Excerpt from Spirit of the Web - Chapter 31, The Promise of the Age of Information:
Copyright ©1999 Wade Rowland. All rights reserved.
"Computers and computer-mediated communication technologies are also tools
which support in very direct and immediate ways fundamentally human traits
such as the desire to communicate, the desire for freedom from arbitrary
authority, a resistance to uniformity and a preference for diversity, a
love of the unexpected and the serendipitous. They do this, or can in
principle, while assisting in the maintenance of the social fabric through
richness and fluidity of communication, access to information and the
provision of tools to make information useful and meaningful.
It could be
said that, as a meta-machine, the computer and its networks are
paradoxically putting into the hands of people the instruments they need to
break the bonds of the machine age and regain their threatened humanity.
Access to information; the virtual corporation; global, multimedia
communication; new tools for creativity of all kinds and in all media - all
of these developments seem to militate toward redressing the imbalance
between the subjective and the objective, the rational and the intuitive,
the yin and yang, that has grown progressively more troubling as we have
fallen more and more under the spell of our machines and machine-derived
management techniques and social structures.
In the end, it is the networking of computers that has made the difference,
that has differentiated their impact from that of ordinary machines. Or one
might say the difference derives from the fact that computers are the first
machines that can actually communicate with one another autonomously,
making the construction of networks feasible.
Communication being the most
human of attributes, it might be said that we have finally invented a
machine that operates more in sympathy with us, one that we can adapt to
our rhythms and preferences, rather than the reverse, as has been the case
with most machine technologies.
The machine age that preceded our own, and lingers still, dictated economic
processes and values that meshed with machine processes. It meant humans
were to be considered in the undifferentiated aggregate, i.e. not as
employees or even workers, but as "human resources", the civilian
counterpart to "cannon fodder". The army was the ideal organizational model
toward which machine society impelled its masses.
The factory, as the hub
of production and employment, simplified the logistics of production and
permitted the regimentation of workers according the the dictates of the
manufacturing process. It demanded mobility of labour - workers had to
locate themselves near their place of employment - which instigated a
breakdown of traditional family and social relationships and values. It
demanded collective effort, uniformity, order and obedience.
Frederick Taylor was the patron saint of machine-age management and his
ideas on efficiency and productivity dominated the era. His contributions
may be summarized in three principles: a) dissociation of the work process
from the skills of the workers - managers alone should be responsible for
organizing the processes of labour; b) separation of conception from
execution, so that workers can be confined to performing a series of
management-prescribed actions, and c) the strict maintenance of
management's monopoly on knowledge of each step of the production process
and their labour requirements.
As Mumford observed at the height of the machine age in 1930, the most
noticeable feature of the era has been its punctuality. Every facet of the
daily rhythm is governed by the clock. The household arises at a set time,
no matter how tired or apathetic. If one arises late, there is a frantic
rush to "make up time". We dine at intervals set by the clock, regardless
of appetite. Our entertainment is dictated by the television time-listings.
Millions observe the same schedule, so that only perfunctory provision is
made for those who have to perform these functions at different times.
And looking back from his own vantage point to the previous century, he
painted a picture which is startling in its relevance to our own time of
obsessive concern with quantitative. Mumford wrote:
"The leaders and enterprisers of the period believed that they had avoided
the necessity for introducing values, except those which were automatically
recorded in profits and prices. They believed the problem of justly
distributing goods could be sidetracked by creating an abundance of them;
that the problem of applying one's energies wisely could be cancelled out
simply by multiplying them; in short that most of the difficulties that had
hitherto vexed mankind had a mathematical or mechanical - that is a
quantitative - solution. The belief that values could be dispensed with
constituted the new system of values."
The social structures dictated by the machine, in encouraging collective
exertion, greatly amplified the impact of human effort, but only at the
sacrifice of much that is essentially human. And we have carried on in the
misguided belief that there is a useful or workable "value-free" approach
to solving human problems, available to us through the use of technology.
The Information Age, due to the distinctive nature of its economic demands
and consequences, has much less need for formal structure than the
mechanical age with its factory paradigm and characteristic corporate
hierarchies. Digital communication networks make it possible, even
economically desirable to disperse workers, who no longer need access to
machinery that in earlier times could be provided economically only at a
central factory location.
Most of the tools needed by the information
worker are available to him or her via digital networks connecting
computers. And "information worker" can be very broadly defined here:
Hollywood film editors can and do work at home thanks to high-speed fibre
optic networks and digital editing software, as can just about anyone else
whose on-the-job raw materials can be reduced to digital format and whose
needs for most personal communication can be met by telephone and video
Sales reps need no offices at company headquarters and
companies may need no headquarters; teachers need no classrooms to house
their students. Most bureaucratic processes, where they survive, can be
dispersed. In a very broad sense, decision-making and responsibility can be
dispersed in novel ways and very widely throughout society because of the
new possibilities for continuous communication between the providers and
users of services and products of all kinds.
In the Information Age, in the era of distributed networks, machine age
values are out of place and counterproductive. Creativity is valued over
corporate loyalty in workers, who in turn have little or no tolerance for
the regimentation of traditional factory systems. Excellence is not
achieved by division of labour and isolation of tasks as on an assembly
line, but by small groups, sometimes only two or three, working intensively
as a team.
Significantly, the the tools and the raw materials of
production, principally information, computers and access to networks, can
be possessed or at least tapped by any individual worker: the capitalists
have lost their historic monopoly on the means of production, along with
the power that came with it to set wages and determine working conditions.
Their challenge is now, to be able to identify the young men and women who
are likely to come up with the next bright idea and to get them under
In the information age, it's a seller's market for labour, and
labour often arrives equipped with its own tools of production, its own
"factory". Capitalism is not dead; it is being democratized...."
Praise for "Spirit of the Web"
"...remarkable...poetic...(a) renaissance sweep of imagination...SPIRIT OF THE WEB is an engaging hybrid of popular scholarship: part archive, part science textbook, part philosophy, part polemic about the nature of authority and the control of information in all ages...Like life, digital networks are an emergent system; Rowland helps put their past and future in perspective."