The Whale and the Reactor: Mythinformation

More notes on Langdon Winner’s The Whale and the Reactor, published in 1986. A decade before the internet really began to take off.

Chapter 6 deals with “mythinformation” or the myth that increased access to information via computers and networks leads to increased individual democratic power.

On the great equalizer:

The computer romantics are also correct in noting that computerization alters relationships of social power and control, although they misrepresent the direction this development is likely to take. Those who stand to benefit most obviously are large transnational corporations. While their “global reach” does not arise solely from the application of information technologies, such organizations are uniquely situated to exploit the efficiency, productivity, command, and control the new electronics make available. Other notable beneficiaries of the systematic use of vast amounts of digitized information are public bureaucracies, intelligence agencies, and an ever-expanding military, organizations that would operate less effectively at their present scale were it not for the use of computer power.

on conservatism rather than revolution in the computer age:

Current developments in the information age suggest an increase in power by those who already had a great deal of power, an enhanced centralization of control by those already prepared for control, an augmentation of wealth by the already wealthy. Far from demonstrating a revolution in patterns of social and political influence, empirical studies of computers and social change usually show powerful groups adapting computerized methods to retain control.

on political arguments for digitization:

The political arguments of computer romantics draw upon a number of key assumptions: (1) people are bereft of information; (2) information is knowledge; (3) knowledge is power; and (4) increasing access to information enhances democracy and equalizes social power. Taken as separate assertions and in combination, these beliefs provide a woefully distorted picture of the role of electronic systems in social life.

on public participation in politics:

Public participation in voting has steadily declined as television replaced face-to-face politics of precincts and neighborhoods. Passive monitoring of electronic news and information allows citizens to feel involved while dampening the desire to take an active part. If people begin to rely on computerized data bases and telecommunications as a primary means of exercising power, it is conceivable that genuine political knowledge based in first-hand experience would vanish altogether.

on social paralysis by ubiquitous monitoring:

Confronted with omnipresent, all-seeing data banks, the populace may find passivity and compliance the safest route, avoiding activities that once represented political liberty.

on removing social buffers:

One consequence of these developments is to pare away the kinds of face-to-face contact that once provided important buffers between individuals and organized power. To an increasing extent, people will become even more susceptible to the influence of employers, news media, advertisers, and national political leaders.

I’m guessing the book read like a breathless fringe manifesto. It’s surprising how accurately Winner’s predictions describe modern society. Passivity and complacency, the illusion of connectedness in the face of isolation, real democracy collapsing under the weight of increased media exposure and ubiquitous monitoring of citizens.