Felix Stalder on Wed, 18 Aug 1999 11:53:08 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Who's in charge, anyway?

A review of Andrew L. Shapiro's Control Revolution [*]

Computers are a control technology. They allow to create, manipulate, and
control data events. The spread of computers throughout our society
fundamentally affects the distribution of controlling power. Andrew L.
Shapiro is the second major author to characterize this as a control
revolution. More than a decade ago James Beniger reached the same
conclusion.[1] However, in spite of the same title and high quality of
study, the effects attributed to the computer-induced control revolution
could not be more different. Centralization for Beniger, decentralization
for Shapiro.

When Beniger published his book in the mid 1980s, computers were still
primarily huge, expensive machines used in corporate headquarters and
government agencies. PCs were just beginning to the reach the public. The
Internet did not yet reach beyond a small elite in government-funded
research institutions. Up to that point, the effect of computers had been
to support centralization of control in the large bureaucracies of
expanding governments and mammoth corporations. Computers were, by and
large, turbocharged the filing cabinets. What Beniger was analyzing in his
historical study now appears to be only the first wave of the control

In the meantime computers have wandered from air-conditioned rooms onto
desktops, laptops and palmtops. Each step has been accompanied by an
increase in computing power, a decrease in costs and a proliferation of
users and uses. Since the early 1990s the pace at which computers have been
interconnected has accelerated dramatically. A stand-alone computer now
seems almost strange. Along the way, a new mass medium, the Internet, has
emerged symbolizing the second wave of the control revolution. What was
once a privilege of large organizations - control over information flows -
has been decentralized and distributed. Interconnected and in everybody's
hands, the computer is mutating from a filing cabinet into "a lens through
which we will experience the world" (p.111).

In the last few years, the discussion of the social impact of the Internet
has been dominated by extremes. Now that novelty is wearing off, it becomes
clear that Cyberspace, the far-away land of hype or gloom, was an enticing
but deeply misleading metaphor. "Cyberspace is too important to be thought
of as elsewhere. It is right here" (p.31), state Shapiro what is emerging
as a consensus among the second generation of thinkers.  With this dreams
of a declaration of independence, [2] and of radically new social and
political paradigms are fading away and a more nuanced and complex
discussion of social and political issues is beginning. For Shapiro this
discussion rests upon the premises that technologies are political, rather
than neutral, and change is characterized by "a lack of preordained
outcome" (p.11). It is thus in our doing to make the future a bright or a
dark one. Choice and responsibility is the optimistic but difficult message
of the book.

The book is structured in three sections: promise, peril and balance. The
promise of the Internet is created by the increased control available to
the individual to modulate information. In the old mass media, for example,
a small group of editors decided which news were fit to print. Now a host
of on-line services allow average users to edit their own newspaper, *The
Daily Me* in Nicholas Negroponte's parlance.[3] Furthermore, the Internet
technologies provide individuals with unprecedented publishing power and
access to the most heterogeneous information sources. The dangers arise
from two sides: the resistance of powerful organization which fear the loss
of control, and from what Shapiro calls "oversteer". A phenomenon by which
too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing. If users are able to
completely shut off all unwanted information, the danger is that
communities and mechanisms for collective decision-making disintegrate onto
a infinite number of solipsistic individual universes. Market mechanisms
because they accumulate  anonymous, individualized decisions are
structurally unable to provide for common goods. Shapiro dismisses, for
example,  the idea that privacy can be handled like at tradable good. Civic
rights are not negotiable. "Similarly, a company can't sell a toaster at a
$5 discount to a buyer who agrees not to sue in the event that a product
defect causes her to be injured" (p.164). To create and maintain common
goods, it will be necessary to strengthen the existing and invent new
democratic institutions to determine and carry out the collective will.

Shapiro's treatment of this dialectic is original and nuanced . His style
is characterized by precision and readability bearing witness to his double
background as legal scholar and  journalist. Issues that are discussed
include privacy, representative democracy, the need for intermediaries and
ethics of news. One of the highlights of the book is the discussion of
freedom of expression.  The promise of the Internet is to enhance the
freedom of expression by giving everyone access to means of publishing and
retrieval. The dangers arise from ill-guided regulation by governments
(resistance) and the possibility to make unwanted speech disappear by
stetting up filters (oversteer). While the danger of resistance is easy to
understand (just think of the ill-fated Communications Decency Act) the
danger of oversteer is less obvious.

The fact alone that the speaker is allowed to speak his or her mind freely
does not constitute freedom of expression. If the speaker is deprived of
the possibility to reach an audience, freedom of expression degrades into
an cynical formality. True freedom of expression rests on "a unspoken
compromise between the unpopular speaker and the reluctant listener"
(p.127). In the physical world, this compromise is achieved  by
guaranteeing access to public places in which the reluctant listener must,
at the very least, acknowledge the speaker's existence by ignoring him or
her. The brief moment between realizing the speaker's existence and the
decision to ignore, the listener can be reached and, eventually, be
convinced to become a voluntary listener.

In a world of total filtering, the unwanted speaker does not need to be
ignored because his existence can be erased before the listener ever
becomes aware of it. In effect, this turns the on-line world into one of a
gated community which only screened information can enter. While filtering
might be a good decision from an individual's point of view, it can have
detrimental consequences for the community and the decision-making
mechanisms that rely on a minimum of shared experience. Oversteer.

It is necessary to find the balance between the right to of determine one's
own informational environment and the needs of the community. Shapiro
argues that governments, as the expression of the collective will, have a
right to force, as a last resort, Microsoft to preinstall an icon on the
Windows desktop linking to an on-line space envisioned as PublicNet, a kind
of electronic commons. Considering the difficulties of establishing
Internet institutions, as exemplified in the controversies over ICAAN, the
idea of a PublicNet might seem a bit far-fetched. However, the right to
demand public space on a private operating system is based on the sensible
premise that "in a democratic society, those who control access to
information have the responsibility to support the public interest" (p.

The idea comforting idea that all that is needed is a balance between the
old and the new comes with its own built-in limitations. They are visible
in the failure to address a more troubling question.[4] Does the
proliferation of tools to micro-manage certain flows of information
constitute a real gain in control over what really matters, one's own life?
One can argue it does not because the second wave of the control revolution
is characterized by a *control paradox*. The multiplication of control
instruments actually hampers, rather than supports, long-term planning
because these instruments interfere with one another in unpredictable ways.
Increased short-term control appears to be achieved at the costs of loss of
long-term control. The question then becomes that of a trade-off. One the
one hand, we can customize your intake of digital information down to the
last bit, on the other hand, the prospect of things like long-term
employment and a predictable future is dwindling. Control, gained or lost?

[*] Shapiro, Andrew L.: The Control Revolution: How the Internet is Putting
Individuals in Charge and Changing the World. Public Affairs: New York,
1999 pp. 286 ISBN 1-891620-19-3  $25.00

[1] Beniger, James R. (1986). The Control Revolution: Technological and
Economic Origins of the Information Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press
[2] Barlow, John Perry (1996). A Declaration of the Independence of
Cyberspace. (February 9).
] Negroponte, Nicolas (1995). Being Digital. New York: Alfred A. Knopf
[4] In this point, Shapiro seems not to have moved beyond the premises of
still-born technorealism project of which he was one of the originators.
See http://www.technorealism.org

  Les faits sont faits.

#  distributed via nettime-l: no commercial use without permission of author
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo@bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  un/subscribe: majordomo@bbs.thing.net and
# "un/subscribe nettime-l you@address" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org/ contact: <nettime@bbs.thing.net>