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Previously in Digital Culture:

"Bits of Beauty," by Harvey Blume (June 3, 1999)
Yes, it's art. Now what is there to say about it? An assessment of the first-ever Cyberarts Festival in Boston, where art criticism is forced to play catch-up with technology.

"The MP3 Revolution," by Charles C. Mann (April 8, 1999)
The recording industry may indeed have something to worry about. If the much-talked-about digital format (or something like it) catches on, we could be carried back into our musical and cultural past.

"The Weathermen," by Harvey Blume (February 24, 1999)
Two recent books forecast a digital future of wearable computers, neural implants, and silicon-based immortality. But something is missing from the picture: sex and advertising.

See the complete Digital Culture index.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Join the conversation in the Technology & Digital Culture conference of Post & Riposte.
With Liberty and Justice for Me

Is the Internet giving ordinary people more control over their lives? An e-mail exchange with Andrew L. Shapiro, the author of The Control Revolution

by Mark Dery

July 22, 1999

Andrew L. Shapiro's The Control Revolution, which hit bookstores in June, is clearly conceived as a pillow book for policy makers. Shapiro, a lawyer and policy analyst, is a contributing editor at The Nation and the director of the Aspen Institute's Internet Policy Project. In his new book, he ponders the social and political implications of the digital revolution (the subtitle is "How the Internet is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know"). The Control Revolution is tightly structured, soberly reasoned, and boasts several thousand-watt insights. That said, those used to lively prose may find themselves stifling the occasional yawn. This is Al Gore's idea of a beach book.

Shapiro argues that "the real change set in motion by the Internet may, in fact, be a control revolution, a vast transformation in who governs information, experience, and resources. Increasingly, it seems that we will." As examples of our newfound empowerment, he cites Serbian democracy activists who defied state censors by "broadcasting" on the Internet and the Net-given ability to sidestep traditional intermediaries such as stockbrokers, editors, even elected officials. At the same time, Shapiro warns, governments, corporations, and other guardians of centralized, top-down decision-making are already attempting to parry our power. More ominously, Shapiro suggests, we may abuse that power, withdrawing into our electronic cocoons, seceding from community life and the responsibilities of citizenship.

To guard against institutional repression and the personal control freakery that he calls "oversteer," Shapiro counsels balance, which for him involves "recognizing the importance of community and collective action as counterweights to both institutional power and individual control." He's inspiring when he's evoking visions of community computer networks that would help revitalize civic life and a national commons in cyberspace "where otherwise-invisible community groups, activists, and artists might occasionally have a limited but real opportunity to be seen or heard." And he's predictably good on legal issues, offering thoughtful solutions to nettlesome problems such as childproofing the Net and public access to encryption software.

Shapiro describes his book as an attempt to further the ends of "technorealism," a term he and fellow cyberpundit David Shenk coined in 1998 to mean "a critical perspective on technology that is meant to go beyond the simple dualism of cyber-utopianism and neo-Luddism." In the interview that follows, Shapiro notes that technorealism's target audience is not the way-wired, "but the much, much larger group of thoughtful folks who care about how the rise of the Internet is affecting their lives on a day-to-day basis." Who, exactly, are these "folks?" There's no debating Shapiro's claim that the PC and networked computing have proven deliriously liberating to some. But the key word, here, is "some." As examples of "average folks" -- some of them "truly disenfranchised" -- using the Net to "shake up existing power relations," Shapiro cites day trading and the use of MP3 technology to download music directly from artists' Web sites.

In fact such examples suggest that much of the control revolution's empowerment is either irrelevant to "average folks" or operates only inside the magic bubble of cyberspace. For example, most "average folks" don't have the stock-market expertise or financial safety-net that are prerequisites for the high-stakes gambling of day trading. Likewise, most "average folks" don't have the leisure time to spend hours downloading music from the Net or the luxury of caring whether MP3 will free musicians from their corporate servitude. As for the "truly disenfranchised," they're offline, in garment-district sweatshops or migrant-worker camps or, at worst, on the streets. Underpaid, overworked, and unplugged, they're light years away from the world in which people are using the Net to "shake up existing power relations."

A truly realistic technorealism would acknowledge the uneven distribution of the new technological resources and the ways in which they reinforce, rather than undermine, power relations, foremost among them economic inequity. In an America where only the top 20 percent of families are enjoying any real increase in income and the number of personal bankruptcies is eight times greater than it was during the Great Depression, Shapiro's "technorealist" assertions that "hierarchies are coming undone" and "power is devolving down to 'end users'" sound like so much virtual reality.

In search of answers to the swarm of questions stirred up by this provocative book, I conducted the following e-mail interview with Shapiro earlier this month.

book cover Mark Dery: What, exactly, is technorealism being realistic about? Aren't the issues that push TR's buttons -- privacy, copyright, ownership of the airwaves, wiring of the schools -- classic libertarian concerns, shared by the digital elite TR inveighs against? R.U. Sirius, the always amusing former editor of Mondo 2000, puts his finger on the nub of the matter when he writes, "Attempts to reverse undesirable trends of real importance, like the increasing gulf between the rich and the poor, or the fact that a nation of pod people will tolerate corporate testing of bodily fluids without screaming bloody revolution, are not serviced by a tepid set of rationalist principles aimed at unseating a small, perceived techno-utopian elite whose influence is limited and waning anyway."

Andrew Shapiro: Technorealism is a project that seeks to get people to think critically about new tools such as the Internet and their impact on society. It's also a word that can help to open up our culture's cramped way of talking about technology. When The New York Times announces the launch of its new technology section by asking readers "Are you a technophile or a technophobe?," it would seem that we need a more nuanced way of thinking and talking about technology.

There's so much hype and hysteria surrounding every aspect of the high-tech world -- from IPO valuations to information warfare to distance learning -- it may be helpful just to be able to say, "Well, I take a more technorealist view of that," and to have people know that your perspective is more balanced, contingent, and realistic. At a minimum, I think technorealism has exposed the silliness of the idea that if you're not an out-and-out booster of technology, then you've got to be some kind of ignoramus crusading against all machines. It's created more space for technology criticism as a valid enterprise alongside music criticism, literary criticism, and so on -- such that the tech critic is not automatically perceived as being against technology.

The initial technorealism principles that were drawn up by David Shenk, Steven Johnson, myself, and nine other technology writers (see www.technorealism.org) were simply meant to open up a dialogue about how our culture thinks about technology. Your question suggests that these principles were "self-evident" -- to you and a few know-it-all cyber guys. And yet your question misidentifies our concerns as "classic libertarian concerns," when in fact one of our major targets was libertarian extremism. Anyway, our target audience was not the digerati, but the much, much larger group of thoughtful folks who care about how the rise of the Internet is affecting their lives on a day-to-day basis. And we were very heartened to see thousands of these people endorsing our effort, along with tech luminaries like Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation; Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community; Richard Sclove of the Loka Institute; and Kevin Kelly, executive editor of Wired. Since then, I think we've all continued -- in our own ways, in our own projects -- to articulate aspects of technorealism, which was the plan all along. My book The Control Revolution, not surprisingly, is one of these efforts.

MD: Although you neatly skewer some of the sacred truths of cyberpunditry, you embrace the Silicon Valley article of faith that "new technology is allowing individuals to take power from large institutions such as government, corporations, and the media." Which begs the question: Which individuals? The Control Revolution seems to address those well-rewarded by the digital revolution -- the typical Wired reader who has the luxury of worrying about the government's stance on e-mail encryption or ferreting out the falsehoods in a Time story on cyberporn. Outside the charmed circle of the digital elite, however, the notion that we're witnessing a power shift would seem counterintuitive to the increasingly anxious lower classes. I would argue that those whose concerns are a little closer to the ground -- the debt-saddled lower-middle class, downsized blue-collar laborers, and the working poor -- are haunted by feelings of powerlessness, not empowerment.

Ironically, as economists like Paul Krugman have argued, it's the post-industrial revolution, driven by the very information technology you're so sanguine about, that's exacerbating income inequality. Doesn't the bigger picture of the economic and social landscape belie your vision of personal power and social progress made possible by interactive, networked technologies?

AS: Let me start by saying this: I certainly don't agree with the New Economy gurus who say that advances in technology are going to erase poverty and income inequality. At the outset of my book, I define the control revolution as "the potentially monumental shift in control from institutions to individuals made possible by new technology such as the Internet." I also define this revolution as encompassing "the unexpected, and not always desirable, ways in which such change could reshape our lives."

I do believe the Net allows users to take charge of information, experience, and resources in some unprecedented ways. They can gain more control over what they read and learn, whom they interact with, and even how they participate in commerce and politics. Does this mean that individual empowerment is extending to everyone in the world, or even the U.S., right now? Of course not. And it certainly doesn't mean that the Net is going to erase inequality and misery.

Still, if we want to understand the impact of the Net on society -- particularly on those who are using it now and who will be using it shortly -- the relationship of the individual to various institutions is a good place to start, because there really is something interesting happening here. Whether we're talking about day trading, the rise of MP3 music download sites, or the use of e-mail by dissidents abroad, lots of average folks -- and some truly disenfranchised people -- are using the Net to shake up existing power relations.

Now, as the definition I cited above suggests, a good chunk of my book is about how all this new individual empowerment could go awry -- how, as I put it at one point, "the control revolution's shift of power could benefit some individuals more than others -- or even some individuals at the expense of others." The growing income inequality you cite is an excellent example. And there are many others which I discuss, including the abandonment of democratic and societal values. What we have to do is learn to shoulder the responsibilities that accompany the new individual control.

MD: I was heartened by your emphasis on using the Net "as a vehicle not just for occasional escapism, but to enhance local engagement online and off." Even so, doesn't your emphasis on local community neglect the larger potential of the Net as an engine of transnational activism in the age of globalization? Since you are, after all, a contributing editor to The Nation, I kept listening for echoes of "Workers of the world, unite!" What role can the Net play in, say, forging alliances between Third-World sweatshop workers and the downsized American laborers they've replaced?

AS: Well, I must confess: I'm no expert in "transnational labor activism" (wonder if I'll lose my spot on the Nation masthead!). But I certainly applaud the use of the Internet by activists, domestically and internationally. In fact, online activism is one of the main themes that runs throughout The Control Revolution. The book opens with an anecdote about the use of new media by democracy activists in Moscow and Belgrade, and goes on to discuss Internet use in Burma, China, Singapore, the Middle East, and Europe. I also discuss how the Net is being employed by human-rights activists, free-speech crusaders, and advocates of the disabled, among others.

The Control Revolution does call for a stronger emphasis on localism and the use of the Net as a tool for community development and engagement. But my broader message is one of balance between global and local activism. I don't recommend that people "think globally" but only "act locally." Rather, I suggest that we surf globally and network locally, which means: Act in a way that produces global benefits, but stay grounded in your local community.

MD: Doesn't your premonition, near the end of The Control Revolution, that "given the hugely disproportionate power of corporations, we simply may not be able to leverage our new abilities against the private sector" bode ill for the control revolution?

AS: The clash between corporate power and the nascent individual autonomy that the Net makes possible is a major part of the control revolution. I spend a lot of time in the book trying to show how powerful corporate actors, particularly Internet gatekeepers like Microsoft, are anxious about the new individual control. Despite their clever slogans celebrating personal empowerment -- "Where do you want to go today?" -- these companies often act instinctively in ways that deprive us of this freedom: narrowing content choices online, implementing their own speech codes, squashing competition, and gathering data about us without our consent.

MD: Speaking of content choice, you imagine, in your defense of middlemen in the age of "disintermediation," a scenario in which manufacturers of browser software are charged with the responsibility of childproofing cyberspace. "They might be required to give adults access to the full Internet," you write, while providing minors with "kid browsers" that would "give access to a variety of white-list sites online." But who would draw up these "white lists?" Wouldn't your middlemen find themselves in a hornet's-nest of controversy?

AS: Like almost every Internet-related idea, disintermediation has been oversold. One of my goals in The Control Revolution is to show the value of many traditional intermediaries -- be they political representatives, news professionals, commercial middlemen, or educators. In the context you mention -- protecting kids from sexual material while safeguarding the free-speech rights of adults -- I want to invite the reader to think about how commercial middlemen in society have traditionally helped us to strike this balance. (This is part of a broader approach to figuring out appropriate rules for the Net: generally, I think we do well by looking at the principles that underlie existing rules, rather than applying those rules mechanically or scrapping them altogether.) It's something we rarely think about, but the guy who sells adult magazines, for example, is in a way an agent of the public good. By law, he's required to ask a young-looking purchaser for ID that will establish majority age -- even though the seller didn't create the content that he's selling. If the purchaser is a kid, then he or she gets steered toward kid-appropriate content. The same happens in other societal contexts: at movie theaters, in libraries, and so on.

In the online context, politicians have presumed that there's no intermediary to do this steering, and so they've threatened individuals with prison sentences and big fines if they allow kids to get access to smut. What a drag for the Internet user! Such a drag, the courts have said, that it's an unconstitutional burden on free speech.

Enter the (potentially) benevolent intermediary: the browser manufacturer, which could voluntarily create different age-appropriate "kid browsers" that parents could install on their computers. The question remains, though, what content a child would be able to see with a kid browser. In The Control Revolution, I mention that white lists of appropriate content for minors have traditionally been drawn up by libraries and other civic-minded groups. My preference in the digital arena would be to have as many white lists available as possible and to let parents choose which they think are right for their kids.

MD: On a more philosophical level, your Jeffersonian faith in rationalism seems somehow out of step with the turbulence of the very chaos culture you've mapped. Any thoughts on this seeming contradiction?

AS: I believe in a mix of bottom-up and top-down solutions to social problems. Sometimes "self-ordering" works. More often than not, though, I think we need well-ordered collective action -- whether through traditional government or not -- to preserve democratic values and civil liberties. In fact, even the positive "chaos" that many libertarians celebrate often needs to be protected by top-down safeguards that prevent any actor, public or private, from imposing an unhealthy regime of order.

Again, I'm calling for balance: between order and chaos, individual empowerment and delegation to trusted intermediaries, personal interest and commitment to the public good. Only if we strive to achieve these equilibria will the Internet's revolution in power and control come out right.

Join the conversation in Post & Riposte.

More on Technology and Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Mark Dery is a cultural critic. He wrote Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century and edited Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. His collection of essays, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink, was published by Grove Press in February.

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