Five Essential Skills for the Facebook Era

In a new book, Howard Rheingold says social networks are changing the way we think

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Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

According to my guest today, we’re on the verge of the biggest change in our mental landscape in the past 200 years. In a new book, he writes,

“If print culture shaped the environment from which the Enlightenment blossomed and set the scene for the Industrial Revolution, participatory media might similarly forge the cognitive and social environments in which 21st-century life will take place.”

The book is Net Smart, published this month by MIT Press, and the author is Howard Rheingold. To hit just a few of the many high points in his varied career as a journalist, professor, cultural anthropologist, entrepreneur, and cyberguru, in 1993 he invented the term virtual community to describe what he saw as the most important thing about an Internet that was still two years shy of the Netscape revolution.

In 2002, he predicted the importance of small-world networks, presence, mobility, and what we would come to know as smartphones with his book Smart Mobs.

He worked at Xerox PARC when it was inventing the modern computer and the local-area network; he had a successful start-up in the dot-com era with his website Electric Minds, which he described as “something more like a jam session than a magazine”; and he has taught at a number of institutions, including UC Berkeley, Stanford, and De Montfort University in the U.K.

Howard, welcome to the podcast.

Howard Rheingold: It is my pleasure to be here.

Steven Cherry: Howard, a lot of people have commented on the shift from broadcast media such as newspapers and television to social, participatory media such as blogs and Facebook, but yours is the first I’ve read to put it in the context of 250 years of Western civilization. What’s the participatory version of the Enlightenment?

Howard Rheingold: Well, I’ve been looking for a long time, as you noticed, at not just the technology but the literacies that emerge from the technology. Not every technology gives birth to a literacy, but when you get alphabets and printing presses and internets, you then have a body of knowledge that spreads through a population, and those people are able to do things that people were not able to do before. So of course with the printing press there came democracies, there came science as a systematic and collective enterprise, the Protestant Reformation; these were not caused by the technology. The technology enabled many, many more people to have mental capabilities that people did not have before. When you learn to read, you change your brain, and people with literate brains are able to organize what sociologists call “collective action” more effectively. And, of course, more recently we saw what I wrote in Smart Mobs 10 years ago. I said that this combination of the mobile phone, which almost everyone on the planet will carry, and the personal computer and the Internet is lowering the barrier for collective action. We’re seeing now from the Middle East and North Africa to the Occupy movement that people are able to organize politically—and in my book I talk about culturally and economically—in ways that they weren’t before. The effort to wire the world and Moore’s Law, which put very, very powerful computers and media in everybody’s hands—those were the physical part of it. The software, the businesses, all of that has given us a situation in which people—potentially billions of people—have enormous power. And enormous power to change the way they think and communicate—but how do they learn how to do it? It’s happened all so fast; it hasn’t really happened in schools. So in order to address that critical uncertainty, I wrote this book about what are the basic literacies that would enable us to think better, to communicate better, to organize better, and to fail to fall prey to the pitfalls and hidden costs of social media.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, so I guess with great power comes great responsibility, and your book is sort of a how-to manual for living in this new age, and you start with attention. What is the problem of attention, and why do you start with it?

Howard Rheingold: You know, I bet you that at least some of your listeners have seen that video that went viral that came from a shopping mall security camera of a young woman who fell into a fountain because she was looking at her smartphone. And the Pew Internet and American Life survey recently revealed that one in six Americans has admitted to running into someone or something while walking down the street looking at their phone. And of course we’ve all had that terrifying experience of looking at the automobile next to us on the highway and noticing that the driver was texting, so clearly there are some issues with our attention and smartphones. But as a professor, any professor or any student will tell you that in the classroom today, the professors facing students are not looking at them but looking at their laptops. And many of the students are checking to see if the professor knows what he or she is talking about, asking questions of each other, and many of them are Facebooking or participating in a raid in World of Warcraft. And there’s been a spate of books about distraction and the way our attention has been attenuated by these devices, and I believe the issue is not that smart media and smartphones and social media have compelled distraction, but they afford distraction. The key is that we don’t have to be distracted; we can learn to manage our attention. So I think that attention is sort of the basic block of all the other literacies. If you can learn to manage the way you use your attention, whether you’re at your desktop or you’ve got your smartphone in your pocket, then you are on the road to mastering the other literacies.

Steven Cherry: And you devote an entire chapter of the book to attention. But is there one key takeaway that you want our listeners to have about it?

Howard Rheingold: Yes. Paying attention to your intention—what is it that you’re meaning to do before that cute cat video becomes available or your phone beeps?—can help change your brain. The evidence from modern neuroscience and from ancient contemplative traditions is that when you begin paying attention to where you are paying attention, you begin altering your brain’s ability to focus. So I think the good news is that just starting by becoming aware of where you are deploying your attention and what it was you were going to do before you were distracted is the beginning of being able to manage it. Of course, I get into a lot more detail, but that’s, I think, the one takeaway.

Steven Cherry: So once we have these new powers of binocular vision online, the next step in your manual is assessing the stuff we’re focusing on. I guess basically you’re concerned for our critical thinking skills.

Howard Rheingold: Yes. You know, critical thinking skills, that’s an old story, it’s not something that’s terribly taught in schools today. But we have a huge need for it, because you used to be able to get a book out of the library and you could pretty much trust that even if you disagreed with the book, that somebody checked the facts. Of course, you put a term in a search engine now, and you can get the answer to anything—it’s really like magic. You put the right combination of words into a search engine, and you can get the answer to any question, anywhere you are. But it’s now up to the consumer of the information to ascertain whether that information is accurate or not. And the research that I delved into while writing the book indicates that a great many people simply don’t know how to evaluate the information that they find online or that others send them online.

Steven Cherry: Those two are just sort of the starting point for you. You turn in the book to what you call the “literacy of participation,” and I guess this consists of the social norms of social media. What are they, and why are they so important?

Howard Rheingold: Well, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, we wouldn’t have the Web, if it weren’t for participation. These are media that are radically different from broadcast media in that from the age of print to the age of television, a relatively small number of people created the culture that was consumed passively by the vast majority of the population. Now, of course, everybody is potentially a creator. Doesn’t mean that everybody is good at it, but, you know, we wouldn’t have the Web. If the U.S. government or a big computer company had said, “We’re going to create the Web,” they would probably be still grinding away at it 20 years later. But letting anybody put a website up and put some links on it gives you this vast cornucopia of information. I think nobody would disagree that there’s an awful lot of crap out there: There’s mediocre information, there’s bad information, there’s unhealthy information online. You have to now think like a detective, and I think we all now have to do that. In order to participate—there are so many different ways to participate. You can just read or comment or tag or like or plus something, all the way up to creating a virtual community or a smart mob or organizing a collective intelligence. Enormous power is available. I cited just a few examples at the beginning of that chapter. There was a Harry Potter website for fans that the Warner Brothers attorneys tried to shut down and a woman by the name of Heather Lawver organized a worldwide boycott of instantaneously that backed those lawyers off in three days, before they had time to discover she was 16 years old. There was an obscure blogger by the name of Bev Harris who found the source code for Diebold’s voting machines online and made it public, and eventually [that] led to a court case where the courts ruled that it was legitimate to make the source code of voting machines public. We saw teenagers in Egypt leading a revolution using Facebook. Of course that wasn’t the only factor there, but it was a key factor.

Steven Cherry: The capstone of the enlightenment I guess was Diderot’s Encyclopedia, and it must have seemed as miraculous in 1775 as Google does to us today. The participatory version of that is obviously Wikipedia. How do you think the two stack up?

Howard Rheingold: Wikipedia and Britannica were subjected to a test by it was, I believe, Nature magazine a few years ago in which they randomly sampled them, and they found they were approximately equally inaccurate, that the number of inaccuracies in Britannica and Wikipedia were about the same. I think there are tremendous advantages to Wikipedia in that you simply cannot publish a paper version with as many entries as that. There’s a great weakness of Wikipedia. I teach my students not to use it, to cite it as a source, because it can change from minute to minute. People do vandalize it and put false information in it. The average time for a Wikipedia vandalism or misinformation to be corrected is actually within minutes, but that makes it an unreliable source. I also tell my students it’s a great jumping-off place; go to Wikipedia when you’re beginning an investigation. So I think it’s a huge asset. We need to use it properly; we need to realize that it’s not ultimately authoritative. But can you imagine a few years ago the idea that volunteers around the world would—a few thousand of them around the world who didn’t really know each other—would create this free encyclopedia? I think it’s over 200 languages now. So I think Wikipedia is just one example of the kind of collective intelligence that people who understand how to participate are able to put together. And you know, part of that has to do with what Tim O’Reilly calls the “architecture of participation”—that this is not purely about altruism, that this is about the way that the Internet and the Web enable people to act in their own self-interest in a way that adds up to a public good for everybody. So people put links on their blogs, and the judgments they make are aggregated by Google’s secret formula, and it gives you a pretty powerful search engine. Or, you know, another example is Napster. Back when people were downloading music, mostly they were stealing music. They weren’t downloading it from a server, they were downloading it from other Napster users who were downloading it at the same time. The architecture of participation there was that Napster was designed so that the folder on your computer’s desktop that you were downloading music to was by default open to other Napster users who were looking for music at that time. So there’s a way of arranging the technical architecture of online media that enables people to make small actions on their own behalf that adds up to a tremendous public good for everybody.

Steven Cherry: Participation is not the same as collaboration, and you devote a whole chapter to collaboration. How are they different?

Howard Rheingold: Absolutely. Well, an individual can participate, and their participation can add up, but they don’t necessarily have to do that in communication with others. As you noted, I wrote in the 1980s about virtual communities, and there was controversy for years about is this really a degradation of the word community. But I think now if you are a cancer patient or a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s, you know for sure that you can connect with people who can offer you many of the things that physical community offers: mental and emotional and even financial support, a sense of belonging, information when you need it. But it’s gone beyond virtual communities. I mean, you’ve got cancer patients, you’ve got gamers, we’ve got people who are helping biochemists solve problems around the folding of protein molecules by playing a game, we’ve got Wikipedia as a collective intelligence, we’ve got crowdsourcing, which is largely used by enterprises to get people to do their work for them. But there was also a famous case of a computer scientist whose boat went missing, and his friends got the latest photographs of the area of sea where he went missing, cut 3500 square miles of photographs into half a million images, put them on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, and got volunteers to search for it, all within a matter of hours. So the power of collaboration—whether you are doing it with a small team of people scattered around the world using a wiki, whether you’re participating in something massive like open-source production or Wikipedia or any of the kind of collective intelligence enterprises going on today—it enables you to multiply your brainpower by collaborating with others.

Steven Cherry: Howard, one big advantage to the culture of broadcast media that we seem to be leaving is that our political and social and cultural debates were framed within an agreed upon set of facts and in today’s world it seems like everyone has their own set of facts they can operate from. There isn’t any frame from which we can debate global warming or the budget or health care or war in the Middle East.

Howard Rheingold: Well, you know, it this, the unbundling of news is one of the disruptions that media have caused that, you know, in many ways has negative effects. There was a book called Imagined Communities a number of years ago that said the United States is imagined. People get up in the morning; they read their newspaper; they get pretty much the same headlines; they watch television; they listen to radio. They’re immersed in the same environment, in which their facts are sort of vetted for them, and there may be bias and indeed there is bias to those, but people are sort of on the same page, even if they disagree with each other. Now, of course, people have all sorts of sources of information, many of which are inaccurate, many of which are deliberately inaccurate or manipulated by different parties who want to make people believe different things. So again, one of the reasons I wrote this book is, I think the only way we can deal with this is by raising the level of cluefulness, of giving people some tools for trying to question assumptions, for trying to question information on their own. And one of the most important ones is being able to regularly listen to people whose intelligence you may respect but with whom you disagree. And it’s very difficult these days in a highly polarized political atmosphere and [with] the ability to only pay attention to the sources you agree with online. I think it’s important for individuals to create personal networks that include people who regularly annoy them because you disagree with them. Sometimes they’re right; sometimes you need to change your opinion. Sometimes people who disagree are not going to be able to settle the matter. They’re going to have to find a way to compromise, and I think the only way we can do this is for people to begin cultivating their own skills at vetting information on their own and not just buying the talking points that their political party sends to them.

Steven Cherry: One last question: I’ve had a number of book authors on the show in the past few months, and I always like to get their take on one thing. You went with a traditional publisher, MIT Press. Did you give any thought to self-publishing this time around?

Howard Rheingold: I did indeed. I was persuaded by the editor of MIT Press to publish with them. I felt that this was the time in which self-publication, electronic publication, has really come of age. I think the mechanisms for publishing and distributing your own work are there now—and for getting paid for it. The stigma of self-publication is beginning to go away. You know, until very recently the idea was “You publish yourself, you’re a loser.” I think that is definitely going away; people are making real money at it. But I have to say the editor at MIT Press, the executive editor there, he kept my book Tools for Thought, which was originally published in 1985, in print as an MIT Press edition. And my book The Virtual Community, originally published in 1992, he’s kept that in print as an MIT Press edition. He’s a believer in me. And I’ll have to say that I’ve done okay with your big-name trade publishers, but they don’t really know my name. I’m just a bug on the windshield to them. They move on to the next author as soon as my book is published. It’s nice to have people paying attention to it. I think future works are going to be published electronically; in fact, I’m beginning to work on a book for TED—you know, the TED conference—in which I gave a talk a number of years ago. It’s a short book, that they publish strictly online. So I think we’re seeing more and more online publication. I love books. I’ve got more books than I have room for. I don’t think that books are going away, but I think that the publishing industry is dramatically changing.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, Howard, Isaac Newton famously said, “If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”—although ironically he was standing on the shoulders of others and saying it, because he didn’t invent the phrase shoulders of giants—but anyway, I’m sure you would say the same thing. But still, we celebrate the people who see a little further, and rightly so. So on behalf of everyone in the age of social enlightenment, let me say thanks for your new book, and thanks for joining us today.

Howard Rheingold: Thank you for the opportunity.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with social historian Howard Rheingold, author of the new book Net Smart, about the skills we’ll need to develop in the brave new world of participatory culture.

For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

Announcer: “Techwise Conversations” is sponsored by National Instruments.

This interview was recorded 24 April 2012.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

Read more Techwise Conversations or follow us on Twitter.

NOTE: Transcripts are created for the convenience of our readers and listeners and may not perfectly match their associated interviews and narratives. The authoritative record of IEEE Spectrum’s audio programming is the audio version.

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