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2001
Reingold

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 Fisherman’s 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 Judy’s salary, and one day she said to him, “Since you spend all day writing, why don’t 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 Nabokov’s 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 didn’t 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.


Rheingold_sitting 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 institute’s 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 institute’s posh headquarters in Pacific Heights.

Dakin gave Rheingold access to his new toy. Working with a female Russian psychic who was one of the institute’s 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 editor.

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 didn’t happen in 1968, or ’69, or ’70, or ’71,” Rheingold explains in reference to his association with Brockman. “After a while, you can’t live as if the world is going to end tomorrow.”

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Feb Header
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2001