At Reed Rheingold had begun dating
Judy Maas, a Portland native who frequented the campus looking for trouble,
as she puts it.
In 1971 they moved to San Francisco. Judy worked at a clothing store on
Fishermans Wharf and Rheingold spent his time writing long letters
to his friends. He still expected the end of the world and therefore gave
priority to his spiritual development. But he acknowledged it was not
fair to live entirely off Judys salary, and one day she said to
him, Since you spend all day writing, why dont you write a
dirty book and make us some money?
Rheingold obeyed, writing three dirty books, and then two science fiction
books that he describes as bad. The books were brought out
by Maurice Girodias, the famous Parisian litterateur and pornographer
who published Nabokovs Lolita. Girodias was a smooth,
old-world, silver-haired, pot-smoking con man, recalls Rheingold.
He was a French Jew who ran a nightclub during the Nazi occupation,
so his survival skills were well honed.
Rheingold, like Nabokov, broke with the publisher over business matters.
He didnt pay me, Rheingold explains.
Fortunately, in the meantime Edgar Mitchell had been to the moon and had
an epiphany. Mitchell, an Apollo 14 astronaut, caught sight of
the earth floating in space while on his return voyage. The presence
of divinity became almost palpable andI knew that life in the universe
was not just an accident, he later wrote.
Mitchell founded the Institute for Noetic Sciences, devoted to the study
of mystical and intuitive experience. The newly appointed head of the
institute was Willis Harman, a futurist who was then working for the Stanford
Research Institute. Rheingold had written to the institute because he
wanted to learn how to be a futurist himself; instead, he ended up collaborating
with Harman on a book called Higher Creativity: Liberating the Unconscious
for Breakthrough Insights.
The Institute for Noetic Sciences was one of those
obscure but influential cultural nodes through which fringe ideas influenced
the mainstream, and Rheingold would make his career as an instrument of
this influence. For instance, he soon met plush-toy mogul Henry Dakin,
a member of the institutes board of directors. Dakin was a visionary
capitalist devoted to reconciliation between the United States and the
Soviet Union. He was also optimistic about technology, and he bought one
of the first available personal computers and set it up at the bottom
of an abandoned redwood hot tub in the basement of the institutes
posh headquarters in Pacific Heights.
Dakin gave Rheingold access to his new toy. Working with a female Russian
psychic who was one of the institutes sponsorees, Rheingold sat
in the empty hot tub for hundreds of hours, mastering the computer with
the help of a stapled-together document that vaguely outlined its capabilities.
His interest in computers led him to Xerox PARC, where engineers and scientists
had invented the personal computer. Rheingold began pestering them for
a job. It looked like computers were about to become mind amplifiers,
he recalls, and I wanted one.
The PARC staff began to throw him some emergency ghost-writing assignments,
and in 1985 Rheingold launched his career as a popularizer of computer
science with a book called Tools For Thought: The People and Ideas
of the Next Computer Revolution. He also discovered the Well, a Marin-based
electronic bulletin board that was popular among computer hackers, technology
journalists, and fans of the Grateful Dead. The Well was associated with
the famous countercultural magazine The Whole Earth Review (formerly
the Co-Evolution Quarterly), of which Rheingold eventually became
Among the many actual and pretend visionaries Rheingold met during his
years working the border between science and mysticism, there were some
whose specialty was financing and profiting from the coming metamorphosis.
The most important to him personally was John Brockman, a literary agent
and minor countercultural celebrity who specialized in representing scientists
and who was known, among many other accomplishments, for a certain shameless
talent in extracting well-timed and lucrative contracts from publishing
executives temporarily excited by an intellectual trend. The apocalypse
didnt happen in 1968, or 69, or 70, or 71,
Rheingold explains in reference to his association with Brockman. After
a while, you cant live as if the world is going to end tomorrow.