I shot the video interview that follows for the Frontiers of Interaction conference which took place yesterday in Turin, Italy. Superbly organized by Leandro Agrò and Matteo Penzo, the sold out event brought together high prestige names like sci-fi writer and visionary Bruce Sterling, Elizabeth Churchill Principal Research Scientist di Yahoo, Jeffrey Schnapp, Nicolas Nova, Ashley Benigno as well as a selected cream of Italian visionaries and technologists (Luca Mascaro, Fabrizio Capobianco, David Orban and several more).
The focus of my questions in this video interview with Howard Rheingold, was kindly suggested by the event organizer Leandro Agrò, and they focused on:
a) the future of technology,
b) the speed at which things change,
c) who will eventually control the Internet,
d) what we can do about it, and
e) how pervasive technology will become in the next few years.
The Frontiers of Interaction event was mostly in English with some Italian language sessions. You can watch good quality recordings of most of yesterday sessions on Dolmedia Frontiers of Interaction page.
Here's the integral unedited Howard Rheingold video interview (18 mins) as well as the entire English text transcript.
Full English Text Transcript
Robin Good: Hi everyone here is Robin Good from Rome, Italy and I'm connecting with Howard Rheingold just off San Francisco bay. Good morning Howard!
Howard Rheingold: Good morning.
Robin Good: How are you doing today?
Howard Rheingold: Excellent, it's a shiny, beautiful day, I'm alive, what more can you have?
Robin Good: ...nothing really. We're here for the Frontiers of Interaction fourth edition that is taking place in Turin and we're offering the audience there the opportunity to reach out to Howard who's one of the pioneers of cooperation, collaboration and the evolution of the use of media technologies from computers to the more pervasive mobile technologies that we are using at most every corner now. So Howard has been following this evolution by living inside the evolution, by participating in communities online and by writing, studying and learning from others as much as he could so I've got a few question that I've stammed from the theme of the interaction event that is taking place in Turin, and the first one is just really to warm up, I don't know what you're going to answer to this but the question is:
"How speed is really getting in this future? Is it getting ahead of us, is it difficult to keep up ace with it, I mean as we're trying to understand all that it changes it keeps changing faster. What reflections you have on this?
Howard Rheingold: What's changing fast is the technology and the access to all kind of new media. We witnessed the fact that we are speaking through our computers, with computer cameras, on video...that's no big deal for a lot of people now. It was pretty miracolous maybe impossible, just a few years ago, it's just a huge proliferation of ways to communicate, devices...I think the big good news is what has been called the digital device really has been attacked by ... We have cheap powerful chips that, I think at last counter was between a three and a half billion and four billion mobile phones in the world and at least a hundred million of those are cameras. I think it's pretty clear that five years from now, ten years from now most people in the world will be carrying a device that will not only enable to speak on the telephone but access the Internet, to download and probably to upload and to stream video.
So a lot of the dreams of yesteryear are now in people's pockets. I think the bad news, if you want to look at it that way, is that there are so many different ways to communicate. You've got forums, you've got Google groups or Yahoo groups, you got several different ways of communicating with video, you've got blogs, wikis, we've got Twitter, we've got instant messaging, we've got chat. now I think the divide is one of literacy, the device is not so much between the haves and the have-nots, in terms of having access to technology, but between the knows and the know-hows and the don't-know-hows.
What you know and how you know, how to participate, and the on-going culture that's being created upon access to many to many media, that really makes the difference and I don't see our educational institutions or our parents keeping up with the pass of change.
I think parents are afraid to talk to their children about making moral choices, thinking critically about what they see online because they fear ... their children no more than they do about the technology. At the same time we see this moral panics about what is happening online.
Then I think it's a result of the larger society and a lot of mass media that communicate with that society. Also lagging behind their understanding of the media that are becoming available.
Robin Good: Thank you Howard, very interesting answer. You opened up quite a bit of space and interesting themes there, but let me ask you: as far as the pervasive presence of the Internet, I have here a provoking question. Do you that given the first alerts of net neutrality or the big changes that are taking place in the world economy...I mean who do you think is going to be possibly ruling next if the Internet becomes more pervasive? Telcos, banks or actually more actual power to the people. I know that is an impossible question but it's a provocation.
Howard Rheingold: Well you know I think people have various degrees of education where this Internet technology came from and where it's going, to at granted it was originally created by the US defense department but the Internet was not really created or nor was it grown by the telephone companies or the computer companies of the world.
It was really created by millions of enthusiasts like you and I, who for the first time had access to what we call many-to-many technologies. It used to be said that freedom of the press is for those who can own a newspaper. For some years now anyone who has a desktop computer connected to the Internet and now, above of all connected to the Internet, they've got a printing press, a broadcasting station, a place where a community can have a marketplace, and you're seeing whole new industries created in dormitory rooms.
It's no longer the big incumbent rich companies that create innovation but although they really work clueless because I know because I went in and interviewed the major telephone companies of the world in 1992 when the Internet was beginning to show on the horizon.
Not only were they clueless and contemptuous of making their tools available for millions of people, they are not clueless now, the incumbent content owners, the Disney of the world, the recording industry, the motion picture industry are reacting by extending copyright laws and by trying to ... copyright laws into devices.
In the US we have the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which the US and other countries are trying to extend to the world, through the world of intellectual property organizations, which makes it very difficult for amateurs to make amateur production using these technologies because of the lock on ownership.
You have companies like Disney who can take folk tales like Snow White, appropriate them from the public domain, stamp an ownership copyright on it and then sue anybody else who tries to use what they've stolen in the first place.
On the other hand we have companies that provide access to the Internet, the phone companies and the cable companies, trying to re-institute the centralized technical, economic and political control that they had before their centralized... networks or democratized, net neutrality is the name for one of the ways that broadband providers are trying to make sure that you can't start a competing business in your dormitory room.
In the future you'll sort of have to be a technology geek and a policy-maker to understand that these conflicts are taking place, but I think, if you look at what the cable companies in the US are trying to do in terms of controlling what bits pass their parts of the network, that's the net neutrality, if you look at what the authoritarian government of China is trying to do in making, I think that at last count was two hundred million in China with access to the Internet and they have everything that everybody else has: they got their social network, they got their instant messaging, they've got their video, a tremendous freedom to communicate just as long as you don't criticize the government so I see...
And they're trying to do it at the same level by controlling the routers, the machines that pass the bits, they want to have sensors in those routers for political expressions, just as Comcast in the US wants to put sensors in those routers to prevent competing bits to move over their network so I believe that the future is not necessarily going to be as the freewheeling and creative as it is now.
I think the good news is that millions of people have tasted freedom.
They can make videos and upload them to YouTube, they can start a mail group anytime they want. I think that having a population that's tasted that freedom is going to be hard to put it back in the box when you got one phone company and three television channels and your only choice is which brand are you going to buy, not what are you going to create, what the millions of amateurs are going to pay attention to.
I think it's important for people to understand that our freedom is not guaranteed in this... What we know and what we do is going to count in the next few years.
Robin Good: How we can best put to use what we know and what we can do to avoid seen a too a negative change in the media we love so much?
Howard Rheingold: Well, at least in theory, democratic governments are influenced by public opinion. Public opinion to an elected political office holder means potential votes. Right now, the people they listen to are the lobbyists for the big companies who are spending a lot of money trying to win politically what they have lost through decentralization of technology. Politicians are not going to listen to the amateurs, the millions of people who use the Internet without anybody's permission about what they create.
If we know what is at stake and we make known to our political leaders, if there is significant public opinion that we want to retain these freedoms, they have to listen to us, because they take those large sums of money from lobbyists so that they can get re-elected. But if they get the message from the voters that it doesn't matter what you spend we are not going to re-elect you if you cut our freedoms off, I think that will have some effect.
I can't speak about the situation in China but in countries where we have some degree of public opinion that can influence policy-makers. Let policy-makers know.
If you just go and search for the word net-neutrality you will find out about the battles that are going on.
If you search under Digital Millennium Copyright Act you will find out what that means.
There are organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation that are trying to organize. So it is not as if people are doing nothing.
We need more people who are aware of these issues and to join their names in the effort: people's lobby.
Robin Good: When it comes to the pervasive Internet, this mobile net you have studied and followed so much, what are going to be the implications that we are going to see starting to appear, that we are not too aware of , that are coming against us at full speed and that you can anticipate to us. What is it going to be? Are there going to be sensors everywhere? Are we going to see machines inside social networks? What is going to happen?
Howard Rheingold: I think that the next thing that is going to happen is that most people on earth are going to have a telephone with Internet access. Actually this is already happening. We have already 300 million phones in China alone. So the largest growth for mobile phones in the future is precisely for those people who have not had access to technology and to the latest in media before. So we are seeing in higher nations like China and India bring in their significant people power and brain power.
This is why I think it is very important, given the global problems we have to solve about global warming and energy efficiency, environmental degradation, political conflict... we need all the minds that we can in on this. So I think it is very exciting...
Iqbal Quadir who started the Grameen Phone in Bangladesh, which makes telephones available through the microloans that have been made available by the Grameen Bank to a woman with no other income in a village in Bangladesh. That not only enables her to begin economic development for herself and for her family but it gives access to information, labor information to everybody in that village. Quadir believes that access to information and communication an essential part of development.
Sending money to people in the capital cities of developing countries just makes the problem worst.
What we need is to enable the people in the villages, the people who are moving from an agricultural way of life, who are streaming into cities, give them access to health care information, give them access to education.
One of the tremendous opportunities we have online, is that we have the world's knowledge available, decreasing costs on devices, decreasing prices to more and more people...
Again I think that the critical uncertainty there is how are people going to know how to use the devices and the access to gain health care information, to get an education. This is why I think there are tremendous opportunities there and real challenges too.
The other side of this is that we are living in a surveilled society. It is so easy to put a camera up everywhere. It is so easy to tap into that data streams of individuals not only follow your phone calls but everywhere you go on the Internet.
Huge power not only for the states to have political control over citizens but for spammers, for people who simply want to sell you something. For your neighbor who may be angry at you. For your ex-spouse. For the person who you may have cut off in the traffic and got your license number.
This panoptic surveillance society is not just a big brother is big everybody. It is important to note that with these tremendous opportunities to expand freedoms and wealth we also have tremendous threats to our privacy and to our political liberty.
The technology alone is not going to guarantee an outcome one way or the other.
We have a period of time here when all these technologies have become suddenly available. We have gone from only a few very wealthy people having gigantic mobile phones to 3.5 billion tiny mobile phones in a little over ten years. That has never happened before. Took a lot longer for alphabetic literacy, the telephone, the printing press to spread.
Our institutions have not kept up with that. we are in a period where our institutions are trying to decide what to do: how to educate people; who is going to control these things; what freedoms do we have.
I think it is exciting, because I am a believer that if enough humans know what's at stake they can influence the outcome. And there will be an outcome in ten or twenty years from now, you will know who controls these technologies and who does not have freedom and control.
Originally shot and recorded by Robin Good for Master New Media and Frontiers of Intercation IV and first published on July 2nd 2008 as "The Future And What It Holds: Howard Rheingold Interview - Frontiers Of Interaction IV"