The Internet illusion

The Web pretends to broaden our worldview, but really, says "The Control Revolution," we use it to segregate ourselves.

Published November 9, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

There is an exuberance following the introduction of new technologies that often bears a suspicious similarity to narcotic delusion. The possibilities take hold; the popular imagination leaps into Coleridge-esque reveries.

The appearance of railroads, for instance, once prompted otherwise rational people to pronounce the imminent end of class stratification; as the rails annihilated the distances between rich and poor, a universal brotherhood of mankind would surely result. The arrival of the telephone similarly prompted others to declare the end of the city -- nearly a century before present-day suburbanites more soberly decided that telecommuting was a mixed blessing at best.

The Internet has hardly been an exception; the age of the Web has set high watermarks for just this kind of Panglossian fever. In his book, "The Control Revolution: How the Internet is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know," Andrew Shapiro continues this durable tradition, telling us the Internet brings with it a new era of universal empowerment. The formerly voiceless, choiceless masses, once trapped on the wrong side of the one-to-many broadcast equation (radio, TV) or confined within one-to-one networks (telephony), can now look forward to the exponentially greater personal control that the ubiquity of many-to-many Internet connections will certainly bring.

This new paradigm of infinite, instantaneous feedback will break the tyranny of those intermediaries, gatekeepers and arbiters who at present assert a hammer-lock on our culture. In fact, their grip already seems to be slipping. Are you tired of liberal journalists and industry-puppet news dailies? Just put on an eccentric hat and start your own news wire, say, Despairing of your stockbroker's lame tips and high commissions? Send him a pink slip and start trading online. Totalitarian government got you under the gun? FTP some HTML to your Web site and foment a revolution. The Internet is the great leveler, we are told, where everybody's voice is broadcast at equal volume, and all information sinks or swims purely on its own merit. Or so the theory goes.

Of course, this is just the kind of glittering, futurist rah-rah that's so fun and easy to puncture. It'll always be a sucker bet that people will eventually find a way to geld, subvert or otherwise devitalize any promising new connection technology -- usually by a swift application of the calculus of banality, that inevitable factoring down to the most common denominator. Television, after all, was supposed to be the greatest tool mankind had ever devised to "educate and uplift." Tell it to Ally McBeal.

Except that Shapiro shrewdly beats us to the punch. He's all too willing -- and rhetorically well-equipped -- to perform the deflation all on his own. Much of this book is devoted to the real and potential hazards that come from everybody being wired -- which is exactly why his voice is such a welcome addition to the seeming scores of other less circumspect cyber-philosophers. The Internet has touched off such a frenzy of blue-sky prognostication and commercial euphoria that relatively few people have taken the time to stand back and develop a clear-headed perspective on what it all might mean in the long run. Fortunately, Shapiro doesn't look away from the task.

He arrives at some interesting conclusions while pondering a tendency of the collective online consciousness toward what he likes to call "oversteer" (though I think "cyber-irony" works better). Oversteer is the way we handle our new power so carelessly as to incur unintended consequences. All this new potential for connection, for instance, may actually be the ultimate social insulator; as the Web allows us to ever-more-finely slice our online experience, we unwittingly cultivate a selective blindness for issues critical to the larger social matrix in which we Web dwellers are presumably embedded.

It seems that a certain lack of choice -- i.e. the inability to filter out unpleasant "content," like stories about AIDS and ethnic cleansing -- is necessary for the cohesion of a broader society. This is a proposition that would not readily occur to control-freaking netizens in happy pursuit of their fully individualized self-interests -- even if those interests might be the voluntary, ersatz "communities" of newsgroups, mailing lists and myopic, Slashdot-style Web sites. This presents, Shapiro seems to argue, the greatest present danger: In the end, all the Internet's capacity for feedback-driven synergisms won't matter -- because none of us will be nearly as well-informed as we were when we couldn't choose what stories appeared on the cover of our daily news. A constant diet of personal interest will leave us conspicuously unexposed to diverging points of view -- not a great way to maintain an open mind.

As we share less and less common experience, we'll veer off into a world of small-niche info-consumers. It'll be the ultimate balkanization, a Babel's tower of libertarian Linux nerds, "Star Trek" fans ("Voyager" vs. "Deep Space Nine" factions -- splitter!), Beanie Baby traders, veal protesters and hemp activists, to name a very few. Hardly the makings of an informed political or cultural dialogue. The Web offers us a fantastic new potential to seize control, but being a member of a society is the very definition of loss of control. The kind of control the computer provides is antithetical to community -- delivering at best a comforting, solipsistic facsimile, despite the strident assertions of e-communities to the contrary.

Unafraid to secure his role as Information Age party pooper, Shapiro goes on to imply that all this hyperlinked freedom of choice may be the ultimate straitjacket. Web dwellers, confronting a data smog of countless options and diminishing time (another unanticipated side effect of the wired life), might ultimately return to the same old aggregators -- though this time it'll be instead of the Wall Street Journal -- capitulating, once again, to the gatekeepers and intermediaries. When Microsoft asks, "Where would you like to go today?" the answer may well be, "Oh, you tell me -- I don't have the time (or the bandwidth) to decide." It would be the ultimate cyber-irony: a more cunning kind of subjugation that preserves the illusion of freedom and control.

It might turn out that we'll miss the old middlemen after all.

By Thomas Scoville

Thomas Scoville is either an Information Age savant or an ex-Silicon Valley programmer with a bad attitude. He is the author of the Silicon Valley Tarot.

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