You Say You Want a Revolution

The Control Revolution by Andrew L. Shapiro

In 1940, James Burnham wrote The Managerial Revolution, which made a splash by predicting that the post-war world would be neither capitalist nor socialist. It would instead be managerial. Bureaucrats, business managers, technicians and military personnel would run planned economies, a concept that impressed George Orwell enough to fill the pages of 1984.

Burnham’s book echoes throughout Andrew Shapiro’s similarly named volume. Shapiro, director of the Aspen Institute Internet Policy Project, is on the look-out for the big trend, and thinks he has found it in the shift in power from corporations and states to individuals. This is indeed a major trend, but is reminiscent of Burnham’s book for a less flattering reason: Burnham got the managerial trend right, but he got the world of the future dead wrong. Shapiro’s extended thinkpiece has the same problem.

Burnham envisioned the end of democracy, the hardening of hierarchical distinctions, and the creation of a slave class at the bottom of society. Nothing could be further from what really unfolded as the West moved towards mixed economies. Rather, the managerial revolution produced the greatest prosperity the world has ever seen, extended suffrage to previously oppressed groups, and led to a loosening of hierarchy. Burnham’s mistake was a too linear view of history.

Shapiro suffers from the same narrowness of vision. His “control revolution” is entirely confined to the Internet. His notion of control is somewhat fuzzy, limited to the notion of access with at least two other conditions, personalization and choice. Shapiro proceeds to unpack a congeries of conventional opinions about the Internet, larded with the soporific on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand prose. He spots a number of good things (convenience, the ability to communicate globally, the disintermediation – his term – of expensive and useless middlemen) and a number of bad things (alienation, the lack of community, the promotion of narrow agendas) which might result from the Net. It all sounds a little faded, as though this were 1996, and the Net was relatively new to most of us.

Although Shapiro spends a little time on the productive aspects of the Net – the individual’s ability to set up web pages and disseminate content – his discussion generally envisions the Net in its consumption aspect. He sees the plugged in individual as making consumer choices, not building code. This might be realistic, but it in itself undermines the grander connotations of a “control revolution.” Mao once said a revolution isn’t a dinner party, but he might have added that it isn’t a shopping spree, either.

“Mao once said a revolution isn’t a dinner party, but he might have added that it isn’t a shopping spree, either.”

Even these faults in the book wouldn’t vitiate it as social analysis if Shapiro weren’t so Net-centric. The Net, despite the hype, isn’t the center of the universe yet. The Bankruptcy “Reform” bill, which just passed the Senate, would in effect override State bankruptcy laws. This is an example of a counter-trend which complicates the whole issue of individual control: the massive de-regulation of businesses in the Reagan and Clinton eras have been accompanied by, and indeed, necessarily conditioned by, the centralization of regulatory law. E-commerce, for instance, depends upon the “intermodal revolution” described last year by  William Leach in Country of Exiles. The federal government effectively took the regulation of the trucking industry out of local hands in order to de-regulate it, and to allow Railroad companies and truck companies to merge. This has made the transportation industry much more efficient, but it has made it much harder to make money if you are a small trucker. The independent trucker, that icon of American individualism, turns out to be dependent on the buffer of government regulation.

So don’t get out the firecrackers to celebrate the control revolution quite yet.

The Control Revolution by Andrew L. Shapiro (Public Affairs ISBN: 1891620193)

 

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