by David Gruber, Director of Public Involvement

This Advisor reviews two recent books that ask who will control the new information technology: big government business or the public?

Bedazzled (or perhaps bewildered) by the technology, Americans seem to be watching the information superhighway unfold with little scrutiny. Indeed, the advent of the system seems inevitable, given the onslaught of machinery and software, promises and possibilities. We are assured by Vice President Al Gore and a host of other “technogurus” that information is the future, and the computer is the best vehicle for getting there. To ignore the Information Age, they say, is to spurn progress and prosperity.

In spite of such assurances, however, many questions remain unanswered. Who determined that we all should be wired or so well-informed? What use will be made of the mountains of information now coming on line? Do people in fact want information from the new technology, or would they rather use their computers for other purposes? Who will decide what services we receive?

Two recent books challenge the premises of the Information Age and try to restore a human perspective to the computer. Neither denies the inevitability of the information superhighway; in fact, one welcomes it. But both question the motives of some of the highway’s ardent promoters and ask who likely will be the real beneficiaries of the communication revolution. Ultimately, they ask who will control the superhighway. Will cyberspace be ruled by commercial and political interests or by the people?

Merchants at Work

For Theodore Roszak, control is no longer an issue. It is firmly in the hands of big business, researchers, and the military, according to his recently updated book, The Cult of Information: A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High-Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking (2d ed., Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994). This triumvirate has spread the gospel of the Information Age chiefly to its own advantage, with potentially dire consequences.

Over the years, big computer manufacturers, such as IBM, Apple Computer, and Hewlett-Packard, have attempted to secure future sales by making cut-rate deals to universities and school systems. Schools have been receptive to computer technology, whether offered at bargain prices or not, Roszak reports. Between 1980 and the early 1990s the number of computers in schools rose from 50,000 to 2,400,000. The machines are viewed as teaching aids, and computer literacy generally is thought to be greatly important in preparing students for the high-tech job market.

According to Rozak, IBM computerized the business world after World War II, while business adapted for its purposes advances in automation spurred by research funded by the U.S. Defense Department; this practice continues. Clone makers and Apple Computer later seized significant territory in IBM’s domain and colonized new lands. Reasonably priced personal computers fueled the growth of the home office phenomenon, and easy-to-use software and games made the computer a center for home education and entertainment. Trade magazines routinely have sold the computer’s versatility; nobody, they say, should be without one.

Roszak believes that confidence in the computer stems from research and irresponsible speculation. Early computer experts envisioned a super computing machine that could process complex information, monitor its own systems, and thereby mimic the human mind: The field of artificial intelligence was born. Information theory played a strong supporting role in this speculation, says the author, by stripping from the word information any notion of the meaning and content of a statement and recasting it as a “quantitative measure of communicative exchanges.”

With its definition in flux, the word became susceptible to manipulation. By itself, “information is touched with a comfortably secure, noncommittal connotation. There is neither drama nor high purpose to it. It is bland to the core and . . . smacks of safe neutrality,” Roszak says. In the hands of Madison Avenue, however, it turns “from an interest into a want, from a want into a need. In the 1950s, information came to be identified with the secret of life. By the 1970s it had achieved an even more exalted status. It had become a commodity—and indeed, as we have seen, ‘the most valuable commodity in business, any business.’ ” Advances in technology eventually enabled student, secretary, mom, dad, and junior to receive this commodity in huge quantities on their desk tops.

Flawed Reasoning

According to Roszak, the idea that computers can, or someday will, think like humans is false and pernicious, especially when used as a sales tool. Equating thinking with information processing sells computer equipment and advances the reputation of artificial intelligence researchers, but it mischaracterizes the human mind, robbing it of its multifaceted capabilities and mystery. The mind creates ideas and “ideas create information, not the other way around,” claims the author. He goes on to say that the mind, “unlike any computer anyone has even imagined building, is gifted with the power of irrepressible self-transcendence.”

Yet the human mind is incapable, at present, of understanding itself fully. Rozak writes, “This inability of the mind to capture its own nature is precisely what makes it impossible to invent a machine that will be the mind’s equal, let alone its successor.”

Nevertheless, the computer model of thought pervades education, business, politics, and daily life, according to the author. To each setting it can bring a particular danger.

In the schools, the computer threatens to displace the nurturing teacher-student relationship, along with many teachers. It also threatens to teach children that mastery of the computer and its processes is the key to success, that a person is inadequate without such skills, and that the human mind is second-rate unless it can match the machine, which, in terms of data processing speed and power, it cannot.

In the workplace, reliance on the machine to get the job done has made skilled workers less skilled and transferred more power to management.

In policy-making, data glut has become the leading mode of governance. Politicians, government agencies, research institutions, and think tanks issue truckloads of studies that obfuscate issues. Pollsters do the same, reducing democratic debate on the issues to a numbers game.

In private life, privacy is at risk, with government and business data banks collecting massive amounts of personal information. In the wrong hands, these data banks become an extensive surveillance network.

In matters of war and peace, decisions about whether or not to wage war are based on computer simulations, with inadequately questioned assumptions and recommendations. Politicians are abdicating their responsibility for war to the machine.

Roszak’s acerbic indictment of big business, researchers, and the military, and their interlocking interests in promoting the Information Age for profit and hegemony, sounds like the counterculture critique of “the Establishment” during the 1960s. He gives that Establishment too little credit for placing what he admits is a useful technology in the hands of the masses, even while recognizing that only large entities have the financial and manufacturing wherewithal to do so. He also mischaracterizes the relationship between computer users and their machines. Most adults use machines for utilitarian ends, with little understanding of how they work; this tempers users’ wonderment over the computer’s “mind-like” capabilities.

Still, Roszak’s critique of the computer’s social effect is astute. The dangers he sees developing are imperceptible to most of the public. Roszak sees the computer as a vehicle by which the nation’s power structure appropriates what little autonomy citizens have left and gives them video games in return. He fears the computer will become like television, long accused of distracting the public from real issues with mindless entertainment and a narrow range of political commentary.

In addition, computer technology likely will remain the province of those who can afford it, which means many will be left out of the Information Age altogether. The citizen’s voice has been wrung out of the system. The citizen is better served, Roszak says, through the most democratic of institutions—the public library—open to all classes at no cost.

Electronic Liberty

For those who can afford it, electronic democracy breathes free, at least for the moment, on the Internet, according to Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1993). The Internet is a loose global computer network that links some 15 million computer users in 150 countries to myriad public research libraries, information services, talk forums, electronic bulletin boards, and electronic mail (e-mail) services. It has no formal structure and no manager; it is the product of its users, their imaginations, and their inventiveness.

The Internet was spawned by the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA). It is based on “packet switching” technology, which allows a message to be split into pieces that are sent off through different channels of the system and reassembled at any given point in the system where an operator needs the information. The military thus can protect information from capture and complete a communication even if part of the system were destroyed. Building on this technology and the advent of personal computer networks, researchers, students, and citizens have found their way onto the “Net” and begun to “congregate” in on-line communities of mutual interest. There they can do what no other medium allows them to do: talk to each other all at once, as if they were face to face.

People communicate on the Internet through the typewritten word. Since users cannot see each other, race, gender, nationality, handicaps, and other potential barriers to communication fall away, Rheingold says. Discussions are frank, often constructive, sometimes volatile, and always susceptible to disruption by those who would abuse the system. The life of any on-line community is as strong as the goodwill of its participants.

A number of theorists, researchers, and activists use the Internet to bring people together to improve their real-world communities. One is Dave Hughes, who fashions himself a computer cowboy, riding from town to town, turning residents on to the Net, and teaching them to address community needs by linking up with one another, their local governments, and other resources. Another is Richiro Tomino, mayor of Zushi, Japan, who developed a computer network to increase citizen participation in local government. “The citizens here are trying to prove that they can decide their own fate by themselves,” Rheingold quotes Tomino as saying. “That’s what the United States taught us years ago. Your military occupation policy to democratize Japan was very successful.” Roszak’s ears would ring.

According to Rheingold, a number of colorful characters enliven the Internet. Richard Bartle helped develop the hobby—for some, the addiction—of playing Multi-User Dungeons (MUD). This is a game in which participants create imaginary worlds in cyberspace, adopt alternative identities, accumulate wisdom and power if possible, and risk on-line death. One need not join MUD to become hooked on the Net, however. Blair Newman, for example, a one-man brainstorm of ideas for applying computer technology, transferred his addiction from cocaine to his computer and eventually unplugged from virtual—and real—life.

The freedom of the Internet to empower people and spur their imagination (or, in rare cases, provide a highway for self-destruction) is in jeopardy, according to Rheingold. Today the Net is largely public, the product of U.S. tax dollars originally fed through the military. Commercial activity has been frowned on, but the federal government no longer can support the Net, and so privatization has begun. In 1993 the National Science Foundation, which funded a number of scholarly networks on the Internet, turned over some key administrative functions to private companies, including AT&T. News of major mergers among software, cable, and entertainment companies makes Rheingold doubly nervous. “Will the enormously lucrative home video and television markets finance the many-to-many communications infrastructure that educators and activists dream about? Or will it all be pay-per-view, with little or no room for community networks and virtual communities?”

Rheingold ends where Roszak began, casting gloom over computerdom. While they share much the same world view, Roszak, a professor of history at the University of California, Hayward, likely would find Rheingold a little naive. The professor sees more clearly the irony in the relationship between the powerful interests behind the Information Age and the computer utopians that Rheingold exemplifies. “Who would have predicted it? By way of IBM’s video terminals, AT&T’s phone lines, Pentagon space shots, and Westinghouse communications satellites, a worldwide movement of computer-literate rebels would arise to build the organic commonwealth.”

But that is what happened, as illustrated by the career of Stewart Brand, editor in the 1960s of the Whole Earth Catalog, the counterculture’s guide to alternative lifestyles. He and other utopians dreamed that the computer would “undergird a new Jeffersonian democracy based not upon equal distribution of land but upon equal access to information,” Roszak says. Brand made his own contribution in 1985 by creating the WELL, an electronic forum for on-line discussions about everything from parenting and politics to the Grateful Dead. It was designed as an information and idea exchange, not merely a tool for information acquisition. An early recruit was Rheingold, who also became editor of the Whole Earth Catalog’s successor, the Whole Earth Review. Rheingold carries the utopian torch in his book, but in Roszak’s eyes is bucking history. The creators and financiers of information technology already have set their goals. “The computer is theirmachine,” Roszak says, and no one should be surprised if they attempt to claim the Internet.

Control of the channels of computerized communication is a matter for Congress and the courts to decide. Roszak assumes that the public cannot win; Rheingold calls on the Internet’s minions to be ever vigilant and do greater good works, but does not exhort them to e-mail their congressional representatives. New legislation is on the drawing boards, however. One can only hope it is written with the public interest in mind, so that communication and information can help the mind reach greater heights, and democracy along with it.

Copyright © 1994