Cover image for The control revolution : how the Internet is putting individuals in charge and changing the world we know
The control revolution : how the Internet is putting individuals in charge and changing the world we know
Shapiro, Andrew L.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : PublicAffairs, [1999]

Physical Description:
xvi, 286 pages ; 22 cm
General Note:
"A Century Foundation book."
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HM851 .S53 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Andrew Shapiro explains how the Internet revolution has really affected our lives and identifies the pot holes in the road ahead. Dissidents around the world use the Internet to evade censorship and get their message out. Cyber-gossips send dispatches to thousands via email. Musicians bypass record companies and put their songs on the world wide web for fans to download directly. Day traders roil the stock market, buying securities online with the click of a mouse and then selling minutes later when the price jumps.

Author Notes

Andrew L. Shapiro, a writer and lawyer, is director of the Aspen Institute Internet Policy Project and the First Amendment Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. He has recently been a lecturer at Columbia Law School, a resident fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and a fellow at The Century Foundation. A contributing editor at The Nation, Shapiro has also written for publications including Wired, New York, The New Republic, and The New York Times. This is his second book.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Both of these books examine the profound effects the Internet has had on the conveyance of information and how it has revolutionized the way individuals and corporations communicate. Rosenoer examines the strategies of various companies in exploiting the new business frontier presented by the Internet, an "electronic Klondike." The authors profile 25 companies that have taken advantage of the choice, convenience, and customization available through Web sites to build or significantly grow their business. Also, they propose ways for other companies to do the same. Shapiro looks at the impact of the Internet on the individual, stressing the opportunity it has provided for more personal control over the types and sources of information received. But the Internet provides little content sifting or verification, and individual efforts to "narrowcast" information threaten the process of testing ideas against competing viewpoints. Shapiro also examines issues of privacy, security, and reliability of information as they relate to the Internet. --Vanessa Bush

Publisher's Weekly Review

Noting that the Internet is reshaping society and giving the individual unprecedented power, Shapiro, a Nation contributing editor, lawyer and director of the Aspen Institute Internet Policy Project, offers a sophisticated look at the Net and the ramifications of its current and potential uses. When the first graphical browsers came on the scene and made the Web accessible to anyone with a PC, optimists trumpeted the arrival of an era in which power would flow back to individuals after years of residing with corporations and institutions. Five years later, Shapiro sees that libertarian promise coming to fruition in many ways: day traders are bypassing stockbrokers; persons living under repressive regimes are using the Web to circumvent the Big Lie of state-controlled media; musicians and wordsmiths are self-publishing on the Web. Shapiro celebrates these freedoms, but his book is much more than a breathless booster's vision of digital utopia. Governments and corporations, he notes, are already striking back, and he documents some of the most egregious examples of censorship and attempts by companies to get a choke hold on Net technologies. And, most honestly, he addresses how too much digital autonomy might be harmful to civil society, in his critiques of "The Drudge Factor" (unaccountable pseudojournalism), "friction-free capitalism" (digital commerce freed from the restraints of taxation and regulation) and "push-button politics" (direct, electronic voting by citizens on matters currently decided by elected officials or appointed professionals). With scrupulous documentation and a knowledgeable but unpatronizing tone, Shapiro delivers a penetrating analysis of both the promise and peril of the digital future. (June) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One "We Have Revolution Now"            On August 19, 1992, I received a remarkable fax from a friend in Moscow. That morning, news alerts had informed the world that a coup had been launched by communist hard-liners against the reform government of President Mikhail Gorbachev, but media coverage was spotty and little else was known. Even President Bush and his staff were in the dark.     "We really aren't sure what's happening at this point," said one U.S. official. "We have no independent knowledge of what's going on," said another.     Phone lines between the USSR and the U.S. were reportedly down. But somehow my friend Oleg, whom I had met two years earlier when I visited the Soviet Union as a student, managed to get a message through to me in New York using the fax machine in the office where he worked as a translator. In frenzied desperation, he wrote: I don't know how long it will be possible for me to use this channel of sending information. Situation is changed every minute. Two hours ago all Soviet Radio and TV programs began to read official propaganda messages of State Committee of Extraordinary Situation, which was organized last night.... So, it is military coup d'etat. Some independent Moscow broadcasters were stopped working this morning. Very popular independent broadcasting "Echo of Moscow" was turned off at 7:55 A.M. after they told that tanks are near Moscow. You can't imagine what I do feel now. I am afraid of civil war.... If you need any information from me send me fax A.S.A.P. This is only thing that I can do now for my poor country.     I was working as an intern at a national weekly magazine at the time. We were, of course, hungry for information about the putsch. I quickly scribbled a reply, asking my friend a number of questions. Three hours later, there was another fax from Oleg: There are a lot of tanks in the city. I counted more than 40 in my district. They are going to Kremlin. Downtown is full of tanks and soldiers. I have seen more than three battalions near the American embassy. There are many guns and cannons in the center of Moscow. People here are shocked.... waiting for information about what's happened. All broadcasting and TV programs are still transmitting propaganda documents I wrote about before.... All mass media are under control now. It's terrible.     In a handwritten scrawl at the bottom of the fax was a postscript: "The clouds are gathering over the city. It'll be storm."     Over the next few days, a truly historic battle for freedom was waged in what we now call the former Soviet Union. But curiously, there were no more faxes from my friend. Only on August 26, a week after his initial message, were we able to reestablish contact. By that time, the world had learned that the pro-democracy forces had successfully put down the coup. A fax from Oleg explained his silence. Just hours after he had sent his second message, his international phone service had been cut off: "What could I do? So I spent two nights and one day near our `White House.' It was like a dream, bur Kafka dream.... In any case, today I live in free country. A lot of things are changed or going to be changed very soon. We have revolution now."     We have revolution now . Oleg was referring literally to the transition from Soviet communism to free-market democracy that was sweeping Eastern Europe--a series of events that signaled the end of the cold war and the rise of global capitalism. But there was another remarkable shift implied by the way in which he and I were communicating. Back in 1991, fax machines were still new enough that Oleg's ability to transmit instant, detailed reports of the Soviet Union's demise halfway across the world seemed itself to be revolutionary.     The newly minted independent media in the USSR had been neutralized by the old guard. In the West, journalists and heads of state alike were groping for the facts on the ground. Meanwhile, my humble twenty-one-year-old pal was able, for a time, to bypass official channels of communication to provide a firsthand account of a nation in tumultuous transition.     Oleg's ability to get information out of his country was actually only half the story. The revolution in Eastern Europe that took place between 1989 and 1991 owed much to the fact that new technology allowed dissidents to receive information--information that the ruling elites did not want them to have. This was a classic chapter in the ongoing historical relationship of technology to knowledge, and knowledge to power.     The highlights of this epic are familiar. In the wake of Gutenberg's fifteenth-century printing press, the availability of noncanonical religious tracts, most notably Luther's Ninety-five Theses, challenged and ultimately undermined the authority of the Roman Church. As printed works became available, individuals could for the first time begin to exercise real discretion over their information intake and their beliefs. As a sixteenth-century historian described it, "Each man became eager for knowledge, not without feeling a sense of amazement at his former blindness."     As printing methods improved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, books circulated more widely, and literacy and education blossomed. The scientific advances of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton became widely known. The Enlightenment philosophies of writers like Locke, Rousseau, and Paine found an audience--Paine's "Common Sense," for example, sold 120,000 copies in three months--and ultimately popular expression in the rise of the republic in Europe and America.     In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the advent of mass media--the rotary press, penny papers, photography, film, radio, television--helped to pull together increasingly large communities and to spur cohesive modern nation-states. In certain parts of the world, like the United States, constitutional safeguards led to the emergence of a vibrant free press. In areas like the Soviet bloc, however, mass media mostly meant an information monopoly for state propagandists. Industrious folks behind the iron curtain might have managed to procure some clandestine samizdat materials. But with their gulags and secret police, the autocrats still had the upper hand in the battle over the free flow of information.     During the late cold war years, though, as satellite, video, and microprocessors proliferated, it became increasingly difficult for dictators of the world to regulate knowledge. Oleg and I were a case in point. From the time we met in 1989, I had been faxing him clips from the Western press and peppering my messages with the latest news about uprisings in the communist satellite states. And this kind of information was flowing in to Oleg and others like him via other electronic media, as well. In the Baltics, television broadcasts from Northern Europe, including reruns of American programs like Dallas and Dynasty , seeped across the border. Video- and audiotapes with dissident messages circulated throughout Eastern Europe's underground. (In fact, when I visited the USSR in 1989, the most valued Western commodities were not Marlboro cigarettes or blue jeans, as conventional wisdom had it, but blank cassettes.) And in universities throughout the region, computer users were starting to keep in touch with colleagues around the globe using a growing computer network that would come to be known as the Internet.     The same uninhibited exchange was going on around the world. In China, the students of Tiananmen Square faxed pleas for help to the West and received faxes from supporters abroad giving them vital information and encouragement. In Central America, activists used shortwave radio to communicate with allies in the U.S. In short, technology was gradually giving individuals everywhere the ability to take control of information that was once parceled out exclusively by the state. Corrupt officials might have succeeded, for a time, in exercising their military might, but their efforts to hide the truth from their own people or the outside world were becoming futile. "A Whole New Technology"     I was reminded of this new reality a little more than five years after Oleg's faxes when I sat in front of my home computer listening to programming from a Belgrade radio station that was being "broadcast" over the Internet. It was December 1996. The war in the former Yugoslavia had ebbed and Serbian democracy activists had won local elections, but the authoritarian ruler Slobodan Milosevic had nullified the vote. Anti-Milosevic protesters filled the streets of Serbia's main cities and were emboldened by an independent radio station, Radio B92, which regularly aired updates about the protests.     Recognizing the station's power, Milosevic forcibly shut it down on December 3. Since he already controlled Serbia's TV stations, Milosevic must have thought this would fully silence the opposition. But in no time, Radio B92 rerouted its programming to the Internet where it was available, in digitized form, to computer users in Serbia and around the world. News of the activists' feat immediately flooded the email boxes of government officials, humanitarian groups, journalists, and supporters. So successful were the Belgrade activists at getting their message out over the global network that, within two days, they had garnered enough international support to force Milosevic to let them back on the air.     "The irony is that the Government meant to silence us, but instead forced us to build on a whole new technology to stay alive," said Drazen Pantic of Radio B92. "The drive to close us down has given us a tool to vastly expand our audience." (The power of that tool was evident again in spring 1999 when Milosevic shut down the station to defy NATO, only to find it drawing a global audience on the Internet.)     The Radio B92 cybercasts continued the innovative political use of new media that had begun in Eastern Europe and China, but also represented an important advance. Though the Internet existed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was not yet widely used. The Serbian democrats were among the first activists to utilize the network in a way that tangibly and immediately affected global politics. By doing so, they amply demonstrated its unique strengths.     The Radio B92 activists showed, for example, how the Internet allows an individual to send a message--be it text, audio, video, or some combination--to hundreds or thousands of destinations as easily as to one, with no discernible increase in cost or time. Thus they could instantly and cheaply get their programming out to listeners around the world, along with text and pictures of the Belgrade street protests.     To experienced Internet users, this may seem old hat--but not when compared to other communications tools, even those that we consider fairly new.     Had Oleg been able to send his alerts to me by email, for example, the Soviet hard-liners probably would not have succeeded in silencing him. When they shut down international phone lines, they made his fax machine useless. But with the Internet he could have emailed his bulletins to an endless number of individuals in the USSR with confidence that someone would have had the means to forward them out of the country--by satellite or other advanced wireless technology. He could have been in immediate contact with an endless number of citizens around the Soviet Union and abroad, as the Belgrade activists were when they coordinated protests and international support in cities in Serbia and around the world. And, like them, he could have sent sound and images along with his written updates.     Just a few years after the popularization of the Internet, the Radio B92 incident made it clear that this simple combination of computers and moderns combines some of the best elements of all preexisting media. Organizers can, for example, merge the pinpoint accuracy of one-to-one technologies like the telephone with the broad reach of expensive media like television. They can use the Internet to create both a permanent archive, covering every detail of their struggle, and an instant alert network that will inform the world within seconds of late-breaking developments. Most important, they can create vibrant streams of conversation that are as free from restraint as any we know--streams that can, within hours, grow from a rivulet into an unstoppable rapid.     This is one of the true marvels of interactive technology: the instant ability to spread your unexpurgated words--a piece of yourself, really--to the four corners of the earth. Even in the rush of millennial tidings, the singularity of this achievement cannot be overlooked. It is a privilege that would stir envy in the hearts of history's most powerful rulers and statesmen, not to mention fear. The Serbian democracy activists must have realized this, because they began to refer to their struggle against Milosevic as "the Internet revolution." A Fragile Reordering     If the phrase "Internet revolution" sounds familiar, that's because technology talk these days is suffused with references to revolution. Of course, we don't generally mean to conjure up images of tanks in the street or Che Guevara types. Rather, we speak of a communications revolution, an information revolution, a digital revolution. And the rebels in our midst are CEOs of huge telecommunications companies boldly "synergizing" their way into multimedia or young software entrepreneurs hoping to get lucky with "the next big thing." There is something undeniably convenient about these allusions to revolution. They are shorthand for a presumed common understanding of all that is happening because of the creeping ubiquity of new technology.     But as linguistic proxies, they are also a bit perplexing. What do they mean in relation to the other things we have called revolutionary--say, the American or French Revolution, the scientific revolution or the industrial revolution? Or, for that matter, the upheaval in Eastern Europe a mere decade ago?     Each of those revolutions signified a distinct break with the past, the rise of a new order. Is that what we are experiencing because of the Internet and other new media? Certainly, we are communicating in ways that are different from before. And we have a whole new way to access and manipulate information. These are, no doubt, major developments. But in an age of unchecked hyperbole, it makes sense to ask: Are these changes really revolutionary ? And if so, exactly what type of revolution are we experiencing?     To make sense of these questions, we need to probe deeper: How will the Internet affect our social lives, our jobs, and our perspective on the world? What will it do to our basic relationships with family and friends, with neighbors and far-flung fellow citizens, and with the powers that be in government and the corporate world? Will it enhance or diminish core democratic values like freedom, equality, community, and social responsibility?     Refocusing the inquiry this way requires us, I believe, to look past the terms we commonly bandy about to find a new description that captures more accurately what it is that is changing. Terms like communications revolution and information revolution actually don't go far enough in explaining the transition at hand. There is more at stake here than being able to send messages more quickly or having access to a supercharged digital library. That's just the immediate effect. It's like when a stone is thrown into a pond: the splash catches your eye first, but it's the endless ripples that have the broadest impact and are most interesting to observe.     In this case, there is a pattern to those undulations. What they suggest is a potentially momentous transfer of power from large institutions to individuals. 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.     To be sure, "individuals" and "institutions" are not monolithic entities. But these terms do capture something fundamental: the palpable sense of deciding for yourself as opposed to having some larger, impersonal them deciding for you. This includes choices about intake of news and other information, social interactions, education and work, political life and collective resources. It is a time of diminishing stature for many authority figures: legislators and other public officials, news professionals, commercial middlemen, educators. Hierarchies are coming undone. Gatekeepers are being bypassed. Power is devolving down to "end users."     The upshot of new technology, then, seems to be its ability to put individuals in charge. Yet what makes this upheaval so much more authentic than those revolutions described by Panglossian futurists is its volatility and lack of preordained outcome. Contrary to the claims of cyber-romantics, individual empowerment via technology is not inevitable. Rather, it faces predictable and unpredictable challenges. It will likely be defined by protracted struggle, a clash of values, and a fragile reordering of the social landscape that could come undone at any time. That is why the word "revolution" actually describes well the shift in control made possible by the Internet. Some institutional forces are resisting, and will continue to resist, giving up power to individuals. And there is a danger that some individuals will wield their new control carelessly, denying themselves and others its benefits.     Still, the resemblance to political revolution is, in important ways, only metaphorical. Computer nerds aside, there is no junta driving this process of change. In a sense, we are all its protagonists (whether or not we know it). The control revolution, in fact, has some of the texture of a subtle historical shift such as the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution--not in the sense that it will be centuries in the making, but because it may emerge undetected. At the same time, we will see that institutional resistance to this change may be just as inconspicuous.     Not every form of individual empowerment by technology, though, is a zero-sum game. In addition to assuming command of functions once managed by others, individuals are increasingly able to control aspects of life that previously were outside anyone's dominion. New media, we will see, allow us to manipulate and even conquer some of the limits of time and space. And outside the realm of communications, other innovations also are presenting us with remarkable new opportunities to shape our world.     "Individuals are acquiring more control over their lives, their minds and their bodies, even their genes," says New York Times writer John Tierney. Biotechnology allows us to know things about our physical and psychological makeup that once were unknowable, such as the likelihood of getting cancer or of having a predisposition toward violence. New developments in science increasingly will let us control our health and well-being, and our natural environment, in ways that we never could have before. From genetic screening to "the wholesale alteration of the human species and the birth of a commercially driven eugenics civilization," as author Jeremy Rifkin describes it, technological advances will allow individuals to make unprecedented decisions about their lives (and the lives of their offspring), decisions that will raise thorny issues of ethics, spirituality, and fairness.     Important as these and other technological developments are, I will focus in this book almost exclusively on communications technologies. Still, there is a lesson to learn from the coming biotech battles as we consider the control shift made possible by new media such as the Internet: No one doubts that decisions made by governments and corporations on issues of cloning, gene therapy, and the like, are political and highly charged. Similarly, few would deny that even individual decisions about biotech may be matters of both personal and public concern. Yet for some reason our assumption is the opposite when it comes to the design and development of communications tools, and the manner and environment in which we utilize them. We tend to see these as apolitical choices of significance only to narrow constituencies.     The truth, though, is that these decisions about communications technology may affect who we are socially and politically as much as biotechnology can alter who we are genetically and physically. To begin to understand this, we first have to become more familiar with the features of new communications technology. Only then will we start to appreciate what these features make possible and why they are at the heart of an unfolding battle for control. Copyright © 1999 Andrew L. Shapiro.. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Forewordp. ix
Introductionp. xiii
Part 1 Revolution
1 "We Have Revolution Now"p. 3
2 The Politics of Codep. 13
3 Gaining Controlp. 25
4 Liebling's Revenge: The Power of Interactivityp. 34
5 Masters of Our Own Domains: Personalization of Experiencep. 44
6 The Decline of Middlemen: Day Trading and "Electrified Voting"p. 53
Part 2 Resistance
7 An Anxious State: Controlling Speech, Secrets, and Creativityp. 63
8 Where Do You Want to Go Today?: Microsoft and the Illusion of Controlp. 84
Part 3 Oversteer
9 Narrowing Our Horizonsp. 105
10 A Fraying Netp. 115
11 Freedom from Speechp. 124
12 The Drudge Factorp. 133
13 Shopper's Heaven?p. 142
14 Push-button Politicsp. 150
15 Privacy for Salep. 158
Part 4 Balance
16 Mapping Principlesp. 169
17 Shattering Illusionsp. 180
18 In Defense of Middlemenp. 187
19 In Defense of Accidentsp. 197
20 Surf Globally, Network Locallyp. 208
21 The Tools of Democracyp. 217
Epilogue From Revolution to Resolutionp. 231
Notesp. 235
Bibliographyp. 270
Acknowledgmentsp. 277
Indexp. 279