Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Losing Control

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Nov 23, 1999

    Posted to MuniMall Newsletter, 24 November 1999.

    Andrew L. Shapiro's The Control Revolution looks at the shifting relations of power and control brought about by new technologies. Politicians, representatives, agents and any other 'brokers' would do well to review this work, both as an indicator of the social changes being brought about by the internet and as an insight into the evolving role and nature of intermediaries.

    Shapiro first describes the liberating aspects of the net, noting, for example, how opposition members in Yugoslavia were able to circumvent the government's tight controls on communications technology. Or, for example, how purchased stocks online, cutting his Uncle Max, a stockbroker, out of the process.

    The internet, he writes, allows individuals to escape the controlling influence of the middleman, allowing people to directly interact with government, news vendors, retail outlets and other producers. Additionally, the internet allows almost anyone to become a producer; an amateur like Matt Drudge can produce a newswire out of his living room, for example, or a musician can distribute his own music.

    In politics, the internet has already led to a call for decentralization and for more direct control of the decision-making process. It has led to the rise of concepts like direct democracy, in which each citizen votes on issues before parliament or City Council, and to a reduction in the role and power of elected officials.

    The second part of the book describes how established powers are resisting this newly found freedom. Shapiro outlines the U.S. government's to limit indecent material on the web in its now infamous Communications Decency Act, struck down by the Supreme Court in 1997.

    These attempts to limit the internet continue. The export of certain technologies, such as 128 bit encryption, was prohibited. Strong encryption meant that individuals could sent information which the government could never decode, allowing terrorists and child pornographers free reign.

    Corporations, as well, are responding to the decentralization of information and control by lobbying for increased copyright provisions, by amassing and consolidating content resources, and by attempting to limit technological choices. The most celebrated case of this is the recent antitrust action against Microsoft, in which the software company is accused of using its dominant position in the marketplace to stifle competition in the internet browser market.

    Everywhere we see attempts to control decentralization as intermediaries employ technological, political and legal mechanisms to retain their hold on the transfer of information, goods and power. Online brokers should be liable for service outages or unhelpful information, they argue. Online stores should pay local sales taxes and be penalized for sending harmful materials to children. Star Trek websites should be forced to shut down. In each case we see an established authority attempting to rein in the unfettered bounds of online interactions.

    Shapiro notes that such tactics are likely to fail, that governments, corporations and other intermediaries attempting to impose controls over communications and transactions are unlikely to prevail against the individual's desire to steer his own destiny.

    But in that victory there is another risk, he cautions, and in the third part of The Control Revolution he argues that individual freedom and control can be taken too far, than an unfettered capacity of self-determination can lead to undesirable social consequences.

    Consider, for example, our desire not to be exposed to information that we find disturbing or unsettling. When we are confronted with unpleasant experiences, we experience cognitive dissonance and a desire to restore balance in our lives. Were we able to control completely what we read and see, we would never be exposed to unsettling points of view. We would retire into an intellectual rut, unwilling to see and unable to grasp alternative points of view.

    The freedom of speech we enjoy, argues Shapiro, includes at least to some extent the ability to be heard. It embodies the ability of the pamphleteer or the agitator to interrupt our day, if only for a moment. Encountering such a person on the sidewalk, we may lower our heads and walk briskly by, but for one moment, this person entered our consciousness.

    On the internet, we have no such freedom. Sure, we can create a web page, but if nobody searches for it, and if its contents are not found in our comfortable online communities, then who is going to read it? If we have an argument with a store, we can picket the front door, but if we have an argument with an online store, we cannot picket its website.

    Moreover, too much control, argues Shapiro, leads to poor decisions. Not only does the internet enable the capacity to invest online, for example, it enables one to do so without the advice and intervention of an expert in stocks and bonds. One can make a fortune investing online, but one may lose a fortune just as quickly.

    In the arena of online politics, push-button revolutions may appear to be a popular alternative to politicians, but may as well lead to rash and poorly conceived policies and practices. Should people be allowed to vote on a 1500 page budget document without having read it? Should people be able to determine the guilt or innocence of a person on trial by reading only a short summary of the trial?

    There is, argues Shapiro, an argument to be made for the "friction" factor in society, an argument to be made by those forces that inform and counsel, which restrict and regulate. Quoting American judge Learned Hand, "A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few."

    Thus, recommends Shapiro in the fourth section of his book, a sense of balance is required. We need to enable individuals to take advantage of the newly liberating powers of online technology. We need to limit unwarranted intrusions or limitations on that power. But we must then also prevent individual freedoms from acting to the detriment of society as a whole, or as Shapiro puts it, "to prevent oversteer".

    The primary role of government, argues Shapiro, will be to ensure that individuals actually enjoy the freedoms and choice the new technology offers. Operating system vendors should be forced to enable unfettered and equal access to all parts of the internet, for example. Alternative forums, such as a public commons or 'PublicNet' should be built and supported.

    Government must also refrain from unwarranted intrusions on individual freedoms. Where legislation is necessary, as for example in the trafficking of child pornography, non-intrusive solutions, such as filtering software, should be employed. Personal privacy needs to be balanced with the needs of the state, and there must be a general recognition that the power of the state will recede as new technology empowers citizens.

    But the individual must not be able to withdraw from intrusion completely, he argues. In education especially - where there is a temptation by many parents to shelter their children from unwelcome points of view - there should be breadth of content and opinions. Where individuals express choice - such as by voting in an online election - they should be required to review arguments and information. And, argues Shapiro, an element of randomness should be built into internet technologies, to enable the possibility of accidental - and sometimes disturbing - discoveries.

    Shapiro has accurately summarized the liberating effects of the net and has neatly identified those individuals and agencies who will see a decline in their power and influence in the coming years. And not only does he see these changes as inevitable and necessary, he sees them as desirable and positive.

    The influence of people and associations who by policy or by fiat act on behalf of other individuals will wane as new technologies make direct communication and interaction possible. Why should an employer negotiate with a labour leader when questions in contract negotiations can be put directly to an online vote? Why pay a politician to mull rezoning bylaws when the neighbours can opt for themselves whether they want a new gas station on the corner?

    But as the representative function declines, the need for informed advice and information increases. Politicians, agents and representatives, more and more, will find themselves in the role of providing the information and resources people need in order to make informed decisions. The union leader may not speak on behalf of the members, but he will be in a position to help the members understand the implications of the new contract. The council member may not dictate zoning bylaws, but she will be able to advise residents of the impact on taxes, traffic and property values.

    People who are today in a position to control the flow of information will find their position shifting to one where it is their mandate to enable the flow of information, to act as alternative voices, to foster many opinions and many beliefs. While their power may wane as the voice of authority - and it will wane even if they maintain control, as people will find other avenues - their power will increase as the voice of wisdom and experience. Knowledge, not control, is the new currency of government and power in an online environment.

    Nowhere is this more evident than in media. Newspapers had power not so much because of the information they contained but because they were the sole providers of that information. Editors could and did exercise political influence by determining which stories ran when and how. But as more and more alternative news sources emerge, the power owned by a newspaper will not rest in its editorial control, but in the wisdom, insight and analysis it offers.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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