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Rushes Sequences - Howard Rheingold interview - USA (Video)

Howard Rheingold is a writer, teacher and commentator on modern communications technologies, such as the web, and originator of the term 'virtual community'.

This is a sequence from Digital Revolution presenter Aleks Krotoski's interview with Howard as part of programme one's filming in the USA.

Please do comment here, with your thoughts on what Howard says. This interview will be edited into our programme; all insights will be helpful.

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Transcript:


Aleks:        What is a virtual community Howard?

Howard:    Well when I came up with the term it was 1987, and the emphasis was really on community rather than the virtual part, because people were asking me whether anyone besides some, some kind of maybe anti-social electrical engineer would be interested in using computers to communicate with people.  And I was very excited, because what I had discovered on bulletin board systems and ultimately the well we're real people who became part of my life,
        in fact babysat for my daughter, I was at they're weddings I went to they're funerals, I sat by they're deathbeds.  Anything that you do in a real community was happening with this group of people, and I wanted to get the word out that even though we met through computers, we're real people and our relationships are real.

Aleks:    That was a very important part of the well, this notion, this idea that erm it was a localised environment, a localised community, how important was that face-to-face contact for the development of this community?

Howard:        I think fortunately for the development of that community it was originally quite local, because you had to make a local phone call through an ancient technology known as a modem.  There was not an internet then, so people in the San Francisco Bay area, within lets say an hours drive of the office where the computer was, eventually began getting together, and that was I think very im, important in the development of the sense of community among those people but also on line.  And eventually of course it included many people from
        many parts of the world who weren't in the San Francisco Bay area, but that sense of, of knowing people, and having some kind of significant relationship that could translate to the physical world, I don't like to say real world, because its real, on-line for a lot of people.  But that really translated over the years to people who weren't part of that original group, or in the San Francisco Bay area.

Aleks:        There are critics of on-line communities of even you know relationships via Facebook and all these, these types of contemporary on-line relationships.  And can you describe why an on-line community can be conceived of as a community?

Howard:        Well first of all I think its always important to think critically about our technologies and our enthusiasms.  And there are some serious questions to ask about on-line relationships.  But, there have been many instances in which there are, are people, for different reasons, they're sick, or they're, they're in a scary part of town where they don't want to leave they're apartment at night.  Or maybe they're older and they don't get around that much.  Or like myself, and many others, I work at home, where am I going to get my relationships and I go, go to a bar or a coffee house or, or do I log on
        line, so not everybody has that kind of old village, small town, everybody knows your name, physical community.  And in fact the more I've looked into it the more I've seen, you need to think critically about those kinds of communities as well.  We have cities full of people who left those kinds of communities because they didn't think the way everybody else did in those communities.  So I think its great
        to have a place where your grandparents knew they're grandparents, and everybody knows your name and we need to preserve those communities.  But lets not idealise that as the only form of community.  I think we're at the point in history now where more people are living in cities than are not living in cities and you can have communities in London and New York, these places that a lot of people characterise as being big
        soulless, heartless places where nobody knows each other, it sounds like the Internet doesn't it.  But you find a block, you find a pub, you find a place where people have real connection with each other.  So I don't think we should be so quick to judge what's a real community and what's not, we need to look at the reality and the authenticity of the relationships.

Aleks:    This notion you know you say London, New York, you've got these trans-national communities, these on-line environments where people gather.  Can you talk about this idea of belonging, you know it seems to be a very important element people identify or even have an allegiance with something that isn't physically set, its not based in the physical world?

Howard:        Well you know people look at me and I dress a little unusually and they think oh you must be from California.  Of course people in California think oh you must be from, from Mars, so you know your next-door neighbour is not necessarily the person that you are going to make a connection with.  In fact the person you make a connection with might be on the other side of the world, and while that's not true of everybody, certainly for me, and I bet its true for you, there are very few places in the world where I can go and not
        get at least one and maybe 15 people to show up for lunch, or, or dinner, and they're, the conversation starts immediately because we know that we share some things in common.  So does it matter that your Slovenian, and I'm American, what matters is that we have this shared interest.  In fact when I first started travelling about this was erm during a brief period when I worked for Wired Magazine, I had a little wired hat on.  It didn't matter whether they spoke English or not, there
        were people who identified more with me than with they're neighbours, with they're parents, with they're peers, erm even though we may not have even spoken the same language, they knew UNIX, they knew Photo Shop, they knew communicating on line.  We had a shared culture, and that culture has really emerged from our use of digital technologies, and our use of those technologies not only to connect with other people but to create.  So, creativity, learning, connection what's so
        wrong with that, is that, is that less real than the fact that my grandparents came from the same village that your grandparents did, or that we worship at the same church or our skin is the same colour.  So again I would not be so quick to judge.

Aleks:    You bring up some very interesting questions about the notion of identity, and about the notion of, as we were saying allegiance.  What implications do virtual communities and this idea of belonging to a trans-national community have for the traditional nation states?

Howard:        Well I think its important to recognise that at the same infrastructure of this wiring up of the world, of the digitalisation of everything, down to the bar codes that, that track the way physical goods move.  It's the same infrastructure that supports this virtual community business, but it's also the same infrastructure that has created globalisation, economic globalisation.  The fact that there are people in, in India who answer the phone when you make a support phone call.  The fact that an automobile is manufactured in 17
        different countries.  The fact that China can control the mobile phone industry if it wants to because there's certain erm rare elements that, that are exported from there.  This interconnection erm on an economic level and the fact of course that we've got nuclear weapons and we've got a world in which conflict is no longer easily localised.  I think these things are all connected, it a cliché to say that we're in this global village.
        Its not a global village but we're in a highly interconnected globe.  And I think if we're going to be interconnected financially to the point where when banks fail in one country they fail in another country, or whether there's a conflict in the Middle East that's going to result in mayhem elsewhere in the world.  That ordinary citizens being able to communicate with each other is important.
        And I'm not saying that world peace is going to break out, but I, I think that it's an important part of what we're learning.  We're learning how to live together on the planet and if we don't learn that, then we're not going to.

Aleks:    Are they challenging the traditional notion of a national sovereignty, an identity that is fixed on the United States of America, I'm American or Great Britain, I am British.  Do you think that virtual communities will have an impact on those traditional concepts of belonging to, to nations?

Howard:        Well I think its pretty clear that a lot of people can make they're money on the other side of a border.  In fact in the U.S. there are many people who emigrate here from south of the border and send money home, and then there are many, many places in Central America and South America in which the chief source of income are people working in the U.S., sending they're, they're money back, so that we're, we're very, I'm sorry.  What was the question again?

Aleks:        Well the question was do you feel that the virtual community, do you feel that the virtual community will challenge the notion of belonging to a particular nation?

Howard:        So economically, clearly there's a lot of trans-border business, and, and culturally people are communicating across borders.  Why do we need nation states, as far as I can tell, I'd rather have a nation state controlling erm weapons of mass destruction than erm a smaller unit.  And you de, do need something equivalent to a state to do things
        like Public Health, if you've got this global flue epidemic then you need some kind of erm trans-community authority to enable that to happen.  But those two things aside, why do we need nations.  Now
        I'm in erm the U.S., and when people make generalisations about America, I say well do you mean rural Maine, or do you mean downtown Dallas, do you mean Arkansas, Northern California, Southern California.  If I was to say Europe you would have to say do you mean Oslo, or do you mean Milan, so we have these categories that made sense in the 19th Century and now we're living in the 21st Century and there are a great many things, I think, that we can do either very locally, like
        food, or tans-nationally, as we're doing with culture and, and education.

Aleks:    How did people develop a sense of community on-line?

Howard:        You know you asked about nation states, and the nation state and the on-line community have something in common, which is that they're imaginary.  And that we have an image that there is some abstraction or some entity that we belong to and others belong to.  Of course I didn't invent this, there's a book called imagine communities, before the Internet he was talking about nations.  And you know newspapers have a great deal to do with that, everybody would get up and see the same headlines in the morning and you would travel around, with people
        who are very different from you, but you were of that nation because you all read the same headlines that day.   Of course newspapers are going away and where are we going to get that sense.  So many of the things that have caused us to have a sense of coherence about nationality, I think are disappearing.  And of course nationality and ethnicity used to be, in many places, very similar, in the U.K., in the U.S., we have people from a lot of different parts
        of the world.  But other places that, that like the Scandinavian countries that used to have pretty much the same ethnicity are now, because of, because they don't have enough young people and labour force they're importing people from other ethnic groups, they are beginning to have the, the kind of multiplicity and, and richness and conflict that, that we have in these kind of heterogeneous nations.  So a na, a nation state that's very
        heterogeneous and is trying to maintain democracy is really seething with conflict, and sometimes it's a very bad thing, but maybe if your talking about democracy that's a good thing.  If you all believe the same way, you're all from the same group, its I think easy to demonise the other.  I don't think that there are easy answers to these questions, I think that we have a lot of pressures on the nation state and there's some very good reasons why the nation state ought to change, or many of the things that we do ought to be done at a different level.  But I also think there are some really important questions about what happens when the controls, over the
        the threats to democracy, or who has the nuclear weapons in the U.S., or France or Pakistan, that, that erm evolve to the, to requiring a strong central nation state.  And of course, if you can have nuclear power, and Stewart Brand among others makes the argument that if we're going to get through the next 50 years we can worry about the next 500,000 years later, we need to build nuclear plants, I think you do need a strong central government of some kind if your going to have that kind of danger in people's communities.

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