Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. August 2004

2.3. Media and cultural aspects of civil society
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Zrinjka Peruško (Zagreb)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Unprecedented Access and Choice: The Internet, Global Systems and the New Culture of Shared Resources

Mark Perry (Beirut, Lebanon)(1)



The Internet exemplifies a new type of public-private partnership that provides unprecedented access to shared resources. It is possible that such partnerships will increase and become standard in the future. In this scenario the public would have immediate access to most if not all resources at very negligible or no direct cost: communications, transportation, education, land, housing, health care. While the right of private property would be preserved, society would then be based on "commons" rather than purely private resources. Intelligent use of commons, in public-private partnerships involving vast numbers of people, would encourage the spread of the kind of creativity seen in the development of the Internet. By simplifying access, the system of commons would yield an exponential increase in creativity, inventiveness and achievement. Historical examples such as the adoption of a common national language, and international standards in weights, measures and communications, prove that collective and individual social action is facilitated by commons. But these historical examples were sporadic; now we anticipate that commons, even broader and more powerful than the Internet, will become both systemic and globalized. The question then is to what extent can a system of global commons hinder or protect individual rights and freedoms.



Let us imagine a transport system comparable to the Internet. All riders would pay nothing. Costs would be born by cities, governments, private companies and other institutions benefiting from the smooth flow of passengers. In other words, the global population as a whole would pay for the construction and maintenance of the system through purchases, taxes and investments, just as we pay for the Internet. Most importantly, the transport system would be designed from the beginning to be continuously upgraded as needed. Initial capital costs would be heavy, as expected, but would decline as service quality and efficiency increases exponentially The system would grant riders universal access to any destination in the world. It would ease the burden of travel, increase the number of people traveling, and in the end greatly decrease the actual per-person cost of travel. The global economy would certainly benefit, inasmuch as most economic transactions in a service-based economy depend on the interaction of people. Each of us could leave the home, enter the transport system, and with minimal or no payment and without advance reservations, travel anywhere on the planet at any time, and return in the same fashion. Just as the Internet grants us unprecedented universal access to information, so too this transportation system would give us unprecedented mobility.

Here we are not concerned with whether or not this idea of a universal transportation system akin to the Internet is actually feasible. What concerns us are two points. First, the fact is that the Internet represents the real achievement of what would otherwise be considered a hopelessly utopian dream: a system of universal access to information, for the most part created, operated and maintained by countless individuals and institutions around the world in an essentially grassroots network. Second, there is no obvious reason why such a systemic organization of resources cannot be established in other fieldstransportation, education, health care and so on.

Some have described this as ecosocialism (Kovel 2002). Circumstances have given this term an obvious political flavor which is not relevant in this discussion. What should be emphasized here is not a political doctrine or strategy but the fact that the Internet and similar new systems of shared resources are arising independently of political boundaries and persuasions through the actions of masses of people at the grassroots. In this light, if any term were to be given to this development I would suggest that commonwealth is more appropriate, as it stresses the role of the masses in being the source and center of the new prosperity rather than an intellectual elite of political leaders and strategists.

If we accept the proposition that the systemic sharing of resources achieved in the Internet can indeed be applied to any resource or infrastructure, then we would have to conclude that a new potential of human achievement is about to be realized on a global scale. In order to appreciate this change let us first examine the ways in which resources were used in the pre-Internet period.

The Old Order

The industrial age, whether in the West or in the communist states, was the heart of what can be called the old order. Industries became the center, and people were expected to conform to the needs of those industries. It was the exact parallel, though on a smaller scale, of the ancient empires, and of their successors such as the Roman Catholic Church. A large, financially and politically powerful central institution required that all individuals and local institutions obediently funnel resources and labor to itself. The central institution became invested with profound, even sacred authority; local and individual needs were subordinate to or obliterated by the center; local requirements had to make do with whatever was produced by the center, whether proportional or not; change and innovation were severely controlled or even forbidden, viewed as destructive and evil; freedom was likewise regarded as intolerable, as a barrier to and incompatible with discipline; the peripheral masses were viewed as profane, while the sacred center reserved for itself the right to hold most wealth and resources. The authorities did not believe it was possible to have an organized, disciplined and productive society in any other way. The old order believed that wealth and prosperity could be generated only by the coercion or oppression of the masses, whether through the enforcement of doctrinal or secular laws, or through regimentation and control of workers. The center kept itself apart from and antagonistic toward the periphery. Only in opposition to the masses was there to be success; only by taking from them could wealth be generated. The entire system was based on a zero-sum concept of unavoidable, inevitable and ultimately unsustainable long-term conflict; it was a system of pessimism that bowed to humanity's fate, the consequences of its original sin. A win-win society composed of harmonious elements could not be imagined.

This old order can be summarized as having the following elements: traditionalism, restriction, centralization, unsustainability, privatization. These terms describe more or less what we have come to understand as society ruled by a central authority that determines the rules by which individuals are tightly bound to routines, controls all resources, hoards most of the wealth, and prevents the distribution of resources to the masses.

The Emerging New Order

A new set of social paradigms is emerging. They have been coming into existence for several decades. Or rather it is perhaps more accurate to say that they have been emerging since the dawn of complex human societies some 6000 years ago, but we have become conscious of them only within about the last 100 years. Here we shall try to describe their commonalities.

First, the new paradigms release far more numerous and diverse modalities of freedomin thought and actionwhile at the same time requiring higher degrees of discipline. For example, systems involve standards that all users must abide by. Once a standard or protocol is agreed upon (discipline) communication is greatly enhanced (freedom), because the standard allows the system to flow uninterrupted. We see this in the subsuming of local languages into regional and national languages, and more recently the establishment of international standards in weights, measures, railroad gauges, power and telephone networks. By reducing the unnecessary diversity of systems to a common system, new and unforeseen benefits arise, namely more rapid, complex and clear communication and trade, leading to greater and broader prosperity.

Second, we see a reverse-Luddite movement, because now the new technologies favor the individual and localism, rather than large centralized institutions. As a result some corporations are trying to control, limit and ban the use of technologies such as photocopiers, scanners, video- and audio-recording copiers on tape and dvd, and sharing of these resources over the Internet.

Third, we begin to see a refinement in usage of technology, which could be referred to as a sense of proportionotherwise more commonly known by the terms sustainability and appropriate technology. For example, vehicles made to travel long distances at 100 kph or more are banned from pedestrian areas and replaced by hand-controlled platforms and vehicles that are strong, lightweight and do not exceed the speed of the average pedestrian, such as the Segway two-wheeled transporter. Just as the electrical grid requires step-down transformers, so too do the transportation and other infrastructures. Whereas a manufacturer tries to saturate the society with its product, proportion inherently limits it.

Fourth, what had been private is now increasingly made available to the public without diminishing the right of private property. This process of "publitization" can be seen in the gradual transference of the great mansions and estates into the public domain, from the Forbidden City to Buckingham Palace. However, the institutionalization of "commons," both in terms of real property (land, buildings) and intellectual property (patents, documents, books, films, music), is in a state of transition at this time. We do not yet see a definitive trend in one direction or the other. Real property remains for the most part private, though the public is gaining in certain key areas: car-free spaces and pedestrianization, for example. Likewise most intellectual property remains strictly private, but the growth of digital technologies and the civil society movement conspire to transform the private into the public, whether corporations accept or not.

These points can be summarized as follows: innovation, freedom, localism, sustainability, publitization.

Win-Win Society

The new order is a "have your cake and eat it too" society. It abandons the belief that for anyone to succeed someone else must fail; that if I may have, you must lack.

The old order believed that prosperity arose from discipline. It believed that the masses were inherently undisciplined and they had to be forcibly disciplined: they had to be enslaved; their land enclosed and themselves shifted to cities and factories; they had to be subject to strict labor laws, impressments and forms of slavery; they had to be denied freedoms and rights, for otherwise they would not labor for the common good and there would be no prosperity. In short, the economic power of unity was created only by forcing the people to be united, to work together as a coordinated body under the management of an elite.

In the win-win society, however, unity is not imposed by a central authority. The advent of the Internet demonstrates that the masses are capable of creating strong, enduring, productive and prosperous forms of cooperation far beyond the limited forced unities of the old order. If social unity is the key to prosperity, then it is clear that its creation is as much a product of the masses as of the central leadership. Moreover, with the masses involved we see that social unity no longer has the dark side of oppression and opposition between center and periphery. Unity becomes voluntary; the masses have proven through the rise of the Internet that they are willing to unite for the common good, and thus coercion is not only unnecessary, but also positively counter-productive.

As we have noted, this conception of the voluntary cooperation and unity of the masses may sound like communism or religious idealism, and for this reason it has been rejected in the West. We tend to believe that if the masses succeed it is a sign that the society is failing. But the new order is not obsessed with political ideology or religious dogma. Rather it is focused on practical results. For example, if the Internet had been imagined and discussed as a theoretical possibility decades ago it surely would have been stillborn due to a paralysis of political will. But it was created and spread around the world precisely because the people involved with it were concerned with achieving a practical goal.

Prosperity is possible because for the most part the masses of everyday citizens are not interested in the conquest of other groups. The cycle of conquest, control, exploitation and rebellion is ended because higher order resources cannot be established except through the cooperation of all the people. Here we see that Eisler's (1987) concept of partnership society is making a comeback; but in this case it is not only the partnership between men and women but between all the peoples of the world. The Internet, for example, cannot existcannot benefit even the elitesunless the masses are involved as full partners.

It is a win-win society because no longer is prosperity seen as dependent on the oppression of large groups. Rather we see that prosperity is dependent on the creative freedom of the masses.

Critical Balances

The future of society depends not so much on the achievement of any particular technology (for example, nuclear power, agriculture's green revolution, or genetic manipulation) but rather on the achievement and preservation of the critical balance required for optimal development of humanity's and nature's potentials. As a self-sustaining nuclear reaction requires the bringing together of the critical mass of fissionable materialenough so that the release of particles will become self-sustainingso, too, the development of a win-win society requires the careful establishment and maintenance of critical balances: in the use of any one technology, in the relationship between population and natural resources, and in the interplay between freedom and discipline, between the spiritual and the material, and between Schumacher's (1973) "small" and the "big" of the new mega-projects. We need them all, but in the right proportions.

The question, then, is what are the right proportions, and how will we discover them? We can identify some general principles. The critical balance will involve: 1) careful and constant monitoring; 2) trial and error; 3) willingness to adjust, change and innovate when necessary; 4) willingness to refrain from change when necessary; 5) coordination of monitoring teamsthose dealing with the market, the environment, natural resources, population and health must be in constant contact with each other; 6) careful anticipation of the consequences of each change.

We see in these six points that neither conservatism nor progressivism prevails, but rather both are necessary. We also see that they generally boil down to one basic principle: we must be acutely and profoundly conscious of the immediate and long-term consequences of our actions in both the spiritual and the material realms.

Anticipating the Long-Term

In anticipating the long-term future, we can see that there are several important principles. First, we must recognize that we have the power to create the future in any way we wish (Hammond 1998, 12). The future is in our power to create, not a series of accidents that fate imposes upon us. Second, this exciting prospect means that we need to carefully study what it is that we want and what we do not want, at least in general terms. Third, this in turn means that we can come up with fundamental principles or truths that should be considered valid over the long term; we keep in mind here, however, that since our minds are limited and fallible, we should be willing to correct and refine these principles if we see fit in the course of time. But clearly the most fundamental principles will not need to be changed, and we are beginning even now to recognize them (for example the UN Declaration of Human Rights).

Universal Access and Choice

Now let us assume that we have these new paradigms in place: 1) innovation, freedom, localism, sustainability, publitization; 2) win-win society; 3) critical balances are maintained; 4) fundamental principles are recognized, upheld and revised when necessary. What kind of society will we have? And more specifically, how would these paradigms generate cultural unity?

The first point is that we will be able to recognize more easily and rapidly than ever before what works and what does not work. If something is harmful to a certain group, the principles of freedom and localism will allow them to voice the problem and opt out. The Internet is a good example of this new paradigm, as it works when people join it, but no one is forced to join. Hafner and Lyon (1998, 205) found this to be the case with the rise of the first popular email system, MSG:

More than just a great [innovation], MSG was the best proof to date that on the ARPANET rules might get made, but they certainly didn't prevail. Proclamations of officialness didn't further the Net nearly so much as throwing technology out onto the Net to see what worked. And when something worked, it was adopted.

A global system that does not work automatically is deconstructed because people simply refuse to join, or they relinquish their membership. Consider, for example, the automobile system; urban populations all over the world are gradually opting out of it, preferring to choose instead pedestrianized neighborhoods linked by light rail. A second example: people all over the world are opting out of industrial agriculture and industrial (processed) food, choosing instead to join the international network of organic and community supported agriculture. They are able to do this because there is no longer a central authority imposing upon them a single way of food production, processing and consumption.

This is the significance of universal access and choice. Consider a public library. It may contain some 40,000 books. The reader has access to all the books and is completely free to choose any book he or she wishes. If in the old order we applied the same principle to society as a wholeso we believedthere would be chaos, complete disunity. One party would choose the horse and buggy, another trains, another buses, another private cars, another bicycles; one would choose suburban style low-density housing patterns, another skyscrapers, another townhouses. There would be no coherent plan, no coordination or unity. But here we see that the problem is solved by the principle of critical balance. Universal access and choice is attainable only through adhering to the critical balance. A system that is unbalanced by definition cannot give universal access and choice. The public library and the Internet are thus balanced systems. The automobile and highway are not because only certain people can use them and only for a short-term, since the material resources needed to maintain them are extremely limited. Organic agriculture is a system that offers universal access and choice because it is pursued in a sustainable way; but the system of GM agriculture, based on the use of terminator seeds, obviously is not.

Therefore, when we speak of universal access and choice, we are envisioning an endless meta-system of systems, all of which are balanced and thus balanced with each other. The meta-system by definition excludes those systems that preclude universal access and choice. Society would create an endless array of balanced systems like the public library and the Internet; surely these are not the only possibilities of balanced publitization. Surely they are but the first steps down an endless path of infinitely creative systems that all give universal access and choice.

Preserving the Open Market

One might suspect that limiting innovation to balanced systems that allow universal access and choice would mean the end of the open market. In such a society it would seem to be not possible to create a gasoline-powered, 8-cylinder automobile that guzzles gas and is capable of speeds above 180 mph. On the contrary, it would be possible, but the public would be free not to buy it. Today in many ways we are not free not to buy it. We find, in places lacking comprehensive public transit systems, like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas and above all Detroit, that automobiles are imposed upon us and we simply have no choice. Therefore the automobile flourishes in the US precisely because the market is not open. In Europe, where there is much greater freedom and choice in the transportation sector, automobiles are not so vital.

But let us assume that the powers that be in the new order require that innovations be balanced, sustainable systems. (And here it should be noted that all consumer "products" are actually systems, involving the vast processes from raw material extraction to manufacture, distribution, repair and replacement, recycling or dumping.) Wouldn't the requirement that all innovations be balanced systems mean the end of freedom and localism? Yes, if the powers that be are making the ultimate decision, but no, if the deciding power is the people themselves. For, as we have noted regarding the rise of the first email system, by the operation of universal choice the appearance, endurance, and disappearance of any product, system or idea is determined by the people themselves; they are free to select or reject anything. Thus it is possible for systems to be limited by the people, and yet the people still have free choice.

However, let us take a specific example, for here we can anticipate further complications. If I as an individual wish to use a system that by its nature requires large numbers of people to join mesay a bus systemand the vast majority choose against me in favor of trains, then I am constrained to give up buses and ride trains. Thus my freedom seems to be severely limited. As an individual this is no doubt true, for as John Locke stated, all societies offer protection and assistance in exchange for a measure of freedom.(2)

But the collective remains free in its choice. The collective takes priority.

Morality operates in the same fashion. Whatever moral system is established is ultimately the choice of the people as a collective. Individuals may disagree, but they are obliged to bow to the will of the collective, otherwise they will lose all the benefits that can be obtained only through social and cultural unity.

Those societies that are truly not free see the relationship reversed. The choice of moral, social, economic and political systems is made by a single individual or a small elite group, and the people must bend to their will.

Open Systems

Finally there is the issue of the aftermath of the establishment of a system. Once a system becomes accepted and standardized, it then seems logical to conclude that freedom ends, since the system will expect all in the present and future to bend to its design. The principle of universal choice, however, guarantees that the successors will always be free to replace any system. This is how we deal with the software and hardware changes needed to upgrade a computer or computer network. There is much unity within the computer world; indeed, all computers today speak basically the same language, or at least are able to communicate through intermediaries that speak the same language; but within this unity there is endless variation, endless evolution, and thus unprecedented access, choice and freedom, as we see in the tremendous explosion of creativity in games, documentation techniques, and multi-media tools. The same endless diversity within a unified framework is apparently also being created for human society as a whole at the global level. Therefore, while the population is expected to obey a unified system it is expected neither to enshrine that system as a permanent tradition nor to emphasize the infrastructure over the substance the infrastructure conveys. It is an equilibrium that is dynamic, not static. Creative power exists in a unified system; but freedom lies in the endless evolution of that system.

If the Internet is an indicator, the transformation of systems is not so much a revolution involving shock but rather a process of upgrading, an ongoing, endless metamorphosis of society and civilization that reflects the constant development of humanity. Our mistake in the past has been to insist that one size fits all: the civilization of our grandfathers should be our model for today, and so, like people forcing their feet into shoes several sizes too small, we walk in great pain. Until, that is, we revolt, throw off the constricting and crippling shoes, and don a better pair that we expect to use into the distant future. We are beginning to become independent of such thinking, as evidenced by our immediate rejection of any notion that expects us to rely solely on the first version of a software package, and the speed and regularity with which we create and use upgrades and even radically new software. The computer world is a perfect example of how the conservative view (maintaining unity through a unified framework) and progressivism (constant change for improvement of the old) are complementary.

Systems, and the meta-system that organizes them, have in the past been closed. Potential and actual change have been absorbed and managed by systems in such a way that new factors are either made to conform to the old or eliminated. Now, however, systems are consciously open; they not only allow change but positively encourage it, since humanity recognizes that there is no contradiction between change and equilibrium. Quite the contrary, whereas dead things like machines have stability through permanence and changelessness, living things are stable through growth, evolution and even mutation and transformation. While we have long accepted and understood the necessity of evolution in the growth of the individual, we have resisted until now such evolution at the level of civilization as a whole. Now the doors to systems and the meta-system that is human existence will not only be opened but will remain open hereafter.

Open Systems and Unity

To summarize, we have the following points:

Innovation, freedom, localism, sustainability and publitization are becoming standard in an emerging global system of human civilization.
These lead to the establishment of universal access and choice, not only in technological resources like the Internet but in all fields: education, agriculture, planning, transportation, the arts, environmental protection.
This creates a win-win society, in which prosperity is not obtained through the oppression of one group by another but by the entire population's universal access to, and the building and sharing of, resources.
In order to achieve these goals all systems must be open, subject to constant evolution.

How do all these new developments relate to the cultural unity of the human race? Let us first begin by discussing the positive aspects.

Towards Greater Unity

We can see that in history processes providing greater access have occurred, and indeed our current civilization is based exactly on such processes, which we have taken for granted. Consider, for example, the provision of reliable drinking water, and food surpluses based on systemic agriculture. Before the invention of the animal-driven plow, food surpluses were generally unobtainable, and certainly not on a large scale. Now our populations have grown large precisely because the previously undreamed-of possibility of an uninterrupted supply of food and water has been achieved in reality.

Universal access continues to be the goal today. Technology is becoming consolidated so that a single device performs multiple functions. The computer, fax machine, telephone, television, and even still and motion picture cameras are all being reduced into one machine; the focus is less on the specific functions and more on the general ideal of providing universal access to communication. Technology seeks to provide the ideal machine with which communicationany kind of communicationcan be achieved. As the specific functions become perfected in separate machines the trend is to unite them so that one device provides universal access to all forms of communication.

In architecture, rooms and entire buildings are consciously designed and constructed to serve multiple functions; even walls can be easily altered in order to satisfy needs that might exist ten or one hundred years from now.

In transportation we are beginning to see efforts to create universal access. In certain European countries the train system functions as part of the air transport system. Baggage can be checked at the nearest train station for loading onto the plane. The train itself delivers the passenger within the airport itself. Train fare is part of the plane fare, and one ticket is used for both. In some countries a universal pass can be purchased to cover virtually all forms of public transportation, including boats and mountain cable cars. Certain cities, notably in Belgium, provide free transportation, thus perfecting universal accessibility (Perry, 2000).

We can appreciate these new developments only by remembering that most of modern urban development of resources has been based on conditional access. Parking is accessible only if you have a parking permit; credit is available only if your income is beyond a certain level; the best schools are available only if you meet certain criteria, or live in certain areas; restrooms are available only if you are a customer. Conditional access is the norm; we take it for granted. Perhaps the most common exception has been the public library.

If the trend has now turned from conditional limited access to unconditional universal access, then perhaps we are looking at the beginnings of a meta-paradigm shift, comparable to the shift from unsystemic agriculture to systemic, surplus-producing agriculture, based on the animal-driven plow. What we are seeing is that technology and human-made resources are beginning to reflect the infinitely diverse skills and goals of human beings. This is perhaps most clear in the way that the forerunner of the Internet, the ARPANET, was designed by its creators to be not only self-monitoring and self-correcting, but also easily and endlessly upgraded (Hafner and Lyon, 1998). The key point here is that the engineers designed the networkfrom the very beginningto have this open-ended quality. The assembly line of Henry Ford, by contrast, was set in stone; to make any changes meant the expenditure of a large amount of capital. Even today most car manufacturers try to avoid retooling by convincing the public, through cosmetic changes, that the "new" models are substantially different upgrades of the "old." Such traditional assembly lines are therefore primarily closed systems.

What made the designers of the Internet so radically different from the designers of the assembly line? It is that the former were focused on providing access, whereas the latter were intent on selling a material product. BBN, the computer company that created the ARPANET, were not contracted to sell computers; in fact they subcontracted that aspect of the project to Honeywell (Hafner and Lyon, 1998). What they were assigned to do was to create a facility that would allow computers to communicate with each other. They were asked to remove a barrier to universal communications. Henry Ford's goal was similar to some extent: he aimed to make a car that anyone could afford, and in this he partly succeeded. But the key difference is that his company was based on the fundamental assumption that a product must be sold, and the more products sold the better. The idea of access (affordable transportation) was secondary. If BBN had followed Ford's example, it would have had to create something like a private mail service, and every communication between one computer and another would require a purchase (say a kind of electronic postage stamp) from BBN in order to reach its destination.

If, on the contrary, the Ford company had followed BBN's example, it would not be focused on selling individual devices for transportation but rather would have created a network that would allow people and things to be transported without the Ford company itself and its products serving as obstructing mediators. Granted, what BBN created was a network that did in fact serve as mediator between host computers, but the mediation was so fast and unnoticeable that it essentially was invisible. Transportation could and should be similarly unmediated; people should be able to flow systemically from one destination to another without a private company or a product mediating that flow. From this perspective the only such system would be a rail-based network, running on time, undisturbed by traffic congestion, weather, road conditions, breakdowns, accidents. In such a system the focus is not on the sales of transportation vehicles but on the people's systemic access to their destination.

If these characterizations are correct, we can anticipate that global society will become increasingly systemic and yet increasingly open, providing greater access to greater resources to a greater percentage of the population. This last point also implies that a greater diversity of peoples will have greater access. The infinite diversity of an open system mirrors the infinite diversity of the human race. This diversity should be not hidden but expressed in all that we do, and this in turn means that we cannot and ought not seek to divide ourselves into homogeneous groups. Racial, ethnic, linguistic or nationalistic homogeneity is incompatible with the concept of a single, global human race.

Negative Aspects of Unity

For a variety of reasons, however, most modern states do not wish to encourage people to travel across borders. Some states prefer to maximize homogeneity and minimize or exclude immigration. Other states prefer to minimize or forbid emigration. A global or even regional international system of transportation that grants the entire human race universal access to all destinations within the system encourages people to travel, and thus decreases the state's control over traditions, thoughts, cultural practices and every other aspect of the state structure. When people travel they begin to participate in alternative societies and cultures, and they become gradually multicultural, just as through education they become multi-skilled and multi-lingual (Iyer, 2000). It is part of human nature to have multiple abilities; this aspect is not limited to the European Renaissance period but is present in all historical periods. The question, then, is should it be encouraged or not? If it is encouraged, it is clear that people will not wish to be bound. They will desire to exercise their abilities without respect to geographical, cultural or political boundaries, since human ability transcends these artificial limitations.

Let us consider, for example, language. Most people in the world today speak fluently only one language. But we have noticed that fluency in more than one language has been steadily increasing, especially in the past fifty years. Multi-lingualism enables people to have greater access to cultures and social systems. In the limit, a universal language would allow all peoples universal access to each otheraside from the subtle meanings that are specific to each language. What would be the consequences of such a linguistic Internet? We cannot clearly picture now the pros and cons. What we can say, however, is that, if the adoption of a universal language occurs in the way the Internet was created, we will see that it will be the choice of the masses of people throughout the world. It will arise out of the spontaneous desire of people, not as a top-down imposition of authority.

Here, then, we arrive at what is most feared in the establishment of global systems: the imposition of dictatorial authority. On the one hand, systems provide a common infrastructure that facilitates interaction across physical and cultural boundaries. Without them our world becomes limited in the extreme. On the other hand, these same systems can be used by governments, corporations and other institutions to foster a single, uniform worldview, to reduce diversity, to channel the development of culture in a specific direction, to eliminate freedom of choice. Perhaps the most obvious examples of this are the way that American fast food companies have become ubiquitous throughout the world and have gained the power to alter local culinary and dietary traditions, affecting not only culture, but also public health. Advertisements, intellectual concepts and paradigms, fads, clichés, and the more abstract "memes", are becoming recognized as threats to free thought and the free development of local communities (Brodie 1996, Blackmore 1999). It is certainly conceivable that the Internet, which was created and continues to develop by the sharing of diverse resources, could fall under the control of a small number of entities that would end its freedom. Likewise it is conceivable that any global system, however free at the outset, could likewise become exploited.

But I would argue that this is unlikely because there is a key difference between the global systems of McDonaldization and the Internet. Fast food chains are essentially private, secretive and closed systems; whatever changes they exhibit are superficial and ultimately meaningless. The Internet, however, is by its very nature the product of limitless creativity and cooperation among peoples. It cannot exist any other way. The moment the Internet becomes managed like a food chain under a single authority, or divided up amongst a handful of authorities, it will effectively cease to exist as such. Without the free cooperation of individuals, making constant valuable contributions to the knowledge bases that constitute the Internet's substance, the Internet would no longer be worth logging onto. Far from being the powerful communications tool that it is now, it would wither on the corporate vine for lack of popular participation. People are attracted to the Internet because they are seeking shared resources. A private corporation cannot provide globally shared resources.

One might argue that, since McDonald's is quite popular around the globe even though it is the product of a single corporate entity, why, then, couldn't a corporate-controlled global Internet sustain the world's interest? There are two answers. First, the popularity of fast food chains is artificially developed and sustained through extremely heavy advertising and steady effort to gain partial monopolies in local markets. If such chains are popular, it is primarily because people at the local level perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they have little or no choice about what food they eat. Thus, they have something approaching universal access to fast food, but increasingly little choice. Second, fast food consumerism is essentially a passive activity, whereas the Internet involves an endless process of active participation in the creation and sharing of resources.

Thus, the corporatization of the Internet would make it like any other media giant. The need for shared resources would still be unmet. It could be met by one and only one entity: the human race as a whole. Here we see that the corporation reaches its limit, for no matter how large and powerful, it can never substitute for the entire human race. The human race, as a coordinated global entity, is and always will be unique. It is and always will be an unparalleled and transcendent resource that dwarfs the efforts of any private for-profit institution. For it alone is an infinite source of knowledge and action; it alone is a dynamic and yet stable system that is quintessentially open. It alone mirrors the infinite capacities, curiosities and yearnings of each individual. The Internet is perhaps the clearest evidence yet that the human race as a whole is a mine of endless riches, the door to which can be opened only through sustained unity and cooperation. The unities of private corporations, inspired by the competition for power and profits, are in comparison completely eclipsed, and are at best foreshadowings of global unity.

The Persisting Case for Pessimism

The discussion thus far has been more or less biased toward an optimistic view of the evolution of the Internet. I have assumed that the Internet will continue to expand; it will become increasingly accessible to the peoples of the world and eventually be universally accessible, even in the poorest localities; it will be a continually expanding source of valid information; it will be a communal resource, a commons, used and maintained by the global community as a single collective, and not in the control of private corporations or governments.

This optimism is not completely unjustified. We have witnessed in many historical periods the rise, spread and popularization of numerous technologies that are now taken for granted in even the remotest corners of the globe: from the plow to automobiles, from the printed word to electricity. In the past several decades we have witnessed obscure tribes of South America and elsewhere defend their causes by taking up the latest video technology and documenting the abuses to which they are subjected; we witness indigenous groups and oppressed populations publishing articles and books, broadcasting their views on radio and television and even by fax machine. We see them taking advantage of modern transportation systems to travel to New York, London and other capitals of former colonial powers to represent themselves before international tribunals. The successful application of new technologies for the benefit of the global underclasses cannot be denied.

However, this is not to argue that all new technologies have been unqualified benefits to the global underclass, nor do past or present successes prove that future technologiesand the Internet in particularare destined to bring new benefits. There are three causes for pessimism in this regard. First, some technologies are inappropriate. It is widely understood that many new technologies are only superficially beneficial and in the long-term create fundamental systemic problems. The automobile is one of the best examples of this phenomenon, inasmuch as it forces nations to become dependent on costly petroleum imports, to devote significant portions of the national budget to road building, traffic control, insurance and medical costs, and to accept intolerable levels of environmental destruction. Typically these problems in turn lead to political and economic instability, decline in agricultural resources, rise in food shortages, and other destabilizing consequences. Inappropriate technologies end up more trouble than benefit. We accept them initially because their harmfulness is unnoticeable on a small scale, but, as they increase in popularity and become produced and used in mass quantities, the hidden potential for harm becomes manifest. It is clear, then, that for a technology to benefit society its usefulness must be identified with a particular scale: some technologies should be available to the masses (telephones, rail transport, newspapers and books, water and electricity infrastructures), while others by their very nature should be planned in advance to be limited in scale (fossil fuel engines, dams, airports).

Second, the question of the scale of a technology is not determined by the people's needs but by the goals and actions of private corporations. We are overrun by cars and highways not because we need them but because the car manufacturers wish to maximize sales. We neither need nor desire a McDonald's store within a ten minute drive of any spot on the map in North America and Western Europe, but it is so because the fast food industry seeks to maximize sales. Such decisions are made not in the people's local consultative assemblies but in the boardrooms of distant corporations. Demand is artificially created.

Third, and most important, capitalism tends to direct the use of new economic elements to its benefit. Capitalism acts like any other system. Systems are essentially cycles of action that repeat themselves until they are transformed or they die out. Any new element introduced into the system is subsumed by the system; that is, the system makes the new element fit into the existing structure. Quite the opposite of chaos theory, this systemic view takes as its primary example the organic functioning of the human body or the systemic integrity of the earth's natural environment. Perturbations are normal and occur quite frequently; but these systems maintain themselves in a steady state by transforming the disturbing element into something that fits harmoniously within the system; it is co-opted, so that the output of each cycle is within an acceptable range of values and qualities.

The systemic quality of capitalism lends strength to the pessimist's view that the Internet does not herald a new advantage for the grassroots movements of civil society. For although it is clearly not yet completely controlled by capitalism, the Internet, like any other aspect of capitalist society, is vulnerable to being redefined as a capital-controlled consumer product. We have witnessed a number of powerful new technologies become controlled in this way in the past century: radio, television, telephone, even schools and universities. Tens of American automobile manufacturers were eventually consolidated into three large corporations. Newspapers and mass media outlets are now controlled by five global corporations. Microsoft and a few other software pioneers have not only defined the standards for the international manufacture and use of personal computers but are determined to preserve their power to define and redefine basic software into the future. It is only logical, then, that as long as capitalism is a viable system it will cause the same consolidation and commodification of the Internet. This argument is further strengthened by the fact that universities and other academic institutions, which have constituted the most important nodes on the Internet, are quickly falling under the influence of corporate funding and sponsorship.

The conclusion can therefore be drawn that a strong case can be made for a pessimistic view of the future development of the Internet.

Old World Order vs. New World Order

While we may acknowledge the potential or even likelihood of capital control of the Internet, nevertheless we should also admit the equally likely possibility that such control will never be absolute. Capitalist, aristocratic and other ruling interests have rarely been able to achieve complete control of society, and even then only temporarily. Even the best efforts of totalitarian regimes have ultimately failed.

What is perhaps most accurate, then, is to expect that the future will involve a two-fold process: the continuation of the old world order based on extreme forms of capitalism, and the continuing emergence of a new world order. What this new world order actually is remains unclear. However, I would argue that in this context we err if we identify the new order with capitalism on a global scale after the fall of the Soviet system. It is a common fallacy that the growth of a system means the continuation of the status quo but on a larger scale (Laszlo 1984). In describing the explosive growth of the city that perhaps best epitomizes the old order, Las Vegas, James Howard Kunstler (2001, p. 143) writes:

Las Vegas evolved as a crude extrapolation of several elements of American culture: the defiance of nature, abnormally cheap land, vast empty space for expansion, and the belief that it is possible to get something for nothingthese elements all presenting themselves there in the most extreme form. The trouble with extrapolation as a growth model is that it assumes the continuation of all present conditions in the future, only more so. Since this is not consistent with how the world works, systems organized on this basis fail.

Systemic evolution always involves change of fundamental factors. In this regard it is highly likely that the days of extreme capitalism as a system are numbered. Rather the new world order is quite distinct from global capitalism, which, after all, is merely a continuation of the capital enterprises that have been pursued since the age of exploration beginning in the fifteenth century. The new order to which I am referring is perhaps best represented by the civil society movement, a global interaction of individuals in constant communication with each other and, most importantly, reaching consensus on social values that protect the rights of local communities, the environment, and diversity, while at the same time accepting the norms and relishing the powers of global society.

If we look at the Internet in the hands of the old world order, we naturally become pessimistic. But if we look at how it is being used by the emerging new world order we cannot but marvel at the creativity and astonishing empowerment that are achieved by masses of people throughout the world.

The question remains, of course, whether the old world order will prevent the full emergence of the new. Pessimists will answer yes, while optimists will answer no. It is, of course, impossible to prove either one. All we can say, at this point, is that for the foreseeable future these two world orders, the new and the old, will exist side by side and will continue to struggle over the determination of the direction in which global society will evolve.

© Mark Perry (Beirut, Lebanon)


(1) Dr. Mark Perry is Associate Professor of Cultural Studies at the Lebanese American University, PO Box 13-5053 Beirut, Lebanon.
This paper was presented in the session: Media and Cultural Aspects of Civil Society of the international conference The Unifying Aspect Of Cultures, INST, Vienna, 7-9 November 2003 .

(2) Second Treatise of Civil Government, Chapter 9.


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2.3. Media and cultural aspects of civil society

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