Howard Rheingold Connects With Technical Communicators

Last week I was in Philadelphia for my first national conference of the Society for Technical Communication. I had hoped to do some live blogging there, but the wireless connection in the convention center was somewhat haphazard. Thus, though lacking in the  immediacy of the rapid notetaking, you’ll get a little more digested commentary.

Howard Rheingold was our opening keynote speaker (Richard Saul Wurman was the other keynoter, but I had to get to the airport), and I couldn’t have been more excited about that. I read The Virtual Community back in 1993 or ’94, not long after I got my first Internet account, and it still has an honored place on my bookshelf. I joined Electric Minds (archive) almost as soon as I heard about it; while that didn’t last very long as a business, the community apparently lives on.

Rheingold focused his STC talk on his most recent work, the book and weblog called Smart Mobs. He wanted us “people who understand new technologies first and help others understand” to help him spread a new story about how humans get things done. What follows are a combination of my speech notes with a few editorial comments.

Today’s technology has lowered the threshold for collective action. Governments (in the Philippines, South Korea and Spain) have toppled, lives have been saved (in the Asian tsunami, Katrina, and several searches for missing individuals) and people have been changed as people have become more literate about media.

This isn’t the first time a change in media has led to a change in the larger world. Once we figured out how to make clay tablets, that enabled a new communication medium: Alphabetic writing. Eventually, writing became the property of the ruling class: scribes only people given access to the code — till Gutenberg cracked it.

You can make the argument that the Protestant Reformation was the first virtual community, because Luther’s theses, and perhaps more importantly, the Bible itself, spread from household to household from Gutenberg’s presses.

Rheingold didn’t mention it directly, but one of the first best sellers in the North American colonies was a little pamphlet called Common Sense. He did mention the first organizers for colonial rights, the Committees of Correspondence. Can you imagine the American Revolution without its documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers (batches of letters to the editor!)

Every time there is an explosion of new literacy, there arrives new ways to organize.

Today we are in the early days of a new explosion of literacy: Merger of mobile phone, computer and Internet.

Readers of this blog know that the open source movement was built without market incentives, or corporate bureaucracy. Now it represents the largest single revenue contributor for the very symbol of corporate bureaucracy (IBM).

What’s next? Rheingold looks ahead to new forms of collective action:

  • Supercomputers linked at greater-than-broadband speeds.
  • Platforms for Participation.
  • Tech of Cooperation and Sharing Economies

While he had to rush through the end of his talk (the morning’s award ceremonies went on WAAAY too long!), he talked about his current projects (none of which appears to involve book-authoring):

  • Cooperation Project:
  • Trying to teach rhetoric of blogging.
  • New way of looking at learning and teaching

What are the tasks of a technical communicator in the new age? Learn how to master the technologies of participatory media. Recognize that education on media literacy today happens outside school. These kids today are a self-guided population, but in need of guidance.

Ultimately, we have to remember: Don’t keep up with the technologies; keep up with literacies!

Good stuff.

One more personal note: Afterward, he signed books in the “trade show” area. I had a whole list of things I wanted to talk to him about (I’m especially curious what he thinks about Clay Shirky’s new book, Here Comes Everybody, that covers a lot of the same issues as Smart Mobs).  As the second person in line, I probably could have chatted for awhile. But it’s so hard to engage with your heroes, so I just mumbled how great it was to meet him after all these years. Then I shut up. Arrgghh!

I’ll have more about the STC Conference coming up. It was an interesting week.

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5 thoughts on “Howard Rheingold Connects With Technical Communicators

  1. Namaste!

    Glad to see that you made it safely home. Hope the trip wasn’t too exhausting!

    It was a pleasure meeting you at the STC Summit in Philly. Hope we’ll be able to keep up our conversation over this long distance!


    — Rahul Prabhakar

    PS: You are encouraged to join my technical writing listserv called TWI ( Your presence on the list shall be highly cherished.

  2. Rahul,

    Sorry it took so long to respond. The anti-spam tool mistook your comment for spam, but all is well now. I hope that doesn’t happen again.

    It was a pleasure to meet you as well in Philly. I have your blog in my Google Reader and do check in from time to time. I will join the TWI list when I complete my current project in the next week or so, as long as you don’t mind a North American interloper. 😎


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