[Note from Matthew Gaylor: This review is written by Lizard. Not a nym per say, but he actually goes by Lizard. For an interesting web site please view his web site http://www.mrlizard.com ]
The Control Revolution: How The Internet is Putting Individuals in Charge
and Changing the World We Know by Andrew L. Shapiro Richard C. Leone
List Price: $25.00
Hardcover - 286 pages 1st edition (June 1999) PublicAffairs; ISBN: 1891620193 ; Dimensions (in inches): 1.13 x 8.55 x 5.87
From: Lizard <email@example.com>
Subject: The Control Revolution:A Review
(Authors note:This review still isn't quite perfect, but I realized I could spend the next month doing nothing more than tweaking it, and, frankly, this being the net and all, I figured it would be better to just toss it out to the whirling sea and let the sharks gnaw on it now, than wait a month until some other dead horse has attracted our attention.)
(As a final note, if this review ends up dribbling around the net, as my posts have a tendency to do, please include the link to www.mrlizard.com, so any reader can easily grasp my own prejudices and biases. I do not claim to be a 'neutral' or 'objective' reviewer.)
There is an old joke.
Optimist:This is the best of all possible worlds! Pessimist:Yes, I'm afraid you're right.
Those of us who are optimistic, perhaps overly so, about the Internet and its promise envision a world of maximum individual empowerment and freedom, a world where we can each live in communities of our own choosing, freed from constraints of geography and birthplace and even, ultimately, from bonds of gender, age, and ethnicity. On the Internet, no one knows you're a drug-addicted African-Albanian transsexual communist anti-semite, unless you tell them -- and who'd believe you?
Mr. Shapiro agrees that this scenario is possible, even probable -- and it scares him.
It was very difficult to write this review, mostly because I wanted to
avoid it being simply a line by line rebuttal --too long -- or two
words:"He's wrong!" -- too short. So I will skip about a bit, hit the
'high' points, as they were, and hope I make some sort of sense.
Like the corporations he so loathes, he has learned skilled marketing tactics. His book is outwardly packaged as a rah-rah feel-good love-the-net sort of book, the kind of book people buy in order to reinforce their existing prejudices. Perhaps Mr. Shapiro hopes to open a few closed minds;if so, I suggest he work on building a better key. Only the most credulous would be swayed by the 'arguments' presented in 'Control Revolution', which consist mostly of speculation. YES, the Evil Corporate Overlords COULD do all the nasty things he says they could -- but there's little reason for them to want to and little evidence they plan to. I *could* take a knife out of my kitchen drawer, go outside, and kill a passing stranger -- but this is no reason to panic over the fact I own a knife, because there is no reason to suspect I am inclined to use it in such a fashion.
One useful test of the worth of a profit is the accuracy of his past predictions. Shapiro fails this test with flying colors. In an earlier article, published in 1995, Shapiro painted a fear-portrait of a corporate-controlled net filled with prepackaged content and passive, pleasant discourse. OK, stop laughing. Stop! Yes, the idea of an internet sans conflict is pretty damn hilarious, but the poor dear meant well, I suppose.
A quick tour of the interactive portions of the web (we shall leave aside the oldest established, permenant, floating dead-horse-beatathon that is Usenet) will show that there is no lack of virulent disagreement on any topic. Go over to AICN and watch the flames rage over Jar Jar;the chat board battles between RPers and PKers on UO boards are more vicious than the in-game conflict. Fans of Star Wars flame fans of Star Trek;both ally in their disdain for Battlestar Galactica. Kirk vs. Picard, Sub vs. Dub, Beast Wars vs. Classic...you name it, there's a war zone (or twenty) for it. (And every thread, on every board or newsgroup, eventually turns into a flame war over gun control and gets Godwinized.) The fact is, encouraging free speech of the most raucous and controversial sort is in the interests of anyone with ad space to sell. Paying people to produce content that will keep eyeballs glued to a screen while the World Wide Wait downloads perky animated gifs costs money. But toss some PERL scripts in the cgi-bin directory, ask a leading question or two, and watch the virtual fur fly! People will come back ten, twenty, thirty times a day to make sure all the inbred simians who disagree with them are well informed of their stupidity, ignorance, and probable poor hygiene and lack of a sex life. And each time through, another ad clicks by. Far more profitable than just having readers stop by once a day for some boring news articles or the 'Fun Fact Of The Day'.
His solution to nearly all problems of 'oversteering', Shapiros' term for
people daring to take too much (in his opinion) control of their own
lives, is a law, a regulation, an overseer. Like most liberals, the author
is blissfully unaware of the law of unintended consequences -- and
undoubtedly would view any examples of such as an excuse for yet another
law. However, for someone who *claims* to want to liberate the net from the
grip of Large Faceless Corporations, he often plays right into their hands.
The more laws, the higher the cost of entry -- employees to perform
compliance-related tasks, lawyers on retainer, etc. So regulation means
large, well-financed corporations can thrive with only minor harm to their
business plan, while smaller firms are crippled and cannot compete. As an
historical example, if current FCC rules on RF intereference had been in
existence in the 1970s, there would have never been an Apple II computer --
and thus, no IBM PC, and no computer revolution at all. As a
not-at-all-historical example, consider the Wired article at
http://www.wired.com/news/news/politics/story/20851.html. Under so-called
'privacy protection' laws, favorite Evil Empire Disney will be able to host
kid-friendly sites, but smaller concerns, including fan-run sites like http://www.theforce.net/kids/ would be up a certain creek sans a certain paddle. (Despite the high quality of this site, it is not part of Lucasfilms in any way. It's pure fandom.)
Further, in the early days of the net, community was mostly built and
maintained by the efforts of countless armies of volunteer moderators,
overseers, etc -- the 'middlemen' Shapiro loves. But now, thanks to
'minimum wage' laws, it may actually be *illegal* to be a volunteer at a
for-profit company! No more user guides, no more chat room moderators, no more forum leaders -- all the roles once filled by people with love for the communities they were building (Such as myself, in the early 90s, on AOL and CI$) will be filled by either paid drones of the corporation or, most likely, not filled at all.
(AOL has just fired *all* of its teenage moderators, evidently fearing child labor laws. This means that communities once run voluntarily by and for adolescents will be turned over to adults who are just corporate yes-men, more concerned with hewing to the party line than encouraging open discussion. Thank you, 'progressives' 'protecting children from exploitation'. Another blow struck by the liberals against the corporate powers. NOT!)
These are not isolated examples. Throughout the work, Shapiro fails to think through the consequences of his ideas, which often results in him advocating policies which directly or indirectly empower those evil corporations he putatively loathes, not the dissident individuals he putatively loves (or at the least, wishes to see flourish and thrive in the new world). He is almost obsessed with imposing every meatspace 'solution' onto cyberspace in one form or another. For example, on pages 173-174, he talks about browsers and built-in controls similair to RSACI. Since he is a liberal, I assumed he was leading to a denouncement of such. I should learn not to assume, since it makes people quote ancient cliches.
"REQUIRING (emphasis Lizards) companies like Microsoft and Netscape to create kid browsers would simply be a way of recognizing that commercial middlemen have a role to play in protecting the public interest. Like Sam Ginsberg, they owe something to the community. "
He advocates only permitting the shipment of 'kid browsers' until such time
as the user has established their identity as an adult, at which point, an
'adult browser' could be downloaded. I leave laughing at this idiocy up to
you, but he views it as something which could and should be compelled by law.
Many free speech activists, often the most liberal of them, raise the justifiable concern that Microsoft might merely *choose* to make RSACI (http://www.mrlizard.com/haley.html) the 'default on' setting, requiring a user to navigate a maze of options to turn it off;Shapiro advocates that the government mandate all browsers be shipped with similair settings LOCKED on, and not be unlocked until 'proof of adulthood' has been entered into some server somewhere.
(Ironically, his previous chapter was all about how the evil corporations want to gather information about you. Evidently, the fact that his 'kid browser' would make this even easier never occured to him. But don't worry -- there'll be *another* regulation to prevent that, never you fear...)
Much as Mr. Shapiros big-government, new-deal hackles may be raised by the concept, the only way for his 'public.net' to exist in reality is for it to come from the actions of private individuals committed to free speech -- not from any government or corporation. (In these days of corporate socialism, most businesses are virtually puppets of the government anyway, operating only by government sufferance. Microsoft thought it had a right to run itself as it saw fit...Reno is proving that if you don't play the game by Uncle Sams rules, he will take your balls and go home.)
But I could go on for days focusing on one bad example or idea after another. It is the tone, style, and worldview of the book which is most problematic;examples merely illustrate this. The book is almost entirely informed by the ancient paradigm of speaker/audience. He ignores the primary difference between the net and meatspace -- interactivity. (For example, Usenet -- the most 'public space-like' part of the net, the least corporate, the most open to any speaker, the hardest to censor or control -- is mentioned only once, and then in absolute passing. A reader with no knowledge of what it was would go through the rest of the book utterly unaware of it.)
In perhaps his most egregious example of this old-style thinking, he postulates that Thomas Paine would be lost in this day and age, because he could not distribute leaflets at random, but would instead build a website, which no one would come to because he couldn't afford advertising, and because spam is discouraged. (Shapiro seems to have a disturbing affection for spam as a way of encouraging 'serendipity'.) Of course, if Mr. Paine put up his web site and then sat back and wondered where the hits were, he'd be acting rather old-media.
So Mr. Paine cannot advertise and cannot spam. What he CAN do is cease
being a passive publisher and instead become a *participant*. He can join
the fight-english-l mailing list and regularly participate on the
talk.politics.revolution.american and alt.shut.up.whining.yanks Usenet
groups. He can make sure that any 'big name' site which offers any kind of
'talk back' feature, like kinggeorge.com, is liberally doused with his
comments, with his own web address prominently displayed in his .sig. If he has anything of value to say, people will eventually read it -- the *right* people. People who are interested in politics, in revolution, people who see the problem and intend to do something about it.
That this scenario did not occur to the author (or was consciously never explained to his audience) is telling. Mr. Shapiro evidently sees himself as a speaker of TRVTH unto the masses. He does not want to become just one more voice on a mailing list or a newsgroup or a web board. After years of working his way up the ranks, garnering awards, getting a regular column, etc, he does not wish to be reduced to being an equal of someone like me. Too bad for him.
Another example of his 'old media' mode of thinking is that almost nowhere in the book does he assume technological change. His vision of the web, and of the Internet, seems mired in 'So it is now, so shall it ever be'. But the net is not even in its infancy -- it is still a blastocyst, its final form utterly indeterminate by its present state. On page 131, for example, he laments the ability of a protester to call attention to racially discriminatory practices at a virtual store. (We will leave aside for the moment how the operator of a VIRTUAL store can identify the race of his customers!) He claims that while a meatspace protester could march up and down in front of the store on a publically funded sidewalk, the lack of such a space on the net means his protest will be marginalized and lost. There is no way to 'protest' in front of a web page.
But there is. Companies like Third Voice and others are falling all over
themselves to offer 'mark up' capacity on the web. While this technology is
young and crude, it is much desired, and thus, will be developed with
frightening (if you're a go-slow worrywart like a certain author, initials
'A.S') speed. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it allows you to have
a 'plug in' to your web browser which will fetch messages about a site when you view it. So our protester can, indeed, parade in front of the store with his virtual placard reading 'No justice, no peace!' all he likes -- and he can in turn be laughed at by countless other virtual visitors who will be delighted to point out, in great detail, that since there is no way for the store to determine racial identity over the net, the protester is a loony whose aluminium foil hat must be loose. And so it goes. Again, the net is SUPERIOR to meatspace -- while a physical sidewalk can only hold a few protesters, and protest+counter-protests can often lead to violence, a database of web site 'tags' is effectively infinite, and while flame wars can be vicious, they cannot lead to bloody noses or broken bones.
(Now, it may be that this technology doesn't catch on, or can be blocked, or is otherwise not going to be the success I think and hope it will be. But it is one thing to qualify expectations, and another to simply ignore, as Shapiro does, the possibility of technological change, as opposed to government intervention, solving his various problems.)
Shapiro also fears the effects of 'the web of a million lies', as the Internet is often called by SF fans, by way of Vernor Vinge. He notes that it is impossible for all of us to be our own fact checkers, ignoring the fact that we do not need to be -- anything which is blatantly false or inaccurate will be leapt on by hordes of screaming netizens.
Indeed, on the issue of 'fact checking', holding up the modern press as an example of accuracy is laughable. As a general rule, on any subject which I am qualified to judge, the press is wrong. Not wrong in the ideological sense (that is subjective) but in the FACTUAL sense. Whenever the press decides to cover topics which are in my areas of personal expertise and knowledge -- comic books, role-playing games, computer games, internet culture -- they get it wrong. They report lies and half truths, and show little or no concern for accuracy. Post-Littleton, I spewed forth a series of rants pointing out the lies in several major papers coverage of such things as Vampire:The Masquerade and Doom. The local SF paper produced an article describing Goths, perhaps the most peaceful and passive subculture on the planet, as somehow being 'violent'. One of my friends flew into a justifiable rage at this grotesque mischaracterization. Rather than sit and fume, he flew around to a number of goth and gamer heavy sites and newsgroups, rallied an instant letter writing campaign, and flooded the SF Chronicle with complaints...all within hours of the article being published. The result? The very next day, a front page story on 'Those loveable, harmless weirdos in black'. People one, press zero. But there are still too many battles to be fought.
In fields I am not an expert in, I hear the same complaints from people who are. Friends with military experience wince every time the mass media covers the army. People who know science shudder whenever the press gets near a cutting-edge research project. It is not fear of the noble journalistic corps investigating past feel-good press releases to find the truth -- it is the sure and certain knowledge that the media has no concern for the truth and that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, which can be meaningfully done to correct them or get a dissenting view out -- except for what the Internet now makes possible. (Count the number of stories on the Littleton shooting which mentioned in the first paragraph that this is an aberration, that violence, both among youth, and overall, is nearing its lowest point in fifty years. You could count such stories on the fingers of one hand if you had a history of being careless around buzzsaws.)
The next major gripe of the author, and consequently, in my case, with the author, is the issue of serendipity.
On page 197 of my increasingly dog-eared and scrawled on copy of 'The Control Revolution', I made a note. I shall share this note with you. It consists of a circled name, and the words, "Gods, what a moron." Oddly enough, for once, the name is not Shapiros. Rather, it is of a man who decries the lack of 'serendipity' in online encyclopedias...there is no longer any chance of accidently finding an interesting topic while looking for something else.
As an inveterate encyclopedia browser in my youth, I sympathize with his desire, but his technical knowledge is somewhat, shall we say, lacking? The web is one humongous blob of serendipity, with every page opening up links to links to links to links...For example, hits on my site spiked recently. Why? Because Defcon was being held. But I have no links to Defcon, or to hacking, or to security/encryption, and these topics aren't covered on my site except tangenitally. So why the upsurge?
Because all the coverage of Defcon included mention of the CDC...and THEY, for reasons unknown, have a link to my page on theirs. Serendipity, dude.
It goes on. Trying to find out information on one TV series invariably brings me into contact with others. A news article on Wired links to the Times of London, which links to a site discussing bioethics, which links to some whiny luddites whom I can enjoy loathing. And so it goes. Kevin Bacon, eat your heart out...on the web, there are probably fewer than six degrees of seperation between *anything*.
Mr. Shapiro postulates a 'serendipity' protocol, in which visitors to
'publicnet' would be presented with random banners linking to various
peoples rants. All well and good, if hardly original...I remember that Yahoo had a 'visit a random link' button at one point, don't know if they still do. Originality issues aside, Shapiro paints a rosy picture of a browser encountering "Save The Whales" or "I'm a Paine" links. Fair enough. But suppose, rather, that the new user clicks on this 'publicnet' button (prominently featured on his Windows desktop, remember?) and is confronted with, say, an image of a burning cross, text reading 'Kill The Niggers', and a link to the page of some Klan-type? Suppose further that this surfer is a child of minority origin? Can you say 'lawsuit'? Oh, not against the poster -- who is probably inbred trailer trash with no money -- but rather, against Microsoft, who was 'criminally negligent' in so prominently placing a link to a site it could not control, a site which it had to know would contain racist and offensive speech.
(Do not misunderstand me. I am not in favor of any hate speech laws, and I
think that it's best to learn to ignore racists, better still to counter
them, than it is to run around screaming about how you've been disempowered
and unpersonated. Thanks in large part to the likes of Mr. Shapiro, though,
we live in a nation of lawyers, not laws, and Microsoft or AOL or Yahoo are
'deep pocket' targets. (Shapiro praises a legal system which makes everyone
from the manufacturer to the shipper to the seller accountable for any defects in a product. Using his 'mapping' metaphor, this would make everyone from the poster to the ISP to the phone company accountable for
'harmful' material on the web) Further, corporations are cowardly. They
would rather pay off a litigant than risk a long trial, even one in which they occupy both the ethical and legal high ground, if it means avoiding anything like a headline reading 'Microsoft Defends Link To Hate Site!')
The idea of an unbranded public access site is a good one. However, expecting any major corporation to fund it or give it prominent display is laughable. Asking the government to do so is worse -- as we have seen, the government is of the opinion that anything it funds, it has a right to control and censor. At this moment, several bills are floating through Congress which would mandate filtering software on all computers which the government even partially funds. Given the way in which 'private' institutions miraculously become 'public' because they are next to a freeway or something, it is fairly likely that, given time, the government will claim it actually funds the entire Internet, and thus, can control it all.
Shapiros arguments appeal primarily to liberals, who sighingly accept free speech because it is 'good for society'. Thus, free speech on the net, he believes, must be molded to fit the concept of speech as a SOCIAL GOOD, not as an INDIVIDUAL RIGHT. This is a very dangerous view -- it means that all one needs to do is convince a liberal that some form of speech or another is, in fact, detrimental to society, and he'll be hurriedly urging a special tax to raise money for gasoline and matches.
Consider that, on page 218, Shapiro refers to free speech as one of several
such 'public goods'. Since he advocates laws to enforce 'fair' and
'equitable' distribution of the other 'public goods', one can take this
idea to the logical (but ridiculous) extreme and assume that, by reversing Shapiro's 'mapping' algorithm, if there is insufficient 'free speech' in meatspace, he would advocate having policemen accost citizens at random hours, force-march them to the public park at gunpoint, and mandate they speak for an hour or so on some issue of concern to them. (Most likely, 'I hate being here at 2 AM'). Actually, given his predilection for mandating
'social responsibility' out of browser manufacturers (Say, how would he
enforce his laws on Opera, a popular browser made in Finland, but used by many Americans?) or ISPs, this humorous scenario might not be too far from the truth...
(Granted, the idea of cops busting into your house because you haven't spoken out enough, rather than too much, is an improvement on the current situation...)
I could go on for a long, long, while, but I have made my point. The book is a muddle of half-truths and sins of omission, of arguments ill-thought-out and examples already made obsolete by a world which changes faster than anyone can type. (Since I began this review, for example, AOL fired its teenage volunteers and Alta Vista dropped its 'pay for hits' policy, both of which are relevant to Shapiros arguments in different ways) The high praise it has garnered bespeaks a certain audience will absolutely adore it -- either that, or Mr. Shapiro has pictures of Barlow and a sheep. I hesitate to speculate either way.
Should a prospective reader buy 'The Control Revolution'? I'd have to say yes, if only so that you can judge for yourself if my review is accurate or not. It is also useful, even for those inclined to disagree with it, as a look at the mindset of a certain type of person...the type who developed the habit of speaking about 'empowerment' and 'liberation' when they were just meaningless buzzwords, and now, confronted with the reality of it, is rather unsure what to make of it. He does not wish to reject it outright, but a mind hopelessly enamored of laws, regulations, structures, and obligations cannot truly embrace the unbordered and unbounded nature of the net.