Howard Rheingold waded into social media in the mid-1980s when he first logged on to The WELL, one of the earliest and most influential online communities. In 1987, he wrote about the experience of online socialization in his book, The Virtual Community. In 1991, he delved further into how digital technologies were destined to augment in-the-flesh experience in Virtual Reality: Exploring the Brave New Technologies of Artificial Experience and Interactive Worlds – From Cyberspace to Teledildonics. Those books became part of the rootstock of what are now called cyberculture studies, which Rheingold teaches, along with digital journalism, as a visiting lecturer at Stanford University‘s Department of Communication and at the U.C. Berkeley School of Information.

As a member of the new breed of digital journalists, in the early 1990s Rheingold served as editor-in-chief of the Millennium Whole Earth Catalog before becoming the first executive editor of Hotwired, one of the first commercial content web sites. In 1998, he founded Brainstorms, a private webconferencing community for “knowledgeable, intellectual, civil, and future-thinking adults.”

Moving further into his study of technology’s impact on human interaction, in 2002 Rheingold wrote, Smart Mobs, which explores the potential for technology to augment collective intelligence. In 2008, he became the first research fellow at the Institute for the Future and is currently a frequent contributor to the DMLcentral blog on topics ranging from new media literacy to learning innovation.

Rheingold’s most recent book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online, gets down to the business of helping people learn and teach the new literacies by inquiring into their significance as well as by learning their use through direct practice. The book offers a pragmatic approach to fostering, in his words, “the mindful use of digital media.”

Literacy 2.0 spoke recently with Rheingold about his favorite subject: The existing, emerging and potential empowerment of individuals to act in collaboration – mindfully.

Let’s begin by taking digital technology for granted. Let’s assume increasing speed, access, richness, reach and connection, with no end in sight. What do you see as the critical questions that need addressing?

Well, the first question has to be is all this technology going to be good for us as individuals, as societies, as communities? Will it benefit us in the long run?

And the answer?

The answer has to be it depends. It depends on what we do with the technology, about how well we learn to use it. We can take technology for granted because it is no longer about the hardware or the software or the web services. It’s about the literacies. And I think that’s good news.

How so?

Wiring up the world and funding the digital media revolution has taken us decades and trillions of dollars. Now we have to teach ourselves how to use these things. The good news is that the capital investment is potentially much, much less, and we have the opportunity to teach people to be innovators, to be citizens in democratic societies, to be able to help others in times of need or during disasters – to take care of themselves using just the phone in their pocket. It’s a tremendous opportunity.

Some people out there see the potential for disaster, too.

There has been an awful lot of armchair philosophizing and anecdotal evidence about what all this stuff is doing to us. We really need to look at some of the empirical work and some of the good social science that’s been done that shows that social media does not make people depressed or alienated or drive them crazy. A lot of this stuff is total nonsense based on incomplete descriptions of science or pseudoscience or no science at all.

We are seeing all kinds of new capabilities for good and for evil. That always happens with new technologies. We need to take an approach that is not being a booster or enthusiast or an hysterically frightened critic. We need to look at the opportunity here and ask: How do we improve the state of the people who have access to these technologies?

How do we do that?

By teaching people how to manage their attention, their participation, their crap detection, their collaboration and their network awareness.

Crap detection?

You can get the answer to any question within a second anywhere, but it is up to you to determine whether it’s accurate information or inaccurate or disinformation or misinformation. There are all kinds of hoaxes out there, all kinds of bad information, a lot of people are just wrong.

You can no longer trust the authority of the text. We used to trust that there was an author, an editor, a publisher, a librarian who checked this out first. No longer true.

How are we doing with the task of learning our new literacies?

We’re just starting. Because of this moral panic, there is fear of the Internet in schools. Some have even banned Internet use. Very few schools, particularly in the lower grades, teach students how to search and how to check the information for accuracy. We are beginning to see programs, but the degree to which they are penetrating the schools is not encouraging. Institutions are not moving fast enough.

Why not?

Part of the problem is that the sensationalism surrounding new technologies is leading people to think in the wrong directions. A lot of the attention, for example, is being focused on massive online education — the idea that we can somehow educate hundreds of thousands of people at a time and do away with professors, that we can automate education. That’s using technology as a kind of fetish object and not really getting much below the surface. Online education is valuable, of course, especially for people who do not have any other access to the kinds of courses they need.

What needs to be taught that isn’t getting enough emphasis?

In societies that don’t change very much the duty of the elders, the duty of the educational institutions, is to pass along what has been proven to work over the generations. In societies that change rapidly that doesn’t do any good. You need to teach people how to think. You need to teach them how to recognize trends. You need to teach them how to evaluate. They have to be able to answer the questions: What is the technology going to do for me and what is it going to do to me? Do I need to know how to use it and if so how do I use it in my life?

So, it’s not about how, it’s about why?

Yes. This is nothing new. It goes back to John Dewey and the idea of liberal education, about teaching people how to learn. Now, with so much unmediated access, it’s more important than ever that people learn to think critically. And there is a problem with that. To many school districts and parents critical thinking is a communist plot, quite literally. And even if you agree that it’s a great idea, it’s not easy as a teacher or a parent to continually encourage your child or your student to question authority. It is much easier to tell them to sit down and shut up and I’ll tell you.

What is keeping us from becoming better critical thinkers?

We are schooled to sit at our desk in a row and be quiet and listen and take notes and memorize the wisdom that’s been handed down to us by others without really questioning it. Then the bell rings and we move to another room and do the same thing. That is learned helplessness. We are always learning that knowledge is something that some older person gives to you that you need to try and memorize. There is not a lot of practice in doing it for yourself.

So, schooling has a lot to do with the problem. I also think the technology is coming along so fast parents don’t know what to do. And they fear, often accurately, that their kids know more about the technology than they do. I don’t think that is an excuse for not sitting down with them and going online and talking about it. We teach kids to be careful crossing the street. Why wouldn’t we guide them on how to be careful on the Internet. We need to start by educating the parents.

Does instant information and global interconnection merely amplify the need for critical thinking or is there something fundamentally different about the need for critical thinking now?

Absolutely fundamentally different. Has there ever been a time in the world where this much knowledge, this much information and this much news on an up-to-the-second basis is available to billions of people instantaneously anywhere? That’s never happened before. Not only is it access to information, it is access to each other. We can get together and start a company. We can get together and create Wikipedia. We can create apps that make billions of dollars. We can use Facebook and YouTube to organize political dissidents. We can overthrow governments. We are seeing all these things happening and they are all connected.

Is social media a social revolution enabler or a driver?

I’m not saying that social media is the cause of social revolution. But it is a very, very powerful tool in the political realm. We are also seeing these technologies challenge education. We are seeing citizen science. We are seeing new forms of entrepreneurship. So many of the fundamental engines of change are being amplified, for better and worse, by the access to this technology by millions of people.

Access to the technology plus millions of people does not necessarily mean anything good is going to happen. But when you organize it and when people with the technology know what they are doing the potential is there.

It happened after the print revolution raised the number of books from 30,000 in Gutenberg’s time to 30 million 50 years later. People began to do things because they were literate that they weren’t able to do before. They were able to govern themselves. They overthrew monarchies and instituted constitutions. Science became a collective enterprise.

There is always a co-evolution of technology innovation, technological literacy and collective action. We are seeing that happen again now. I don’t want to paint this as utopian, but it is powerful.

One of the things that seems to be missing in the formula of innovation + literacy + collaboration is context. If technologies are turning our institutions upside down and inside out, where do we find the cues on what to do with the new tools and capabilities?

Right. Nobody teaches us to do that. It’s certainly not the education system. Fortunately, all of us always know more than some of us. That’s the power of the virtual community. There are tools and ways and means of addressing these issues. They are just not widely known and practiced.

The Web was not created by a government or a company. It was created by millions of people putting up their web page and linking to each other. Participation is what got us here. It’s where Google and Facebook came from. It’s where the Arab Spring came from. It’s people taking the technology into their own hands. Where there is not a reliable institution, we create one, we start one up.

But, as in a sport or any other endeavor, to participate it is necessary to know how to play.

The human instinct to participate is there. It has enabled many people to get in on the digital revolution and do remarkable things. But most people at this stage are not educated in the necessity and opportunity of participation even though it is relatively simple. You can start a blog or twitter account in about three seconds. You can get together with people and create a wiki, create your own contribution to global collective intelligence.

There is a conception floating around in academic circles and elsewhere that the Web and other networks mimic biological neural networks. Are we linking our brains into a vast and growing social brain?

What separates us from the other primates is that we teach and learn from each other. We don’t have to wait for evolution in order to change. You can figure something out and teach it to somebody else. As a civilization we are a collective intelligence. Now we have a tool that supercharges that. We have always been doing this, we just haven’t understood how it works. We are just getting started on understanding the dynamics of collective intelligence. We have the technology; we need the know-how. We need to understand how to do it and we need to pass that understanding around.

If, as you say, we cannot make the world literate the way we did with traditional literacy, how do we bring a rational approach to learning the new literacies of technologically enabled collective intelligence?

Informal learning is a huge part of it. Gamers learning things from each other, for example. The new literacy happens in the classroom, after school, in online groups, in adult education and in people just sharing what they know.

The answers are out there. There are people who know how. The people I interviewed for my book know how.

You write and speak often about the role of education. How about government? Does government know how?

What if you took every person in Congress and told them that they will lose their jobs tomorrow if they cannot take a simple test about digital technology that any 14-year-old in America can pass? How many do you think would be left.

Everything from the military, which depends on high tech weapons, to our economic engine, which has to do with technological innovation, depends on the way we regulate or don’t regulate technology. And the people in charge of regulation know nothing about what they are regulating.

Why is government so technologically unknowledgeable?

Because they only listen to the lobbyists who support them. They only know what the lobbyists tell them. We are seeing the extension of copyright law, attacks on net neutrality, all this know-nothing legislation in Congress that is really being backed by incumbent companies that are afraid their business models are being threatened. These companies can’t compete openly and fairly in the marketplace, so they are competing in the political arena.

How do we address that?

We need technological leadership. We used to have the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment that looked ahead at where technologies are taking us. It was zeroed out by the Newt Gingrich Congress in 1992. We have nothing to replace it. We have one of the most technologically ignorant political leaderships ever anywhere.

They are making the legislation that shapes the future and they can’t help but do the wrong thing?

We are sliding down the slope in that regard. The Internet was largely invented by Americans and we are falling way behind. When you see what they are doing in Washington and in state governments it’s amazing things work at all.