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Internet: The Illusions of Empowerment

Congratulations to Whole Earth for surviving so long, for turning away from technotopian visions, and for returning to community, ecological sustainability, individual empowerment. It is truly a revolutionary act when people or institutions are able to say, "My God, we're out on the wrong limb here; we are not heading where we meant to; let's get grounded."

And as we attempt to reground—which is to say, reconnect with an Earth-based reality that is not virtual—we all need to sweep around in the corners of our consciousness to examine some basic assumptions. The one I'm most interested in changing has to do with the issue of "empowerment," specifically the idea that the computer revolution contributes to it. I think the opposite is the case: computers are disempowering us, and our causes, and are leading to the highest degree of corporate-controlled centralization in history. Computers, the global information networks, and the "information society" empower them, not us.

The computer revolution is a weird one since both sides seem to agree about it. They all think it's great. The corporations and the activists, the engineers and the artists, the Al Gores and the Newt Gingriches, the conservatives and the liberals all outdo themselves to articulate utopian visions of a computer-based society. Does that make you uneasy? Is Newt Gingrich's utopia the same as yours? In any case, shouldn't we have learned by now to be wary of any "revolution" led by corporations and vice presidents?

Even my own friends tend to side with the computers-bring-you-power argument. "You miss the point," they tell me. "Computers can help us communicate with like-minded types; we can get better organized against those big corporations. We can reach people all over the planet, and use email to mobilize."

Some of my friends quote Kevin Kelly, formerly of Whole Earth and now of Wired. He argues that the computer revolution created a new political structure on the planet. The symbol of today should no longer be the atom, he has written, now it's the web, or the net. According to his view, the political center has been wiped out and an entirely new web structure "elevates the power of the small player," while promoting heterogeneity and a new kind of pure democracy where we can be equal players in the global information game. Also, it brings on a new "incipient technospiritualism."

Kevin's right on the last point: technospiritualism, though I favor the older kind that doesn't require mediation by machines. As for the idea that the old political center has been wiped out by our PCs and email, and that web politics has brought us a computer-enhanced democracy, let me ask this: Shouldn't we call it "virtual democracy"? I think so. Because somebody forgot to tell the transnational corporations in Tokyo, New York, Brussels, and Geneva that the real power was no longer in the center, that it was now out of their control. Two hundred corporations now control twenty-eight percent of global economic activity; twenty-four corporations are among the hundred largest economies of the world, far larger than many countries. The computer has had a crucial role to play in this, as have the big new global trade agreements, which have deregulated all controls on international banking, investment, and capital movement. Corporations are now free to use the new global technologies to move their assets around the world, instantaneously, at the touch of a key, without the ability of nation-states to observe, control, or slow them down.

Some people understand this, notably among the right wing. Dr. Joe Cobb of the Heritage Foundation once told me that because of technology, corporate-led globalization is "inevitable." It can't be stopped (presumably because technology itself "can't be stopped," yet one more paradigm worth examining).

So, what kind of revolution do we have here? To use terms like "empowerment" to summarize the effects of computers is to badly misrepresent what power is about in a real political and economic context. Computers may help individuals feel powerful or competent and surely they are useful; nobody denies this. But this does nothing whatever to balance the ultimate drift of the technology, to help gather staggering new power in the hands of giant corporations, banks, and global trade bureaucracies, all made possible by these same instruments.

In my view, computer technology will eventually be understood by all of us, as it already is by the right wing, as the greatest centralizing technology ever invented. For while we sit happily at our PCs editing our copy, sending our emails, designing our little web pages, transnational corporations are using their global networks twenty-four hours a day, at a scale and a speed that makes our level of empowerment seem pathetic by comparison. The giant transnationals of today simply could not exist without the global computer networks. When they push their computer keys, they cause hundreds of billions of dollars in resources to move from, say, a bank in Geneva to Sarawak, resulting in a forest cut down. Or else they push a key and buy billions of dollars of a national currency, only to sell it again a few hours later, leaving countries' economies in shambles, and populations devastated. That is information with power. Information by itself is for the disempowered; and the Internet is our opiate.

The question we have to learn to ask about new technology is not whether it benefits us, but whom does it benefit most? For despite its usefulness to us in many activities, the electronic revolution has far more to offer the largest enterprises on the planet than it does to you and me; we suffer a net loss from its emergence as the new global nervous system.

If you want to use your computers for your various good works, okay. But please keep in the forefront of your minds who else is using this wonderful "decentralizing" instrument, to what ends and with what results. And let's stop calling them empowering .