Video: Howard Rheingold - Shifts in Technology and Power

I used to download the captions for a rough-and-ready transcript:

Of course the most important change that the internet brought has been a democratisation of the ability to create and distribute not only your opinions, but all sorts of media. It used to be that if you had a radio station or TV station or printing press you could broadcast your views to a very large number of people at quite a bit of expensive and a fairly small percentage of the population was able do that. The internet made it possible for everyone who had a personal computer that was connected to the network to in effect have a printing press, and a broadcasting station and a place of assembly a place where community could take place, a market place. That's a very radical change in the way the printing press was a radical change.

For thousands of years, scribal culture really hand-picked the people who were given this code to transmit knowledge across time and space. In the wake of the printing press, millions of people became literate, instead of thousands, and constitutions, democracies, science as collective knowledge gathering, the protestant reformation, very large scale social changes were enabled by a literate population. So now we're seeing the beginning of a vast expansion of literacy, not only in the ability to send words on a page, but TV and audio and software and music and movies from any spot to any other spot.

Structurally, that change is a very dramatic change and socially it means that we now have another population that has a degree of literacy that will enable them to organise forms of collective action that they weren't able to organise before. Just as you couldn't govern yourself, you couldn't overthrow a monarchy and create a constitution without a literate population, you couldn't create science as a collective enterprise, you had to wait for a Newton or a Galileo or an Aristotle to come along; you couldn't enlist entire populations of people in that.

So I think the largest social question is what forms of collective action - and that could be political, rise of democracy and nation states, it could be economic, the emergence of market capitalism in the wake of Gutenberg literacy — it's cultural: public education afforded by cheap printing. Those are the kinds of changes that we ought to look at in the largest sense, in regard to what the internet provides as a communication medium.

Well, we're benefiting from two technological bonanzas: the microchip, Moore's law, making devices much more powerful and less expensive every year. That means that a five-year-old's video game has all the power that all the computers in the world had not too long ago. That's a tremendous advantage in terms of putting the ability to produce and distribute culture in the hands of many many people. It used to be that you had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a video camera, you had to spend hundreds of dollars per hour to edit it; now all those capabilities are broadly available.

But it's not only I think the distribution of news, media, and cultural material: we're seeing with open source software production, the rise of peer production of software; we're seeing with Wikipedia, the collective creation of knowledge or aggregation of knowledge, what Yochai Benkler calls «commons based« peer production, may well be a third method of economic production along with the market and the firm, we're really in the earliest days of that, so I think the widespread availability of devices that enable people to compute and to capture and distribute media — we're only judging that on the basis of what we know from the past. We really need to look forward to what entire populations of people are going to be able to argue, are they going to be able to do scientific research together — we're now seeing with distributed computations, that people lend their computing power to big scientific efforts to understand how proteins fold, or how the immune system works or how the weather systems propagate. Entirely new economic systems — we have a very crude price system that allocates value according to what populations are willing to pay for commodities; what if we were able to find out what individuals were willing to pay for commodities? We're seeing subsistence farmers who are able to get one bit of information on their mobile phones: should I walk 3 hours in this direction with my crop or 3 hours in that direction? Or should I go to this port with my fish or that port with my fish? That makes the difference between feeding their children and not feeding their children. So I think we need to think broadly in terms of the kind of economic, political, and cultural power that can be wielded by populations, formerly that are only wielded by small numbers of people.

Centralised systems of communication that are expensive to operate naturally support a centralised and hierachical power structure. Those who can afford or those who have the weapons to control a newspaper printing facility or a TV broadcasting system have the power to inform and persuade; that has proved to be a much more effective power in many political instances than traditional weaponry. When not just those who can afford to persuade and inform and perhaps misinform have the ability to spread information, we have a very different decentralised power regime and certainly we are seeing a struggle between the incumbent powers that be and people who suddenty have cultural and political power they didn't have before. I think if you believe in democracy having more people involved in decisions about their governance is a good thing, then in the long run this is a good thing.

But I think that democracy has its problems - the mob is as dangerous as the tyrant and I would not put too much trust in the utopian decentralisation of power without an accompanying kind of education about the use of that power. The world in which our bodies exist does not cease to be important simply because we have this world of the mind. A dictator or a criminal can come to your house and take you away, or kill you. I think it's important to understand that physical power is not going away; the rise of soft power means that physical power is not the only way to sway populations, but I think we're going to see the co-existence of hierarchies and networks of centralised power and decentralised power of hard power and soft power, the ability of powerful and well financed players to manipulate a distributed system should not be over looked.