The Book Club

Is Power on the Internet a Zero-Sum Game?

Dear Glenn:     

Thanks for letting me join the conversation late.

Like Tim (he and I co-authored Who Controls the Internet?,in case anyone is confused), I enjoyed and learned a lot from An Army of Davids. Your book does a great job of explaining how new technologies improve individuals’ lives.

But I am skeptical of the book’s whiggish optimism. On the whole, An Army of Davids argues that the newest “new things” in technology are changing for the better the old and outdated determinants of human organization. Who Controls the Internet? is more cynical. It is, as we say in the book, “about old things—the enduring relevance of territory and physical coercion, and ancient principles governing law and politics within nations, and cooperation and conflict between them.”

Charles Cooley, a communications theorist at work a century ago, was, like you, an optimist. The telegraph and newswires, he wrote, “make it possible for society to be organized more and more on the higher faculties of man, on intelligence and sympathy, rather than on authority, caste, and routine. They mean freedom, outlook, indefinite possibility.” Large and centralized actors were outdated: “A million environments solicit him, there is eager competition in place of monopoly.”

As the writings of Cooley and scores of other telegraph-era theorists suggest, every major communication revolution—the printing press, the telegraph, the telephone, and the Internet—is accompanied by predictions of individual empowerment vis-a-vis large organizations and the state. And yet the reality during these periods is that governments and corporations continue to grow in power and size.

This is what I would have liked to have seen more of in An Army of Davids: an assessment of how technologies also empower government and large firms. For every story about how a blogger beats big media or how “studio-on-a-shelf” threatens big labels, one could tell a story about how governments and corporations are growing larger and larger and are using the new technologies to collect and use information to control individuals.

AT&T is back, as a behemoth. Microsoft’s monopoly is unchallenged, despite its failure to produce a major new operating system product in five years. In radio, Clear Channel has expanded from 40 radio stations nationwide to 1,200. The U.S. government is controlled by a single political party and is growing at what for many is a frightening rate. International organizations are proliferating. Even bloggers are consolidating their efforts in big organizations like Pajamas Media. I know you’re not against some of these developments. Indeed, your book proposes a middle way, in which new technologies and old organizations work hand-in-hand. Still, if we’re living in an age of deconcentration and diversity, what does the concentration of government and corporate power look like?

While you are doubtlessly right that the new technologies improve many aspects of life for many people, there are also downsides to them. The geographical identification and content-filtering technologies that contributed to the comfy chair revolution that you celebrate also made possible unprecedented thought control in China. And the Internet’s effects on modern discourse have not all been positive. Cooley worried about a similar problem in his age. “It is … a loud time,” he wrote in 1909. “The newspapers, the advertising, the general insistence of suggestion,” he wrote, “have an effect of din.” People “exaggerate and repeat and advertise and caricature, saying too much in the hope that a little may be heard.” One might similarly worry, with Cass Sunstein and others, about the Internet’s polarizing effects.

The really hard question—and one that we do not answer as well as we might have in Who Controls the Internet?—is whether new technologies empower individuals or organizations more. You suggest that technology is tilting the balance to individuals: “The growth of computers, the Internet, and niche marketing means that you don’t have to be a Goliath to get along. Like David’s sling, these new technologies empower the little guy to compete more effectively.” Tim and I argue that governments maintain a long-run advantage because they have greater financial resources and a monopoly on the use of legitimate coercion.

It is possible, of course, that this is not a zero-sum game, that the new technologies make both individuals and government stronger—that governments can monitor and control its citizens better than ever, and that citizens can learn and criticize and hold government responsible more effectively than ever.

In closing, I should acknowledge that I might be wrong to interpret An Army of Davids as an optimistic book. The book notes that the technologies that empower individuals can be very dangerous, and it argues that space colonization may be the only solution to threats of biological and nuclear terrorism and similar threats. Mickey Kaus construes these passages to mean that you are not really a technological optimist after all, and on your blog you seem to suggest that he is right. Perhaps, in the end, you are a realist who takes progress as an article of faith.

Thanks for the fun discussion, and congratulations on your stimulating book.

Jack (and Tim)