What I plan to say at De Montfort University commencement
July 14th, 2008

I have been asked to give a brief address when I am awarded the “Doctor of Technology” degree Wednesday, at De Montfort University. Here’s what I am planning:

Brief remarks by Howard Rheingold at De Montfort University, July, 2008

I’ll give you the advice part at the very beginning. Then you can decide for yourselves how much attention to devote to the rest of my very short remarks. My advice is this: Pay attention to irrelevant details and follow intriguing but useless connections.

This is the most valuable advice I can offer from my own experience for anyone out to make their way in the worlds of 21st century technology.

“paying attention to irrelevant details,” is a phrase that has stuck in my mind for decades, since I read it in a research paper about brain functioning.

Neuroscientists use a probe called an “evoked potential” that they can pick up from a surface electrode on the scalp. Immediately after flashing a light at a person, that person’s nerve cells output patterns that look like little squiggles on a graph or a display. Some scientists, funded by the U.S. Air Force, claimed that one of those squiggles, which they named “P-300 waves,” is a reliable indicator of attention: You can use eye-tracking to detect whether somebody is looking at something, but that won’t tell you if they are actually paying attention to what their eyes are aimed at. However, these scientists offered a series of tests that indicated that the P-300 was present when someone was looking at something and paying attention, but absent when they weren’t paying attention. The Air Force wasn’t funding this research out of altruism. They were interested in the difference between novice pilots and expert pilots paid attention to all the data that was coming at them from the windshield and dashboard. So they used P-300 on novices and experts and concluded that novices focus their attention on the fundamental dials and indicators, whereas the experts spend far more time “paying attention to irrelevant details.”

As for those intriguing but useless connections: I’ll have to tell you that I was as skeptical as anyone who wasn’t already an electrical engineer when personal computers came around. I just couldn’t see any use for them in my business, which at the time the first PCs became available was the business of putting words on paper. Then I learned that some people not far from me in San Francisco were using computers to write and edit without having to erase and retype. The library led me to a 1977 article in Scientific American by Alan Kay, about “Microelectronics and the Personal Computer,” and it had a picture of one of those computers you could use to edit texts. So I found my way to the place Alan Kay was working when he wrote that article, the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. They discouraged interested non-employees from using their experimental personal computers just to write magazine articles more efficiently. So I talked them into hiring me to write for them. That’s when I found myself surrounded by all sorts of intriguing but useless connections – useless, that is, because they weren’t directly connected to the kind of writing that Xerox was paying me to do. But I followed my curiosity and began investigating where this idea came from in the first place – the idea that computers could be used to amplify thinking and communication, not just for scientific calculation and business data processing. Over the past twenty years, I’ve written four books about the technologies that evolved from those first PCs at Xerox PARC – Tools for Thought in 1985, Virtual Reality in 1991, The Virtual Community in 1994, and Smart Mobs in 2008. I never set out to specialize in writing about digital technology and society, but while pursuing the possibility of a writing machine, I ended up paying attention to irrelevant details and following intriguing but useless connections.

It probably wouldn’t be responsible for me to counsel you to spend ALL your time on tasks and questions wholly unrelated to what you are supposed to be doing on your job, but once in a while, let yourself go where those hunches take you.


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