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Author: David Price
Title: Howard Rheingold's Tools for Thought: the History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2001

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Source: Howard Rheingold's Tools for Thought: the History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology
David Price

vol. 4, no. 2, August 2001
Article Type: Book Review

Howard Rheingold's Tools for Thought: the History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology

David Price

Howard Rheingold. Tools for Thought: the History and Future of Mind-Expanding Technology. Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press. 2000. 359 pages.

Every invention has to start out as an idea, and ideas are often the fruit of individuals struggling to solve some immediate problem. Great advances can occur when these ideas come to people who can see their applicability beyond the initial task for which they were created. These contentions provide the underlying spirit for Tools for Thought. Rheingold chronicles humanity's efforts to create machines that can enhance human thought. He frames his discussion around a series of short biographies of the people responsible for each step in the evolution of this complex process. In so doing, he provides a readable and relatively thorough account of the development of many of the key components of today's "information revolution."

Rheingold's account begins with 19th century eccentrics and government bureaucrats developing machines that performed calculations through punch cards. While many improvements were made to these early "computing" machines, the conceptual breakthroughs that laid the basis for contemporary computers did not come until the early years of the Cold War. In particular, Rheingold stresses the contributions of Alan Turing and Claude Shannon in laying the theoretical foundations for modern computer science. Turing gets credit for recognizing that punch cards could contain instructions as well as data in the symbols placed on them. This is a critical concept because one "can use these symbols to create descriptions that turn the general machine into the specific machine you want." (p. 55) As Rheingold points out, this allowed the same machine (or hardware) to perform a variety of tasks limited only by the symbolic instructions (or software) created for it. Claude Shannon figured out how to turn Turing's abstract idea into electronic reality. He devised sets of binary instructions that worked with electric relays that enabled machines themselves to produce any symbol. Once the machine could produce the more complex symbols from the simple binary ones, the machine could generate complex instructions from simple binary input.

The next conceptual breakthrough Rheingold discusses involved redesigning the input and output systems. The first generation of computers relied on punch cards for input and printouts for output. This severely limited the ability of programmers to use the machine's full potential. J. Licklider solved this problem by creating an input system through typewriter style keyboards and instant output through cathode ray screens. A team led by Doug Engelbart took this development an important step further by devising ways in which multiple keyboards and screens could be connected to the same machine. This not only removed the limitation of only one operator at a time being able to use the computer, but by the late 1960s led to the methods by which operators could communicate with each other, in other words the first electronic mail services and discussion boards. This, of course, was the precursor to the Internet. It was up to Engelbart's students to create the first personal computers, a development about which Engelbart was overly skeptical.

Rheingold suggests that Engelbart recognized better than most others did the potential of these latest innovations in computer technology for actually enhancing human thinking. He has a riveting account of Engelbart's daring 1968 demonstration of how computers with point and click technology could be used as word processors. With this demonstration, Engelbart was able to "make people realize that computers weren't just calculators." (p.193) To Engelbart, this was just the beginning. He envisioned electronic documents with links to sources replacing traditional libraries and electronic means of communication facilitating group decision-making. Others believed that computers in the classroom would revolutionize education. Rheingold suggests that these ideas replaced military uses and thinking as the driving force behind innovation in computer technology since the 1970s and that commercial and educational use of personal computers will be where most new developments will occur.

One of the real strengths of Rheingold's work is how it makes the reader reflect upon what computers actually do and how they do it. Most people take the workings of computers for granted. It is hard to do that when reading Tools for Thought. Rheingold's approach also clarifies the significance and novelty of each step in the evolution of computer technology. At times, however, he does drag out discussion of a particular innovation for what seem to be dramatic purposes. Clearly, some of the developments he discusses were more critical than others were. The sense of proportionality between developments is sometimes lost because of his desire to make every innovation appear as significant as possible.

The current M.I.T. edition is a reissue of Rheingold's original 1985 work with an additional "Afterword" that evaluates whether the future direction of computer usage suggested in the original is still the same. Rheingold's faith in the future of computing being in personal computers that do the tasks suggested by Engelbart and his colleagues seems to have been born out in the decade and a half since he originally wrote. In fact, as I write this, I am struck by how much my writing and research process mimics how Engelbart predicted computers would augment such intellectual tasks.

Other areas have proven to be a disappointment to Rheingold and the scientists he reinterviewed for the new edition. While they do see many important effects of contemporary computer usage, they note that "not all of which turned out to be beneficial or benign." (p. 323) As computer usage and innovation have become driven more by private sector dynamics, the ideas of the inventers are being lost in the pursuit of market share and investor dollars. These formerly idealistic scientists have realized that the power of their inventions and ideas is indeed limited to the societal milieu in which they exist. When humans apply technology, it appears more likely it will reflect the flaws of their society than provide some miraculous cure for them. Ultimately, the book concludes that free market, pluralistic societies "seem to be better at creating tools, selling tools, transforming our lives and societies with tools, than in understanding the best way to use tools." (p. 343)

David Price
Santa Fe Community College