John Brockman occupies an office
in the Fifth Avenue penthouse that once housed the New York Playboy Club,
a detail he very much enjoys sharing. He is the type of agent who can
make the words three thousand dollars, MIT Press sound like
the rudest insult, and this was the kind of answer he traditionally gave
Rheingold to his book ideas. But in 1991 he called with a more Brockmanian
offer: an editor in New York had heard about something called virtual
reality and was willing to offer $75,000 for a nonfiction account. The
only problem was that Rheingold was not especially interested in virtual
reality. He was interested in virtual communitythe new possibilities
for disembodied, multiparty conversation that he had discovered on the
Well. But in 1991 online communities had no cachet. Editors believed the
internet was a flash in the pan. But virtual realitynow there was
crucial techno-cultural innovation. Ill strangle you if you
do not write this book, said Brockman.
No, Ill strangle you if you
do not write this book, said Maas, when Rheingold told his wife
of the offer he was going to refuse. So Rheingold wrote the book, which
served a valuable delaying function, for by the time he finished with
it there was more widespread recognition that the internet might be interesting,
after all. His next book, The Virtual Community: Home-steading on the
Electronic Frontier, was a best seller.
The first promoters of online communication harbored serious hopes that
these new technologiesmodems, bulletin boards, internet siteswould
contribute to the resolution of social problems. By reducing the cost
of publishing and by shielding appearance, accent, and other particulars
of identity, online technologies might prove an antidote to prejudice
and chauvinism. Rheingold shared this idealism and presented it forcefully.
He was embraced by the next wave of internet promoters and embarked on
a successful speaking career. He became, for a brief time, the executive
editor of a commercial web site, HotWired (where I worked for him briefly),
and then launched his own internet company, Electric Minds.
Neither of these forays into business was successful. Rheingold fought
ferociously with the founder of HotWired and resigned after a few months.
Electric Minds was generously funded by venture capitalists, then quickly
I was caught up in the excitement of the moment, Rheingold
says. You could tell someone a story and they would give you two
million dollars. But they wanted twenty million back in eighteen months.
Such returns were impossible to provide, and his investors pulled the
plug. It was really embarrassing to crash a dot com back in 1997,
before everybody did it.
The publication of The Virtual Community and his association with
two early internet businesses earned Rheingold his guru label.
The evident weakness of the internet as an ultimate cure for social conflict
also earned him accusations of naivete. But he says he has never been
overly credulous about the promise of technology.At Whole Earth
I published articles by Jerry Mander, who believes that things started
to go wrong with the introduction of agriculture. And I published Kevin
Kelly (author of Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-Biological Civilization),
who is firmly convinced that we will happily live with twenty billion
people on earth.
Rheingold promises that his next book will articulate his criticisms more
sharply. His subject this time is the social effect of pervasive computingof
the digital processors that will inhabit all of our appliances, and, eventually,
our bodies. He has been spending time in Japan and Finland, where mobile
communication is more advanced than in the U.S. Decentralized, highly
mobile computer networks create opportunities to harness enormous power
outside traditional channels. Individuals can build social, business,
and political contacts, move funds, and collaborate on work across great
distances, even, when necessary, maintaining anonymity and shielding their
communications behind strong encryption. Such powers can be harnessed
to any variety of ends. What it is, says Rheingold, in a message
he includes at the end of every email he sends, is up to us.
Today Rheingold spends most of his time in a small office near Mt. Tamalpais,
with a lush garden outside his door and an enormous flat-screen Apple
monitor on his desk. Ive created my own fantasy world,
he says. It is a combination of a quietist Zen retreat and a Reed
conference. His style of thought remains resolutely individualistic
and countercultural. But he declines to interpret his retreat as a withdrawal.
In fact, he still anticipates the end of the world, and still hopes that
spiritual progress will spark a transformation in advance of obliteration.
I believe that the world can be transformed instantly through the
right idea, he says. If we dont succeed, the process
starts again with the cockroach. If we do, well live in a different
type of world. We are racing towards some kind of climax, and everybody
has a contribution to make.
Gary Wolf is a contributing editor
at Wired magazine.