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Howard Rheingold - Shifts in Technology and Power
San Francisco, April 2007 
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Rheingold recounts how the development of communication technology has removed the power top transmit messages from a tiny elite, and had been a force for democratization. Following Benkler's idea of peer production he explains how the diffusion of many-to-many communication technologies enables new forms of collective action.

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00:00:00 Interview with Howard Rheingold
00:00:05 Of course the most important change that the internet
00:00:08 brought has been a democratisation of the ability to create
00:00:14 and distribute not only your opinions, but all sorts of media.
00:00:20 It used to be that if you had a radio station or TV station or printing press
00:00:27 you could broadcast your views to a very large number of people
00:00:31 at quite a bit of expenseive and a fairly small percentage of the population was able do that.
00:00:37 The internet made it possible for everyone who had a personal computer
00:00:42 that was connected to the network to in effect have a printing press,
00:00:47 and a broadcasting station and a place of assembly a place where community
00:00:53 could take place, a market place.
00:00:56 That's a very radical change in the way the printing press was a radical change.
00:01:02 For thousands of years, scribal culture really hand-picked the people who were
00:01:09 given this code to transmit knowledge across time and space.
00:01:14 In the wake of the printing press, milions of people became literate
00:01:19 instead of thousands and constitutions, democracies, science
00:01:24 as collective knowledge gathering, the protestant reformation Ð very large scale social changes
00:01:31 Ð were enabled by a literate population.
00:01:35 So now we're seeing the beginning of vast expansion of literacy,
00:01:41 not only in the ability to send words on a page, but TV and audio
00:01:50 and software and music and movies from any spot to any other spot.
00:01:58 Structurally, that change is a very dramatic change
00:02:04 and socially it means that we now have another population
00:02:08 that has a degree of literacy that will enable them to organise forms of collective action
00:02:15 that they weren't able to organise before.
00:02:17 Just as you couldn't govern yourself,
00:02:19 you couldn't overthrow the monarchy and create a constitution
00:02:23 without a literate population. You couldn't create science as a collective enterprise,
00:02:29 you had to wait for Newton or a Gallileo or an Aristotle to come along,
00:02:34 you couldn't enlist entire populations of people in that.
00:02:38 So I think the largest social question is what forms of collective action -
00:02:43 and that could be political, rise of democracy and nation states,
00:02:48 it could be economic, the emergence of market capitalism in the wake of Gutenberg,
00:02:55 literacy Ð it's cultural: public education afforded by cheap printing.
00:03:04 Those are the kinds of changes that we ought to look at in the largest sense,
00:03:10 in regard to what the internet provides as a communication medium.
00:03:15 Well we're benefiting from two technological bonanzas
00:03:21 the microchip, Moore's law, making devices much more powerful and less expensive
00:03:28 every year, that means that a five year old's video game
00:03:34 has all the power that all the computers in the world had not too long ago.
00:03:39 That's a tremendous advantage in terms of putting the ability
00:03:44 to produce and distribute culture in the hands of many many people.
00:03:49 It used to be that you had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a video camera,
00:03:53 You had to spend hundreds of dollars per hour to edit it,
00:03:57 now all those capabilities are broadly available.
00:04:04 But it's not only I think the distribution of news, media and cultural material
00:04:11 we're seeing with open source software production, the rise of peer production software
00:04:19 we're seeing with Wikipedia, the collective creation of knowledge or aggregation
00:04:28 of knowledge, what Yochai Benkler calls «commons based« peer production,
00:04:34 may well be a third method of economic production along with the market and the firm,
00:04:40 we're really in the earliest days of that, so I think the wide spread availability
00:04:46 of devices that enable people to compute and to capture and distribute media
00:04:54 we're only judging that on the basis of what we know from the past,
00:04:59 we really need to look forward to what entire populations of people are going to be able to
00:05:04 argue, are they going to be able to do scientific research?
00:05:07 Together we're now seeing with distributed computations, that people lend their computing
00:05:12 power to big scientific efforts to understand how proteins fold,
00:05:16 or the immune system works or the weather systems propagate.
00:05:21 Entirely new economic systems we have a very crude price system,
00:05:27 that allocates value according to what populations are willing to pay for commodities,
00:05:34 what if we were able to find out what individuals were willing to pay for commodities?
00:05:40 We're seeing subsistance farmers, who are able to get one bit of information on their mobile phones
00:05:45 should I walk 3 hours in this direction with my crop or 3 hours in that direction?
00:05:51 Or should I go to this port with my fish or that port with my fish?
00:05:55 That makes the difference between feeding their children and not feeding their children.
00:05:59 So I think we need to think broadly in terms of the kind of economic, political
00:06:05 and cultural power that can be wielded by populations.
00:06:09 formally that are only wielded by small numbers of people.
00:06:16 Centralised systems of communication that are expensive to operate
00:06:23 naturally support a centralised and hierachical power structure.
00:06:29 Those who can afford or those who have the weapons
00:06:34 to control a newspaper printing facility or a tv broadcasting system
00:06:42 have the power to inform and persuade;
00:06:46 that has proved to be a much more effective power
00:06:50 in many political instances than traditional weaponry.
00:06:56 When not just those who can afford to persuade and inform and perhaps misinform
00:07:05 have the ability to spread information we have a very different decentralised power regime
00:07:11 and certainly we are seeing a struggle between the incumbent powers that be
00:07:18 and people who suddently have cultural and political power they didn't have before.
00:07:25 I think if you belive in democracy having more people involved in decisions
00:07:30 about their govenance is a good thing, then in the long run this is a good thing.
00:07:35 But i think that democracy has its problems - the mob is as dangerous as the tyrant
00:07:42 and i would not put too much trust in the utopian decentralisation of power
00:07:50 without an accompanying kind of education about the use of that power.
00:07:57 The world in which our bodies exist does not cease to be important,
00:08:02 simply because we have this world of the mind.
00:08:06 A dictator or a criminal can come to your house and take you away,
00:08:12 or kill you. I think it's important to understand that physical power is not going away,
00:08:20 The rise of soft power means that physical power is not the only way
00:08:26 to sway populations, but I think we're going to see the co-existance
00:08:32 of hierarchies and networks of centralised power and decentralised power
00:08:39 of hard power and soft power, the ability of powerful and well financed players
00:08:47 to manipulate a distributed system should not be over looked.