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The Control Revolution, How the Internet is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know
by Andrew L. Shapiro
Five years ago, when I first began spending lots of time online, cyberspace felt like a chaotic and confusing place. I was often horrified by the clumsy or overblown design, disgraceful spelling, terrible writing, muddy thinking, and unspeakable grammar I often found online. I hated the unruly, disorganized junk I had to wade through to find what I wanted. There was no quality control, no standards, no ratings, no editing, no guides, no help. Then, one day as I sat at my computer, I had an insight that changed my whole way of thinking about the Net.
True, there was lots of garbage. But this was because nobody was doing any editing. It was chaotic because nobody was doing any organizing. But this also meant that nobody was pre-screening what I saw or telling me what to think about what I found. All decisions about what to take seriously and what was of value were up too me. Nobody was there to help or direct me. But that was exactly what gave the Internet its extraordinary power. Instead of a limited subset of information, I had access to all the information. Instead of getting a single point of view, I could get all points of view.
I became more acutely aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that my favorite media-from JAMA to my beloved New York Times-would inevitably, by their decisions on what to cover and in the way they presented their stories, shape the material. (The experience of writing for, and being interviewed by, some of these publications provided additional insights.) With the older media, I was a consumer of professionally-prepared materials. On the Internet, I was in control. From that day on, I have considered the flotsam and jetsam of the Internet a worthwhile price to pay.
At a recent conference, I recounted this experience to Charles Simonyi, chief software architect at Microsoft. He observed that after I'd gotten past the garbage and discovered the deep candor the Net offers-access to such a depth of information that I could be pretty sure I wouldn't be too surprised by anything else I might discover about that topic-the pre-online media seemed pretty limited.
I thought back to that original insight, years ago, as I was reading Andrew L. Shapiro's powerful and important new book, The Control Revolution (PublicAffairs Publishers, New York, 1999, $25.00). He too had an insightful description of my new perception of the Net-and of the very thing that online patients are now experiencing: "The palpable sense of deciding for yourself, as opposed to having some larger, impersonal 'them' deciding for you."
Shapiro is an proponent but not a Pollyanna. In addition to the benefits of living in "the world according to you," he considers the problems that may arise if we use this new control in reckless ways. For with it comes with an implied obligation to seek a balance between private and public good. The recipients of this new power will be responsible for making sure the revolution turns out right.
I'm still making my way through this thought-provoking book, but I've already seen enough to recommend it. When it comes to understanding the importance of the new online tools, "terms like 'communications revolution' and 'information revolution' actually don't go far enough," Shapiro says. "The real change set in motion by the Internet may, in fact, be a control revolution, a vast transformation in who governs information, experience, and resources. Increasingly, it seems like we will."
Published in The Ferguson Report, Number 5, July 1999
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