked at the time he wrote that article, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, also known as "PARC."
What could possibly be better than a mind amplifier? Answer: an R&D thinktank dedicated to creating mind amplifiers. If they didn't need writers, I was determined to convince them that they did. I started calling around, asking if anybody knew anybody who worked at PARC. I called their publication office.
With my interest (growing into an obsession) in the use of computers to amplify thinking, communicating, and creative work in general, I would have paid to be allowed to wander through Xerox PARC when I discovered it in 1983. I talked them into hiring me to help their scientists write articles for publication. Every week or so, I'd get a call to help someone write. These were very smart people who knew their stuff, and either didn't have time or didn't like to write, or were simply gifted procrastinators. I came in, asked them to explain what they were doing, and turned the transcript into a draft, with the help of whatever written materials they gave me. Then we'd meet again and the scientists would tell me what was wrong with the draft.
The best part of the PARC gig was the privilege of using an Alto computer to research and compose my articles. With its custom-built microprocessors, large bit-mapped screen (about six times larger than the first Macintosh screen), two-button mouse, icons, windows, point-and-click interface, the Alto was exactly what I knew a computer could be—and Xerox researchers had been using them for years! Each Alto was connected with the PARC Ethernet (local-area networks were another PARC invention) and gatewayed to the ARPAnet. At that time, it was also the only place in the world you could print your hardcopy on a laser printer (another PARC invention). I drove forty-five minutes each way from San Francisco, just to be able to work on an Alto.
The tale of teenagers in garages creating an industry was a great story. But there was an equally interesting and in some ways more profound story of the mavericks who swam against the mainstream of mainframe computer science and created personal computing. These people were on a crusade, and the goal was not to make a fortune, but to change the way the world accomplished intellectual work, starting with themselves.
The deepest roots of the PC lay in an institution that no longer existed, Doug Engelbart's Augmentation Research Center at Stanford Research Institute. Engelbart had been a colleague of Willis Harman when the Stanford Research Institute, now SRI International, opened in the late 1950s. Engelbart was still pursuing his dream of mind-amplifying media. My curiosity led me to interview him, and the interview turned a key and unlocked something that has taken a long time to develop. I'm still tingling from my encounter with the ideals he inspired the day I met him, fifteen years ago. I've never encountered, and doubt whether I will ever find again, a person in pursuit of such a broad vision of the way the world ought to be, and in possession of such incredible tenacity in that pursuit.
In 1950, when there were only a few digital computers in the world, and television was a brand-new medium, Doug Engelbart conceived of a mind-amplifying device that would help the human race navigate the complexities of the future by representing information on TV screens and storing that information in a hypertext network. When I met him in 1983, Engelbart had been pursuing that idea for more than three decades.
While driving through the fruit orchards of the Santa Clara Valley, circa 1950, on his way to work as an electrical engineer at Ames Aviation (now NASA's research center), Engelbart began to think about ways he could use his life to help the human race survive the explosive growth of technology he was helping create.
In 1962, Engelbart published his epochal paper, "Augmenting Human Intellect," about a tool-using tool that would involve more than just hardware and software: New ways of thinking, working, communicating, and new languages to represent these new mind-tools would be required, as well as new training methods and organizational systems to manage their use as part of scientific, educational, industrial enterprises. Like the Enlightenment philosophers, Engelbart was looking at a whole new way of using our minds, our language, our institutions. He saw that new electronic tools with symbol-manipulating capacity furnished great opportunities for intellectual leverage, but above all he understood that these tools would necessarily be part of a profound systemic change.
It became clear to me that the world didn't know that personal computers were invented by stubborn visionaries like Engelbart, and not by the computer industry or computer science orthodoxy. After talking to Engelbart, Alan Kay, and others who had been involved in "interactive computing" since the 1960s, I understood that this tool was the work of people who deliberately sought to extend the powers of intellect and communication. In contrast to the priesthood of the mainframe era, the ARPA programmers were revolutionary. They knew that access to computing resources could empower entire populations to think and communicate in new ways. So I wrote Tools for Thought to tell that story.
Over the past fifteen years, personal computer hardware, software, and ways of doing intellectual work have evolved far beyond the Alto. In 1984, I got my hands on a Macintosh and started playing with MacPaint. In MacPaint is a tool—"Fat Bits"—that enables you to zoom in on a graphic and turn on and off the individual pixels that make up the details of a bit-mapped image.
FatBits was a kind of trance. Hours would go by, and I could keep my consciousness focused at the pixel level. It was a variety of abstraction exercise. My consciousness began to change. The Gutenberg trance began to change into another one. In some ways, the changes were instantaneous; in other ways, the changes took years. Yes, the screen became a kind of reality, an extension of my mind. I started spending most of the day there. And as I learned to use it, I learned to exercise my cognitive faculties in ways that took advantage of the screen-mind trance. Abstraction requires a certain amount of somnambulism: Forget about all the detailed underpinnings, once you've clumped them into an abstraction; continually strive to change your focus to the next level of abstraction, where you can clump abstractions together to create the even higher levels. It's a breathtaking game, but you have to remember you're playing it, or you run the risk of forfeiting part of your humanity.
It took years for me to understand the outlines of the problem, and see that the problems of technology in which I began to suspect I shared complicity were inseparable from the powers granted me by my mastery of personal computers and online media. I still use and appreciate the same tools, but I was definitely more intoxicated back then with the sheer pace of change. A new world was emerging and it was fun, empowering, enriching, and, most of all, cool.
Enter Virtual Reality
When I wasn't hanging out online or writing about hanging out online, I maintained a professional interest in the evolution of computer technology. In 1990, I traveled from MIT and NASA to laboratories in Tokyo, London, and Grenoble in order to research a book about a new computer technology that was threatening to create totally artificial worlds for people to pretend to inhabit: virtual reality. First, the computer came out of nowhere to dominate our lives. It looked like the next step might be for people to live inside the computer. In the process of writing my book Virtual Reality, and in my reading of the book's reviews,
I began to wonder whether the ultimate direction of personal computer development would really be the empowering mind amplification I had hoped for, or whether it might instead devolve into hypnotic "disinfotainment." When someone can make a business out of selling everyone in the world a tool for telling them what else to buy next, do other potential applications for any new medium have a chance to compete?
At the time I was writing about virtual reality, I received an invitation from Kevin Kelly, who is now the executive editor of Wired magazine, but was at that time the editor of Whole Earth Review. I took over the job of editor of Whole Earth when Kelly took off to write his book Out of Control. Finding myself at the vortex of the Whole Earth community certainly accelerated my critical thinking about technology. And I was immersed in an atmosphere that deliberately widened its focus from just the details of digital technology to include the biosphere, and technologies of agriculture, energy, transportation, medicine, urban planning.
Stewart Brand, the founder of the magazine, and the Whole Earth Catalog—the counterculture bestseller that the magazine descended from—was a biologist who shared my fascination with mind amplifiers. Indeed, when Doug Engelbart produced his famous 1968 demonstration of the future of computer technology, his audio-visual coordinator was Stewart Brand. And Brand's early writings about Xerox PARC helped steer me there, although I didn't meet him for years to come. Brand's mentors, Ken Kesey and Gregory Bateson, were iconoclasts, pranksters, and whole-systems thinkers. Putting deep ecologists together with software engineers and questioning the fundamental premises of both camps was just the kind of thing Stewart Brand or Whole Earth would do.
World Wide Web
As soon as I finished editing The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog, the latest version of the decades-long succession of WECs, the World Wide Web came along, and I got sucked into a fascination within a fascination that consumed the next several years of my life. In the summer of 1994 I left Whole Earth and joined a young publishing enterprise, Wired Ventures, the publishers of Wired magazine. Kevin Kelly, ever my Mephistopheles, invited me to talk to Wired about starting an online version—HotWired, the first commercial webzine. I quit my job as HotWired's executive editor because I wanted something more collaborative, a community rather than a publication. So I created a business plan, searched for and found $2 million in financing, launched Electric Minds, named by Time magazine as one of the ten best websites of 1996, lost financing when our backers found themselves in trouble, and folded the business in the summer of 1997.
In 1998, I teamed up with a company that turns cable television franchises into high-speed Internet service providers—I'm going to put to the test the notion that many-to-many communication media can help people build healthy local communities of the non-virtual kind.
In retrospect, my career over the last fifteen years has been an unplanned curriculum in self-taught technology criticism, from the Institute of Noetic Sciences to Xerox PARC to Whole Earth to Wired, from Higher Creativity to Tools for Thought to Virtual Reality to The Virtual Community to The Millennium Whole Earth Catalog to HotWired to first-hand participation in the creation, rise, and fall of an Internet startup, to direct work in civic community-building.
Along the way, I continued to examine and re-examine my own notions of progress, and I came to understand that there is an important relationship between the self-limitations Willis Harman and I wrote about in Higher Creativity and the taboos that now seem to surround the idea that we can think about technologies in new ways.
Right now, I think the first struggle is to get more than a tiny minority of people to recognize it is important to try to think together, as a civilization, about where technology came from, where it's going to, and how to have a say in what happens next.
And we need to think together in new ways, beyond what we currently know as "thinking together," just as humans had to reorganize our worldviews, our social relationships and our physical surroundings when agriculture catapulted us into the dizzy acceleration of the last ten thousand years. It comes back to questions of consciousness, questions of where the limits to human capability really lie, and how we can learn to perceive, grasp, and reshape the trance our civilization induces in us. The new consciousness must link self and world, consciousness and technology, the interior life of the spirit and the spirit's exteriorization in human activity in a way that engineers, artists, philosophers, healers, scholars, mystics, gardeners, shamans, activists, poets, scientists can all contribute to, and learn from. Just as nature is not out there, beyond our skin, but the matrix from which consciousness emerges, technology is not out there, outside of what it means to be human. To come to terms with who we are, we must come to terms with our compulsion to create.
Howard Rheingold is the author of The Virtual Community (HarperCollins, 1994), Virtual Reality (Touchstone, 1993), Tools for Thought (Simon & Schuster, 1985), and, with Willis Harman, Higher Creativity (Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam, 1984). He was editor of Whole Earth Review, and founding editor of the online magazine HotWired. His website address is http://www.rheingold.com.