‘Anyone interested in the next twenty years must read this book’ marks the Financial Times on the back cover of Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community (Secker & Werburg Limited, 1994). The remark holds well for all those who are interested in the history of communication via computers. Today’s worldwideweb has a history. The Virtual Community ventures to explore its development and evolution since the 1970’s ARPANet, the first computer network created by the US Defense Department.
Rheingold, of Virtual Reality’s fame, is a technology guru. He is at home in analyzing technological devices and systems, in tracing their roots and pointing to their prospects. The Virtual Community has a lot to convey on computer communications: modems, hypertext documents, bulletin-board systems, operating systems, Gopher, Multi-User Dungeons, computer wizards, channel operators, and much more. The author covers virtually everything that is used in what is termed ‘computer-mediated communications’ (CMC). Like all good books, this one makes specialized things simple and easy to grasp.
Of particular interest to regular e-mail users is an illustration of messages made via the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (WELL), the first practical Internet allowing e-mails around the world. The messages included are varied from a few lines on weather to accounts of one’s spiritual concerns. Rheingold weaves them into a story of his personal experience of WELL. Instances of WELL messages permeate more than one chapter.
While The Virtual Community essentially narrates the evolution of CMC in the US, it dedicates a chapter to that in Japan. The author tells how his Japanese acquaintance, Aizu-san and Hattori-san, “literally opened a whole new world” to him. Interesting things are conveyed like the ban on using modems in Japan until 1985 and Aizu’s observation that Americans wanted to use CMC primarily to connect with each other, and only secondarily to download information.
Perhaps, the most significant aspect of The Virtual Community is its prophetic concern regarding the influence of a computerized system of information and communication. It informs of the “innocent Frenchmen who died under police gunfire as a result of a glitch in a poorly designed police computer network”. The computerized community is not seen as an essentially conflict-free environment. It always runs the risk of becoming a “camouflaged Panoptican”. Rheingold’s genius points out the way the number of owners or telecommunication channels is narrowing to a tiny elite while the reach and power of the media they own expand. He summarizes the concept of “electronic democracy” in the question “Which scenario seems more conducive to democracy, which to totalitarian rule: a world in which a few people control communications technology that can be used to manipulate the beliefs of billions, or a world in which every citizen can broadcast to every other citizen?”