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ReingoldIn the spring of 1968, with the world expected to end any minute, Reed College relinquished a bachelor’s degree to Howard Rheingold in exchange for a senior thesis titled What Life Can Compare with This? Sitting Alone at the Window, I Watch the Flowers Bloom, the Leaves Fall, the Seasons Come and Go.

Thirty-three years later, with the apocalypse delayed but perhaps still imminent, Rheingold has become a renowned popularizer of the technologies of mind expansion.

He has frequently been called a guru by journalists, but in fact he is merely one of them—a journalist. He chronicles and speculates on current events and sketches the possible consequences of recent inventions. Rheingold’s core interest, the transformation of human consciousness, has not changed, but today he devotes his attention to what he describes as augmented consciousness— minds aided by microprocessors.

I recently visited Rheingold in northern California in his garden office in Marin County. My purpose was to see how much he would tell me about his upcoming book, which was rumored to be critical of the social effects of computer technology. But I was also curious about something else. Rheingold’s work involves sitting around in his backyard reading books, inviting people over to chat, going on visits, poking his nose into interesting conversations, and having vehement opinions about the direction of human history. I wondered: how has he managed to turn the habits of a Reed student into a professional career?

rheingold_creatureHis answer led me down some interesting bypaths of intellectual history. Rheingold was lured to Reed by Gary Snyder ’51—or rather, by his knowledge that Gary Snyder had once attended school there. In Phoenix, where he was living with his artist mother and salesman father, he saw Alan Watts on television. Watts mentioned Jack Kerouac, Kerouac led him to Snyder, and Snyder led him to Reed. “Phoenix was arid, geographically and intellectually,” he says. “Snyder and Reed seemed juicy.”

Arriving at Reed in 1964, the eager freshman immediately consumed a vast quantity of morning glory seeds, found himself too high to attend orientation, and spent 24 hours in his room painting. He soon encountered Lloyd Reynolds, professor of English and art history. Reynolds taught him calligraphy, but he also introduced Rheingold to the lure of the esoteric. Reynolds, remembers Rheingold, “showed me that what you saw carved on a cathedral contained hidden meanings you had access to through study.”

In 1968 a researcher named Joe Kamiya at the Langley Porter Institute in San Francisco began hooking up Zen monks to electroencephalograms and recording patterns of electrical activity that he called alpha rhythms. Rheingold, who majored in psychology, was fascinated by this research. When he was at Reed he decided on a career in science, hoping to contribute to the scientific mastery of spiritual enlightenment; though he went on to graduate school he soon found that he did not have the makeup of a scientist. “I was not competent, and also I was bored,” he admits.

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