In the 1970s, I thought the interesting story was not about young Bill Gates or young Steve Jobs, but this guy who invented it all and was still around. So I looked him up and I still think almost every day about the day I met him. I was very energized by the meeting, wrote about him, and we’ve been friends ever since. Like so many others, my writing and work has been inspired by Doug. My book is called Tools for Thought and it’s been on the Internet ever since you could put books on the Internet because I thought that people ought to know about that story.
I first met him in the early 1980s, and he had this little warren in the corner of an office at Tymeshare and I found my way there. Doug told his story with that look on his face of looking out into the future just like still does with everybody he meets. It’s sort of like John the Baptist, or that guy in the Coleridge poem. He just transfixes you and tells you his story.
So I became a convert to his vision. I’m not an engineer—I’m not the person who creates those things—but certainly have lived in the world that Doug has created and thought about. In my own humble way, I have tried to bring some of that vision to fruition. Because, as Doug never tires of saying, people concentrate on the mouse and the Personal Computer, but he had a larger vision of humans using language, artifacts, methodology and training to increase our ability to solve complex problems together.
Well, I’ve created virtual communities which, of course, wouldn’t have been possible unless Doug, and Bob Taylor, the person who turned me on to Doug, had recognized that these engineers, who were spending their time sending each other messages about their favorite science fiction book, were actually pioneering a new medium. And I think they deserve a lot of credit for that. Bob Taylor and ARPA deserve a lot of credit for realizing these things were more important than engineers sharing data over computer lines. Of course, twenty years later, it was much more sophisticated, and people who weren’t engineers, like myself, got online and started doing the social things that Doug had envisioned that we would do.
One of the exciting things about being able to play with these toys to this day is that really a small group of people, who were quite out of the mainstream, had a vision that you could amplify your mind and build communities from people who shared interests, even though they were all around the world. And that vision —as science fictiony and distanced from reality as it was in 1968 when Doug made the famous “Demo”—is still unfolding.
Doug is a person who believes that people and tools can make things better, and I’m certainly with him there. Everybody will tell you what a nice, warm human he is. Two things about Doug: He has this obsession and he’s nice.
Howard Rheingold is an author, futurist and seminal thinker about technology and community. Among his books are: Tools for Thought, The Virtual Community, Virtual Reality: Exploring the Brave New Technologies of Artificial Experience and Interactive Worlds from Cyberspace to Teledildonics, and Smart Mobs. He teaches courses at U.C. Berkeley and Stanford University and is a research director with Institute for the Future in Palo Alto.