The Control Revolution (Review)
Felix Stalder
© by Computers & Society Vol.29 Nr. 4 [Dec. 1999]

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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

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 a 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 revolution.

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 ICANN, 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. 225).

The 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?

The Control Revolution, nevertheless, provides an excellent overview of the complexities of the public policy issues shaped by the Internet. As such, I can highly recommend it to readers interested in these questions, and even more to those who think these issues to be unimportant.

[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).
[3] 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