Howard Rheingold's Reboot talk

Howard Rheingold, of Whole Earth, WELL, Electric Minds, Mindstorms, Virtual Reality and other kinds of fame, is talking now at Reboot, giving the morning keynote. He's doing a populist spiel: "The computer industry did not create the personal computer; it was created by people in their 20s who wanted a tool of their own. The Internet was created for the most part by people in their 20s, not the phone company. They didn't know what the tool was for, but they knew that other people would invent uses — they built the Internet without a central control, to enable innovation." Damn, he's stealing my afternoon talk! "The Web was not created by VCs; it was created by thousands of people, because it was a cool thing to do: a public good.

"Now we're at a time when the public good created by these people over the past 20 years are being turned into private property. Hollywood, the recording industry, the electronics manufacturers, the cable companies — they want us to become consumers again. We're at the beginning of the third revolution (1. Computers, 2. Internet): Communications plus pervasive computing will be the third. Governments think they know what it's going to be, but some of the people in this room will prove them wrong. The mass media, for the most part, does not know what it's talking about.

"Most journalists believe that Steve Jobs and Bill Gates invented the PC. But it's not true: they had stood on the shoulders of giants; living giants; giants who lived within driving distance of my home in the Bay Area.

"Doug Englebart said: In 1950 — 1950 — he was 25 years old. He drove to his engineering office every day through the largest fruit orchard in the world, now known as Silicon Valley, when he hit upon the idea of using computers to solve problems. Seems obvious, but in 1950, the world's entire RAM was 1K. He wrote a paper, "A Conceptual Framework for the Augmentation of Man's Intellect," which is still worth reading today.

"Not long thereafter, he found himself at DARPA. But Doug didn't want to build weapons. He gathered a group of like-minded souls, people who wanted to augment their minds with DARPA grants, not find better ways of killing people. The hippies of DARPA. In 1968, he demoed their labor, words and graphics on a screen. Everyone who was there was transformed, it changed what they wanted to do with their lives. There were no fonts, so it all looked like handwritten letters, but it was painted on the screen with vector graphics. He demoed links, he demoed outliners (Hi, Dave!).

"So came the birth of realtime computing. The hackers at MIT fed their computers on punched tape, which they kept in an open, unlocked drawer. Anyone could use the tapes, but moreover, anyone could improve them.

"Jobs and Woz started Apple: Jobs wanted to build a business, Woz wanted to build tools, and then along came Bill Gates, and his famous letter, which argued against openness, against a public good, against a commons.

"This commons, embedded in the Internet in the end-to-end principal is now under attack. Governments and corporations keep trying to push the Internet from the edges to the center. Tim Benners-Lee had an idea that embodied end-to-end, the ability for anyone to link to anything. Not just so scientists could share research, but so that anyone could create and share resources. Hey presto, the Web!

"Tim didn't need to go to the owner of the Internet and ask for the architecture to be changed. Because the Internet was created as an open platform, he could just do it. He did it. He put it in the public domain. Journos ask him if he regrets not earning money from each page, but while there's nothing wrong with being an entrepreneur, most innovation comes out of the public domain.

"Innovation is the unexpected combination of things: microprocessors and CRTs, newspapers and telephones. The Internet is place where we're no longer "consumers," we're participants. The very best innovations are ones that are platforms for other innovations. The press thought the PC was a toy until some Boston hackers created the spreadsheet.

"Technology isn't just hardware, nor software: it's the way people use it — it's the things they create. Without this, you've got appliances, not revolutions.

"Welcome to the third revolution: the intersection of mobile telephones, embedded computing chips, and the Internet. 3G: a top-down, consumer idea is moribund, but 1.5MM wireless cards are being sold in the US alone. And that's just for starters: you will create new things, and they will change everything.

Nikolaj: TBL is now sitting as the chair of the W3C, which is now seen by many as a block to growth. In Denmark, we have a long tradition of co-ops, but it seems that inevitably these become commercial concerns. Will the Internet follow the same pattern? Will it inevitably centralize?

Howard: It's up to you. Commons have vulnerabilities. Viz. the Tragedy of the Commons. There are lots of Commons that are not misused: common grazing grounds, common fisheries. Somehow, these fail to become a centralized resource. Some hold that we will tear each others' throats out until some authority comes along and enforces civility.

"What is it that mobile devices and the Internet give us? They make it easier to take collective action; they make it easier for us to do things together. The sociologists have been investigating this for some time. They ask why the Tragedy of the Commons is not universal, why some commons persist. They study Filipino rice farmers, Japanese forresters, and thousands of others of venerable commons. There are some principles they all have in common:

1. No central authority dictates the terms by which they share.

2. The commons don't rely on altruism; rather they rely on self-interest. Virtual communities are a great example: by inviting people to your community you increase the resources that are available to you. The Spanish farmers had an arrangement like this with their irrigation; every week you got to take a certain amount of water out, and your turn immediately followed your neighbors'. Which meant that if you took more water than was your share, your neighbor noticed, and word got around. Reputation is important

3. In some commons, the sheep shit grass. When you d/l from Napster, you actually make files available.

A civic society is not government, it's not your employer, it's what we do as citizens. No society really can exist and be hospitable unless people cooperate with their neighbors. You must be able to resolve conflicts without recourse to legislation or injunction. The public sphere is how we govern ourselves. It's the debates, the arguments, the discussions that citizen have about everything from foreign policy to the conditions of the road.

The public sphere has always been closely linked to communications. The printing press didn't abolish war, but it did create a literate population that was able to educate itself. Science existed a long time, but it didn't progress much while it depended on geniuses like Newton. It wasn't just the Method that advanced science, it was the idea that any person could read the literature and perform his own experiments and advance the field.

"We have as many problems as ever, but maybe that's not human nature. Maybe we just don't know how to think about human problems yet. Until the 16th Century, people suffered all kinds of hardship, and their explanations for this was superstitious, because they didn't know how to think about these hardships. The germ theory of diseases — contrasted with ill humors and spirits — gave us the tools to think about this, and the printing press spread these tools, permanently.

"The mass-media, with the power to reach into everyones' homes, was based on broadcasting, a small number of people who could talk to the mass. If you were in a dictatorship and you want to take over, you capture the televisions station. Samizdat was driven by photocopiers. In a democracy, television is expensive to run, spectrum is expensive. The Internet won't create the public sphere, but it will create the opportunity to create the public sphere.

Audience member: What's the role of money in all this?

Howard: Money is great tech: I don't have to carry around three sheep to trade for shoes. It makes it possible for people to do things that were impossible before. One characteristic of money is that it accumulates. If you have a lot of it, you'll get more of it. Mass media and its power demands so much money that it generates inevitable corruption."

Audience member: What about censorship?

Howard: The Internet may interpret censorship as damage and route around it, but it seems that the Chinese government have licked this; however, Peek-a-Booty and other technologies are arms-racing with the Chinese government. Arms-races are usually very good drivers for rapid innovation.

Audience member: Can't money serve as a motivator for innovation?

Howard: Don't think that money is never a motive force, but the Internet, the PC, and the Web weren't motivated by money. There are 0.5MM blogs, but only three of them make any money, the rest are in it for reputation, love, to contribute to the commons.

Thomas: Didn't the dotcoms fail because they didn't attend to money?

Howard: We may never know — VCs pumped huge amounts of money in, skimmed the cream very early, and when businesses failed to make a profit in two or three years, they pulled the plug. Most of the great businesses of today weren't profitable in two or three years.

But look at the winners: eBay, wouldn't exist without a lot of individuals.

The People Power 2 demonstrations in the Phillipines. Everyone in the Phillipines watched the government investigation of corruption, until someone in government pulled the plug. Twenty minutes later, coordinated by SMS messages, 20,000 people were demonstrating in the main square. The leaders told the military that they'd have 1,000,000 the next day unless the investigation was made public.

Audience member: How can we finance technology samizdat in the developing world

Howard: 1 in 8 Namibians has a mobile phone — it's cheaper to set up mobile infrastructure than it is to deploy wire infrastructure.

Thomas: I just got back from Ghana, where ISPs are building 802.11b wISPs on the cheap. Whiel they have a demand for gear that is suited to hot and sandy climate, it seems likely that we can unwire the whole world.