[iDC] The Internet and control

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at wanadoo.fr
Wed May 31 20:49:13 EDT 2006

David Golumbia wrote:
The rise of many recent sophisticated quasi-authoritarian
> regimes is coterminous with the rise of the Internet and mass 
> computerization. From a historical perspective, then, a plausible thesis 
> is that /computerization walks hand-in-hand with a kind of state 
> fascism, which sees owning the means of production and the means of 
> interpretation as primary means of social control/.

This is a bit of a simplification, no? Since when have we 
not been living under regimes of social control?

According to the historian Hobsbawm, after the Cuban Missile 
Crisis there was no more danger of nuclear conflagration, 
the two superpowers having established failsafe 
communications allowing them to resolve any dispute before 
it escalated. However, the US, unlike the USSR, continued to 
terrorize its population with bomb shelters, drills, 
anti-communist propaganda and the like, why? Because it was 
an electoral expedient to justify continued expansion of the 
US army around the world, via military adventures like 
Vietnam. Nuclear terror was a form of social control for the 
democratic West, but a non-issue in the East where there 
were no elections to manipulate. So are we more brainwashed 
now than then? Or maybe about the same, but differently?

As awful and power-mongering as Cheney is, as closely 
connected to the military-industrial complex as he is, I am 
not sure he is any more grotesque than McNamara 
(successively CEO of Ford Motors, Secretary of Defense 
during the Vietnam war, then President of the World Bank). 
The US has been compromised as a democracy ever since it 
became a powerful force in the world; since WWII it has been 
deeply compromised. Yet it remains a capitalist democracy, 
and not a totalitarian regime where the state is the single, 
all-powerful actor.

The Internet is an ambiguous phenomenon within state 
capitalism, and it is very interesting because of its 
ambiguities. On the control side it is the latest in a long 
series of information technologies which have accompanied 
corporate industrial expansion, allowing for logistical 
coordination, for the establishment of markets, and for the 
delivery of advertising. On the state side of the 
state-capitalism equation, you can add the spread of 
propaganda and the effectuation of surveillance. Together 
these functions form a regime of control, or if you prefer, 
of social programming. Like the printing press, mail 
systems, newspapers, telegraph, telephone, radio and 
television, the net has been used to program economic and 
social processes, using the word "program" in the sense of 
James Beniger (in an impressive book called "The Control 

To program, in this sense, means to set up and then exploit 
the complex conditions under which the reciprocal flow of 
information between individuals and organizations 
accomplishes the overarching goal of facilitating economic 
circulation, in such a way that industrial expansion (and 
therefore capital expansion) can continue. These conditions 
are established mainly through a process of trial and error 
(albeit an increasingly sophisticated one) by capitalist 
firms, whose production and marketing innovations are then 
stabilized by state regulation and support. Socio-economic 
planning is attempted through coordination between the state 
and the biggest industrial and financial players; but the 
"steering" or governance of industrial expansion and 
commodity circulation is delivishly complex. In the US, the 
main programming instruments under governemnt control are 
monetary policy, military research budgets, and commercial 
law (including IP law, which recently has become one of the 
crucial legal instruments of our time). The Internet as a 
technology grows mainly out of steering through military 
budgets (DARPA); but IP law represents an attempt to steer 
its uses.

The point of all this is that the Internet is not 
essentially about authoritarianism. Rather, it is a 
classically liberal extension of communicational freedoms, 
in the strong sense of liberalism as a political-economic 
philosophy dating back to the seventeenth century, a 
philosophy that organizes "freedom" to serve the values and 
aims of free markets. Liberal societies have always been 
rather tumultuous, because in them, the principle goal 
(capitalist growth) can only be realized by the maintenance 
of freedoms that allow all kinds of debate and bottom-up 
organization in pursuit of other goals. The Internet has 
been an amazing episode in this sense. Since its 
massification in the 90s, it has made the world infinitely 
more interesting, and also, more unpredictable.

However, that doesn't mean that a Bush-style regime cannot 
follow in Mussolini's footsteps and decide to inject 
capitalist society with high doses of nationalist propaganda 
as a strategy to regain control amidst a crisis, like the 
one we are living through now. (But do these control crises 
ever end? or do they just mutate into others?). 
Authoritarian regimes can also add high levels of 
surveillance to balance out the liberal freedoms, which they 
did in the thirties and are doing again today. This happens 
particularly when capitalism starts to produce its own 
opposition, through unemployment crises, ecological 
disasters or cultural clashes. For capitalism, authoritarian 
regimes are a worst-case scenario.

On a deeper level, liberal societies can seek to standardize 
cultural values, slowly eliminating conflict by making 
different values and goals unimaginable. The current version 
of this long-term, large-scale strategy is what we call 
"globalization." In short, Mickey for everyone. Or more 
precisely, Mickey with broadband.

The Internet, despite its quite amazing openness, can be 
used for all these control strategies. Thus it is 
fundamentally ambiguous, just like the other communications 
technologies deployed in the name of economic liberalism. 
But even more so, because it has been developed for a wider 
variety of functions than previous technologies: it supports 
multimedia; send as well as receive; one-to-one and 
one-to-many communication; all in the same technology. Most 
importantly, the Internet works through reprogrammable 
computers: it introduces the possibility of 
counter-programming into the information society. For these 
reasons, the Internet is a democratic joker in the works of 
social control. At the same time as it fits into a pattern 
of information use to control industrial processing, 
structure markets and encourage consumption, it also feeds 
conflicts about whether industrial growth and economic 
circulation are really the only values around which society 
should be structured. The Internet is not a fascist or 
totalitarian plot, but it is a result of highly complex 
socio-economic planning which typically contains (and in 
some cases founders on) its own contradictions.

That said, those who want to explain how the world works 
only in terms of the Internet, or the television, or 
advertising, or whatever single phenomenon, are really 
wasting their time. Social relations, economic developments 
and power struggles involve much more than a single technology!

best, Brian

More information about the iDC mailing list