Notes for Langdon Winner “Mythinformation”, 1986
(588) Of course, the same
society now said to be undergoing a computer revolution has long
since gotten used to “revolutions” in laundry detergents,
underarm deodorants, floor waxes, and other consumer products.
A Metaphor Explored
Skepticism that revolutionary spirit really present in movers and shakers in computer fields, as does Golumbia; it is really the absent mind that drives innovation.
(589) A number of social
scientists, computer scientists, and philosophers have begun to
explore important issues about how computerization works and what
developments, positive and negative, it is likely to bring to
society. But such careful, critical studies are by no means the ones
most influential in shaping public attitudes about the world of
(590) Hence, one looks in vain to the movers and shakers in computer fields for the qualities of social and political insight that characterized revolutionaries of the past.
Good Console, Good Network, Good Computer
Prevailing ahistorical viewpoint making politics a crucial but thoughtless part of message of computer revolutionaries: knowledge is power bright future for participatory democracy.
(590) A consistently ahistorical
viewpoint prevails. . . . Politics, in other words, is not a
secondary concern for many computer enthusiasts; it is a crucial
albeit thoughtless, part of their message.
(590) Because “knowledge is power,” because electronic information will spread knowledge into every corner of the world society, political influence will be much more widely shared. With the personal computer serving as the great equalizer, rule by centralized authority and social class dominance will gradually fade away. The marvelous promise of a “global village” will be fulfilled in a worldwide burst of human creativity.
(591) The same viewpoint holds that the prospects for participatory democracy have never been brighter.
(592) The key is the self-motivating exhilaration that accompanies truly effective interaction with information through a good console through a good network to a good computer. It is, in short, a democracy of machines.
Mythinformation conviction that widespread adoption of computers and communications systems will automatically produce better world for human living.
(592) Taken as a whole, beliefs
of this kind constitute what I would call mythinformation:
the almost religious conviction that a widespread adoption of
computers and communications systems along with easy access to
electronic information will automatically produce a better world for
The Great Equalizer
(592) A number of studies, including those of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, suggest that the vast majority of new jobs will come in menial service occupations paying relatively low wages.
Large transnational businesses will be biggest winners; increase in power of those already in power.
(592) Those who stand to benefit most
obviously are large transnational business corporations. While their
“global reach” does not arise solely from the application of
information technologies, such organizations are uniquely situated to
exploit the efficiency, productivity, command, and control the new
electronics make available. Other notable beneficiaries of the
systematic use of vast amounts of digitized information are public
bureaucracies, intelligence agencies, and an ever-expanding military,
organizations that would operate less effectively at their present
scale were it not for the use of computer power.
(592) Current developments in the information age suggest an increase in power by those who already had a great deal of power, an enhanced centralization of control by those already prepared for control, an augmentation of wealth by the already wealthy.
(593) Computer enthusiasts, however, seldom propose deliberate action of that kind. Instead, they strongly suggest that the good society will be realized as a side effect, a spin-off from the vast proliferation of computing devices. There is evidently no need to try to shape the institutions of the information age in ways that maximize human freedom while placing limits upon concentrations of power.
Political assumptions of computer romantics mistake supply of information with ability to leverage it.
(593) The political assumptions of
computer romantics draw upon a number of key assumptions: (1) people
are bereft of information; (2) information is knowledge; (3)
knowledge is power; and (4) increasing access to information enhances
democracy and equalizes social power.
(593) Alas, the idea is entirely faulty. It mistakes sheer supply of information with an educated ability to gain knowledge and act effectively based on that knowledge.
Plato and Veblen also realized democracy not a matter of distributing information.
(594) To Plato and Veblen it was
obvious that knowledge was not
a situation they hoped to remedy. An equally serious misconception
among computer enthusiasts is the belief that democracy is first and
foremost a matter of distributing information.
(594) Passive monitoring of electronic news and information allows citizens to feel involved while dampening the desire to take an active part. . . . The vitality of democratic politics depends upon people's willingness to act together in pursuit of their common ends. It requires that on occasion members of a community appear before each other in person, speak their minds, deliberate on paths of action, and decide what they will do.
False assumption that ordinary citizens equipped with microcomputers will be able to counter influence of computer-based organizations.
Presumably, ordinary citizens equipped with microcomputers will be
able to counter the influence of large, computer-based
(595) Using a personal computer makes one no more powerful vis-a-vis, say, the National Security Agency than flying a hang glider establishes a person as a match for the U.S. Air Force.
Information and Ideology
Mythinformation expressive contemporary ideology that all aspects of life benefit from speedy digitized information processing.
Despite its shortcomings as political theory, mythinformation is
noteworthy as an expressive contemporary ideology.
(595-596) Enormous quantities of data, manipulated with various kinds of electronic media and used to facilitate the transactions of today's large, complex organizations is the model we are urged to embrace. . . . Computers provide one way to confront that problem; speed conquers quantity. An equally serious challenge is created by the fact that the varieties of information most crucial to modern organizations are highly time specific.
(596) But is it sensible to transfer this model, as many evidently wish, to all parts of human life? Must activities, experiences, ideas, and ways of knowing that take a longer time to bear fruit adapt to the speedy processes of digitized information processing? . . . This is a case in which the computer is a solution frantically in search of a problem.
(596) The efficient management of information is revealed as the telos of modern society, its greatest mission.
Everywhere and Nowhere
(596) I will mention three areas of concern.
Three areas of concern: pervasive surveillance, dissolution of face-to-face social bonds, integrity of social forms dependent on spatial and temporal limits built into human embodiment but distorted by intelligent networks.
(596) The availability of digitized footprints of social transactions
affords opportunities that contain a menacing aspect. . . . Unless
steps are taken to prevent it, we may develop systems capable of a
perpetual, pervasive, apparently benign surveillance.
(597) Despite greater efficiency, productivity, and convenience, innovations of this kind do away with the reasons people formerly had for being together, working together, acting together. . . . One consequence of these developments is to pare away the kinds of face-to-face contact that once provided important buffers between individuals and organized power.
(597) Human beings and human societies, however, have traditionally found their identities within spatial and temporal limits. They have lived, acted, and found meaning in a particular place at a particular time. Developments in microelectronics tend to dissolve these limits, thereby threatening the integrity of social and political forms that depend on them.
(597) A transnational corporation can play fast and loose with everyone, including the country that is ostensibly its “home.”
Current computer revolution influenced by absent mind rather than new wonders in AI.
(597) Some observers forecast that “the computer revolution” will eventually be guided by new wonders in artificial intelligence. Its present course is influenced by something much more familiar: the absent mind.
Winner, Langdon. “Mythinformation.” The New Media Reader. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003. 588-597. Print.