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

Author: Andrew L. Shapiro
Publisher: New York: Public Affairs, 1999
Review Published: January 2001

 REVIEW 1: Ravi Srinivas

In The Control Revolution, Andrew Shapiro explores the challenges posed by the Internet to the states, communities, and individuals and argues that we should not lose sight of some basic facts while we hail everything about the Internet. Shapiro tries to provide a balanced view cautioning against posing the issue as the case of state vs. market or individual vs. community, and believes that the new medium offers scope for us to immerse ourselves in our little worlds instead of broadening our perspective.

Shapiro argues that six ideas should guide us in responding to the Internet: rules and contexts; convenience and choice; power and delegation; order and chaos; individuals and community; and markets and government. It is always easy to opt for one instead of the other but the end result may not be as beneficial as it is expected. And as the Internet and convergence of technologies open up new possibilities, public policy has to be proactive, imaginative, and sensitive to the new demands.

In part one, he explains how this technology is empowering individuals across the globe and the ways in which this empowerment provides us the choices, which were available in a limited scale earlier. In an utopian perspective, cyberspace offers endless scope for personal growth and social development.

In the next part, the resistances to this autonomy are discussed. He shows how various institutions and organizations are trying to control and restrict the choices we have and how such control mechanisms, often unknown to ourselves, are offered as choices and easy options. He explores how the powers that be are trying to ensure that their power is not diminished, if not enhanced in this medium.

In the third part, the author points out the perils of excessive individualism in cyberspace. According to Shapiro, filtering of information by individuals can, when taken taken to extremes, create little self-centered worlds and more isolation. This is not a good development for free speech and community.

In the last part, the author contends that unless we strike a balance between self-interest and public interest, state and market, individual and community, the control revolution will not bring about the much desired benefits. According to Shapiro, "For our own sake, we need to see that living well in the digital age means more than just having complete dominion over life's decisions. Personal freedom requires knowing when to relinquish authority, either to chance or to the wisdom of others. Too much control will prevent us from seeing possibilities beyond our immediate desires. Too much order can stifle the restlessness of a truly open mind . . . Democracy may flourish in the era of individual control, but only if each of us makes the requisite sacrifices" (233).

The author has tried to map a large number of issues, ranging from privacy to cyberporn, and the book can be read as a good guide to these issues. While by and large his arguments are convincing, I find some of them, including children's browsers, problematic. I think that the author has not fully explored the case of communities using networks and informatics for empowerment. For example the International Development Research Center has funded many initiatives for using the Internet by communities in Africa. Social movements and NGOs are using cyberspace for mobilization, advocacy, and activism. I wish the author had dealt with this in detail. Some of the arguments are well written and are quite convincing. For example, the author illustrates how the modern day (or is it postmodern day?) Thomas Paine may be virtually shut off from the cyberspace. One does not need an authoritarian government or a repressive organization to ensure that Paine is not heard or his (or her) ideas go unnoticed. When we decide to cut off our channels of information in the name of choice and filter we knowingly or unknowingly eliminate the voices of Paines.

I agree with the author in many aspects but certain things are not clear to me. When the trust in corporations and governments is declining, how do we create institutions and mechanisms that are reliable and trustworthy? The excesses of extremes is well accepted but the right balance is an elusive one.

Can we control cyberporn without ever linking it to the violence, sex, and other assaults on the childrens' minds. A kid browser may eliminate access to porn sites but can we ask a child not to read about sex scandals appearing in newspapers? What I want to argue is that cyberspace is more closely linked to the meatspace than we assume. The other issue is how democratic are the institutions like media in giving space to all types of views. The muck that appears in cyberspace as newsreport is bad, but the press that ignores alternative perspectives or refuses to take a view that is not popular does not indicate a true and a vibrant democracy. In other words, we have very few ideal examples to emulate in cyberspace as we struggle to strike the balance or arrive at the golden mean. The other issue we need to be aware of is that the convergence of media is going to be a major challenge for traditional notions like authorship, intellectual property rights, and creative use of images. This convergence which will enable one to communicate anywhere anytime using digital devices will also dramatically change our idea of the Web or cyberspace, and as various interactive devices are used to build a seamless world, complex questions about individual decision making, autonomy, and responsibility will emerge. Most of the arguments put forth by the author will be useful in framing the responses. An interesting question is if a device connected to the Web "commits" a mistake, where does individual responsibility begin and where does it end?

Moreover, the book is oriented to an audience in North America, particularly the United States. As a result most of the examples, rules, and cases are based on what has happened in USA. For readers in, say, Africa, they may make sense in a different way and as the cultures of democracy, notions of individuality, and ideas of communities vary acrossdifferent countries, it will be interesting to examine his views and suggestions in different contexts. In other words, cyberspace, its impacts, and the challenges posed by it may be very different than what the author has written. In a different context, struggle for more information and transparency may be more important than tackling cyberporn or avoiding excessive individualism. Some readers may find that the book tries to cover too many things without going into an in-depth discussion of a single issue, say cybercommunities. That said, I think Shapiro has done a good job balancing between providing information, analyzing, and theorizing.

In sum, The Control Revolution can be used a good source book and a guide to understand the challenges of cyberspace to individuals and institutions.

Ravi Srinivas:
Ravi Srinivas writes on the impacts of biotech, science and technology issues, environment and development, and gender issues, and has contributed articles/reviews to Economic & Political Weekly, Biotechnology & Development Monitor, Science & Public Policy, Cybersociology, Politics & Life Sciences, and Environmental Politics. Currently, Ravi is researching on biodiversity and intellectual property rights for his Ph.D.  <ravisrinivas@rediffmail.com>

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