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A spider's web

January 08, 2008

The following is an excerpt from "A Spider's Web," the tenth chapter of my new book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google. More excerpts can be found at the book site.

Most of the major advances in computing and networking, from the invention of the punch-card tabulator in the 1880s 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 reflected 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 his seminal 1960 paper “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” described as a system integrating man and machine into a single, programmable unit.

But if computer systems played a major role in helping businesses and governments reestablish central control over workers and citizens after the upheaval 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 dilute and 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 James R. Beniger has written, “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 posed a sudden and unexpected threat to centralized power. It initiated a 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 and its dominant producer, IBM. 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 seized 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 Paul Ceruzzi, the computer historian.

The breakdown of control proved fleeting. The client-server system, which tied 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 allowed companies to monitor, structure, and guide the work of employees more tightly than ever. “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, touched off a similar control crisis. Although the construction of the Internet was spearheaded by the Department of Defense, a paragon of centralized power, it was designed, paradoxically, to be a highly dispersed, loosely organized network. Since the overriding goal was to build as reliable 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 1996 manifesto "A 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 others have made is to assume that the Net’s decentralized structure is necessarily resistant to social and political control. They’ve 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 disparate pages of the World Wide Web turn into the unified and programmable database of the World Wide Computer, moreover, a powerful new kind of control becomes possible. Programming, after all, is nothing if not 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 those wielding control more difficult to discern.

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