The IT Revolution Reassessed – Part Two

Part two of this series summarises suggestions for ‘reform and renewal’ offered by Astra Taylor, a New York based writer, filmmaker and activist. It’s a ‘middle-of-the-road’ approach that’s well worth taking seriously (and augmenting with other accounts). We then draw on Misha Glenny’s analysis of the ‘dark market’ to show how the Internet has created vast new opportunities for criminal activity at every level. 

Reform and renewal

Taylor’s The People’s Platform (Taylor, 2014) is a true breath of fresh air in a difficult and often demanding debate – one that you could argue is often obscured by the overwhelming self-interest of some of the most powerful entities in the world. With the subtitle ‘taking back power and culture in the digital age’ the reader knows at the outset that this will not be another banal enumeration of the purported ‘wonders of IT.’ For her, the mantra of ‘open markets’ is far from an unalloyed ‘good’ because ‘the more open people’s lives are, the more easily they can be tracked and exploited by private interests’ (P. 23). At the outset I welcomed the author’s clear acknowledgement of the way conventional discourse about IT is framed. It ‘tends to make technology too central, granting agency to tools while sidestepping the thorny issue of the larger social structures in which we and our technologies are embedded’ (p. 6). She adds ‘first and foremost, we need to rethink how power operates in the post-broadcast era’ and ‘technology alone cannot deliver the cultural transformation we have been waiting for; instead we need to first understand and then address the underlying social and economic forces that shape it’ (p. 9 & 10). The issues could not be put more plainly than that. The language and intent here also echo those of the STS discourse mentioned above. Grounded approaches of this kind are essential for ‘clearing the fog’ and making sense of what is happening around us.

Later she points out how, far from promoting competition, monopolies prosper online bringing about a new kind of ‘vertical integration’ and power over people. A major contradiction, in her view is that ‘the more customised and user friendly our computers and mobile devices are, the more connected we are to an extensive and opaque circuit of machines that coordinate and keep tabs on our activities’ (p. 32). There are, of course, many other aspects of this informed and detailed critique. One of the most striking conclusions is simply that the future currently being fashioned, far from being innovative and ‘new,’ is in fact deeply conservative, even regressive. That is, it ‘perpetuates and expands upon the defects of the earlier system instead of forging a new path’ (p. 34). This is particularly the case with advertising. During earlier times it was little more than a kind of visual adjunct to shopping that simply drew attention to what was for sale. A century or so later it has become a vastly inflated, turbo-charged public nuisance – a true curse on civilisation. It not only embodies crass and indefensible conceptions of human existence (‘shop ‘til you drop’) but also imposes incalculable costs on individuals, societies and cultures in part through misdirecting them wholesale and undermining useful (i.e. less self-focused) values. It constructs a glitzy screen of lies and enticements that distract and disorient entire populations to the point where perceiving even the basics of the human and civilisational predicament are pushed ever further out of reach.

As suggested above new technologies don’t emerge in a cultural vacuum without social, political and economic influences. It follows that, ‘if we want to see the fruits of technological innovation widely shared, it will require conscious effort and political struggle’ p. 54). What is also refreshing here is that the author is under no illusion that the main beneficiaries of IT innovations have indeed been American corporations. Given the worldview that these share it is obvious that something needs to give. For example, it becomes increasingly vital to contest the power of what Taylor calls ‘the overlords of monopoly journalism’ and the ways that they’ve become ‘disconnected from the communities they were supposed to serve’ p. 78).

A great deal has been written and said about the rise and rise of ‘social networks’. But few examine the ways that they quietly ‘shuffle hierarchies’ and produce ‘new mechanisms of exclusion’ (p. 108). Such media, it turns out, are by no means immune to what has been called the ‘iron law of oligarchy.’ Thus ‘the web is not actually unstructured, despite the fact that it is open. (It) has a surprising degree of inequality built into its very architecture’ (p. 121). Thus ‘the topology of our cultural landscape has long been twisted by an ever-shrinking number of corporations’ (p. 129). She adds that ‘powerful hierarchies have come to define the medium.’ Moreover ‘online spaces are … contrived with specific outcomes in mind: they are designed to serve Silicon Valley venture capitalists who want a return on investment, and advertisers who want to sell us things’ (p. 139). The smoothness and ease of use of the technology belies an appalling ‘structural greed’ such that ‘the cultural commons have become little more than a radically discounted shopping mall (p. 166).

Some of the solutions – or at least necessities for creating positive change – that emerge from Taylor’s well-founded critique include the following.

  • The need for new social protocols that include ‘ethical guidelines for engagement and exchange, restrictions on privatising and freeloading, fair compensation and the fostering of an ethos of stewardship.
  • An explicit recognition of the need to acknowledge the people and resources of all kinds upon which IT systems rest. These include, rare minerals, mines, data centres, toxic waste, low paid factory workers and the growing mountains of e-waste that turn up in poor countries.
  • A serious attempt to define just how IT systems could be re-designed to better serve the public and also ensure that they are sustainable.
  • A strategy to withdraw from the current practice of commodifying and monetising the attention of IT users and expropriating their personal information for profit. That is ending ‘a new form of discrimination … led by companies you can’t see, using data you didn’t give them permission to access, dictating what you are exposed to and on what terms’ (p. 191).
  • Defining and enacting new national policies to rein in the worst excesses of the IT industry and, at the same time, protect people and cultural spaces where creativity, art and innovation occur for non-instrumental purposes.
  • Reducing the colossal amount of resources expended on advertising (over US$700 billion a year in the US alone) which is ‘something that has virtually no social value and that most people despise.’

As a way of bringing these ideas together, Taylor proposes a ‘manifesto for a sustainable culture’; one in which ‘ new and old media are not separate provinces but part of a hybrid cultural ecosystem that includes the tradition and digital composites of the two’ (p. 215). In her view such a culture will possibly include the following features.

  • It will balance a preoccupation with ‘nowness’ with encouragements to think long term. As such it will include building archives ‘to allow people to explore their cultural heritage for years to come.’
  • It will ‘harness new communications tools to shift the conversation from ‘free’ culture to ‘fair’ culture.
  • It will re-draw the boundaries for subsidies that currently go to the powerful and make them more widely available for genuine useful civic purposes.
  • Current Internet oligarchs will give way to new civic organisations such as a ‘digital public library.’ The former would, at the same time, be required to pay their fair share of tax.
  • Service providers and popular IT platforms will be regulated as public utilities. As part of this new ‘firewalls’ would be created to separate those entities that create information from those that transport In other words, the ‘vertical integration’ of the oligarchs would be reduced and eliminated over time.
  • Similarly, meaningful government oversight of digital media will be re-established.
  • New investment in non-commercial enterprises will be evaluated and encouraged.
  • Overall, art, culture and commerce will be freed from being monetised, commodified and relentlessly exploited.

These are clearly the kinds of suggestions that will in some places generate familiar accusations of ‘Socialism’ and the like. Yet without taking such proposals seriously it is difficult to imagine how the present invasive, wasteful and destructive trajectory of global civilisation can be turned around.

The dark side

Thus far we’ve considered sources dealing with some of the social and commercial uses or misuses of advanced IT. But there’s an even darker and yet more challenging side to this story – the military and criminal uses of IT that have emerged over the last couple of decades. The questions they pose are of the utmost significance to humanity and its possible futures but, again, too few appear currently willing or able to grapple with the issues, let alone provide satisfying answers. Given the secrecy and obscurity that characterises the area, reliable sources are few and far between. An exception is Misha Glenny’s 2009 book McMafia (Glenny, 2009) which provides a detailed overview of organised crime around the world. In that book he made the point very clearly that the Internet had been a boon for criminals since it made their activities easier and that of governments and other civil authorities much harder. This is because the Internet provides an ever-growing number of ways to hide, launder money and pursue a vast range of criminal activities in ways that are difficult to detect or deter.

Fortunately Glenny did not stop there but spent the next two years researching and writing a book on cybercrime called Dark Market (Glenny, 2011). Here he concentrates on the emergence of individuals and groups who were all-too-ready to capitalise on the new opportunities to steal from unsuspecting organisations and individuals. For example he describes how the emergence of ‘carding’ began when hackers discovered how to access personal information and use it to withdraw funds from unsuspecting banks. This rapidly morphed into the development and online sale of card skimming devices, the duplication of credit cards and so on. An online presence called CarderPlanet facilitated this underground trade for some time by operating out of the ‘Dark Net’ of hidden sites that require special software for access. Nowadays its successors facilitate a vast range of illegal transactions that appear to cover the entire gamut of criminal activity around the world. Glenny follows some of the individuals who developed and pursued this parasitic underground trade and found that many of them came from Ukraine and other parts of the Russian Federation. But, of course, it did not stop there.

As all Internet uses know to their cost the rise of spam quickly began to infest email communications. It was spewed out in vast quantities that required very few hits to make the exercise worthwhile. The Nigerian 419 up-front or money transfer scam was one of many that began to separate the naïve and vulnerable from their hard-earned cash. This, unfortunately, is a game that continues to grow and for which there are no simple or easy solutions. The rise of ‘phishing’ and the exploitation of human weaknesses continue to degrade the web and take it ever further away from the idealism expressed by many of its early promoters. It is also the case that certain well-meaning groups (sometimes referred to as ‘white hat hackers’) trawl the Internet continuously to detect ISPs (Internet Service Providers) that support such illegal activities. But, as Glenny notes, it is an unequal struggle since ‘there are tens of thousands of active cyber criminals out in the ether, and only a tiny fraction of them are every likely to get caught’ (p. 151). At the same time, nasty as these criminal operations undoubtedly are, they are still relatively minor when compared to the growing use of the Internet for industrial espionage and military-style action. Often cited here is the well-known case of the Stuxnet virus that was specifically designed to destroy centrifuges used by Iran for uranium enrichment. The virus is widely thought to have been a collaborative project carried out by the USA and Israel. The immediate end of disrupting the enrichment process for a period of time was apparently achieved. But informed observers also point out that this dangerous piece of military software has many other uses and potentially unlimited targets. Here the two-edged sword aspect of new technology is once again clearly revealed. What was originally touted as a ‘solution’ to a particular ‘problem’ becomes a vastly magnified ‘problem’ (if that is the appropriate word) in its own right with consequences that are, to a considerable degree, unknowable.

Glenny’s book was written out of a concern that ‘in humanity’s relentless drive for convenience and economic growth, we have developed a dangerous level of dependency on networked systems in a very short space of time’ (p. 1). Yet none of the above appears to be deterring the corporates and Internet oligarchs from pressing onward and promoting new digital capabilities – including what is now being called the ‘Internet of Things’. In essence, this is a vision of a world in which everything from cars to refrigerators is interconnected in a vast world wide web. This is supposed to achieve new levels of convenience and control. But two things should be noted. First, no one I know is actually asking to be drawn into this ever-tighter embrace with an ever-expanding range of technological devices. The push factors from business and commerce are vastly more powerful and dominant than any detectable pull factors. Second, the risks from criminality and cyber warfare are already well known. So the question arises why would anyone choose to go further along this already compromised path?

At the end of his book Glenny refrains from suggesting solutions because, frankly, he does not see many emerging. He notes, for example, that the resources being poured into ‘cyber security’ are, by and large, being invested in technology. Here is another reflection of the structural bias outlined above. By contrast, ‘there is virtually no investment in trying to ascertain who is hacking and why.’ He adds that ‘nobody differentiates between the hackers from Wikileaks, from the American or Chinese military, from criminal syndicates and from the simply curious’ (p.268). It’s important, in his view to develop a much more detailed and sophisticated understanding of the hackers themselves. A thumbnail sketch suggests that most of them are male, bright (often in possession of advanced degrees), socially withdrawn and have had problems with family, especially parents. These attributes bring to mind those attributed by Joel Bakan and others to the corporation itself some years ago. That work concluded that the behaviour of some corporations could legitimately be considered psychotic (Bakan, 2003).

Glenny’s works provide a valuable source of knowledge and understanding about the widespread criminality of our times and also the extent to which it is supported and facilitated by IT in general and the Internet in particular. These are positive gains. But he is relatively silent on the larger problem that we face. It is an issue that I described in The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History, namely the fact that, as currently constituted, our global civilisation is heading directly into what the model builders have ‘overshoot and collapse’ territory (Slaughter, 2010; Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 2013). It is past due that our instrumentally powerful, but myopic and over-extended species wakes up to the metaphorical ‘cracks’ or systemic defects in the world it has created and also to the vastly diminished futures that lie in store for our descendants. So in part three of this review I will turn to an author who, I suggest, has seen more deeply and clearly into the IT revolution than anyone else – Evgeny Morozov.


Bakan, J. (2003), The Corporation, Random House, London.

Ehrlich, P. & A. (2013), Can a collapse of global civilisation be avoided? Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biol Sciences, 280, 20122845, 9 January.

Glenny, M. (2009), McMafia, Vintage, London.

Glenny, M. (2011), Dark Market, Bodley Head, London.

Slaughter, R. (2010) The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History, Foresight International, Brisbane.

Taylor, A. (2014), The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, Fourth Estate, London.