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Too Much of a Good Thing?

The Control Revolution: How the Internet Is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know
September 1, 1999

If a media sage like Marshall McLuhan had come along in 1952, six years into the television era, to warn Americans how TV would affect family life, cultural values and the political process, they might have thought twice about abandoning this powerful medium to commercial interests. Today the Internet revolution is six years old, having gotten under way in earnest when the federal government lifted restrictions against the commercial use of the network in 1993. Andrew Shapiro’s The Control Revolution, which takes a sober look at the social and political upheavals already visible as we leap into the wired world, may help prevent history from repeating itself.

The first few chapters catalog the Net’s benefits. It provides a wealth of information options, makes it easy to filter and personalize the news we receive, eliminates costly middlemen from many commercial transactions, creates “the potential for everyone to be a publisher” and fosters an electronic direct democracy that can guide, and sometimes rein in, representative government.

Like television, though, the Net can be too much of a good thing, and Shapiro’s unbiased exploration of this fact is what separates his work from the panoply of airport-bookstore hard-covers hyping get-rich-quick schemes in cyberspace. For one thing, software that filters the information we receive according to our pre-established tastes could yield a more fragmented society, in which we can track the values of our mutual funds by the minute but are rarely exposed to diverse viewpoints on issues affecting the commonweal. “What we might unwittingly bring about,” Shapiro writes, “is nothing less than the privatization of experience.”

“Push-button politics” represents the opposite danger. Increasingly, politicians feel beholden to instant opinion polls enabled by electronic media, and special-interest groups exploit the Internet to influence legislative and judicial proceedings. “If we can use technology to express our governmental preferences
directly, why do we need legislators and bureaucrats at all?” Shapiro taunts. The obvious answer: The Founding Fathers intentionally put matters of law and policy into the hands of professional leaders, freeing the rest of us from the burden of deliberating on critical issues. “How could we possibly hope to master, over
the course of a few evenings or a weekend, the history and details of a thousandpage budget bill?” writes
Shapiro. “Why, frankly, would we want to?”

A thoughtful concluding section, “Balance,” explores how to “make the [Internet] revolution turn out right.” Shapiro suggests that isolationism, for example, could be combated by creating a kind of electronic Hyde Park where lowvisibility community groups, activists and artists would be able to “confront their fellow citizens” and restore a sense of unpredictability to online life. This appealing idea, and many more, make The Control Revolution a must-read for anyone interested in computers and culture.

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