Howard Rheingold on Tools for Thought

“All of this is really not so much a reflection of the technology as a reflection of human beings.”

Howard Rheingold is an eminent author, maker, and educator. His work has explored and defined key aspects of digital culture, including the use of computers as tools for mind augmentation, virtual communities, and social media literacy.

In this conversation, we discuss computers as extensions for our minds, Douglas Engelbart’s unfinished revolution, basic literacies for interacting in information environments, and the resurgence of Tools for Thought.

Photo by Joi Ito (CC BY 2.0)

Show notes

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Jorge: Howard, welcome to the show.

Howard: Glad to be here.

Jorge: It is such an incredible honor and privilege for me to be hosting you in the show. To give you a little bit of background, I got into web design and making websites in the mid-1990s. And at that time, I was living in Panama and trying to connect with this global zeitgeist of people who were into this stuff. And your name kept coming up. And I remember the connection with HotWired and the Whole Earth Catalog.

But it was really the book Tools For Thought that made a big impression on me. It really reframed the work that I was doing in two ways. First, it taught me that there was a history to this stuff, and it also expanded the frontiers of what I understood I was doing in designing for the web. And I wanted to start by thanking you for your contributions to that zeitgeist, to the way that we understand ourselves, and also by asking you: how did you get interested in the use of technology as a way of augmenting our cognitive abilities?

Technology for augmenting cognitive abilities

Howard: Well, I’ve always been interested in it. In fact, I wrote an autobiography for a show of my artwork at the Institute For The Future, and in that, I went back to my senior thesis at Reed College in 1968, which is about the use of neural feedback in consciousness. So I was interested in the fact that they had hooked up the brainwaves of Zen meditators and saw that not only did they emit a lot of the alpha frequency, but that you could teach people — or people could teach themselves — to emit more of the alpha frequency. And I thought that electronics was a much finer tool than chemicals for altering consciousness and also a good tool for exploring consciousness.

So, I’ve always been interested in the connection between mind and electronic tool. But more specifically, in the early 1980s, I talked my way into a job writing at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, which was really where the graphical user interface was developed and where Steve Jobs got the idea for the Macintosh. And there were a lot of geniuses there, doing fantastic things that a lot of people didn’t know about.

And around 1982, I think it was, Time Magazine had on its cover the person of the year was the personal computer. And I read the article, and it was… there was a lot about the young Steve Jobs and the young Bill Gates. But where was Doug Engelbart? Where was Xerox PARC, for that matter? Where was John von Neumann? Alan Turing? Boole? Babbage?

There was a whole series of people standing on the shoulders of the work of others that led to the personal computer as we know it today. And I thought, “this is a story that ought to be told.” And so I started writing it in, I think, 1983. And it was published in 1985, and the book, for reasons I won’t get into that have nothing to do with me, sank like a stone.

So I’m very gratified to hear from people like you — which I do all the time — that the book actually influenced the way people thought about using computers. It is much more gratifying than the money which would’ve been spent by now.

Jorge: I came across the book — in what I think is the second edition — which came out around the year 2000 if I’m not mistaken.

Howard: Yes, 1999.

Jorge: I came across that edition of the book, and one of the things that stood out to me was that there was a lot of really revolutionary innovation happening in the 1960s and seventies, particularly if one thinks of where computers were before then. You know, batch processing and this idea that computers were these large mainframes that you connected to through things like time sharing. And then, shifting to the people that you profile in the book like Doug Engelbart and Alan Kay and all these people making these radical transformations. But then it feels to me like there was a long stretch where the innovations that were happening were more evolutionary, and you highlighted that Time magazine. I think that at the time that that came out, computers were becoming more mainstream. And I’m wondering, what happened? Like, what happened after that initial burst that led to that period of maybe less radical innovations and more kind of like stabilizing of the thing?

Howard: Boy, this is just a guess at that, but Alan Kay used to say, “we know where the silicon is going.” So, the people who created the graphic user interface and Engelbart’s group that created that kind of augmentation, they knew that the power of the hardware itself was going to become much more powerful. And in fact, Engelbart’s famous 1968 “Mother of All Demos,” I believe that the RAM, the active memory of the computer that he used, was equal to probably what is used to maintain one icon on a smartphone today. It was remarkable what they did with very little.

So, yes, you can show a mouse on a screen clicking on hypertext in 1968, but you’re not going to have high-resolution graphics or sound. You’re not going to have a million times more powerful that you can hold in your hand until the silicon catches up with it. So, I think that has a lot to do with it. The template for what personal computing could become was really obvious by the end of the 1970s. If you look at Engelbart, it was obvious in 1968. But it did take quite a while for the computer chips to be powerful enough and inexpensive enough to make the kinds of things that billions of people use today.

Engelbart’s unfinished revolution

Jorge: I remember you writing something about Engelbart saying that the tools should be coupled with language, methods, and training.

Howard: Yeah, he had a concept he called HLAMT: “Humans using Language, Artifacts, Methodology, and Training.” My initial interviews with Engelbart led to a long-lasting conversation with him. And from time to time, he would point out that the artifacts, as I just mentioned, are millions of times more powerful than the ones that he worked with at the Stanford Research Institute. But the language, the methodology, and the training really haven’t caught up with it.

And I think that we’re now on the verge of… and that’s all psychology and sociology and organizational theory. It’s really not about hardware or software; it’s about how humans use these artifacts. And there’s beginning to be more and more of an understanding on the scientific side and more and more interest on the side of people who are interested in developing tools for thought for understanding. How does the workflow of thinking happen when you have these tools that magnify your capabilities? There really hasn’t been a fraction of the amount of research on that as there has been on the development of the tangible tools themselves.

Jorge: When I read about this, where my mind went was that we seem to have expended — and by we, I’m thinking collectively of the industry — we’ve expended a lot of effort in making computers… The word we use in the industry is more “intuitive.” Like, weave them into the fabric of our lives. So, I’m wearing a computer on my wrist, and I have one in my pocket, and they’re all very easy to use. And there seems to have been a lot of effort expended in making the training part of it and the language… we’ve adopted the language as a result of using these things, but the training… we seem to have designed them intentionally to not need training. I’m wondering if we’ve given up any capabilities because I get the sense that Engelbart’s vision was very ambitious compared to where we are, even with some of the most advanced tools today.

Howard: People often talk about Engelbart’s unfinished revolution. You know, when I think what really blew up this disparity that exists today between know-how and the capabilities of the tools was the web. And I’ll use a simple example. People today can ask any question, any time, anywhere, and get a million answers in a second. But, there’s no longer an authority of the text. It’s up to the searcher to determine which of those replies are good information, which are bad information, disinformation, or deliberate misinformation, of which there is a great deal today.

Literacy for information environments

Howard: In fact, I wrote a book in 2012 — I’m generally about ten years ahead of my time — so, it’s… this is now the time for; it’s called Net Smart. And it was about what I felt the basic literacies that users of the web and social media ought to have; that it would increase their ability to excel, but also it would increase the quality of the commons.

And the first of those is attention. Maybe we’ll talk about that today; maybe we won’t. But attention is really the foundation of thought and communication. And when we now live in an era where you can stand on a street corner in any city of the world, waiting for the light to change, and notice that everyone else — everyone else — standing around you is looking at their phone. There’s a lot of money in capturing people’s attention, and there are a lot of apps that are designed to capture and maintain our attention, but very, very little training on how to understand how you’re deploying your attention.

And the second of the literacies was crap detection, which came from Hemingway’s saying that every good journalist needs an internal crap detector. I thought, and wrote ten years ago, that our schools need to be training — to middle school, even — training kids how to evaluate the information that they find online. And it really isn’t happening. You know, it’s not really that difficult, but it’s not being taught at all.

So. I think that there’s a disparity between the literacy required to use these tools in a way that’s going to help you and not harm you or others and the ability of those tools.

Jorge: You used the phrase — and I’m going to cite you back to you — you wrote, “The computer of the 21st century will be everywhere, for better or worse. And a more appropriate prophet than Orwell for this eventuality might well be Marshall McLuhan. If McLuhan was right about the medium being the message, what will it mean when the entire environment becomes the medium?” I think you wrote this in 1985, and I feel like right now, we are living in this stuff. So, what would be some of these basic literacies that we need to do to be better inhabitants of these environments?

Howard: Well, I wrote about attention. And now, the bad news about attention is that there’s a huge business in manipulating it. And the good news about it is that you can actually train your attention, and it’s not that difficult. In fact, almost every contemplative meditation discipline has to do with just sitting down and paying attention to your breath and noticing how your attention changes. There is a saying that comes from the neuroscientists that neurons that fire together are wired together. When you begin paying attention to your attention, you are developing a capability that enables you to have more control over what’s occupying your mind space.

The second one was crap detection. There’s some good work being done by people like Sam Wineburg at Stanford University and others on how, in fact, do young people evaluate information and what is it that you do. And one of the things that they’re saying is, “get off the website that you’re looking at and go look elsewhere. Do a search on the name of the author.” It’s really simple to just think about it for a second. Don’t accept the first page of search results — particularly today, when they’re so salted with commercials. Evaluate, very quickly, what it is you’re looking at.

So there are a number of techniques. It’s really not difficult to just take the basic step of being slightly skeptical. Think of yourself as a detective or a journalist, and you’re trying to find out whether this is really true. The jump from “oh, it’s on the web. I will accept it” to “is this really true?” is a very important jump.

The next one was participation. You know, we don’t have the web because of a government or corporations. We have the web because hundreds of thousands of people began putting up websites and linking to each other. Anything you can point at at the web today, from Facebook to Google, really came from, in those cases, very young people who weren’t participants. They weren’t working for some company; they were interested in what they could do with the web. And a lot of that has to do with the architecture of the internet and the web that would deliberately reserve the right of innovation to the edges of the network.

So Tim Berners-Lee didn’t have to rewire the internet. He just sent out the web protocols, and people used them. And Brin and Page did not have to ask permission to start a new search engine in their dorm room. They just set it up so that it played according to the protocols of the web, and people started using it. It used to be you had to be in the defense department or work for a big company to transform the world. So, participation is so important.

It’s not just inventing new ways to use the internet; it’s everything from GoFundMe to YouTube. Who would’ve thought… When we were thinking about this in the 1980s, people online, we knew that in the future, it wouldn’t just be words on the screen. But nobody really foresaw that amateurs around the world would upload more video in a minute than all of the broadcast television in history. It’s something that has been created by people. And, of course, companies and governments have become involved, but without that participation. And there are so many ways to participate. There’s like a curve of participation: you can like something, and you can bookmark something, or you can create a community at the other end of that spectrum.

Then collaboration was the next one. Again, there are so many ways to collaborate, from open source to GoFundMe to what we’re doing right now, using video conferencing. And then the last one was network awareness. We live in a networked world, and understanding how networks work enables you to have a richer relationship with what’s going on online.

So very quickly, those are the literacies in Net Smart. And, I’ll have to say that MIT Press has been very helpful in that they were the ones who brought Tools For Thought _and _The Virtual Community back in print in 1999 and 2000 and kept them in print. And they also published Net Smart. So other publishers, you know, if a book is not a huge hit, it disappears very, very quickly. But they keep their books in print.

The resurgence of Tools for Thought

Jorge: You said that you were ten years ahead of your time, and I get the sense that you have been throughout your career, but a lot of the ideas in these books are becoming increasingly relevant.

Part of the reason why I reached out is that there is a renewed interest… I’ve seen the phrase “tools for thought” coming up more and more. And people are using it to refer to hypertext personal knowledge management systems — things like Roam Research and Obsidian. I heard you talk in an interview as well about DEVONthink, which I consider one of these as well.

And it feels to me that all of these things are based on relatively old ideas, the sort of things that you wrote about in Tools For Thought back in 1985. It seems to have taken a long time for people to arrive to this mode of externalized network thinking for themselves. And I’m wondering if you have thoughts on why this might be now, why we might be seeing this resurgence now.

Howard: Well, you know, DEVONthink… I used that to write _Net Smart, _and that was ten years ago. And I also used The Brain and have used The Brain recently. And anyone who’s interested in this should go look at Jerry’s Brain. I think if you just search on Jerry’s brain, you’ll find it. And all of these older apps they’re really primarily about knowledge. Thinking has to do with using the way you have organized your knowledge to think. But before doing that, you want to connect your ideas and tag them and link them.

Those software — The Brain software and DEVONthink software — those are major projects. Now we’re seeing people with these kind of lightweight note-taking apps. It’s easier and less expensive, and faster to create an app than it is to create one of those massive smart databases. So my guess is that it has something to do with that.

You know, by the way, there is a conference coming up on Tools For Thinking, August 16th. That may be after this podcast, but they will probably have recordings of it available. So if you just search on Tools For Thinking, how new technologies are changing, how we create, share, and build knowledge, you’ll probably find it.

I think that there’s also the kind of what Brian Eno called scenius, that there are times like Xerox PARC in the 1970s or Florence during the Renaissance when there are just a number of people in contact with each other, and their ideas spark each other. And again, it’s a matter of building on what has been done before.

And frankly, a lot of this knowledge that I talked about in Tools For Thought has really been mostly hidden from people who develop software until very recently. And so now I think that more people know about it, and it’s in the back of their minds, as they’re thinking about what they are doing as a developer.

Jorge: I’m glad that you brought up the notion of scenius because I get the sense when looking at the arc of your career that you have been part of important… I mean, people listening might not know what we’re talking about when we say scenius, but let’s use the word scene, like the people who have come together around an idea or a set of ideas and develop them. I…

Howard: Or zeitgeist.

Jorge: Yeah, some kind of zeitgeist. And I get the sense that you have been… I see the arc of your career is like you’ve been part of a scenius, a zeitgeist, that has been instrumental in shaping the modern world, and you’ve chronicled it and also contributed to the way that the field thinks about itself.

Where might we be heading?

Jorge: And I’m wondering if we can leave listeners with your sense of where things might be heading. Like, what’s the state of the zeitgeist now, and do you see it going in an upward trend as far as Tools For Thought is concerned, or are there concerns that people should have?

Howard: Oh boy. You know, I find myself thinking every day now, is the development of the web in particularly not specifically personal computing devices, but that of the online world, is that a net plus? There’s so much bad stuff happening. And a friend of mine said, “well, if the internet is a tide that lifts all boats, it’s going to lift the hospital boats, and it’s going to lift the pirate boats.”

And so, if you are the only gay teenager in a small town, or you have a disease that one in a million people have, the internet is a lifeline because it connects you with others that share your interests and your characteristics. If you’re the only Nazi in a small town, the internet will connect you with the others. And in fact, you may be a 16-year-old who’s interested in video games, and you go to YouTube and start watching videos about video games, and because of their algorithm that wants you to engage more and more, you may end up being in a recruiting video for a neo-Nazi outfit. So there’s so much misinformation.

Then there’s the microtargeted disinformation that is an unexpected spinoff of the advertising technology that companies like Facebook and Google and many others amass so much information about individuals that they are able to narrowly target advertising to them. Well, that’s very good for their business plan, but it’s also a mechanism that can be used to micro-target political lies or exacerbate divisiveness.

You know, all of this is really not so much a reflection of the technology as a reflection of human beings. The technology is guilty of amplifying. And after all, that’s what we’re talking about is amplifying human capabilities. Well, it turns out that there are human capabilities and human motivations that are evil or misguided. And those are amplified way beyond what they were before.

So again, ten years ago, I thought the answer to this was to teach people a literacy of how to use these tools online. And it’s really been a failure of our education system and a societal-wide failure that that has not happened. At the same time, it’s an arms race. You know, the individuals trying to make their way in the world. They’ve got a disease; they go online; they want information. Some of that information could kill them. If you’re talking about, you know, medical. Politically, I don’t really have to get into that; we know that the world is increasingly messy because of political misinformation online.

At the same time, we would not have the global, instantaneous response to pandemics without the internet. We’ve got databases of proteins and viruses that enable scientists to mobilize very quickly. So the good stuff and the bad stuff, it’s all intertwingled there. And I guess, you know, you could talk to Shakespeare about this; he talked about how intermixed the noblest and the basest of human motives are. So I don’t know the answer to this, but I’m concerned.

Jorge: Okay, well, I’ll just speak from perspective. I agree with what you’re saying, and I’m also excited by the capabilities that these tools give me, right? And in great part, I’m excited about that because I do see this continuation of the work that you’ve so well documented in your books. And again, I’m super honored that you agreed to spend the time talking with me about it. And I’m wondering where we can point folks to if they want to learn more about you and your work.


Howard: Well, Stanford University, where I taught for ten years, has been very helpful in helping me gather my digital assets. So, many of my writings and interviews, and podcasts are available at, R-H-E-I-N-G-O-L-D. So that’s kind of the basis now.

Now, I wrote books for what I don’t know, forty years, and I taught college students for ten years, and now, I make things. I make art. I’m exploring the intersection of woodworking and electronics, and painting. And I love the business model of Patreon.

So, the business model of Facebook and Google and others is to attract your attention and sell things to you by connecting you with advertisers. And we’ve talked about what the adverse consequences of that might be. On Patreon, people decide, “oh, I want to support your podcasting or your tinkering or your painting or your poetry. I’ll chip in a dollar a month.” And so we’re really supporting each other. So I have a site on Patreon; it’s, one word, lowercase. And mostly, you see art in it. Although I have… I do very little writing these days, but I have done some writing there.

For example, when the COVID lockdown started and all teachers in the world were suddenly using Zoom, there was a lot of bad online pedagogy going on. And since I had been teaching online… That was what I taught at Berkeley and Stanford; I had taught hybrid classes. There are ways that you can do online learning that is exciting, engaging, and that does have positive educational outcomes. So, I wrote about that. At the beginning of the pandemic, I wrote about the way people were using the web for mutual aid. So, every once in a while, something grabs me, and I write about it on Patreon. But it’s also about my experiments in art.

Jorge: Well, fantastic. I think it behooves everyone to go on Patreon and sign up to follow you and support you and your work. You have contributed so much to our community and continue doing so. Thank you for spending this time with us; it’s been lovely.

Howard: My pleasure entirely.