Monday, April 24, 2006

Reading :: The Control Revolution

Originally posted: Mon, 24 Apr 2006 20:43:56

The Control Revolution: Technological and Economic Origins of the Information Society

by James Beniger

This 1986 book provides an interesting perspective on the "control revolution," the startling uptick in technologies and procedures meant to provide economic and political control in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Beniger sees the world as a sort of computational system, one that dialectically reorders itself:

the Control Revolution also represented the beginning of a restoration -- although with increasing centralization -- of the economic and political control that was lost at more local levels of society during the Industrial Revolution. Before this time, control of government and markets had depended on personal relationships and face-to-face interactions; now control came to be reestablished by means of bureaucratic organization, the new infrastructures of transportation and telecommunications, and system-wide communication via the new mass media. (p.7)

As he explains in the next paragraph, Beniger means control rather broadly: "purposive influence toward a predetermined goal" (p.7). (This definition is so important that he later uses it to distinguish between the organic and inorganic, p.35.) And Beniger becomes quite excited about one development in control technnologies: rationalization -- or, as Beniger prefers to call it, preprocessing, or decreasing the amount of information to be processed. "Rationalization may be defined as the destruction or ignoring of information in order to facilitate its processing" (p.15). For instance, in having people compress their experiences into the confines of standardized forms, bureaucracies reduce information processing (p.16). And bureaucracy has taken off in a big way, due partially to this sort of control through preprocessing: in one extraordinary graph, Beniger demonstrates how the information sector grew from 0.2% of the US civilian labor force in 1800 to 46.6% in 1980 (p.23).

More intriguingly, Beniger claims that digitalization transforms diverse forms of information into "a generalized medium for processing and exchange by the social system, much as, centuries ago, the institution of common currencies and exchange rates began to transform local markets into a single world economy" (pp.25-26). (Later, in fact, he demonstrates how information such as waybills, elevator and storage receipts became negotiable paper: p.252.) The analogy between currencies and information comes up frequently: Beniger sees both as material flows, and states that the proper subject matter of social and behavioral sciences is to study these material information flows (p.38) -- the essence of human society, after all, is the processing of physical throughputs (p.37).

Those who have read Malone, Zuboff & Maxmin, or Reynolds will find some of the subsequent discussion to be familiar. Beniger insists that larger organizations generally necessitate more centralized control, but like Malone, uses markets as an example of efficient decentralized control brought about by new information and communication technologies (p.147). (Beniger, however, has detailed evidence.) He notes how in the mid 19th century, the social processing of material flows threatened to exceed the system's capacity to contain them (p.219). And in that vein, he provides a sympathetic account of increasingly centralized bureaucracies (p.229) and scientific management (p.231). However, he insists that although such technologies sometimes appear to deskill, they teach new skills and more complex tasks (p.424).

Intriguingly, he also investigated how information technologies hybridized across different activities. One story he tells is of Hollerith's inspiration for the punch cards that he used to tabulate the US census: rather than drawing from calculating and adding mechanisms, Hollerith drew from the "punch photographs" or punchcards used by railroads to confirm passengers' identities. Hollerith's first cards were even the same size and shape as these punch photos, and he punched the first of them with a conductor's punch! (p.412)

Writing in 1986, Beniger insists that information technologies will continue to be applied at higher and higher levels of control (p.434). I'm interested in how the outlook has changed in the last 20 years: Malone, Reynolds, and others claim that with the sharp increase in communication avenues, centralized control is no longer necessary and communication-intensive decentralized control mechanisms such as markets are viable at larger scales.

Would I recommend this book? I have to give a qualified yes. On the one hand, Beniger presents a compelling and well researched account of control over the last couple of centuries, and his treatment of society as a computational system foreshadows work by Hutchins and others. And his discussion of control mechanisms certainly puts bureaucracies and scientific management into a new light. On the other hand, Beniger has a tendency to overreach -- making his subject the dividing line between organic and inorganic, for instance -- and I often found myself wondering about how a strong consideration of multiplicities, polycontextuality, and ambiguity would affect his theses. That being said, this book is good background for anyone who is interested in the knowledge economy and how it came to be.

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