The Control Revolution: How the Internet Is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know

By Cenite, Mark | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

The Control Revolution: How the Internet Is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know


Cenite, Mark, Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


The Control Revolution: How the Internet Is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know. Andrew L. Shapiro. New York: Century Foundation, 1999. 286 pp. $25 pbk.

Andrew Shapiro's Control Revolution deserves the prominent place it will surely occupy in communication policy debate. Shapiro, a fellow at New York University Law School and a contributing editor of The Nation, is one of the first scholars to link issues as varied as pornography access and day trading regulation into a common conceptual framework and propose detailed solutions. Shapiro sees individual Internet policy battles as fronts in a "control revolution" that he defines as:

1. The potentially monumental shift in control from institutions to individuals made possible by new technology such as the Internet

2. The conflict over such change between individuals and powerful entities

3. The unexpected, and not always desirable, ways in which such change could reshape our lives.

The book's intuitively appealing structure-with sections titled "Revolution," "Resistance," "Oversteer," and "Balance"represents Shapiro's optimistic view that these policy battles will be resolved with solutions that balance sometimes conflicting needs of individuals and institutions. The section on "Revolution" explains ways that individual control is increasing online, leading to declines in the roles of certain "middlemen." For example, opportunities to publish and trade stocks online may lead to lasting declines in the roles of some journalists and stockbrokers. "Resistance" discusses state and corporate attempts to reign in or direct individual choice: Congress passed the Communication Decency Act (1996); China built its "great firewall"; Amazon.com accepted payments to feature certain books.

"Oversteer" raises the specter of too much individual control. Individual online "journalists" like Matt Drudge can adopt their own personal journalistic standards, which may not include fact-checking. The ease with which an individual can exit an online community makes it a weakly bonded, artificial community. Decision making through online referenda could lead to complex policy decisions being made by an ill-informed public rather than through deliberative bodies like legislatures. And personalized narrowcasting can allow us to completely filter out some messages, potentially making us narrow-minded. Finally, "Balance" highlights Shapiro's solutions, most of which involve a return to certain middlemen. Shapiro favors a greater role online for media monitors like the Columbia Journalism Review. He favors some minimal government checks on free markets, such as vigorous enforcement of antitrust law.

Shapiro calls himself a "technorealist." He distances himself from "starry-eyed" Internet pioneers who spoke of writing their own social contracts. He declares dead the "sublime myth that online interaction occurs on some uncharted, lawless frontier" and should therefore be distinct for purposes of policy analysis. But Shapiro repeats the often-heard utopian predictions that the Internet makes each of us a publisher with a potentially vast audience. He predicts that Internet activists may soon"take on big media," transform public opinion, and liberate us from media "merger mania." Such predictions downplay the reality that one must first be found in cyberspace to be heard, and recent research has found that Internet search engines index at most one-fourth of web sites. Communication scholar Robert McChesney has raised deeper concerns, cautioning that the Internet cannot produce political culture lacking in society at large, and observing that interactivity might not be such a magnificent advance if people do not know what they are talking about. …

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