The Internet & the Illusion of Empowerment

Has this idea (from ~2000) aged well? Some parts yes, some parts no.

(This article is one of about 23 that ran as a weekly full-page “ad” in The New York Times.)

FROM: internet archive of http://www.turnpoint.org/ at http://web.archive.org/web/20040325044110/http://turnpoint.org/

Article archive (Word Doc)
http://web.archive.org/web/20000816225354/http://www.turnpoint.org/internet.doc

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Photo of Original NY Times Advertisement

The Internet & the Illusion of Empowerment

The computer revolution has been no boon to democracy. It has threatened personal privacy like nothing before, and it’s a serious toxics hazard, too. As for empowerment, let’s call it “corporate empowerment” because they gain far more than you do.

The communications revolution is an odd revolution since all sides agree about it. The conservatives and the liberals, the George W. Bushes and Al Gores, the engineers and the artists, the corporations and the activists who oppose them, accept computers and the internet as empowering to individuals and democracy. But are they?

Corporations are most articulate in these matters. They use “empowerment” and “freedom” as sales points in millions of dollars worth of advertising. A decade ago, we saw TV commercials showing lines of depressed men in grey suits, marching in a dreary world. Computers would set them free. Now the ads show happy monks in Asia, happy children in Africa, happy farmers in Japan, all joining the internet revolution—which you’d better do, too. Everyone should think different together.

Meanwhile, political leaders advocate subsidized “information superhighways” that wire all classrooms to the internet—costing taxpayers about $100 billion. This, despite research that immersing kids into high technology doesn’t make them happier, more creative, alive, or smarter. It may do the opposite: make them lonely, alienated, and depressed. Kids don’t learn better from computers; they learn best from people, nature, and live play. But officials pay little attention to such evidence. We are in the midst of a technological stampede. We are in technological freefall.

Contrary Factors

Are computers “empowering?” Yes, and no. They serve us well in many ways. They help us organize our work, write and edit. We can communicate with like-minded colleagues and be part of global networks. We can disseminate ideas, and create and visit web sites. We can play video games. That’s the good news. We’ve heard about those.
What’s the rest of the story? Here are some points that advertisers have left out:

• Privacy and surveillance. When you make an online purchase, or just hit a web page, you could be automatically adding to the huge accessible data banks that store information about you, your family, your job and salary, your buying patterns, your credit status, and other facts and habits you might rather strangers didn’t know. Computers have let loose the greatest invasion of privacy in history. And there’s a thriving industry of companies in business just to sell this information about you. The same technology is used in the workplace for a kind of surveillance impossible till now. For example, if you’re in any kind of clerical job, your employer may be measuring your key strokes per minute or month; or, how long it takes you to complete a phone transaction, etc. Millions of Americans are no longer job-rated by humans, but by computer systems, often in another state. Is this empowering?

• Toxics. They call it a “cleaner” industry than the old smokestack industries, but unfortunately, it isn’t so. The high tech industries use massive amounts of toxic chemicals that damage the environment and threaten the health of workers. Silicon Valley (Santa Clara County, CA) has more Superfund toxic dump sites than any other county in the U.S.: 29 sites, 80% of which are due to electronics manufacturing. Similar patterns are showing up in Austin, Phoenix, and Albuquerque, where high-tech industries are locating. Who’s paying to clean up their mess? You are, with other taxpayers.

Silicon chip manufacturing needs huge amounts of pure water, while also producing serious contamination of groundwater. Underneath Phoenix, a 15-mile plume of contamination, mostly caused by the electronics industry, has cut available groundwater by 25%. At a time when the planet is experiencing a fresh water shortage, chip manufacturing is becoming a grave threat to life on Earth.

• E-commerce. Suddenly, we are being pushed to convert the economy to e-commerce. The government wants to subsidize e-commerce activity by banning taxes on it, and by working for global trade deals that outlaw tariffs on e-commerce. They call this The New Economy.

However, banning taxes on e-commerce directly threatens the tax base of most states and cities. You may soon see reduced health, education, fire, police, sanitation, and other services, just to feed the coffers of e-commerce titans. In the end, this corporate package will be worth hundreds of billions of dollars for one part of the economy (the “virtual” part, run by computer giants) while subverting the old “brick and mortar” economy: small businesses, retail shops, bookstores, even malls, where humans physically gather, talk and “touch the goods.” Is it legal for the government to favor only one kind of economic activity? Is it a good idea? Are we empowered yet?

There’s still more to the story:

Corporate Empowerment

The editors of Wired magazine—the internet bible—say the computer revolution has brought a new political structure to the planet. The symbol of today is no longer the atom, it’s the web, a decentralized form. The political “center” is diminished, they say, and the new web structure “elevates the power of the small player.” This idea is widely accepted.

But if the political center has been stifled by the internet, somebody forgot to tell the transnational corporations in New York, Tokyo, Brussels, and Geneva. The news might surprise the 200 global corporations that now control nearly 30% of all economic activity on the planet, or the 51 companies that number among the 100 largest economies in the world. Mitsubishi, General Motors, Exxon, to name only a few, are each larger than many countries, including New Zealand, Portugal, Malaysia, Israel, Singapore, Venezuela, Chile, Ireland, etc. Such companies seem oblivious that their power has now been contained by our personal computers. They keep cutting down forests, building huge dams, monopolizing oil, dominating communications, and controlling politicians. And with the recent explosion of global mergers, they seem to think their powers are growing!
Computers have had a central role in encouraging corporate giantism. In fact, modern global corporations could not exist at their present scale, or operate at their speed, without global networks to keep their thousand-armed enterprises in constant touch, seven days each week, 24 hours per day. And, they use these same networks to instantaneously, at the touch of a key, move billions of dollars of assets around the world, without the ability of any nation-state to observe it, or regulate it.
So what kind of revolution is this?

* * *

To use a term like “empowerment” to summarize the effects of computers-in-society may be misjudging the ultimate social, political, and economic outcomes of this revolution. The internet and computers may help us feel powerful, but while we’re e-mailing and networking among our virtual communities, global corporations use these instruments at a scale that makes our use pale by comparison. When they hit their computer keys, they can move billions of dollars instantly from banks in Geneva to, say, Sarawak, and a forest gets cut down. Or, they may buy billions in national currencies only to sell them again a few hours later, causing wild market fluctuations and currency crashes, like a few years ago. While we move information, they express power. There’s a difference. It’s not just who benefits from this technology; it’s who benefits most? It’s not the small player. It’s the big player. Someday, we may conclude that global computer networks that we celebrate for their democratic potential, that we call empowering, are helping facilitate the greatest centralization of unregulated, unaccountable corporate power ever. It’s crucial for democracy that we think this through.

* * *

Some groups are beginning to be concerned. No-one says don’t use this technology, but major questions—social, political, environmental—are emerging about the outcome of this trend. Many of the groups have good ideas about how to improve things.

Think different. (Think differently, actually). Start asking questions about how this revolution is going. For inspiration you might check the work of, well, Gandhi, who actually spent his life working against the kind of centralizing technology that global computer systems represent. Or, Dr. King, who said this: “Mammoth productive facilities with computer minds…Gargantuan industry and government, woven into an intricate computerized mechanism, leave the person outside…man becomes separated and diminished…democracy is emptied…This process produces alienation—perhaps the most pervasive and insidious development in contemporary society.”

For more information about how to get involved, please call.

[Signers]
International Center for Technology Assessment
The Loka Institute
Cultural Environment Movement
Center for Media and Democracy
Independent Media Center
Center for Commercial-Free Public Education
Rainforest Action Network
International Society for Ecology and Culture
Earth Island Institute
The Nature Institute/NetFuture
Whole Earth Magazine
Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition
Association of Waldorf Schools of North America
Collective Heritage Institute/Bioneers Conference
Media Alliance
Planet Drum Foundation
YES! Magazine
Jacques Ellul Society
We, The World
The Ecologist Magazine

Signers are all part of a coalition of more than 80 non-profit organizations that favor democratic, localized, ecologically sound alternatives to current practices and policies. This advertisement is #3 in the Megatechnology series. Other ad series discuss extinction crisis, genetic engineering, industrial agriculture and economic globalization. For more information, please contact:
Turning Point Project, 310 D St. NE, Washington, DC 20002
1-800-249-8712 • http://www.turnpoint.org • email: info@turnpoint.org

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