European Affairs

The Control Revolution: How the Internet is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know     Print Email
Maria Papathanassiou

By Andrew L. Shapiro
PublicAffairs (Perseus Books Group). 1999. 286 pp.

Reviewed by Maria Papathanassiou

The impact of new technology, and the Internet in particular, on society, business and government is indisputable and has been widely addressed. Where the information super highway is taking us is uncertain - there are fears and great expectations for this journey. But one thing is sure: It is changing almost every aspect of our lives, the way we work, play, learn, shop, communicate, and interact locally and globally.


Perhaps even more importantly, argues the author of this interesting and readable book, the Internet is "altering who is in control of information, experiences and resources." Andrew Shapiro offers a view of the "control revolution" that is subtly taking place. He sets out its different stages and concludes with ideas on how to respond to technology's impact on society.

The Net is allowing individuals to choose the news, entertainment, products, people, ideas they are exposed to, independently of government, corporations or the media. Individuals can now control the most important aspects of their lives. However, this freedom of choice presents many challenges, including "cyberporn and censorship, customized news delivery, electronic commerce, privacy, and the role of interactive technology in struggles against political tyranny."

As in any revolution, there is a resistance from the institutions which seek to hold on to the power they once wielded. Some governments are restricting access to certain content and technologies, and corporations are manipulating our information choices, while pretending they are giving us more freedom. Although it may not be immediately obvious, these powerful entities are making every effort to retain control.

The author warns the personal control that the Net makes possible can also be taken too far, with potentially dangerous consequences. By personalizing and filtering information, we are "narrowing our horizons" and missing out on other important events or ideas. We can become isolated in our own predefined Net world. In addition, disintermediation, that is cutting out the middlemen in commerce, news, and politics, may not necessarily be a good thing.

Mr. Shapiro explains that "[N]o form of disintermediation is more starkly apparent than the removal of layers of news middlemen that the Net allows..." The integrity and accuracy of information is in question when it comes from sources that do not have editors, fact-checkers, or reputations at stake. Therefore, the responsibility falls on the individual to judge the accuracy of the information he receives.

What is to be done? A balance must be reached, says Shapiro, where we can all reap the benefits of this new control without carrying it to excess. In this new digital age, we will preserve democracy, truth, and individual well-being if we have "a renewed sense of personal responsibility and commitment to our communities, as well as a fresh approach to governance that takes into account the shifting of control from institutions to individuals."

Whether we realize it or not, the control revolution is one in which we are all participating, every time we log onto the Net. Mr. Shapiro presents the reader with a thoughtful, clear analysis of the issues and controversies arising out of this change of control.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number I, Issue number I in the Winter of 2000.