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Mythinformation

Langdon Winner

Mythinformation (n.): The almost religious conviction that a widespread adoption of computers and communications systems, along with broad access to electronic information, will automatically produce a better world for humanity.

The specter of computer revolution is haunting modern society. Books, magazine articles, and news-media specials declare that this upheaval is underway, that nothing will escape unchanged. Like political revolutionists, advocates of computerization believe that a glorious transformation is sweeping the world and that they are its vanguard.

Of course, modern society has long since gotten used to "revolutions" in laundry detergents, underarm deodorants, floor waxes, and other consumer products. Exhausted in advertising slogans, the revolution image has lost much of its punch. Those who employ it to talk about computers and society, however, appear to make much more serious claims.

According to visionaries like Edward A. Feigenbaum and Pamela McCorduck (The Fifth Generation) or Murray Turoff and Starr Roxanne Hiltz (The Network Nation) industrial society, which depends on material production for its livelihood, is being supplanted by a society in which information services will enable people to satisfy their economic and social needs. As computation and communication technologies become less expensive and more convenient, all the people of the world, not just the wealthy, will use the wonderful services that information machines make available. Gradually, existing differences between rich and poor will evaporate.

Long lists of services are meant to suggest the coming utopia: interactive television, electronic funds transfer computer-aided instruction, customized news service, electronic magazines, electro- nic mail, computer teleconferencing, on-line stock and weather reports, computerized yellow pages, shopping via home computer, and so forth. In the words of James Martin, writing in Telematic Society: "The electronic revolution will not do away with work, but it does hold out some promises: most boring jobs can be done by machines; lengthy commuting can be avoided; the opportunities for personal creativity will be unlimited."

In this interpretation, the prospects for participatory democracy have never been brighter, offering all the democratic benefits of the ancient Greek city-state, the Israeli kibbutz, and the New England town meeting. J. C. R. Licklider, a computer scientist at MIT, writes hopefully in a 1980 article called "Computers and Government": "The political process would essentially be a giant teleconference, and a campaign would be a months-long series of communications among candidates, propagandists, commentators, political action groups, and voters. The information revolution is bringing with it a key that may open the door to a new era of involvement and participation."

Mythinformation in the High-tech Era

Taken as a whole, beliefs like these make up what I call mythinformation: the almost religious conviction that a widespread adoption of computers and communications systems, along with broad access to electronic information, will automatically produce a better world for humanity.

It is common for the advent of a new technology to provide occasion for flights of utopian fancy. During the last two centuries the factory system, railroads, the telephone, electricity, automobiles, airplanes, radio, television, and nuclear power have all figured prominently in the belief that a new and glorious age was about to begin. But even within the great tradition of optimistic technophilia, current dreams of a "computer age" stand out as exaggerated and unrealistic. Because they have such broad appeal, and because they overshadow other ways of looking at the matter, these notions deserve closer inspection.

As is generally true of myths, the dreams contain elements of truth. What were once industrial societies are being transformed into service economies, a trend that emerges as a greater share of material production shifts to the developing countries, where labor costs are low and business tax breaks are lucrative. However, this shift does not mean that future employment possibilities will flow largely from the microelectronics and information-services industries, even though some service industries do depend on highly sophisticated computer and communications systems.

A number of studies, including those of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, suggest that the vast majority of new jobs will be menial service positions paying relatively low wages. As robots and computer software absorb an increasing share of factory and office tasks, the "information society" will offer plenty of work forjanitors, hospital orderlies, and fast-food helpers.

The computer savants correctly notice that computerization alters relationships of social power and control; however, the most obvious beneficiaries of this change are large transnational business corporations. While their "global reach" does not arise solely from the application of information technologies, such organizations are uniquely situated to exploit the new electronic possibilities for greater efficiency, productivity, command, and control. Other notable beneficiaries will be public bureaucracies, intelligence agencies, and ever-expanding military organizations.

Ordinary people are, of course, strongly affected by these organizations and by the rapid spread of new electronic systems in banking, insurance, taxation, work, home entertainment, and the like. They are counted on to be eventual eager buyers of hardware, software, and communications services.

But where is any motion toward increased democratization and social equality, or the dawn of a cultural renaissance? Current empirical studies of computers and social change - such as those described in Computers and Politics by James Danzig - suggest an increase in power by those who already have a great deal of power, an enhanced centralization of control by those already in control, and an augmentation of wealth by the already wealthy. If there is to be a computer revolution, it will most likely have a distinctly conservative character.

Granted, such prominent trends could be altered. A society strongly rooted in computer and telecommunications systems could incorporate participatory democracy, decentralized control, and social equality. However, such progress would involve concerted efforts to remove the many difficult obstacles blocking those ends, and the writings of computer enthusiasts seldom propose such deliberate action. Instead, they suggest that the good society will be a natural spin-off from the proliferation of computing devices. They evidently assume no need to place limits upon concentrations of power in the information age.

There is nothing new in this assumption. Computer romanticism strongly resembles a common nineteenth- and twentieth-century faith that expects to generate freedom, democracy, and justice through simple material abundance. From that point of view, there is no need for serious inquiry into the appropriate design of new institutions for the distribution of rewards and burdens. In previous versions of this conviction, the abundant (and therefore democratic) world would be found in a limitless supply of houses and consumer goods. Now "access to information" has moved to the top of the list.

Probing the Key Assumptions

The political arguments of computer romantics draw upon four key assumptions: 1) people are bereft of information; 2) information is knowledge; 3) knowledge is power; and 4) increased access to information enhances democracy and equalizes social power.

1. Is it true that people face serious shortages of information? To read the literature on the computer revolution, one would suppose this to be a problem on a par with the energy crisis of the 1970s. The persuasiveness of this notion borrows from our sense that literacy, education, knowledge, well-informed minds, and the widespread availability of tools of inquiry are of unquestionable social value.

Alas, the idea is entirely faulty. It mistakes sheer supply of information for an educated ability to gain knowledge and act effectively. Even highly developed societies contain chronic inequalities in the distribution of education and intellectual skills. The US Army must reject many of the young men and women it recruits because they cannot read military manuals.

If the solution to problems of illiteracy and poor education were a question of information supply alone, then the best policy might be to increase the number of well-stocked libraries, especially in places where libraries do not presently exist. Of course, that would do little good unless people were sufficiently well educated to use those libraries. Computer enthusiasts, however, are not known for their support of public libraries and schools; they call for electronic information carried by networks. To look to those instruments first while ignoring everything history has taught us about how to educate and stimulate a human mind is grave foolishness.

2. What is the "information" so cherished as knowledge? It is not understanding, enlightenment, critical thought, timeless wisdom, or the content of a well-educated mind. Looking closely at the writings of computer enthusiasts, "information" means enormous quantities of data manipulated by various kinds of electronic media, used to facilitate the transactions of large, complex organizations. In this context, the sheer quantity of information presents a formidable challenge. Modern organizations continually face "overload", a flood of data that threatens to become unintelligible. Computers provide one way to confront that problem; speed conquers quantity.

The information most crucial to modern organizations is highly time-specific. Data on stock market prices, airline traffic, weather conditions, international economic indicators, military intelligence, and public opinion polls are useful for very short periods of time. Systems that gather, organize, analyze, and use electronic data must be closely tuned to the latest developments. Information is a perishable commodity.

But is it sensible to transfer this ideology, as many evidently wish, to all parts of human life? A recent Business Week article on home computers concluded: "Running a household is actually like running a small business. You have to worry about inventory control - of household supplies - and budgeting for school tuition, housekeepers' salaries, and all the rest." One begins to wonder how running a home was possible before microelectronics.

3. "As everybody knows, knowledge is power," wrote Dr. Feigenbaum. This attractive idea is highly misleading. Knowledge employed in particular circumstances may well help one act effectively - a citrus farmer's knowledge of frost conditions enables him to fight the harmful effects of cold snaps. But there is no automatic, positive link between knowledge and power, especially power in a social or political sense. At times, knowledge brings merely an enlightened impotence or paralysis. What conditions might enable ordinary folks to translate their knowledge into renewed power? It is a question computer enthusiasts, ought to explore.

4. An equally serious misconception among computer enthusiasts is the belief that democracy is largely a matter of distributing information. This assertion plays on the valid beliefs that a democratic public should be open-minded and well-informed, and that totalitarian societies are evil because they dictate what people can know and impose secrecy to restrict freedom. But democracy is not founded primarily upon the availability of information. It is distinguished from other political forms by the recognition that the people as a whole are capable of; and have the right to, self-government.

There are many reasons why relatively low levels of citizen participation prevail in some modern democracies, including the United States. Perhaps opportunities to serve in a public office or influence policy are too limited; in that case, broaden the opportunities. Or perhaps choices placed before citizens are so pallid that boredom is a valid response; then improve the quality of those choices. But it is not reasonable to assume that a universal grid of sophisticated information machines, in itself, would stimulate a renewed sense of political involvement and participation.

The role of television in modern politics suggests why this is so. Public participation in voting has steadily declined as television replaces the face-to-face politics of precincts and neighborhoods. The passive monitoring of electronic news makes citizens feel involved while releasing them from the desire to take an active part, and from any genuine political knowledge based on first-hand experience. The vitality of democratic politics depends on people's willingness to act together - to appear before each other in person, speak their minds, deliberate, and decide what they will do. This is considerably different from the model upheld as a breakthrough for democracy: logging onto one's computer, receiving the latest information, and sending back a digitized response. No computer enthusiasm is more poignant than the faith that the personal computer, as it becomes more sophisticated, cheaper, and more simple to use, will become a potent equalizer in society. Presumably, ordinary citizens equipped with microcomputers will counter the influence of large, computer-based organizations. This notion echoes the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century revolutionary belief that placing firearms in the hands of the people would overthrow entrenched authority. But the military defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 made clear that arming the people may not be enough. Using a personal computer makes one no more powerful vis-a-vis, say, the US National Security Agency than flying a hang glider establishes a person as a match for the US Air Force.

The Long-term Consequences

If the long-term consequences of computerization are anything like the ones commonly predicted, they will require rethinking of many fundamental conditions and institutions in social and political life. Three areas of concern seem paramount. First, as people handle more of their daily activites electronically - mail, banking, shopping, entertainment, travel plans, and so on - it becomes technically feasible to inonitor these activities with unprecedented ease. An age rich in electronic information may achieve wonderful social conveniences at the cost of placing freedom - and the feeling of freedom - in a deep chill.

Second, a computerized world will renovate conditions of human sociability. Indeed, the point of many applications of microelectronics is to eliminate social layers that were previously needed. Computerized bank tellers have largely done away with local branch banks, which were places where people met and socialized. The so-called electronic cottage would operate well without the human interaction that characterizes office work.

These developments pare away the face-to-face contact that once provided buffers between individuals and organized power. Workers who might previously have recognized a common grievance and acted together to remedy it are now deprived of such contact, and thus increasingly influenced by employers, news media, advertisers, and national political leaders. Where will we find new institutions to balance and mediate such power?

Third, computers, satellites, and telecommunications may recast the basic structure of political order, as they fulfill the modern dream of conquering space and time. These systems make possible instantaneous action anywhere on the globe without limits imposed by the location of the initiator. But humans and their societies have traditionally lived, acted, and found meaning within spatial and temporal limits. Microelectronics tends to dissolve these limits, thereby threatening the integrity of social and political forms that depend on them.

Transnational corporations of enormous size can now manage their activities efficiently across the whole surface of the planet. If it seems convenient, operations can be shifted from Sunnyvale to Singapore at the flick of a switch. In recent past, corporations have had to demonstrate at least some semblance of commitment to their geographical base; their public relations often stressed the fact that they were "good neighbors". But when organizations are located everywhere and nowhere this commitment easily evaporates. Towns, cities, regions, and whole nations must swallow their pride and negotiate for favors. Political authority is gradually redefined.

By calling the changes of computerization "revolutionary", people tacitly acknowledge that these changes require reflection; they may even require strong public action to ensure desirable outcome. Yet the occasions in our society for reflection, debate and public check are rare indeed. The important decisions are left in private hands inspired by narrowly focused economic motives. While it is widely recognized that these decisions have profound cumulative consequence for our common lives few seem prepared to own up to that fact. Some observers forecast that the computer revolution will be guided by new wonders in artificial intelligence. Its present course is influenced by something much more familiar; the absent mind.



From the book "Questioning Technology", edited by John Zerzan and Alice Carnes.
New Society Publishers, Philadelphia PA. ISBN: 0-86571-205-0.



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