Technology and Power 21 November 1996


The assignment from David Engberg for our discussion on 21 November 1996 was as follows:

"I want to chew over some grossly disparate ideas that are coming out of the whole Internet movement. On one side, we have the Wired-style crowd, led by luminaries like Negroponte and Toffler, who predict that the nature of the new information technologies will inherently increase the power of individuals (through desktop publishing and the web, etc.) over that of existing power structures like governments and corporate monopolies.

On the other side, information technologies can easily have the opposite effect ... making it easier to centralize of power, especially by multinational corporations.

I'm sure we've read enough glowing prose for the former view (if you haven't, you could grab Negroponte's _Being Digital_ or any issue of Wired, for that matter), so I thought I'd throw out a couple samples of the latter.

The first is a little essay about current high-tech libertarianism.

The second is from Michel Foucault. In Discipline and Punish, he talks about The Panopticon ... a prison that is physically structured so that inmates may be watched at any time without their knowledge. This creates a situation where the instrument of control is just the potential for observation. Apply this to the 90's, and we can see that our behavior may be strictly limited by the potential for observation of our movements and activities through electronic records and monitoring in the workplace.

Since this book (Discipline and Punish) isn't on the web, obviously, I don't have a good way to get the original sources to you. I did some web searching, and the closest essay I could come up with was from a previous semester of Howard's class and is located at: For the purposes of our discussion, I would recommend skipping to section III to get the basic gist of the paper.


The following are notes from the discussion that took place on 21 November 1996 about the assignment David gave us (detailed above).

We talked about the fact that in Tacoma, WA, they are apparently setting up cameras all over neighborhoods for security and surveillance. What's really scary is that people are saying that they're willing to sacrifice privacy for safety. The article about these developments had the "token wild-eyed guy" from the ACLU saying I can't believe you people are not protesting this stuff, but for the most part the people subjected to the surveillance didn't seem to object to it.

Another good example of a situation in which total surveillance is possible is with credit card/ATM card usage. That's how all the dumb criminals get caught. In fact, Theodore Kacyzinski's (the Unabomber) ability to transact all of his business with cash or through "in kind" transactions was one of many reasons he was able to evade the authorities for as long as he did.

We then talked a bit about a group that has organized itself around something called the Californian Ideology. A web page summarizing this group's philosophy can be found at: calif5.html More or less, its a cross between libertarian perspectives and bay area culture with an emphasis on information technologies. Interesting to think about in light of this discussion of surveillance.

We also talked at this meeting about an article in the San Francisco Guardian titled, "The Digital Dark Ages." The article was published on 6 November 1996. One of the interesting points made in this article was that people would not have said in the 1940s, "What about the television have-nots?" Applying this to the present, we might say that if a technology is good enough, interesting enough, and eventually cheap enough, it will permeate the market. Being overly concerned with making sure everyone has a TV, for example, was not a big public policy priority even before everyone had one. But computers and Internet access (a la Newt Gingrich, "a laptop for every inner-city child") may be a different issue since these are conceivably ways that people can earn a living, whereas television is primarily for entertainment.

The proliferation of information appliances will allow corporations to monitor their customers more than they were able to through simple broadcast media like radio and television. Distributed computing, may lead to increased surveillance, since providers can track what type of work is being done by which individuals. Network computers (NCs) likewise could lead to the same thing. AOL (and similar organizations) would also be able to track usage and use it commercially if it became politically viable to do so. (At the moment, users would rebel, but that may change.)

Finally, we talked about WebTV and how this represents the first real opportunity to make the Internet available to anyone with a common consumer item, the television. Several people in the focus group have it and think that the design is really excellent. One interesting thing providers are doing is caching the data from all the places you've been before to provide higher speed access to them if you return to the same site again. But again, this raises the issue of privacy. You basically have to trust them that they will not inform others (particularly advertisers) where you've been. But they do have the ability now. Apparently the screen design is very good, even with the limitations of television screens-- even with fewer pixels to deal with, very clear text. The consensus among those who had seen WebTV is that it's clearly going to be a big consumer item that may actually move us from a primarily broadcast method of information dissemination to an interactive one.

There was then a brief discussion about how the mass-media is increasingly becoming info-tainment. Interesting to think about the effect this might have on the Web as it makes the line between television and computer technologies fuzzier.

We also talked about how Wired magazine offers a good indication of the life-trajectory of new ideas in the US economy. It might be interesting to do a study of how the magazine has progressed from being driven by alternative lifestyle concerns to being increasingly business related. The Internet has gone from being an alternative lifestyle Mecca to being a new way for businesses to make money. Wired magazine has also gone through this transition, and you can tell simply by simply by looking at who appears on the cover of the magazine-- increasingly bank CEO's, heads of business, people making money.

On a side-note, Wired enterprises is doing disastrously, IPO had to be pulled first time because of lack of interest.

Wired is a technology "brand"-- people love it because it's about lifestyle, and about what it would be like to be young and successful, working in Bay Area in hi-tech industry. Very romanticized.

Our final (cynical) thoughts about the popularization of the Internet is that anything that is successful in the American economy will be disney-ized-- anything that offers a good chance to make money will be purchased.