INF530 Scholarly Book Review

Rheingold, H. (2012a). Mind amplifier: Can our digital tools make us smarter? New York, NY: TED Books.

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Howard Rheingold’s Mind amplifier: can our digital tools make us smarter? is published by TED Books and is available for the iOS TED app or as an ebook for various platforms. It is not available in print. The two available versions differ, the TED version includes embedded media and extensive in text links to further information.

At a time when writers like Nicholas Carr (2010) warn that the internet promotes only superficial understanding, is “dumbing down” society, Rheingold examines the same evidence of human brain re-wiring promoted by new technologies, to come up with an altogether more positive outlook. Rheingold demonstrates that tools from the alphabet to the printing press to word processing software have augmented human intelligence and allowed us to do, think and create in ways previously impossible. He doesn’t ignore the unexpected negative consequences of the mass use of new thinking tools, for example, the increase in road deaths caused by drivers texting on mobile phones, but asks us to instead use our knowledge of intellectual augmentation to mindfully design new technological tools to create solutions for problems in society as a whole.

In Mind amplifier Rheingold brings together a cohesive and well-researched overview of the history of human brain development and intellectual augmentation and how this has enabled the development of tools which in turn support and promote further augmentation.  In 2002 he was quoted as saying “Collective action is one of the most important things that technology has made possible” (Howard Rheingold, 2002. November 1) and it is a prominent feature of his argument in Mind amplifier.  Key themes in the book are metacognition, abstraction, augmented social cognition, collective intelligence, and stigmergic collaboration. Each of these can contribute to the ability to solve problems using digital tools. Rheingold aims for the reader to understand the mind in the context of these themes and use this understanding to create humane solutions to global problems like climate change, food security, toilets, and conflict. He does not claim to have all the answers, but leaves the reader with much to explore and discuss.

Rheingold’s interest in technology goes back to the1960’s. In 1984 he started writing about computers as mind-amplifiers in Tools for thought: The history and future of mind-expanding technology (Howard Rheingold’s tools for thought, n.d.) and has been “writing about life online since my 1987 article on virtual communities.” (Rheingold, 2012a). He has written about the powers of the human mind inHigher creativity(Harman and Rheingold, 1984) and The cognitive connection (Levine and Rheingold, 1986).

In 1993 he wrote The virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier (1993) – a discussion of pre world wide web online communities which linked people in ways not possible prior to the personal computer.  In a 2008 reprint of 1987’s Virtual communities – exchanging ideas through computer bulletin boards new introductory remarks proclaim that the original included the first known use of the term “virtual community”. He has since published Smart mobs: The next social revolution (2002) and Net smart: How to thrive online (2012).

In the early 90’s Rheingold was one of the first 200 people asked by Elon University to make predictions for the Imagining the Internet project (n.d.).

Dubbed “The citizen” over sixteen years ago by John Brockman in his list of “doers, thinkers, and writers who have tremendous influence on the emerging communication revolution.” (Who are the digerati? n.d.)  this title has transformed to “The First Citizen of the internet” in promotional material for the 2000 edition of The virtual community. (Amazon. n.d.).

Rheingold is a visiting lecturer in Stanford University’s Department of Communication and teaches Virtual communities and social media at U.C. Berkeley’s School of Information (Howard Rheingold. (2014). In 2010 he was appointed the Institute for the future’s first research fellow. (Institute for the future, n.d.).

Rheingold examines how humans developed the alphabet, writing and reading and how acquiring these abilities is dependent on the brain’s neuroplasticity.  “Like all cultural inventions, [reading] is learned and then mastered through a rearrangement or rewiring of already existing systems” (Wolf, Ullman-Shade and Gottwald, 2012, p.231). Even in ancient times there was fear that learning new skills would negatively impact on other functions (the example given is that Plato feared reading and writing would affect the ability to remember). Rheingold takes a positive view and writes about “humans using language, artifacts, methodology, and training” (Rheingold, 2012a, Bootstrapping) to invent even more capable augmentation tools.  In an examination of research into the brains of digital natives and digital immigrants, Herther (2009) found that differences in brain function were related to experience not age. “There is no research coming out of neuroscience that would support ideas that digital natives are any better equipped; however, they may certainly be more experienced–but experience is something that can be overcome with training.” (p.19). Wolf (2010) has concerns about changes in the brain and how that has affected how we process what we read, and what that means for the depth of thought we can apply to what we read.

Mind amplifier discusses collective intelligence and the power of many. The concept of stigmergy – where complex ideas or structures can emerge without centralised planning or control is introduced. Stigmergy, as exhibited in the development of Wikipedia, was researched by Mark Elliott (2007) in his doctoral thesis (assessed by Rheingold). Elliott went on to develop a wiki for gathering citizen input into Melbourne’s city planning allowing for stigmergic collaboration. That is, each individual is able to respond to what he finds, to add, edit and delete at will. The resultant structure evolves without central control. Even though the wiki was freely accessible he found no inappropriate or irrelevant content added and in fact ended up with a valuable document for planning (Mark Elliott on stigmergy, n.d.). Emergency services are starting to understand the power of the community and considerable effort is going into harnessing this power. The Australian Attorney General’s department notes “increasing awareness of the benefits of crowdsourcing, for example, to gain critical intelligence on emergencies and natural disasters”. (Emergency warnings, n.d.).  The Emergency 2.0 Wiki, launched in Queensland after Cyclone Yasi and the floods of 2011, is now a global resource for using social media and new technology in emergencies (Emergency 2.0 Wiki Project, n.d.). CSIRO work in the disaster management field includes “specialists in 3D simulation modelling and visualisation, geospatial sciences, environmental, physical, economic and social sciences, social media monitoring and big data mining and analytics” (All hazards…, 2012, p.3). They have developed Emergency Situational Awareness (ESA) software to detect unusual behaviour in the Twitter stream in order to alert emergency services of potential disasters.

Jones (2013) references Mind amplifier in his article which analyses the use of hashtags in Twitter. He describes how, in a debate of national (U.S.) importance around health care, hashtags (what Rheingold would call a mind amplifying tool) enabled connections to be made between individuals belonging to different groups (or networks) which wouldn’t otherwise have occurred. This “network power” is described as “switching”. Jones uses “networked exchange to describe networked communication by multiple authors that can be aggregated together.” Switching seems a logical part of Rheingold’s promotion of design for improved collective action.

Rheingold writes of human-computer symbiosis and although he doesn’t use the term computational thinking – critical thinking plus the power of computers giving a foundation for innovative solutions (Wing, 2008) – he talks a great deal about abstraction which Wing says is “the essence of computational thinking” (p3717). Wing envisions that “computational thinking will be instrumental to new discovery and innovation in all fields of endeavour” (p3720), clearly deserving a place in Rheingold’s mindful design. Tim Berners-Lee’s plea (2009) for data to be shared, if successful, will contribute to the advancement of computational thinking and the mindful development of technological tools. As Siemens (2004) says “Knowledge that resides in a database needs to be connected with the right people in the right context in order to be classified as learning.” Rheingold’s interest in collaboration, collective intelligence and the power of the network fit well with Siemen’s connectivist learning theory and this seems a useful model for considering how the education of children can support the future development of his proposals.

Mind amplifier is written for a general audience. Like TED talks, books published by TED are for anyone who is interested “in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world.” (Our organisation, n.d.). The book is short enough to be read in a single sitting and while some sections such as those on abstraction and metacognition are complex, it is generally an accessible read. The extra features in the TED app version complement the text and provide insight and opportunity for further investigation, as does the extensive bibliography. This short book is well worth reading and will provide an alternative framework with which to consider collective action, crowdsourcing, computational thinking, and the future of education.




All hazards: digital technology & services for disaster management. (2012). CSIRO. Retrieved April 16, 2014, from

Amazon. (n.d.). Retrieved April 14, 2014, from

Berners-Lee, T. (2009). Tim Berner-Lee on the next Web, TED Talks, TED Conferences,

Carr, N. G. (2010). The shallows: How the Internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. London: Atlantic.

Elliott, M. A. (2007) Stigmergic Collaboration: A Theoretical Framework for Mass Collaboration. PhD thesis, Centre for Ideas, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Available from

Emergency 2.0 Wiki Project. (n.d.). Retrieved April 16, 2014, from

Emergency warnings. (n.d.). Retrieved April 16, 2014, from

Harman, W. W., & Rheingold, H. (1984).Higher creativity: Liberating the unconscious for breakthrough insights. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher.

Herther, N. K. (2009). Digital Natives and Immigrants. (Cover story). Online, 33(6), 14-21.

Howard Rheingold. (2014). Retrieved April 16, 2014, from

Howard Rheingold’s tools for thought. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2014, from

Howard Rheingold. (2002). Wireless Review, 19(11). Retrieved from

Imagining the internet. (n.d.). Retrieved April 16, 2014, from

Institute for the future. (n.d.). Retrieved April 16, 2014, from

Jones, J. (2013). Switching in Twitter’s hashtagged exchanges. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 28(1), 83-108. doi: 10.1177/1050651913502358

Levine, H., & Rheingold, H. (1987). The cognitive connection: Thought and language in man and machine. New York: Prentice Hall Press.

Mark Elliott on stigmergy, citizen wikis, collaborative environments. (n.d.). Retrieved April 16, 2014, from

Our organization | About | TED. (n.d.). Retrieved April 16, 2014, from

Rheingold, H. (2012a). Mind amplifier: Can our digital tools make us smarter? New York, NY: TED Books.

Rheingold, H. (2012b). Net smart: How to thrive online. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rheingold, H. (2008). Virtual communities – Exchanging ideas through computer bulletin boards. Journal for Virtual Worlds Research, 1(1)

Rheingold, H. (2002). Smart mobs: The new social revolution. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

Rheingold, H. (2000). The virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier. Cambridge (Mass.): The MIT Press.

Rheingold, H. (1993). The virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Pub.

Siemens, G. (2004) Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. (2004). Retrieved April 16, 2014, from

Who are the Digerati? (n.d.). Retrieved April 14, 2014, from

Wing, J. M. (2008). Computational thinking and thinking about computing. Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 366(1881), 3717–3725.

Wolf, M., Ullman-Shade, C., & Gottwald, S. (2012). The emerging, evolving reading brain in a digital culture: Implications for new readers, children with reading difficulties, and children without schools. Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology, 11(3), 230-240.

WOLF, M. (2010). Our “deep reading” brain: Its digital evolution poses questions. Nieman Reports, 64(2), 7–8.

One thought on “INF530 Scholarly Book Review

  1. Hi Heather,

    I really admire your reflection and I think it says a lot about our cohort and the subject as a whole that so many students are publishing their reviews publicly.

    Learning isn’t always about the product but the journey we take along the way. And through this assignment, I know we have all learnt a lot.

    Thank you for including my review in this post.

    Mind Amplifier is definitely on my reading list.


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