July 25, 2023

Howard Rheingold on human cooperation and the origins of technology-enabled mind and consciousness amplification (AC Ep3)

“Just having a smartphone and an internet account does not mean that you’re going to do good for yourself or anybody else; you have to know how to use them.

Howard Rheingold

Robert Scoble
About Howard Rheingold

Howard Rheingold is a writer, author, visionary, and seminal figure in the use of technology in amplifying minds and cognition. His explorations range from human cognition to virtual reality. His influential and highly prescient books include Tools for Thought (1985) ,The Virtual Community (1993), Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution (2002), Mind Amplifer (2012) and Net Smart (2014). He currently focuses on his work as an artist.

What you will learn

  • Howard’s early experiences that influenced his endeavors in cognition and consciousness research (03:50)
  • How personal computers and technological advancements sparked their curiosity even more (05:34)
  • The evolution of personal computing and augmented cognition (07:38)
  • The hidden history of personal computing (15:15)
  • The coevolution of humans, culture, and tools (18:31)
  • The importance of language and collective action in the realm of technology and human progress (20:45)
  • The intersection of sociological perspectives and cognitive evolution (22:40)
  • Challenges of online misinformation and the need for digital literacy education (25:42)
  • Integrating massive human data and employing mathematical techniques to create advanced AI systems (28:52)
  • Challenges and opportunities in the age of Large Language Models (29:47)
  • Two remarkable note-taking tools, DEVONthink, and Scrivener (34:21)
  • Transformative capabilities and ethical implications of AIs (36:12)

Episode Resources


Ross Dawson: Howard, it is wonderful to have you on the show.

Howard Rheingold: I’m happy to be here.

Ross: You are perhaps the best person on the planet to be talking about amplifying cognition in terms of your history, this being so seminal to all of your work over the years. Perhaps you can describe the starting point of cognitive technologies or amplifying cognition. What was the starting point when you started believing that this was possible?

Howard: I think cognition came in a little bit later, but I was very influenced by taking psychedelics when I was a teenager, very early, 1962-1963. That convinced me that consciousness was important. As a high school student, long before the Internet, what little research I could do indicated that there wasn’t much research in terms of science on consciousness. I became interested in physiological psychology. It seemed to me that that was a way to approach consciousness.

I was very impressed by a paper by a psychiatrist by the name of Joe Camilla in San Francisco, who had hooked up some Buddhist monks to a brainwave machine, an EEG – electroencephalography, and noticed that they had a larger percentage of the Alpha frequency, around 8 to 12 cycles per seconds, in their ambient brainwaves than most people do. Then he had the genius idea of getting some nonmeditators and toning the tone whenever their brain hit the Alpha frequency. Turns out that you can learn. That was very interesting to me in terms of how much can you learn in terms of mastering those processes that were previously inaccessible to consciousness.

I was also interested in an idea called converging indicators, because the problem with consciousness, of course, is I got mine, and you’ve got yours but there’s no objective way of comparing them or measuring my experience or your experience, it seemed to me that if we could take introspection, and marry that to some electronic monitoring, and training, that would be a good path to understanding consciousness. I went to a year of graduate school and understood that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in windowless rooms, putting rat brains in blenders. In the 1970s, living in San Francisco, I got wind of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, which was started by a former Apollo astronaut to explore consciousness. We tried to get interdisciplinary studies of consciousness going and there wasn’t a lot of action there. Behaviorism was really in charge.

Then fast forward to when personal computers became available. I became very interested in them as a writer. My tools in the 1970s were a typewriter, a library card, and a telephone. The idea that you could get information through your telephone, that was very interesting to me. There was something called the New York Times information bank that opened in San Francisco in the 1970s. I went to visit it, and they let me play with it. It was one of those connections where you have to take a phone and put it into a cradle and it’s about 100 bits per second, and you could get abstracts of stories from the New York Times. That was very interesting to me.

Ted Nelson’s book came out in 1975, Computer Lib, and he introduced the idea that computers were not just for making calculations for science. I was never one of those people who fiddled with electronics. I wasn’t a hobbyist, but I wanted to find out. Specifically, I heard a rumor that you could write with a keyboard and a screen. Older people might remember that when you were writing and rewriting something, you would type something, and then you would mark it up, sometimes maybe you would cut the pages up, and then eventually you’d have to retype it again. It was really a pain.

I’ll skip along with the story. That led me to Xerox Palo Alto Research Center where a lot of what we know as a personal computer was invented. Very specifically, the graphic user interface that Steve Jobs saw, that became the Macintosh, but also the Ethernet and the laser writer, and they were connected to the ARPANET. I started using personal computers. I bought one of the first IBMs for $5000. I had to get a loan for it, and then another $2000 for a printer. By now, we’re up into the early 1980s. I bugged the people at Xerox PARC. I called them every Friday to see if they had worked for a freelance writer. To her credit, the woman who answered the phone never said go away. Eventually, I got some gigs with them. I got an assignment to wander around Xerox PARC and find interesting people to talk to.

That led me to Doug Engelbart. My interest expanded to include amplifying cognition because talking to Doug and particularly reading his 1962 Paper, Augmenting Human Intellect, completely changed the way I thought about what I could do. It’s not just a better typewriter, Engelbart was correct that if you can automate a lot of the low-level tasks, that frees your brain space to do other things that you weren’t able to do before. Also, not Engelbart but one of the things that they had written at PARC in one of their publications jumped out at me, I underlined it, and put three exclamation points in the margin, which said that with the graphic user interface, the screen can become a cache for your memory.

By then I was interested in the subject. There’s a very famous paper by George Miller called The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two. It turns out, you can only keep about seven things in your awareness and your attention at the same time. They were saying you could use a computer to expand that. That and the idea of hypertext that you could embed connections in documents to other documents; suddenly, it was no longer the library card and the telephone, the internet came along. I became very interested through my work in the WELL, wrote the book Virtual Community in the social aspect of augmented cognition. It’s not just the ability to think and communicate in ways that you are unable to do without that aid, it’s the ability to have that instant, global think tank at your fingertips. There’s a whole art to that. 

Ross: Certainly, it’s not just the individual cognition, cognition can be collective and intelligence capabilities can be collective, and that’s a big part of being able to amplify it. During that period, before Virtual Communities, in 1985, you wrote Tools for Thought. Tools for Thought is a very trendy software category at the moment. You were pretty early there. What were the core ideas you were laying out in the book Tools for Thought?

Howard: In 1982-83, Time magazine put the personal computer on the cover. That was the man of the year, the person of the year was a computer. It was all about Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, which is fine but they were standing on the shoulders of giants who were standing on the shoulders of giants. It seemed to me that this world that we’re heading into, and if you read the first paragraph of Tools for Thought 1985, I was saying essentially, what happens when these machines become so much more powerful because we know that they will? What happens when hundreds of millions of people have them and they’re connected to each other? Will this be a good thing or a bad thing for us? Of course, we discovered that it’s both.

Engelbart, of course, built on the work of others like Ivan Sutherland, who invented computer graphics, and JCR Licklider, who wrote the Man-Computer Symbiosis in 1960. He said something I recognized as a writer, as a specialist in thinking and communicating, was that as a scientist, he spent most of his time getting in position to think and computers were no help because you had to submit these cards and come back with a printout. Why can’t I, as a scientist, directly communicate with a computer? Through his work at ARPA, the Defense Department’s Think Tank, he was able to sponsor the work that led to interactive computing, and also Engelbart’s work.

There are a lot of interconnections between Engelbart, people that were before him, and people like Alan Kay at Xerox PARC. But also you couldn’t leave out probably the most influential scientists that the fewest people know about like John von Neumann. We wouldn’t have the computers we have today if it hadn’t been for him, Alan Turing, George Boole, Ada Lovelace, and Charles Babbage. There is a continuity of thought that we could use mechanical means to extend our thinking. This was a book for the general public, not really a technical book, my feeling was if we’re going into this age where we all have these mind amplifiers, and they’re all connected together, wouldn’t it be good to have a context for why they were created?

And specifically, one aspect that interested me is that it wasn’t invented by the phone company. It wasn’t invented by IBM. It really came about because of this extraordinary intersection of the war machine, computer scientists and universities, and wild thinkers like Doug Engelbart, who took 10 years to get support for his work. Universities told him, yes, you can come study computer science, but don’t talk about using it for anything but scientific calculations and business data processing. Now, nobody knows that these days unless you read Tools for Thought or something else. But the idea that you could use computers to think was crazy.

Defense Department wouldn’t do it alone, the computer industry and the telephone industry weren’t going to do it, you had to combine them with the crazies. Crazy is not the right word. Steve Jobs used the word crazy in his ads, the Dreamers. They wanted this tool for themselves. They didn’t want an IPO. They didn’t want to make the war machine better. They wanted to have a machine to think with. It was just a rare convergence. Then a little bit later converged with Venture Capital, and a lot of things exploded because of that. But this is a case of the strangest bedfellows coming together. You can’t see that now, but if you unveil that history. That’s the answer to the question of what did I want to accomplish with Tools for Thought was to set that context.

Ross: Yes, that’s incredible. Everyone you mentioned, all these people, they’re building on each other’s work and the foundations and the believers, and now it all seems so obvious. But for them, as you say, those were the crazy ideas. You were right there in it, which is extraordinary. I know it’s skipping over a lot. But almost three decades later, you wrote the book, Mind Amplifier: Can Our Digital Tools Make Us Smarter? That’s obviously a lot closer to today and the technologies that we have today. I think part of that is the interdisciplinary science of mind amplification, and pointing out this is not just about thinking, it’s around emotions and empathy and so on. What’s the essence of what you got to a mind amplifier, which is now, many decades of work in the field?

Howard: By now, I think that the theme is emerging which is I wanted to zoom back and look at the greater context of Tools for Thought. You have to think about the long-term coevolution of humans, human culture, and the tools we’ve made. If you start thinking of tools as physical objects, speech, writing... The history of writing is really interesting. The discovery of writing, writing was a means of accounting for empires for hundreds, if not thousands of years, till someone figured out that you could do other things with these marks on clay and then the alphabet was a fantastic amplifier. What writing and print make available, or a print amplifies is that culture is no longer restricted to face to face communications.

Later, when I started studying cooperation theory, this idea of cultural evolution came in. Biological evolution is very slow, over millions of years, but with human culture, if you discover how to make a fire, everyone in the tribe knows how to make a fire and everyone in future generations of that tribe knows how to make a fire. If someone else says you can throw some meat on that fire, and digest your food better, then everybody knows that. It’s like a ratchet. Once knowledge exists in a culture, it builds on itself like biological evolution, but much, much, much faster. The context of this is that with the ability to transmit knowledge across time and space. Suddenly, many more people were able to think better and communicate better.

Again, if you’re going to have a million people, some of them are going to have really good ideas. Before that, those really good ideas were lost. Nowadays, they spread throughout the culture. If you’re going to look into that coevolution, then you get to Walter Ong and Marshall McLuhan and others who talk about the linguistic aspects of cognition, the degree to which you can argue, you can’t really think without words, and thinking is the thoughts that form through words in our head. The other vector, besides looking at the coevolution of linguistic tools, and tools for transmitting knowledge, which is why I wrote mind amplifier because again, I wanted to set the context.

But again, I wanted to make it for people who were creating tools for thought. An engineering school, they don’t teach you about this language stuff, they don’t teach you about the coevolution of thinking tools. In 2000, I wrote Smart Mobs. That was about the use of mobile devices and the Internet to amplify collective action to enable people to do things together. In fact, if you look back at all of these other tools, it’s not just the ability of an individual to come up with better ideas and to get them across better, it enables groups of people increasingly larger and more diverse groups of people to do things together that they weren’t able to do together before.

That led me to look into who looks at that. Well, sociologists look at that. There was one sociologist in particular who pointed me to Elinor Ostrom’s work on the Commons. Elinor Ostrom was a political scientist, who won the Nobel Prize in economics, but was a political scientist, and she was reacting to the Tragedy of the Commons. A paper by Garrett Hardin, in which he pointed out that the commons were areas that were not owned by anyone, and anybody could graze their cattle or their sheep. They’re here in the US, we’ve got the Boston Commons, that’s what it used to be. The Commons became enclosed in Great Britain and ultimately became privately owned.

What Hardin said was that if it’s not privately owned, people will destroy it. Not because they’re vicious, but because I want to graze as many sheep and cattle as I can, and so does my neighbor. Eventually, they over-graze, and it becomes a desert-like in North Africa. Hardin said that this was inevitable. Ostrom said, is that really true? And did a lot of research on everything from police systems to irrigation systems, and found out that people can manage Commons, and she came up with seven design principles for those. I will elaborate on them. But they’re really simple things like the group, the Commons need to set a clear boundary, who’s in and who’s out, it has to have rules about how you supply it, or how you use it. There have to be sanctions for those who break those rules. There has to be a way for that group to change the rules.

It seemed to me that these intersecting vectors of looking at cognition and the evolution of language tools and also the dynamics of what we’re beginning to know about human cooperation enable that part of tools for thought that’s not engineering. Engelbart was adamant about this. I knew him for years, and practically every time we talked, he had a formula called humans using language, artifacts, methodology, and training. It pointed out that the artifacts are literally million folds more powerful than they were when he did his world-changing demonstration in 1968, all of the technology he used in that famous demonstration. It’s on YouTube if you look for the mother of all demos. Probably one icon on your phone has more memory connected to it than that.

The methodology and the training, the soft part of it, really has not been amplified. I wrote another book in 2012 called Net Smart because of the question I’ve been asked, I’m sure you’ve been asked throughout our careers, which is, are these personal computers and networks a net benefit for humans? Or are they not? Are they quite the opposite? And my conclusion at that point was probably a bit too optimistic, which is, it depends on what you know. We’re seeing a tragedy of the comments online. In that people are really spamming it, and they’re filling it with all kinds of garbage, and it’s making it hard for the rest of us. There are things that you know and I know, it’s not really rocket science about how to find your way around online.

I wrote about five different literacies; attention, crap detection, participation, collaboration, and network awareness, all of which are to say that you need to know how to drive these vehicles now. Just having a smartphone, just having an internet account does not mean that you’re going to really do good for yourself or anybody else, you got to know how to use it. Education is such a slow-moving and conservative institution. I wrote that book in 2012, but I still don’t see that high school kids are taught how not to be fooled when they’re searching online.

Ross: As you say, a lot of it’s about how we use these tools. They’re useful, we have to use them well, and it’s not taught to us, so we got to work it out for ourselves. That was a lot of the thesis of my book Thriving on Overload. These are just fundamental skills, massive information, how do we deal with it? We’re not taught about it so here are some foundational principles. An immense number of resources you’ve put out, and we’ll provide links in the show notes, but one of the linkages to today is language and words. Now we have large language models, which have got to be able to pull together words in appropriate sequences pretty well. I’d love to hear your perspective on today. Certainly, anyway in which you’re using tools or any way in which you see the greatest potential from amplifying cognition from the tools we have today. What are directions? What can and should people be looking at?

Howard: Let me start by saying that I don’t really have enough technical knowledge to talk about some of the big topics like will general artificial intelligence be an existential threat.

Ross: That’s not what I asked you.

Howard: No, but the discourse today is about where are these things going to go. I can’t tell you a lot about that in the scientific sense. But I think it’s important to point out that there were decades of research, trying to build artificial intelligence by manipulating symbols artificially. It turns out that if you get a couple of billion humans to put all of the good stuff, all of the garbage, everything they’re playing with, all their art, all of their code, all of the discussions they have about their code online and apply this mathematical technique that I don’t understand can’t explain that makes some statistical connections between words and phrases and sentences, and suddenly, you can ask it to do things and it will do things.

I did study cooperation for a while. I taught a seminar on cooperation theory, so I asked ChatGPT3 what are the main arguments for the evolution of human altruism. Three seconds later, I got it. It was correct. It was exhaustive. That was true. However, people also get incorrect answers that are masquerading. There was a pretty well-publicized case in which a lawyer got into a lot of trouble because he used ChatGPT3, and it came up with citations for law cases that didn’t exist. I think what we were talking about in terms of you have to know how to use the tool, that’s going to be incredibly important. Something that’s a side effect, but really central to what’s been happening is that the ability of anyone anywhere to communicate anything means that you can search for an answer and get a million answers. Some of them are going to be correct and some of them are going to look really good, and they’re not, and some of them are going to be deliberate misinformation.

We’ve had another development that Google and Facebook pioneered, which is the business model of selling advertising, micro-targeted advertising because they collect so much information about an individual that they can tell advertisers exactly where they want to go. But when you apply this to misinformation and disinformation, we’re seeing an arms race between the ability of people to make their way through all of this to the good stuff and the ability of others to manipulate them to buy things or to believe things, to vote in certain ways. One of the things I do feel intuitively strong about is that large language models are empowering misinformation and disinformation and targeted, micro-targeted propaganda, much more than our ability to deal with it. I’m seeing this delta between literacy, skills, and capabilities. Clearly, we’re going to run into trouble with that.

But put that aside, how’s this a tool for thoughts? My immediate thought was that’s what I see is that these could become the symbiotic thinking partners that Licklider talked about that not only can you have this transformation of everybody’s knowledge, but you can train it on your own material, and you can jam with yourself. I think that this is a great time for people to be building tools like that, based on that. We’re seeing some note-taking tools now.

Note-taking, that’s a new amplification of thinking, of cognition that’s based on the very old thing. Everybody knows how to take notes but it turns out that if you have the right software and the right knowledge of how to use it, you can use your notes to build this little knowledge base of your own and navigate that knowledge base. Again, are we talking about the entire human race? I’m afraid not. I think you’re going to have to have people who are fairly well-educated and who are willing to take the time to train themselves. In an ideal world, I can see education being enabling people to learn how to think for themselves with these tools.

Ross: Totally. Education has got to be, first of all, giving young people a love of learning and the ability to understand how it is they can learn themselves with these tools. That’s almost all they need. Do you use any particular software for your note-taking?

Howard: No. I’m not going to write any more books. I’m happy with what I’ve done. I’m making art now. I’m very interested in that. Net Smart, 2012, I used DEVONthink and Scrivener. DEVONthink is this monstrous software that enables you to clip things from what you’re reading and your own notes and tag them and categorize them in folders. The more you add to it, the more the system can suggest other things in that system. Then Scrivener, it’s really not word processing, it’s not a database, but it’s a way to take your material and organize it for writing; enormous empowerment. If I look back on that typewriter, it’s like If I had a horse and buggy in my 30s, and now I’ve got a spaceship that will take me anywhere I want to go.

Ross: Just to round out, what are your thoughts on the augmentation of art?

Howard: I played with one of the generative APIs, Midjourney. I think it’s wonderful. If I had more hours in the day, I would be really interested in learning how to do it. I believe it is an art. I have a friend who produces fantastic stuff that I’ve not been able to do with the same software. Again, it’s a skill, it’s an artistic skill, but also, for the first time, you don’t have to be able to render things with a brush or a pencil or even Photoshop as you can describe it well and it will appear which as others have pointed out is essentially a spell. It’s a conjuring. You’re conjuring this image with words, you’re turning words into images.

I do acknowledge that I certainly didn’t give permission and a lot of other people, including programmers who are suing, didn’t give permission for our work to be used. It’s like the most massive copyright violation in history. I think there’s a net good that comes out of it but it’s at the expense of something that people have worked for. I now see that there are ways for people to watermark their work so that it won’t appear and ways to do reverse searches to find out whether your work was the basis of something. But there are trade-offs, there are always trade-offs, and I think the trade-off has already been made, I don’t see how we’re going to go backward on this.

What we know from the last 10, 20, 30 years, these things we’re playing with today, Remember when MacPaint first came out, 1984, you could actually manipulate pixels. Well, compare that to Photoshop, what was Photoshop, maybe 10 years later, we’re going to see these tools with their capabilities amplified. A smart entrepreneur or a dedicated educator would work on ways to enable these tools to tutor people on how to use them well and how to recognize that they’re being faked out. I wrote about Crap Detection in 2012, that’s extremely important today politically, medically… it could kill you. If you go and google your symptoms, and you find that info and take Hydroxychloroquine for your COVID-19, you could kill yourself, or you could kill others by propagating misinformation that you’ve heard.

It’s very important at a basic level, but also now at the level that we’ve got this genius that also slips in lies. I don’t know that we can change the slips in the lies part. If you’re basing it on everything that humans put online, again, I don’t have the technical knowledge, I think that it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to engineer guardrails to that. You’re going to have to teach people to deal with it.

Ross: Yes. That’s one of the consistent themes since the beginning. You’ve been there since the early days of thinking around these things. I think that framing of all of the attitudes from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and bringing that to today is exactly right, including how it is we learn both the aptitudes as well as the attitudes to use these tools well. Howard, where can people find out more about your wonderful work and art? 

Howard: My art, you can find on Patreon and a lot of it is public. Some of it you pay $1 a month or whatever, just to support my art material habit. That’s patreon.com/howardrheingold. That’s where my art resides. A few years ago, Stanford helped me try to gather my digital materials together and put them together so they’re on my website www.rheingold.com. The website got hacked recently and so it’s being rebuilt, but that’s where you can find it.

Ross: Fantastic. All of those links will be in the show notes. Thank you so much, not just for your time on the show, Howard, but also for all of your contributions over the years, for being a real seminal figure in bringing that consciousness into how technology has developed. I think that’s still playing out today. Thank you.

Howard: It’s a wonderful adventure that we’re on. It may end in disaster, but it’s also a lot of fun.

Ross: It’s pretty exciting.

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