The Past Futures of Howard Rheingold:
A Retrospective of Art and Ideas Part 1 1964–1977
My art-making always has been a subconscious divination ritual that I’ve invoked in parallel with the rational techno-social forecasting I have done for fifty years. My undergraduate thesis at Reed College in 1964 was about using electronic technology to explore states of consciousness; in the 1970s I was a Martian anthropologist in the streets of San Francisco. Then I started writing books — Tools for Thought in 1985, projecting the future of personal computers and networks to 2000 and beyond; Virtual Reality, 1990 — about an era that is only really beginning now, in 2016; The Virtual Community, 1992 — setting the stage for the age of social media; Smart Mobs in 2002 forecast the Arab Spring and the texting revolution. Anyone can read what I wrote (key passages are printed out and displayed with my art) in 1985 about 2005, in 1990 about 2016, in 1992 about 2002, in 2002 about 2012. Did I accurately describe the future, given today’s power of retrospect? Here’s my sense of the future, in black and white, over fifty years; judge for yourself.
Those books are the more rational, scholarly, documented part of what I’ve been doing. I don’t think these tangible manifestations of my attempts at foresight would exist without the part that most people have not seen, which I expose publicly for the first time at this show.
How did I develop a sense of the future, beyond straightforward journalistic and scholarly legwork? The intuitive aspect cannot be denied. Institute for the Future (which will exhibit my art work February-June 2017)knows well that there’s no algorithm or invariant recipe for assembling signals and trends into a coherent scenario of the future that turns out to be accurate. Something else besides research is going on with my forecasting of future social, psychological, cultural, political impacts of emerging technologies — a sense of how it all might fit together, what it might mean, what opportunities and pitfalls each new medium might present. The wordless conversation with myself I’ve been conducting since age 16 in painted, shaped, constructed, and now programmed media — my art, from my shoes to my illuminated spiderwebs — is what has fed my sense of the shifting gestalt of new technologies, emerging media, and our psychosocial reactions to them.
Since my teens I’ve continually and ritually explored parts of my mind that can’t be sensed through words. There’s a part of art that involves seeing in new ways and manifesting that way of seeing in an artifact that has some effect on the minds and senses of the viewer. And there’s a part of art that is about allowing new forms to come into being through the artist; this part requires the artist to look rather than see, and to help give form to whatever is bubbling up. My visual art often follows where the manifesting form takes me, rather than rendering an image I already hold in my head. I’ve practiced the art of turning on my internal intuition faucet and then manifesting foresights into communicable media when they come to me through the flow.
I’m still reaching beyond my grasp. The art I’ve been wanting to make lately is requiring me to learn woodwork and electronics, 3D painting and VR sculpture. Paint and light have always counterpointed; recent technologies make it possible to mix the olden and modern media in ways that weren’t affordable by most artists until now. In recent years, I’ve used Arduino microcontrollers, Raspberry-pi media players, video screens, and other technologies in combination with painted,laser-cut, spider-woven and hand-crafted wooden and stone objects.
As soon as a new digital medium allows it, I’m eager to play with my old paintings in new ways: As soon as Apple’s first big clunky plastic digital camera was available in the 1990s I turned paintings into web pages and, more recently, fabric swatches. A 2015 illuminated music box projects LED light through a silk fabric printed with the design of a PhotoShopped image of a painting I made in 1973.
My book about Virtual Reality was originally published in 1990, and I ignored the field for the next twenty five years….until I experienced Tiltbrush VR painting in Institute for the Future’s Emerging Media Lab in 2016. When a new media-art dimension becomes available, I leap into the rabbit hole.
Although this is the first time I’ve written about my creative process and its relation to my forecasting, I’ve been paying attention to that process for a long time. In the early 1980s, I worked with Willis Harman: who created the future studies department at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International). An electrical engineering professor at Stanford, he became involved in early research on LSD and creativity. He wrote an important book on forecasting: “An Incomplete Guide to the Future,” and he and I co-authored Higher Creativity, subtitled: “Liberating the Unconscious for Breakthrough Insight.” I encountered Harman through my research into a 1977 Playboy article on “Future Highs.”
1964 Howard’s Familiar Spirit
I was a National Merit Scholar. Reed was the only college I applied to…because Gary Snyder had gone there. Upon arrival in our dormitory rooms in September, 1964, my friend and I ate morning glory seeds, which had been used in ancient Mexico to see God. We had taken LSD so we thought we’d be ready for new student orientation the next day, but it turned out that we couldn’t leave my dorm room — we later learned that the seeds contain an alkaloid similar to LSD. Naturally, when we realized we were too merged into the universe to show our faces at orientation, we started to paint. The psychedelic soup of the floorboards reared up into this guy, who only appeared for a moment, grinned at me, and dissolved again. I called it “Howard’s Familiar Spirit.” Thirty years later, I painted a 1994 version. I still have the 1964 original, exhibited here. It usually lives in ‘Pataphysical Studios.
1968 Reed College undergraduate thesis: “What life compares with this? Sitting alone at the window, I watch the leaves fall, the flowers bloom, the seasons come and go.”
In 1968, my senior year at Reed, I chose as my thesis topic the future of consciousness technology. Researcher Joe Kamiya at Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric hospital had reported earlier that year that he had recorded the brainwaves of experienced Buddhist monks and found thata greater than average portion of their brainwaves were attuned to a frequency of 8- 0 cycles per second — known as the “alpha” frequency. That was interesting enough, but what piqued my research was Kamiya’s report that he had measured the brainwaves of ordinary subjects who were not experienced meditators but who would hear a tone when their brainwaves were in the alpha zone. Kamiya’s subjects were able to learn how to control the frequency of their brainwaves because his machinery enabled them to become continuously aware of them — what became known as “biofeedback.” I procured an ancient encephalograph, an oscilloscope, and my roommate, the late Richard Crandall, who later became a fabled Reed professor and best friend of Steve Jobs, helped me connect and test it. While it was cool to make a tone sound by controlling my brainwaves, what excited me the most was that this could be the beginning of a real science of consciousness. LSD had convinced me of the importance of consciousness-change, but these new electronic devices seemed to me more objective, precise, “scientific.” I was thinking beyond what experiments should be done next, but on where the electronic amplification of consciousness might lead… in the future.
The focal problem of this thesis is that of delineating the tools and methods by which one can determine the range of consciousness of which man is capable and the methods of achieving that potential…Mandalas express in symbolic form the interplay between microcosm and macrocosm, inner and outer, between man and the world around him. The mandala is essentially a symbolic diagram illustrating the different levels of energy locked in the human organism, the forces needed to release those (the four circles), the ways of approach (the four gates), and the energies themselves (the four triangles). The mandala is used to aid meditation by providing a fixed point for the noisy mind. The effort of holding it gradually drains the destructive noise of certain mental processes and attaches it to a creative process, re-establishing harmony with the Tao of consciousness, establishing the psychophysiological equipoise prerequisite for control. I can think of two specific procedures by which this tool can be immediately adapted to EEG research. Primarily, the use of the oscilloscope in conjunction with the EEG provides an actual “picture” of the state of consciousness which can be seen by the subject. By adjusting the sweep so that the horizontal sweep is 10 cycles (alpha), then a “pure” state of alpha would appear on the screen as a circle. Oblation or distortion of the circle would provide a visually verifiable (“mandalic”?) correlate of the degree of “noise” in terms of impurity of alpha. Another method that comes to mind is the use of stroboscopes and color translators.
1974 War of the Gurus
In 1974, Freeway Press published my vision of a future where spiritual cults and their leaders would engage in warfare: War of the Gurus.
Three locations simultaneously: a deep cave in still-forbidden Tibet; a stainless-steel urban living module in BosWash or New Bombay or Greater Floating Tokyo; and a secret spiritual command post in Uruguay. Three independent conglomerations of men and machines, tooling up for an autonomous triad of cosmic audacities. In the Himalayan cave, seven men of impossible antiquity are about to link their bloodstreams to the veins of their living God: a seventeen year old boy. In the stainless steel cubicle in his private module, a distinguished research chemist applies a set of electrodes to his scalp and prepares for communion with his own confessor and savior: a machine. In Montevideo, a secret junta of psychopolitical revolutionists plan the next actions in a totally unprecedented kind of war.
1976 The Future of Money
Through the 1970s, I worked a series of day jobs — typist, file clerk, babysitter, warehouse worker, temporary office worker — while writing query letters to magazines, hoping to land an assignment or sell an article I had written on spec. I was getting up before dawn and taking BART to Oakland to work in a light steel manufacturing company when I received a letter from “California Living.” Back then, the San Francisco Chronicle was a real newspaper that published a real Sunday supplement. They offered me $450 for this article. Rent on a one-bedroom flat in the Mission was $175, so this was enough for me to quit my day job and write full time until the money ran out. A week after it was published, I got a call from the PR director of Bank of America, who told me that he had something like 15 people working for him and none of them could think of anything interesting to say about Bank of America. So he gave me carte-blanche to wander through the office and find people doing interesting things. I wrote articles; he placed them. This gig inspired me a few years later to lobby for and eventually land a similar assignment at Xerox PARC, which led me into the technology-forecasting writing that I did for a few decades.
In 1976, I was a teletype operator at Central Telegraph, an obsolescent human bottleneck in the financial intercourse of nations. Teletype operators were replaced at the Bank of America by sleek consoles full of silicon and circuitry, so my coworkers and I were the last of the human money-movers. To a teletype operator of the old school, money is nothing more nor less than a message, a message one banker sends to another. That part hasn’t changed — only the communication technology is different.
1977 The Martian Report
In 1976, Sony offered for sale the first truly portable videorecorder, the “Portapak.” My partner, Jim Neidhardt, put one in a backpack. He used a telephoto lens and taped us from a distance and I wore a radio microphone, so the people I encountered didn’t know they were being recorded until we asked them so sign releases to broadcast the interview. I dressed in a silver and red satin costume that said “Mars” in big letters on the front and the back and a pair of antennae with flowers on the end protruded from my head (see photo). I pretended that I had just arrived from outer space to study the exotic primitive culture of earthlings. We roamed all over the San Francisco Bay Area to capture people’s reactions to the questioning of an alien anthropologist: Were the automobiles the dominant species on this planet, or were the humans? Why did earthlings dig black fluid out of the ground, burn it, and put carbon into the atmosphere? Were banks some kind of religious structure where earthlings worshipped something they called “money?” We even invaded the American Association of Anthropology convention at the Fairmont Hotel. Before they threw us out I had been able to ask half a dozen anthropologists to explain their primitive culture. Some of them were, well, stuffy. I’ll never forget one who did get the joke: “You should talk to the physical anthropologists,” he advised: “they are REALLY primitive.” We built a set in which we used a videoplayer to enable conversations between Howard K. Martian senior on mars and Howard K. Martian junior on earth, and showed our program on — where else? — the local cable access station. (The National Cable Television Association convention was also one of our hit-and-run field expeditions.) One of the props we built was a multitentacled monster. One of our crew crouched inside the monster, and when the camera was rolling the crew member would hold down the button on two cans of shaving cream, dispensing white foam from the monster’s tentacles.