By his own declaration (see: gnovis Podcast), and in contrast with the opinions of many, Howard Rheingold is not an optimist. And despite his focus on the power of communications technologies, he is also not a technological determinist. Nor is Howard an academic in the classic sense, although he has many scholarly works to his credit, and he’s held several professor and fellowship positions at distinguished universities like Stanford, UC Berkley, and the USC Annenberg Center.
Thankfully, Howard Rheingold also doesn’t care to "fit in." One only need observe his whimsical fashion sense to ascertain Howard’s ludic sense of subversion. Note the uncharacteristically subdued photo above, in which Howard dons the colorful, and potentially unseemly combination of a paisley dress- shirt with a paisley smoking jacket. Although you can’t see them in the photo, his belt, and his shoes, on which he hand-paints designs, are also pretty fantastic. A perfectly distinguished fedora pulls the ensemble together into a smart, and impressively coherent overall image.
Howard’s fanciful and yet sober, individualistic manner of presentation extends into the intellectual realm. In a similar disavowal for convention that is never half-hazard, Howard sidesteps the limits of established academic disciplines, while performing substantive work that commands serious critical attention. His intensely interdisciplinary approach to communications studies includes but is certainly not limited to: social theory, political philosophy, economics, technological expertise, biological science, and even psychology.
Resisting the stifling boundaries of traditional academic departments, Howard extols the value of cooperation between disciplines rather than specialization. However, narrowing one’s focus of study has long been encouraged by academia. Specialization is strongly incentivized in educational institutions, which Howard maintains is a mistake.
This is where Howard departs most notably from traditional academic institutional discourse. And it is precisely his inclination to look past disciplinary specialties that affords Howard the unique ability to theorize on broad, emerging social movements that can be difficult to anticipate, particularly for those afflicted by pedagogically imposed myopia.
In what is probably his best known work, Smart Mobs, Howard
discusses his initial encounters with
social media technologies like text messaging, and their extraordinary
power to force political change when large groups of users
to harness their potential. Howard continues to explore the concept of
crowd sourcing in the form of cooperation studies.
The Cooperation Project
aims to establish a large scale, open source, collaborative, and of
course, interdisciplinary investigation of cooperation and collective
action. Rheingold and The Institute for the Future hope to shed light
on cooperative behavior, which they believe is well supported as a mode
of human production, but is not well understood, and even
discouraged by dominant ideology that privileges theories of
Howard expressed to gnovis that he is not an optimist in the utopian sense, as some critics have branded him. However, he asserts that what he truly is, is hopeful, which is a conscious and deliberate choice.
Indeed, Howard demonstrates an inspiring sense of hope for the
phenomena he studies. He has an earnest belief in big, consequential things like technology, democracy, and the future. He also expresses a
firm belief in the viability of human cooperation, catalyzed by
technology and buttressed by education, to deliver the future of which he speaks. Howard is not certain that said future will arrive, but he is sure that its possibility lies
within the bounds of human potential, facilitated by communications media.
Howard cites the use of machinima
by French activists during the 2005 Paris riots as an example of collective action utilizing communications media for exerting agency. Mainstream French media failed to report on the hardships many Arab
citizens experience, instead painting them as the problem in the
ongoing skirmishes. These individuals d coordinated micro-power through a communications network to convey their story, which you can see below. Exercise
Howard and gnovis staff discussed potential obstacles to
grass roots forms of expression and advocacy, problems that seem
particularly endemic to the U.S. such as the lack of media literacy
among Americans. The reasons for the current circumstances are many and
complex, but Howard asserts that educating young citizens to observe
and consume media from a critical standpoint is ultimately the
However, established social and institutional structures severely
undermine the power of formal education to improve media literacy. For
instance the stringent and confusing copyright regime in this country
is known to hinder educators. Rheingold states that like so many things, by the time a child arrives at school, the damage is unfortunately already done.
I would have to agree. The fiercely critical stance required to discern
truth in our increasingly and overwhelmingly complex media landscape is
not easily transmitted in a lesson, and must be gained early on. The
ability to systematically indict given information is really a mode of
thought rather than a simple skill. But there are certainly efforts to
be made through public education.
In addition, I would think the very communications media Howard studies
would be the ideal forum to educate both younger and older citizens on
the sociopolitical issues surrounding mass media. This approach is
problematized by the generational digital divide which renders parents
unable to properly manage media technologies themselves, much less
teach their children who usually have a better understanding than they
do. Howard suggests that more public funding must be allocated for investment to improve communications technologies, and to bolster education about media.
I don’t know that Howard’s optimism resonates with my comparatively
black heart. And I question whether there is a tinge of technological
determinism/utopianism in his hopeful talk regarding new communications
technologies. I agree that internet communication in particular is a decidedly
different medium from prior forms. Clearly, the architecture of the internet
is inherently unfettered and decentralized, creating a space for open
exchange that is unprecedented and potentially very empowering,
particularly for marginalized voices.
But as I’ve said before and many others have as well, technology, no matter how revolutionary, is only as effective as those who implement it.
Howard seems to hold a nearly unerring faith in citizens, especially large crowds of
them, even more so if they are young. He truly believes in their
will, and their ability to self-organize and cooperate to exact change.
I’d have to agree with him on that front, particularly for the examples
he sites in which simple individual actions are executed by many actors
around a galvanizing issue.
Generally speaking, I don’t think the common failure to agency is a matter of will but rather, a sense that nothing can be done, or simply not knowing where to start. Making the common assumption that citizens are simply complacent is a bit unfair. Exercise
There are countless examples of relatively powerless individuals who
spontaneously organize without a centralized mandate, sparking social and political action. Some of these are fairly
large scale, such as the mobilization of the Howard Dean campaign.
These occurrences indicate a newfound capacity for far reaching cooperative action
that was simply not available in prior historical moments.
These occurrences serve as turning points, demonstrating unforeseen
potential for exercising agency. But I question if such occurrences have much further meaning. Most communications media can and have been used for political action. That does not necessarily mean that they will be implemented in this way.
traditional, ubiquitous hegemon is pretty omni-present. Even on the
"free" internet, former print media outlets have successfully established their presence and reaffirmed their traditional influence in online media. These are the same companies that own all of our media.
I don’t see how the citizen/s can ultimately subvert this hegemon solely through the channels Howard suggests.
Howard might consider this outlook nihilistic, which he
posits as the alternative to hope. I wear black at least every other day. But I don’t see myself as nihilistic or even pessimistic on this issue. I am
ultimately hopeful that change will occur, and I believe that it will.
I just don’t know that it will be as radically different, or as
dependent on grass-roots channels as Howard describes.
As he said, having a voice makes change possible, but still difficult. The
increased voice and agency facilitated by communications media are having and will
have profound effects on politics and society, the ramifications of which are difficult to
imagine. But altering the persistent discourses that act as resistors to change is a more complicated
matter that involves many circumstantial factors like unforeseen moments of rupture, and shifts in social trends.
But ultimately, most of these problems boil down to a matter of public policy. Movements to change policy could certainly benefit from smart mobs who actually get behind these often convoluted, usually very boring issues.
Howard Rheingold expresses a sincere hope in the coming generation who
will feel more empowered by technology and less hampered by
institutions than any of the dinosaurs who walk amongst us. He posits that tomorrow’s zeitgeist will alter the current conditions by implementing collaborative action through the use of technology. I have an equally sincere hope that he is right, and that this exuberance, which looks a whole lot like technological determinism, isn’t
stamped out by the hegemon.
Howard Rheingold using his iPhone at Georgetown University, 11/12/07
By: Nicole Guerra Creative Commons License
Howard Aspen Ideas Festival 2008 http://www.aifestival.org/index2.php?menu=1&sub=2&id=205