Chaos and control: the story of the web

As societies grow more complex, so too do their systems of control. At best, these systems protect personal freedom, by shielding individuals from the disruptive and sometimes violent forces of social and economic chaos. But they can also have the opposite effect. They can be used to constrain and manipulate people for the commercial or political benefit of those who own, manage, or otherwise wield power over the systems. The story of the Internet is largely a story of control — its establishment, overthrow, reestablishment, and abuse. Here’s an excerpt from my book The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, published ten years ago, that traces the dynamics of control through the history of data processing, from the punch-card tabulator to the social network. I think the story helps illuminate the current, troubled state of digital media, where, oddly enough, the forces of chaos and control now exist in symbiosis.

All living systems, from amoebas to nation-states, sustain themselves through the processing of matter, energy, and information. They take in materials from their surroundings, and they use energy to transform those materials into various useful substances, discarding the waste. This continuous turning of inputs into outputs is controlled through the collection, interpretation, and manipulation of information. The process of control itself has two thrusts. It involves measurement — the comparison of the current state of a system to its desired state. And it involves two-way communication — the transmission of instructions and the collection of feedback on results. The processing of information for the purpose of control may result in the release of a hormone into the bloodstream, the expansion of a factory’s production capacity, or the launch of a missile from a warship, but it works in essentially the same way in any living system.

When in the 1880s Herman Hollerith created the punch-card tabulator, an analogue prototype of the mainframe computer, he wasn’t just pursuing his native curiosity as an engineer and an inventor. He was responding to an imbalance between, on the one hand, the technologies for processing matter and energy and, on the other, the technologies for processing information. He was trying to help resolve what James R. Beniger, in The Control Revolution, calls a “crisis of control,” a crisis that was threatening to undermine the stability of markets and bring economic and technological progress to a halt.

Throughout the first two centuries of the Industrial Revolution, the processing of matter and energy had advanced far more rapidly than the processing of information. The steam engine, used to power ships and trains and industrial machines, allowed factories, transportation carriers, retailers, and other businesses to expand their operations and their markets far beyond what was possible when production and distribution were restricted by the limitations of muscle power. Business owners, who had previously been able to observe their operations in their entirety and control them directly, now had to rely on information from many different sources to manage their companies. But they found that they lacked the means to collect and analyze the information fast enough to make timely decisions. Measurement and communication both began to break down, hamstringing management and impeding the further growth of businesses. As the sociologist Emile Durkheim observed in 1893, “The producer can no longer embrace the market in a glance, nor even in thought. He can no longer see limits, since it is, so to speak, limitless. Accordingly production becomes unbridled and unregulated.” Government officials found themselves in a similar predicament, unable to assemble and analyze the information required to regulate commerce. The processing of materials and energy had progressed so rapidly that it had gone, quite literally, out of control.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, a series of technological advances in information processing helped administrators, in both business and government, begin to re-impose control over commerce and society, bringing order to chaos and opening the way for even larger organizations. The construction of the telegraph system, begun by Samuel F.B. Morse in 1845, allowed information to be communicated instantaneously across great distances. The establishment of time zones in 1883 allowed for more precise measurement of the flows of goods. The most important of the new control technologies, however, was bureaucracy — the organization of people into hierarchical information-processing systems. Bureaucracies had, of course, been around as long as civilization itself, but, as Beniger writes, “bureaucratic administration did not begin to achieve anything approximating its modern form until the late Industrial Revolution.” Just as the division of labor in factories provided for the more efficient processing of matter, so the division of labor in government and business offices allowed for the more efficient processing of information.

But bureaucrats alone could not keep up with the flood of data that needed to be processed — the measurement and communication requirements went beyond the capacities of even large groups of human beings. Just like their counterparts on factory floors, information workers needed new tools to do their jobs. That requirement became embarrassingly obvious inside the U.S. Census Bureau at the end of the century. During the 1870s, the federal government, struggling to administer a country and an economy that were growing rapidly in size and complexity, had demanded that the Bureau greatly expand the scope of its data collection, particularly in the areas of business and transport. The 1870 the census had spanned just five subjects; the 1880 round was expanded to cover 215.

The new census turned into a disaster for the government. Even though many professional managers and clerks had been hired by the Bureau, the volume of data overwhelmed their ability to process it. By 1887, the agency found itself in the uncomfortable position of having to begin preparations for the next census even as it was still laboring to tabulate the results of the last one. It was in that context that Hollerith, who had worked on the 1880 census, rushed to invent his information-processing machine. He judged, correctly, that it would prove invaluable not only to the Census Bureau but to large companies across the nation.

The arrival of Hollerith’s tabulator was a seminal event in a new revolution — a “Control Revolution,” as Beniger terms it — that followed and was made necessary and inevitable by the Industrial Revolution. Through the Control Revolution, the technologies for processing information finally caught up with the technologies for processing matter and energy, bringing the living system of society back into equilibrium. The entire history of automated data processing, from Hollerith’s punch-card system through the digital computer and on to the modern computer network, is best understood as part of that ongoing process of reestablishing and maintaining control. “Microprocessor and computer technologies, contrary to currently fashionable opinion, are not new forces only recently unleashed upon an unprepared society,” writes Beniger, “but merely the latest installment in the continuing development of the Control Revolution.”

It should come as no surprise, then, that most of the major advances in computing and networking, from Hollerith’s time to the present, have been spurred not by a desire to liberate the masses but by a need for greater control on the part of commercial and governmental bureaucrats, often ones associated with military operations and national defense. Indeed, the very structure of a bureaucracy is replicated in the functions of a computer. A computer gathers information through its input devices, records information as files in its memory, imposes formal rules and procedures on its users through its programs, and communicates information through its output devices. It is a tool for dispensing instructions, for gathering feedback on how well those instructions are carried out, and for measuring progress toward some specified goal. In using a computer, a person becomes part of the control mechanism. He turns into a component of what the Internet pioneer J. C. R. Licklider, in the seminal 1960 paper “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” described as a system integrating man and machine into a single, programmable unit.

But while computer systems played a major role in helping businesses and governments reestablish central control over workers and citizens in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, the other side of their nature — as tools for personal empowerment — has also helped shape modern society, particularly in recent years. By shifting power from institutions to individuals, information-processing machines can disturb control as well as reinforce it. Such disturbances tend to be short-lived, however. Institutions have proven adept at reestablishing control through the development of ever more powerful information technologies. As Beniger explains, “information processing and flows need themselves to be controlled, so that informational technologies continue to be applied at higher and higher levels of control.”

The arrival of the personal computer in the 1980s, for example, posed a sudden and unexpected threat to centralized power. It initiated a new, if much more limited, crisis of control. Pioneered by countercultural hackers and hobbyists, the PC was infused from the start with a libertarian ideology. As memorably portrayed in Apple Computer’s dramatic “1984” television advertisement, the personal computer was to be a weapon against central control, a tool for destroying the Big Brother-like hegemony of the corporate mainframe. Office workers began buying PCs with their own money, bringing them to their offices, and setting them up on their desks. Bypassing corporate systems altogether, PC-empowered employees gained personal control over the data and programs they used. They gained freedom, but in the process they weakened the ability of bureaucracies to monitor and steer their work. Business executives and the IT managers that served them viewed the flood of PCs into the workplace as “a Biblical plague,” in the words of computer historian Paul Ceruzzi.

The breakdown of control proved fleeting. The client-server system, which tied all the previously autonomous PCs together into a single network connected to a central store of corporate information and software, was the means by which the bureaucrats reasserted their control over information and its processing. Together with an expansion in the size and power of IT departments, client-server systems enabled companies to restrict access to data and to limit the use of software to a set of prescribed programs. Ironically, once they were networked into a corporate system, PCs actually enabled companies to monitor, structure, and guide the work of employees more tightly than was ever possible before. “Local networking took the ‘personal’ out of personal computing,” explains Ceruzzi. “PC users in the workplace accepted this Faustian bargain. The more computer-savvy among them resisted, but the majority of office workers hardly even noticed how much this represented a shift away from the forces that drove the invention of the personal computer in the first place. The ease with which this transition took place shows that those who believed in truly autonomous, personal computing were perhaps naïve.”

The popularization of the Internet, through the World Wide Web and its browser, brought another and very similar control crisis. Although the construction of the Internet was spearheaded by the Department of Defense, a paragon of centralized power, it was designed to be a highly dispersed, loosely organized network. Since the overriding goal was to build as robust a system as possible — one that could withstand the failure of any of its parts — it was given a radically decentralized structure. Every computer, or node, operates autonomously, and communications between computers don’t have to pass through any central clearinghouse. The Net’s “internal protocols,” as New York University professor Alexander Galloway writes, “are the enemy of bureaucracy, of rigid hierarchy, and of centralization.” If a corporate computer network was akin to a railroad, with tightly scheduled and monitored traffic, the Internet was more like the highway system, with largely free-flowing and unsupervised traffic.

At work and at home, people found they could use the Web to once again bypass established centers of control, whether corporate bureaucracies, government agencies, retailing empires, or media conglomerates. Seemingly uncontrolled and uncontrollable, the Web was routinely portrayed as a new frontier, a Rousseauian wilderness in which we, as autonomous agents, were free to redefine society on our own terms. “Governments of the Industrial World,” proclaimed John Perry Barlow in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, “you are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.” But, as with the arrival of the PC, it didn’t take long for governments, and corporations, to begin reasserting and even extending their dominion.

The error that Barlow and many other Internet enthusiasts made was to assume that the Net’s decentralized structure is necessarily resistant to social control. They turned a technical characteristic into a metaphor for personal freedom. But, as Galloway explains, the connection of previously untethered computers into a network governed by strict protocols has actually created “a new apparatus of control.” Indeed, he writes, “the founding principle of the Net is control, not freedom — control has existed from the beginning.” As the fragmented pages of the World Wide Web turn into centrally controlled and programmed social networks and cloud-computing operations, moreover, a powerful new kind of control becomes possible. What is programming, after all, but a method of control? Even though the Internet still has no center, technically speaking, control can now be wielded, through software code, from anywhere. What’s different, in comparison to the physical world, is that acts of control become harder to detect and wielders of control more difficult to discern.

One thought on “Chaos and control: the story of the web

  1. Anthony

    Fantastic and brief essay on how our use of technology emmayes the darker side of human natur. Sadley, no one can really be free from the anxieties and control unless they let go of the desire to define their own circumstances. This is a common principle in religion. There are many people in society who don’t reflect on that broader perspective, so we keep spiraling further into this self-fulfilling prophecy.

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