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The Virtual Community: Chapter Ten: Disinformocracy

By Howard Rheingold

Virtual communities could help citizens revitalize democracy, or they could be luring us into an attractively packaged substitute for democratic discourse. A few true believers in electronic democracy have had their say. It's time to hear from the other side. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to look closely at what the enthusiasts fail to tell us, and to listen attentively to what the skeptics fear.

For example, the rural BBSs and networks of nonprofit organizations represent only part of the picture of the nascent CMC industry. Consider another case history: Prodigy, the service that IBM and Sears spent a reported $1 billion to launch, is advertised on prime-time television as an information-age wonder for the whole family. For a flat monthly fee, Prodigy users can play games, make airplane reservations, send electronic mail to one another (although not to other networks), and discuss issues in public forums. In exchange for the low fees and the wide variety of services, users receive a ribbon of advertising matter at the bottom of their screens.

Prodigy's approach represents an alternate branch of CMC that did not evolve from the old ARPANET networks or the grassroots BBS culture, but from a surprisingly old and often-failed attempt to apply the broadcast paradigm to CMC, known as videotex. The idea is that people will pay, and even subject themselves to advertising, in exchange for information presented on a screen that the human viewer can browse by means of a telephone touchpad, keyboard, or other control device. The problem, as failed videotex experiments funded by governments (Britain's Prestel) and newspapers (Knight-Ridder's Viewtron) have demonstrated over and over, is that people aren't all that interested in information on screens, if that is all you have to sell--unless you also offer a way for people to interact with one another. Minitel, part of France Telecom's Teletel version of videotex, was so successful because of the chat services, the messageries, that were available along with the canned information.

Prodigy is modeled on the old consumers-as-commodity model that works for mass-market magazines. You use the services and contents of the magazine or television network (or online service) to draw a large population of users, who give you detailed information about their demographics, and then you sell access to those users to advertisers. You tailor the content of the magazine or television program or online service to attract large numbers of consumers with the best demographics, you spend money on polls and focus groups to certify the demographics of your consumers, and then advertising agencies buy access to the attention of those consumers you've "captured." This is the economic arm of the broadcast paradigm, extended to cyberspace. With a reported one million users, and both parent companies in trouble, it is not at all clear whether Prodigy will reach the critical mass of users to repay the investment, but this notion of online subscribers as commodities isn't likely to go away. It's based on one of the most successful money-making schemes in history, the advertising industry.

As a model of a future in which CMC services come to be dominated by a few very large private enterprises, Prodigy previews two key, chilling aspects of online societies that are far from the innocent dreams of the utopians. First there was a wave of paranoia among Prodigy subscribers, much discussed on the Net, regarding the way Prodigy's software works: to use the service, you grant Prodigy's central computers access to a part of your desktop computer (the infamous STAGE.DAT file that shows up on Prodigy users' computer disks) whenever you connect with the service via modem. The idea that Prodigy might be capable of reading private information off your personal computer from a distance, even though there was no proof that Prodigy was actually doing any such thing, stemmed from Prodigy's use of a technology that could, in principle, be used for such a purpose. The prospect of giving up parts of our privacy in exchange for access to information is the foundation of a school of political criticism of communications technologies that I'll come back to.

More chilling is the fact that all public postings on Prodigy are censored; there are actually banks of people sitting in front of monitors somewhere, reading postings from Prodigy subscribers, erasing the ones with offensive content. This measure dealt effectively with the outbreak of racist and anti-Semitic invective. It also dealt effectively with free and open public discussions among Prodigy subscribers of Prodigy's own policies. Prodigy's users sign a contract that gives Prodigy the right to edit all public messages before they are posted, and at the same time the contract absolves Prodigy of responsibility for the content of the messages that are posted by declaring them to be in the public domain. Then Prodigy subscribers used Prodigy's free e-mail feature to create mailing lists to get around Prodigy censorship. Private e-mail is protected by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which requires a court order for any third party to read a private message. So Prodigy management changed the pricing for e-mail, cutting off free messages after thirty per month, surcharging twenty-five cents for each additional message.

Prodigy as a private publisher claims First Amendment protection from government interference, so Prodigy users can't go to court to claim their rights to free speech without stepping on Prodigy's rights. Publishers in the United States have a right to publish what they want to publish; with the exception of libel, the courts have no business restraining editors from using their judgment. If you don't like Prodigy, you can go elsewhere--as long as there is an elsewhere. The presence of competition is the key. The Prodigy situation might be a preview of what could happen if a small number of large companies manages to dominate a global telecommunications industry that is now a competitive market of small and medium-size businesses that manage to survive and thrive along with the giants.

As long as BBSs remain legal and telephone carriers don't start charging by the amount of data users send and receive (instead of the amount of time they use the telephone connection), there will be a grassroots alternative to the giant services. But what if some big company comes along in the future and uses its deep pockets, economies of scale, and political power to squeeze out the WELLs and Big Sky Telegraphs and low-cost Internet access providers? Such tactics are not unknown in the history of the telecommunications industry. The telecommunications industry is a business, viewed primarily as an economic player. But telecommunications gives certain people access to means of influencing certain other people's thoughts and perceptions, and that access--who has it and who doesn't have it--is intimately connected with political power. The prospect of the technical capabilities of a near-ubiquitous high-bandwidth Net in the hands of a small number of commercial interests has dire political implications. Whoever gains the political edge on this technology will be able to use the technology to consolidate power.

There might be a fork in the road of technology-dependent civilization, somewhere in the mid- to late 1990s, forced by the technical capabilities of the Net. Two powerful and opposed images of the future characterize the way different observers foresee the future political effects of new communications technology. The utopian vision of the electronic agora, an "Athens without slaves" made possible by telecommunications and cheap computers and implemented through decentralized networks like Usenet and FidoNet, has been promoted by enthusiasts, including myself, over the past several years. I have been one of the cheerleaders for people like Dave Hughes and Mitch Kapor as they struggled to use CMC to give citizens some of the same media powers that the political big boys wield. And I admit that I still believe that this technology, if properly understood and defended by enough citizens, does have democratizing potential in the way that alphabets and printing presses had democratizing potential.

The critiques of the cheerleading for unproven technologies such as computer conferencing bear serious attention, and so do the warning signals from Prodigy, and the disturbing privacy issues that are raised by some of the same technologies that promise citizens so many benefits. What if these hopes for a quick technological fix of what is wrong with democracy constitute nothing more than another way to distract the attention of the suckers while the big boys divide up the power and the loot? Those who see electronic democracy advocates as naive or worse point to the way governments and private interests have used the alluring new media of past technological revolutions to turn democratic debate into talk shows and commercials. Why should this new medium be any less corruptible than previous media? Why should contemporary claims for CMC as a democratizing technology be taken any more seriously than the similar-sounding claims that were made for steam, electricity, and television?

Three different kinds of social criticisms of technology are relevant to claims of CMC as a means of enhancing democracy. One school of criticism emerges from the longer-term history of communications media, and focuses on the way electronic communications media already have preempted public discussions by turning more and more of the content of the media into advertisements for various commodities--a process these critics call commodification. Even the political process, according to this school of critics, has been turned into a commodity. The formal name for this criticism is "the commodification of the public sphere." The public sphere is what these social critics claim we used to have as citizens of a democracy, but have lost to the tide of commodization. The public sphere is also the focus of the hopes of online activists, who see CMC as a way of revitalizing the open and widespread discussions among citizens that feed the roots of democratic societies.

The second school of criticism focuses on the fact that high-bandwidth interactive networks could be used in conjunction with other technologies as a means of surveillance, control, and disinformation as well as a conduit for useful information. This direct assault on personal liberty is compounded by a more diffuse erosion of old social values due to the capabilities of new technologies; the most problematic example is the way traditional notions of privacy are challenged on several fronts by the ease of collecting and disseminating detailed information about individuals via cyberspace technologies. When people use the convenience of electronic communication or transaction, we leave invisible digital trails; now that technologies for tracking those trails are maturing, there is cause to worry. The spreading use of computer matching to piece together the digital trails we all leave in cyberspace is one indication of privacy problems to come.

Along with all the person-to-person communications exchanged on the world's telecommunications networks are vast flows of other kinds of personal information--credit information, transaction processing, health information. Most people take it for granted that no one can search through all the electronic transactions that move through the world's networks in order to pin down an individual for marketing--or political--motives. Remember the "knowbots" that would act as personal servants, swimming in the info-tides, fishing for information to suit your interests? What if people could turn loose knowbots to collect all the information digitally linked to you? What if the Net and cheap, powerful computers give that power not only to governments and large corporations but to everyone?

Every time we travel or shop or communicate, citizens of the credit-card society contribute to streams of information that travel between point of purchase, remote credit bureaus, municipal and federal information systems, crime information databases, central transaction databases. And all these other forms of cyberspace interaction take place via the same packet-switched, high-bandwidth network technology--those packets can contain transactions as well as video clips and text files. When these streams of information begin to connect together, the unscrupulous or would-be tyrants can use the Net to catch citizens in a more ominous kind of net.

The same channels of communication that enable citizens around the world to communicate with one another also allow government and private interests to gather information about them. This school of criticism is known as Panoptic in reference to the perfect prison proposed in the eighteenth century by Jeremy Bentham--a theoretical model that happens to fit the real capabilities of today's technologies.

Another category of critical claim deserves mention, despite the rather bizarre and incredible imagery used by its most well known spokesmen--the hyper-realist school. These critics believe that information technologies have already changed what used to pass for reality into a slicked-up electronic simulation. Twenty years before the United States elected a Hollywood actor as president, the first hyper-realists pointed out how politics had become a movie, a spectacle that raised the old Roman tactic of bread and circuses to the level of mass hypnotism. We live in a hyper-reality that was carefully constructed to mimic the real world and extract money from the pockets of consumers: the forests around the Matterhorn might be dying, but the Disneyland version continues to rake in the dollars. The television programs, movie stars, and theme parks work together to create global industry devoted to maintaining a web of illusion that grows more lifelike as more people buy into it and as technologies grow more powerful.

Many other social scientists have intellectual suspicions of the hyper-realist critiques, because so many are abstract and theoretical, based on little or no direct knowledge of technology itself. Nevertheless, this perspective does capture something about the way the effects of communications technologies have changed our modes of thought. One good reason for paying attention to the claims of the hyper-realists is that the society they predicted decades ago bears a disturbingly closer resemblance to real life than do the forecasts of the rosier-visioned technological utopians. While McLuhan's image of the global village has taken on a certain irony in light of what has happened since his predictions of the 1960s, "the society of the spectacle"--another prediction from the 1960s, based on the advent of electronic media--offered a far less rosy and, as events have proved, more realistic portrayal of the way information technologies have changed social customs.

The Selling of Democracy: Commodification and the Public Sphere

There is an intimate connection between informal conversations, the kind that take place in communities and virtual communities, in the coffee shops and computer conferences, and the ability of large social groups to govern themselves without monarchs or dictators. This social-political connection shares a metaphor with the idea of cyberspace, for it takes place in a kind of virtual space that has come to be known by specialists as the public sphere.

Here is what the preeminent contemporary writer about the public sphere, social critic and philosopher Jurgen Habermas, had to say about the meaning of this abstraction:

By "public sphere," we mean first of all a domain of our social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed. Access to the public sphere is open in principle to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere is constituted in every conversation in which private persons come together to form a public. They are then acting neither as business or professional people conducting their private affairs, nor as legal consociates subject to the legal regulations of a state bureaucracy and obligated to obedience. Citizens act as a public when they deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion; thus with the guarantee that they may assemble and unite freely, and express and publicize their opinions freely.

In this definition, Habermas formalized what people in free societies mean when we say "The public wouldn't stand for that" or "It depends on public opinion." And he drew attention to the intimate connection between this web of free, informal, personal communications and the foundations of democratic society. People can govern themselves only if they communicate widely, freely, and in groups--publicly. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights protects citizens from government interference in their communications--the rights of speech, press, and assembly are communication rights. Without those rights, there is no public sphere. Ask any citizen of Prague, Budapest, or Moscow.

Because the public sphere depends on free communication and discussion of ideas, as soon as your political entity grows larger than the number of citizens you can fit into a modest town hall, this vital marketplace for political ideas can be powerfully influenced by changes in communications technology. According to Habermas,

When the public is large, this kind of communication requires certain means of dissemination and influence; today, newspapers and periodicals, radio and television are the media of the public sphere. . . . The term "public opinion" refers to the functions of criticism and control or organized state authority that the public exercises informally, as well as formally during periodic elections. Regulations concerning the publicness (or publicity [Publizitat] in its original meaning) of state-related activities, as, for instance, the public accessibility required of legal proceedings, are also connected with this function of public opinion. To the public sphere as a sphere mediating between state and society, a sphere in which the public as the vehicle of publicness--the publicness that once had to win

out against the secret politics of monarchs and that since then has permitted democratic control of state activity.

Ask anybody in China about the right to talk freely among friends and neighbors, to own a printing press, to call a meeting to protest government policy, or to run a BBS. But brute totalitarian seizure of communications technology is not the only way that political powers can neutralize the ability of citizens to talk freely. It is also possible to alter the nature of discourse by inventing a kind of paid fake discourse. If a few people have control of what goes into the daily reporting of the news, and those people are in the business of selling advertising, all kinds of things become possible for those who can afford to pay.

Habermas had this to say about the corrupting influence of ersatz public opinion:

Whereas at one time publicness was intended to subject persons or things to the public use of reason and to make political decisions subject to revision before the tribunal of public opinion, today it has often enough already been enlisted in the aid of the secret policies of interest groups; in the form of "publicity" it now acquires public prestige for persons or things and renders them capable of acclamation in a climate of nonpublic opinion. The term "public relations" itself indicates how a public sphere that formerly emerged from the structure of society must now be produced circumstantially on a case-by-case basis.

The idea that public opinion can be manufactured and the fact that electronic spectacles can capture the attention of a majority of the citizenry damaged the foundations of democracy. According to Habermas,

It is no accident that these concepts of the public sphere and public opinion were not formed until the eighteenth century. They derive their specific meaning from a concrete historical situation. It was then that one learned to distinguish between opinion and public opinion. . . . Public opinion, in terms of its very idea, can be formed only if a public that engages in rational discussion exists. Public discussions that are institutionally protected and that take, with critical intent, the exercise of political authority as their theme have not existed since time immemorial.

The public sphere and democracy were born at the same time, from the same sources. Now that the public sphere, cut off from its roots, seems to be dying, democracy is in danger, too.

The concept of the public sphere as discussed by Habermas and others includes several requirements for authenticity that people who live in democratic societies would recognize: open access, voluntary participation, participation outside institutional roles, the generation of public opinion through assemblies of citizens who engage in rational argument, the freedom to express opinions, and the freedom to discuss matters of the state and criticize the way state power is organized. Acts of speech and publication that specifically discuss the state are perhaps the most important kind protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and similar civil guarantees elsewhere in the world. Former Soviets and Eastern Europeans who regained it after decades of censorship offer testimony that the most important freedom of speech is the freedom to speak about freedoms.

In eighteenth-century America, the Committees of Correspondence were one of the most important loci of the public sphere in the years of revolution and constitution-building. If you look closely at the roots of the American Revolution, it becomes evident that a text-based, horseback-transported version of networking was an old American tradition. In their book Networking, Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps describe these committees as

a communications forum where homespun political and economic thinkers hammered out their ideological differences, sculpting the form of a separate and independent country in North America. Writing to one another and sharing letters with neighbors, this revolutionary generation nurtured its adolescent ideas into a mature politics. Both men and women participated in the debate over independence from England and the desirable shape of the American future. . . .

During the years in which the American Revolution was percolating, letters, news-sheets, and pamphlets carried from one village to another were the means by which ideas about democracy were refined. Eventually, the correspondents agreed that the next step in their idea exchange was to hold a face-to-face meeting. The ideas of independence and government had been debated, discussed, discarded, and reformulated literally hundreds of times by the time people in the revolutionary network met in Philadelphia.

Thus, a network of correspondence and printed broadsides led to the formation of an organization after the writers met in a series of conferences and worked out a statement of purpose--which they called a "Declaration of Independence." Little did our early networking grandparents realize that the result of their youthful idealism, less than two centuries later, would be a global superpower with an unparalleled ability to influence the survival of life on the planet.

As the United States grew and technology changed, the ways in which these public discussions of "matters of general interest," as Habermas called them--slavery and the rights of the states versus the power of the federal government were two such matters that loomed large--began to change as well. The text-based media that served as the channel for discourse gained more and more power to reshape the nature of that discourse. The communications media of the nineteenth century were the newspapers, the penny press, the first generation of what has come to be known as the mass media. At the same time, the birth of advertising and the beginnings of the public-relations industry began to undermine the public sphere by inventing a kind of buyable and sellable phony discourse that displaced the genuine kind.

The simulation (and therefore destruction) of authentic discourse, first in the United States, and then spreading to the rest of the world, is what Guy Debord would call the first quantum leap into the "society of the spectacle" and what Jean Baudrillard would recognize as a milestone in the world's slide into hyper-reality. Mass media's colonization of civil society turned into a quasi-political campaign promoting technology itself when the image-making technology of television came along. ("Progress is our most important product," said General Electric spokesman Ronald Reagan, in the early years of television.) And in the twentieth century, as the telephone, radio, and television became vehicles for public discourse, the nature of political discussion has mutated into something quite different from anything the framers of the Constitution could have foreseen.

A politician is now a commodity, citizens are consumers, and issues are decided via sound-bites and staged events. The television camera is the only spectator that counts at a political demonstration or convention. According to Habermas and others, the way the new media have been commoditized through this evolutionary process from hand-printed broadside to telegraph to penny press to mass media has led to the radical deterioration of the public sphere. The consumer society has become the accepted model both for individual behavior and political decision making. Discourse degenerated into publicity, and publicity used the increasing power of electronic media to alter perceptions and shape beliefs.

The consumer society, the most powerful vehicle for generating short-term wealth ever invented, ensures economic growth by first promoting the idea that the way to be is to buy. The engines of wealth depend on a fresh stream of tabloids sold at convenience markets and television programs to tell us what we have to buy next in order to justify our existence. What used to be a channel for authentic communication has become a channel for the updating of commercial desire.

Money plus politics plus network television equals an effective system. It works. When the same packaging skills that were honed on automobile tail fins and fast foods are applied to political ideas, the highest bidder can influence public policy to great effect. What dies in the process is the rational discourse at the base of civil society. That death manifests itself in longings that aren't fulfilled by the right kind of shoes in this month's color or the hot new prime-time candidate everybody is talking about. Some media scholars are claiming a direct causal connection between the success of commercial television and the loss of citizen interest in the political process.

Another media critic, Neal Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death, pointed out that Tom Paine's Common Sense sold three hundred thousand copies in five months in 1776. The most successful democratic revolution in history was made possible by a citizenry that read and debated widely among themselves. Postman pointed out that the mass media, and television in particular, had changed the mode of discourse itself, by substituting fast cuts, special effects, and sound-bites for reasoned discussion or even genuine argument.

The various hypotheses about commodification and mode of discourse focus on an area of apparent agreement among social observers who have a long history of heated disagreements.

When people who have become fascinated by BBSs or networks start spreading the idea that such networks are inherently democratic in some magical way, without specifying the hard work that must be done in real life to harvest the fruits of that democratizing power, they run the danger of becoming unwitting agents of commodification. First, it pays to understand how old the idea really is. Next, it is important to realize that the hopes of technophiles have often been used to sell technology for commercial gain. In this sense, CMC enthusiasts run the risk of becoming unpaid, unwitting advertisers for those who stand to gain financially from adoption of new technology.

The critics of the idea of electronic democracy have unearthed examples from a long tradition of utopian rhetoric that James Carey has called "the rhetoric of the `technological sublime.'" He put it this way:

Despite the manifest failure of technology to resolve pressing social issues over the last century, contemporary intellectuals continue to see revolutionary potential in the latest technological gadgets that are pictured as a force outside history and politics. . . . In modern futurism, it

is the machines that possess teleological insight. Despite the shortcomings of town meetings, newspaper, telegraph, wireless, and television to create the conditions of a new Athens, contemporary advocates of technological liberation regularly describe a new postmodern age of instantaneous daily plebiscitory democracy through a computerized system of electronic voting and opinion polling.

Carey was prophetic in at least one regard--he wrote this years before Ross Perot and William Clinton both started talking about their versions of electronic democracy during the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign. If the United States is on the road to a version of electronic democracy in which the president will have electronic town hall meetings, including instant voting-by-telephone to "go directly to the people" (and perhaps bypass Congress?) on key issues, it is important for American citizens to understand the potential pitfalls of decision making by plebiscite. Media-manipulated plebiscites as political tools go back to Joseph Goebbels, who used radio so effectively in the Third Reich. Previous experiments in instant home polling and voting had been carried out by Warners, with their Qube service, in the early 1980s. One critic, political scientist Jean Betheke Elshtain, called the television-voting model an

interactive shell game [that] cons us into believing that we are participating when we are really simply performing as the responding "end" of a prefabricated system of external stimuli. . . . In a plebiscitary system, the views of the majority . . . swamp minority or unpopular views. Plebiscitism is compatible with authoritarian politics carried out under the guise of, or with the connivance of, majority views. That opinion can be registered by easily manipulated, ritualistic plebiscites, so there is no need for debate on substantive questions.

What does it mean that the same hopes, described in the same words, for a decentralization of power, a deeper and more widespread citizen involvement in matters of state, a great equalizer for ordinary citizens to counter the forces of central control, have been voiced in the popular press for two centuries in reference to steam, electricity, and television? We've had enough time to live with steam, electricity, and television to recognize that they did indeed change the world, and to recognize that the utopia of technological millenarians has not yet materialized.

An entire worldview and sales job are packed into the word progress, which links the notion of improvement with the notion of innovation, highlights the benefits of innovation while hiding the toxic side-effects of extractive and lucrative technologies, and then sells more of it to people via television as a cure for the stress of living in a technology-dominated world. The hope that the next technology will solve the problems created by the way the last technology was used is a kind of millennial, even messianic, hope, apparently ever-latent in the breasts of the citizenry. The myth of technological progress emerged out of the same Age of Reason that gave us the myth of representative democracy, a new organizing vision that still works pretty well, despite the decline in vigor of the old democratic institutions. It's hard to give up on one Enlightenment ideal while clinging to another.

I believe it is too early to judge which set of claims will prove to be accurate. I also believe that those who would prefer the more democratic vision of the future have an opportunity to influence the outcome, which is precisely why online activists should delve into the criticisms that have been leveled against them. If electronic democracy advocates can address these critiques successfully, their claims might have a chance. If they cannot, perhaps it would be better not to raise people's hopes. Those who are not aware of the history of dead ends are doomed to replay them, hopes high, again and again.

The idea that putting powerful computers in the hands of citizens will shield the citizenry against totalitarian authorities echoes similar, older beliefs about citizen-empowering technology. As Langdon Winner (an author every computer revolutionary ought to read) put it in his essay "Mythinformation,"

Of all the computer enthusiasts' political ideas, there is none more poignant than the faith that the computer is destined to become a potent equalizer in modern society. . . . Presumably, ordinary citizens equipped with microcomputers will be able to counter the influence of large, computer-based organizations.

Notions of this kind echo beliefs of eighteenth-century revolutionaries that placing fire arms in the hands of the people was crucial to overthrowing entrenched authority. In the American Revolution, French Revolution, Paris Commune, and Russian Revolution the role of "the people armed" was central to the revolutionary program. As the military defeat of the Paris Commune made clear, however, the fact that the popular forces have guns may not be decisive. In a contest of force against force, the larger, more sophisticated, more ruthless, better equipped competitor often has the upper hand. Hence, the availability of low-cost computing power may move the baseline that defines electronic dimensions of social influence, but it does not necessarily alter the relative balance of power. Using a personal computer makes one no more powerful vis-…-vis, say, the National Security Agency than flying a hang glider establishes a person as a match for the U.S. Air Force.

The great power of the idea of electronic democracy is that technical trends in communications technologies can help citizens break the monopoly on their attention that has been enjoyed by the powers behind the broadcast paradigm--the owners of television networks, newspaper syndicates, and publishing conglomerates. The great weakness of the idea of electronic democracy is that it can be more easily commodified than explained. The commercialization and commoditization of public discourse is only one of the grave problems posed by the increasing sophistication of communications media. The Net that is a marvelous lateral network can also be used as a kind of invisible yet inescapable cage. The idea of malevolent political leaders with their hands on the controls of a Net raises fear of a more direct assault on liberties.

Caught in the Net: CMC and the Ultimate Prison

In 1791, Jeremy Bentham proposed, in Panopticon; or, the Inspection House, that it was possible to build a mechanism for enforcing a system of social control into the physical structure of a building, which he called the Panopticon. His design for this building was intended to be very general, an architectural algorithm that could be used in prisons, schools, and factories. Individual cells are built into the circumference of a circular building, around a central well. An inspection tower atop the well, in conjunction with a method for lighting the cells and leaving the inspection tower dark, made it possible for one person to monitor the activity of many people, each of whom would know he or she was under surveillance, none of whom would know exactly when. And the inspectors are similarly watched by other unseen inspectors. It was precisely this mental state of being seen without being able to see the watcher that Bentham meant to induce. When you can induce that state of mind in a population, you don't need whips and chains to restrain them from rebelling.

Historian and political philosopher Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, examined the social institutions by which powerful people control the potentially rebellious masses. Foucault felt that the Panopticon as an idea as well as a specific architectural design was an important one, for it was a literal blueprint for the way future tyrants could use surveillance technologies to wield power. Just as the ability to read and write and freely communicate gives power to citizens that protects them from the powers of the state, the ability to surveil, to invade the citizens' privacy, gives the state the power to confuse,

coerce, and control citizens. Uneducated populations cannot rule themselves, but tyrannies can control even educated populations, given sophisticated means of surveillance.

When you think of privacy, you probably think of your right to be undisturbed and possibly unembarrassed by intrusions into your personal affairs. It does not seem, on the surface, to be a politically significant phenomenon. Kevin Robins and Frank Webster, in their article "Cybernetic Capitalism: Information, Technology, Everyday Life," made the connection between Bentham, Foucault, and the evolution of the telecommunications network:

We believe that Foucault is right in seeing Bentham's Panopticon as a significant event in the history of the human mind. We want to suggest that the new communication and information technologies--particularly in the form of an integrated electronic grid--permit a massive extension and transformation of that same (relative, technological) mobilization to which Bentham's Panoptic principle aspired. What these technologies support, in fact, is the same dissemination of power and control, but freed from the architectural constraints of Bentham's stone and brick prototype. On the basis of the "information revolution," not just the prison or factory, but the social totality, comes to function as the hierarchical and disciplinary Panoptic machine.

The Panopticon, Foucault warned, comes in many guises. It is not a value-neutral technology. It is a technology that allows a small number of people to control a large number of others. J. Edgar Hoover used it. So did Mao tse-Tung. You don't need fiber optics to institute a surveillance state--but it sure makes surveillance easier when you invite the surveillance device into your home.

Critics of those who pin their hopes for social change on computer technology also point out that information and communications technologies have always been dominated by the military, and will continue to be dominated by the military, police, and intelligence agencies for the foreseeable future. A computer is, was, and will be a weapon. The tool can be used for other purposes, but to be promoted as an instrument of liberation, CMC technology should be seen within the contexts of its origins, and in full cognizance of the possibly horrific future applications by totalitarians who get their hands on it.

The first electronic digital computer was created by the U.S. Army to calculate ballistics equations for artillery. The military and intelligence communities, particularly in the United States, have always benefited from a ten- to twenty-year technological lead on civilian applications of the computer technology. The U.S. National Security Agency, the ultra-secret technosnoop headquarters that applies computers to signals intelligence and codebreaking, and the U.S. National Laboratories at Livermore and Los Alamos, where thermonuclear weapons and antimissile defenses are designed, have long been the owners of the most powerful collections of computing power in the world.

Computer and communications technologies outside the military sphere are applied with great effectiveness by public and private police agencies. One example that I saw with my own eyes is suggestive of the range of goodies available to police forces: at a laboratory outside Tokyo, I saw a video camera on a freeway zero in on the license plate of a speeder, use shape-recognition software to decode the license number, and transmit it to police computers, where a warrant search could be conducted. No human in the loop--the camera and computer determine that a crime has been committed and instantly identify the suspect. Just as grassroots citizens' networks have been interconnecting into a planetary Net, police information networks have been evolving as well. The problem there is that law enforcement officers have the authority to shoot you dead; if they shoot you on the basis of misinformation propagated on a Net (and it is far easier to broadcast bad information than to recall it), the Net helped kill you. Jacques Vallee, in the very beginning of his prophetic 1982 book The Network Revolution, told the true cautionary tale of the innocent Frenchmen who died under police gunfire as the result of a glitch in a poorly designed police computer network.

The more spectacularly overt images of a Panoptic society--the midnight knock on the door, the hidden microphones of the secret police--are genuine possibilities worth careful consideration. Now it isn't necessary to plant microphones when a remote and inaudible command can turn any telephone--while it is on the hook--into a microphone. The old scenarios aren't the only ones, now. Privacy has already been penetrated in more subtle, complex ways. This assault on privacy, invisible to most, takes place in the broad daylight of everyday life. The weapons are cash registers and credit cards. When Big Brother arrives, don't be surprised if he looks like a grocery clerk, because privacy has been turning into a commodity, courtesy of better and better information networks, for years.

Yesterday, you might have gone to the supermarket and watched someone total up the bill with a bar code reader. Perhaps you paid with an ATM card or credit card or used one as identification for a check. Last night, maybe the data describing what you bought and who you are were telecommunicated from the supermarket to a central collection point. This morning, detailed information about your buying habits could have been culled from one database and sold to a third party who could compile it tomorrow into another electronic dossier somewhere, one that knows what you buy and where you live and how much money you owe. Next week, a fourth party might purchase that dossier, combine it with a few tens of millions of others on an optical disk, and offer to sell the collection of information as a marketing tool.

All of the information on the hypothetical mass-dossier disk is available from public sources; it is in their compilation, the way that information is sorted into files linked to real citizens, that intrusion is accomplished. On each CD-ROM disk will be a file that knows a lot about your tastes, your brand preferences, your marital status, even your political opinions. If you contributed to a freewheeling Usenet newsgroup, all the better, for your political views, sexual preferences, even the way you think, can now be compiled and compared with the other information in your dossier.

The capabilities of information-gathering and sorting technologies that can harvest and sift mind-numbing quantities of individual trivial but collectively revealing pieces of information are formidable today. This Panoptic machinery shares some of the same communications infrastructure that enables one-room schoolhouses in Montana to communicate with MIT professors, and enables overseas Chinese dissidents to disseminate news and organize resistance. The power to compile highly specific dossiers on millions of people will become even more formidable over the next several years as the cost of computing power drops and the network of electronic transactions becomes more richly interconnected. The commodization of privacy is piggybacking on the same combination of computers and communications that has given birth to virtual communities. The power to snoop has become democratized.

When our individual information terminals become as powerful as supercomputers, and every home is capable of sending and receiving huge amounts of information, you won't need a dictatorship from above to spy on your neighbors and have them spy on you. Instead, you'll sell pieces of each other's individuality to one another. Entrepreneurs are already nibbling around the edges of the informational body politic, biting off small chunks of privacy and marketing it. Information about you and me is valuable to certain people, whether or not we actively choose to disclose that information. We've watched our names migrate from magazine subscription lists to junk mail assaults, but we haven't seen the hardware and software that has evolved for gathering and exploiting private information for profit.

The most insidious attack on our rights to a reasonable degree of privacy might come not from a political dictatorship but from the marketplace. The term "Big Brother" brings to mind a scenario of a future dictatorship held together by constant electronic surveillance of the citizenry; but today's technologies allow for more subtlety than Orwell could have been foreseen. There are better ways to build Panopticons than the heavy-handed Orwellian model. If totalitarian manipulators of populations and technologies actually do achieve dominance in the future, I predict that it will begin not by secret police kicking in your doors but by allowing you to sell yourself to your television and letting your supermarket sell information about your transactions, while outlawing measures you could use to protect yourself. Instead of just telephone taps, the weapons will include computer programs that link bar codes, credit cards, social security numbers, and all the other electronic telltales we leave in our paths through the information society. And the most potent weapon will be the laws or absence of laws that enable improper uses of information technology to erode what is left of citizens rights to privacy.

"Marketplace," a CD-ROM that contained the collected available information about you, your family, and 120 million other people, was announced in 1991 by Lotus. After public criticism, Lotus decided not to market the product. Interactive television systems are being installed now, systems that allows customers to download videos and upload information about their tastes, preferences, and opinions. With high-speed digital communication capabilities of future fiber-optic networks, there will be even more ways to move information about you from your home to the databases of others, with and without your consent.

Informational dossiers about individuals are marketing gold mines for those who know how to make money by knowing which magazines you subscribe to, what kind of yogurt you eat, and which political organizations you support. Invisible information--your name, address, other demographic information--is already encoded in certain promotional coupons you get in the mail. Ultimately, advertisers will be able to use new technologies to customize the television advertising for each individual household. Advertising agencies, direct mail marketers, and political consultants already know what to do with your zip code, your social security number, and a few other data. These professional privacy brokers have begun to realize that a significant portion of the population would freely allow someone else to collect and use and even sell personal information, in return for payment or subsidies.

Here is one obvious answer to the inequity of access to Net resources and the gap between information-rich and information-poor. Some people would be able to afford to pay for "enhanced information services." Others would be able to use those services in exchange for a little information-monitoring. For answering a few questions and allowing certain of your transactions to be monitored, for example, you would be granted a certain number of hours of service, or even paid for the information and the right to use it. Why should anybody go to the trouble of seizing our rights of privacy when so many of us would be happy to sell them?

Selling your privacy is your right, and I'm not suggesting that anyone stop you. In fact, it might be a viable solution to the problems of equity of access. There is, in medicine, the notion of informed consent, however, which obligates your physician to explain to you the risks and potential side effects of recommended medical procedures. I'd like people to know what it is they are giving away in exchange for convenience, rebates, or online hours on the latest MUD. Do people have a right to privacy? Where does that right begin and end? Without adequate protections, the same information that can flow laterally, from citizen to citizen, can be used by powerful central authorities as well as by grassroots groups.

The most important kind of protection for citizens against technology-assisted invasion of privacy is a set of principles that can help preserve individual autonomy in the digital age. Laws, policies, and norms are the various ways in which such principles, once articulated and agreed on, are enforced in a democratic society. But high technology is often very good at rendering laws moot. Another kind of protection for citizens is the subject of current intense scrutiny by cyberspace civil libertarians, a technical fix known as citizen encryption. A combination of principles, laws, policies, and technologies, if intelligently designed and equitably implemented, offer one more hopeful scenario in which citizens can continue to make use of the advantages of the Net without falling victim to its Panoptic potential.

Gary Marx, a professor of sociology at MIT, is an expert on technology and privacy. Marx suggests that

an important example of the kind of principles needed is the Code of Fair Information developed in 1973 for the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The code involves five principles:

There must be no personal-data record keeping whose very existence is secret.

There must be a way for a person to find out what information about him is in a record and how it is being used.

There must be a way for a person to prevent information that was obtained for one purpose from being used or made available for other purposes without his consent.

There must be a way for a person to correct or amend a record of identifiable information about himself.

Any organization creating, maintaining, using, or disseminating records of identifiable personal data must assure the reliability of the data for their intended use and must take precautions to prevent misuses of the data.

The highly interconnected, relatively insecure networks, with their millions and billions of bits per second, are a tough environment to enforce rules based on these suggested principles. Many of the nuances of public conferencing or private e-mail or hybrid entities such as e-mail lists will require changes in these principles, but this list is a good way to focus societal debate about values, risks, and liberties. If the profit or power derived from Net-snooping proves to be significant, and the technicalities of the Net make it difficult to track perpetrators, however, no laws will ever adequately protect citizens. That's why a subculture of computer software pioneers known as cypherpunks have been working to make citizen encryption possible.

Encryption is the science of encoding and decoding messages. Computers and codebreaking go back a long way. Alan Turing, one of the intellectual fathers of the computer, worked during World War II on using computational strategies to break the codes created by Germany's Enigma machine. Today, the largest assemblage of computer power in the world is widely acknowledged to be the property of the U.S. National Security Agency, the top-secret contemporary high-tech codebreakers. Computers and mathematical theories are today's most important weapons in the war between codemakers and codebreakers. Like computers themselves, and CMC, the mathematical complexities of encryption have begun to diffuse from the specialists to the citizens.

A tool known as public-key encryption is causing quite a stir these days, not just because it enables citizens to encode messages that their recipients can read but are not readable by even the most computationally powerful codebreakers, but also because citizen encryption makes possible two extremely powerful antipanoptic weapons known as digital cash and digital signature. With digital cash, it is possible to build an electronic economy where the seller can verify that the buyer's credit is good, and transfer the correct amount of money, without the seller knowing who the buyer is. With digital signature, it is possible in the identity-fluid online world to establish certainty about the sender of a message. This has important implications for intellectual property and online publishing, as well as personal security.

Key is a cryptographers' term for the codebook that unlocks a particular code. Until recently, code keys, whether made of metal or mathematical algorithms, were top secret. If someone steals your key, your messages are compromised. Public-key encryption makes use of recent mathematical discoveries that enable a person to keep one key private and distribute to everyone and anyone a public key. If anyone wants to use that person's public key, only the owner of the private key can read the message; both public and private keys are necessary, and the private key cannot be discovered by mathematical operations on the public key. Because encryption is based on precise mathematical principles, it is possible to demonstrate that a particular encryption scheme is inherently strong enough to survive brute-force mathematical assault by powerful supercomputers.

Public-key encryption as it exists today is unbreakable by all but the most powerful computers, such as those owned by the National Security Agency. Policy debate and legal challenges have revolved around citizens' rights to use mathematically unbreakable encryption. The National Security Agency sees this as a security nightmare, when it can no longer do its job of picking strategic signals out of the ether and inspecting them for content that threatens the security of the United States. Certain discoveries in the mathematical foundations of cryptography are automatically classified as soon as a mathematician happens upon them. John Gilmore, one of the founders of the EFF, recently filed suit against the National Security Agency for its classification and suppression in the United States of fundamental cryptography texts that are undoubtedly known to America's enemies. A few days after Gilmore filed suit and informed the press, the agency astonished everybody by declassifying the documents.

Think of digital cash as a kind of credit card that allows you to spend whatever credit you legitimately have without leaving a personal identifier linked to the transaction. The same techniques could be used to render other aspects of personal information--medical and legal records--far less vulnerable to abuse. Different applications of encryption technology already are being considered as safeguards against different kinds of panoptic danger. But ubiquitous encryption poses important problems: will citizen encryption, by making it impossible for any individual or group to crack encrypted messages, give the upper hand to criminals and terrorists, or will it force law enforcement and intelligence agencies to shift resources away from signals intelligence (monitoring communications) and into other, possibly even more invasive surveillance techniques? The impact of citizen encryption, for good or ill, looms as one of those unexpected applications of higher mathematics--like nuclear fission--that has the potential to change everything. There's still time to talk about it.

The third school of criticism builds on the foundation of commodification of the public sphere but veers off into a somewhat surrealistic dimension. Highly abstruse works of contemporary philosophy, much of it originating in France, have been proposing certain ideas about the psychological and social effects of previous communications technologies that raise disturbing resonances with the nature of CMC technologies.

The Hyper-realists

Hyper-realists see the use of communications technologies as a route to the total replacement of the natural world and the social order with a technologically mediated hyper-reality, a "society of the spectacle" in which we are not even aware that we work all day to earn money to pay for entertainment media that tell us what to desire and which brand to consume and which politician to believe. We don't see our environment as an artificial construction that uses media to extract our money and power. We see it as "reality"--the way things are. To hyper-realists, CMC, like other communications technologies of the past, is doomed to become another powerful conduit for disinfotainment. While a few people will get better information via high-bandwidth supernetworks, the majority of the population, if history is any guide, are likely to become more precisely befuddled, more exactly manipulated. Hyper-reality is what you get when a Panopticon evolves to the point where it can convince everyone that it doesn't exist; people continue to believe they are free, although their power has disappeared.

Televisions, telephones, radios, and computer networks are potent political tools because their function is not to manufacture or transport physical goods but to influence human beliefs and perceptions. As electronic entertainment has become increasingly "realistic," it has been used as an increasingly powerful propaganda device. The most radical of the hyper-realist political critics charge that the wonders of communications technology skillfully camouflage the disappearance and subtle replacement of true democracy--and everything else that used to be authentic, from nature to human relationships--with a simulated, commercial version. The illusion of democracy offered by CMC utopians, according to these reality critiques, is just another distraction from the real power play behind the scenes of the new technologies--the replacement of democracy with a global mercantile state that exerts control through the media-assisted manipulation of desire rather than the more orthodox means of surveillance and control. Why torture people when you can get them to pay for access to electronic mind control?

During the events of May 1968, when students provoked a revolt in the streets of Paris against the Gaullist regime, a radical manifesto surfaced, written by Guy Debord. The Society of the Spectacle made a startling tangential leap from what McLuhan was saying at around the same time. Cinema, television, newspapers, Debord proclaimed, were all part of worldwide hegemony of power in which the rich and powerful had learned to rule with minimal force by turning everything into a media event. The staged conventions of the political parties to anoint politicians who had already been selected behind closed doors were a prominent example, but they were only part of a web of headlines, advertisements, and managed events.

The replacement of old neighborhoods with modern malls, and caf‚s with fast-food franchises, was part of this "society of the spectacle," precisely because they help destroy the "great good places" where the public sphere lives. More than twenty years later, Debord looked back and emphasized this aspect of his earlier forecasts:

For the agora, the general community, has gone, along with communities restricted to intermediary bodies or to independent institutions, to salons or caf‚s, or to workers in a single company. There is no place left where people can discuss the realities which concern them, because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse and of the various forces organized to relay it. . . . What is false creates taste, and reinforces itself by knowingly eliminating any possible reference to the authentic. And what is genuine is reconstructed as quickly as possible, to resemble the false.

Another French social critic, Jean Baudrillard, has been writing since the 1960s about the increasingly synthetic nature of technological civilization and a culture that has been irrevocably tainted by the corruption of our symbolic systems. This analysis goes deeper than the effects of media on our minds; Baudrillard claims to track the degeneration of meaning itself. In Baudrillard's historical analysis, human civilization has changed itself in three major stages, marked by the changes in meaning we invest in our symbol systems. More specifically, Baudrillard focused on the changing relationship between signs (such as alphabetical characters, graphic images) and that which they signify. The word dog is a sign, and English-speakers recognize that it refers to, signifies, a living creature in the material world that barks and has fleas. According to Baudrillard, during the first step of civilization, when speech and then writing were created, signs were invented to point to reality. During the second step of civilization, which took place over the past century, advertising, propaganda, and commodification set in, and the sign begins to hide reality. The third step includes our step into the hyper-real, for now we are in an age when signs begin to hide the absence of reality. Signs now help us pretend that they mean something.

Technology and industry, in Baudrillard's view, succeeded over the past century in satisfying basic human needs, and thus the profit-making apparatus that controlled technology-driven industry needed to fulfill desires instead of needs. The new media of radio and television made it possible to keep the desire level of entire populations high enough to keep a consumer society going. The way this occurs has to do with sign systems such as tobacco commercials that link the brand name of a cigarette to a beautiful photograph of a sylvan scene. The brand name of a cigarette is woven into a fabric of manufactured signifiers that can be changed at any time. The realm of the hyper-real. Virtual communities will fit very neatly into this cosmology, if it turns out that they offer the semblance of community but lack some fundamental requirement for true community.

Baudrillard's vision reminded me of another dystopian prophecy from the beginning of the twentieth century, E. M. Forster's chilling tale "The Machine Stops." The story is about a future world of billions of people, each of whom lives in a comfortable multimedia chamber that delivers necessities automatically, dispenses of wastes, and links everyone in the world into marvelously stimulating web of conversations. The only problem is that people long ago forgot that they were living in a machine. The title of the story describes the dramatic event that gives the plot momentum. Forster and Baudrillard took the shadow side of telecommunications and considered it in light of the human capacity for illusion. They are both good cautionary mythmakers, marking the borders of the pitfalls of global, high-bandwidth networks and multimedia virtual communities.

Virtual communitarians, because of the nature of our medium, must pay for our access to each other by forever questioning the reality of our online culture. The land of the hyper-real begins when people forget that a telephone only conveys the illusion of being within speaking distance of another person and a computer conference only conveys the illusion of a town hall meeting. It's when we forget about the illusion that the trouble begins. When the technology itself grows powerful enough to make the illusions increasingly realistic, as the Net promises to do within the next ten to twenty years, the necessity for continuing to question reality grows even more acute.

What should those of us who believe in the democratizing potential of virtual communities do about the technological critics? I believe we should invite them to the table and help them see the flaws in our dreams, the bugs in our designs. I believe we should study what the historians and social scientists have to say about the illusions and power shifts that accompanied the diffusion of previous technologies. CMC and technology in general has real limits; it's best to continue to listen to those who understand the limits, even as we continue to explore the technologies' positive capabilities. Failing to fall under the spell of the "rhetoric of the technological sublime," actively questioning and examining social assumptions about the effects of new technologies, reminding ourselves that electronic communication has powerful illusory capabilities, are all good steps to take to prevent disasters.

If electronic democracy is to succeed, however, in the face of all the obstacles, activists must do more than avoid mistakes. Those who would use computer networks as political tools must go forward and actively apply their theories to more and different kinds of communities. If there is a last good hope, a bulwark against the hyper-reality of Baudrillard or Forster, it will come from a new way of looking at technology. Instead of falling under the spell of a sales pitch, or rejecting new technologies as instruments of illusion, we need to look closely at new technologies and ask how they can help build stronger, more humane communities--and ask how they might be obstacles to that goal. The late 1990s may eventually be seen in retrospect as a narrow window of historical opportunity, when people either acted or failed to act effectively to regain control over communications technologies. Armed with knowledge, guided by a clear, human-centered vision, governed by a commitment to civil discourse, we the citizens hold the key levers at a pivotal time. What happens next is largely up to us.

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