Information processing, Communication, and Control: The Crisis of Control

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

“To understand the basis of human society in information processing, communication, and control, moreover, is to appreciate the profound irony in popular sentiment against technology that has persisted over the past century. Of all the revolutionary innovations in technology since the Industrial Revolution, few have aroused more widespread suspicion , resentment, and even open hostility than have the various capabilities for information processing. Since the mid-nineteenth century, as we saw in the first chapter, increasing bureaucratization has been opposed as somehow dehumanizing, a sentiment that persisted into the 1950s in popular works like William H. Whyte’s Organization Man (1956). Since then, many of the same feelings have begun to shift to newer information-processing technologies: to the computer in the 1960s and 1970s and more recently to microprocessors, especially as manifest in devices like industrial robots, word processors, and video games, all of which were routinely accused in the early 1980s of dehumanizing influences. Just as the terms bureaucracy and bureaucrat long ago came to suggest narrow outlook, lack of humanity, and otherwise vague reprobation, similar connotations have been attached to computer technology and personnel, although less frequently as a laity begins to take responsibilities from the priesthood. The irony, of course, is that information processing might be more properly seen as the most natural of functions performed by human technologies, at least in that it is shared by every cell of every living thing on earth. In view of the fact that information processing distinguishes all living things and a few of their artifacts from the rest of the universe, moreover, the ability must by definition be as old as life itself— on this planet or any other. Information processing is also arguably the most human of life functions in that particular capabilities of our brains to process information best distinguish us from all other species. No human technology has more in common with all living things than do our various capabilities to process information, whether they be institutionalized in the formal structures and procedures of bureaucracy, input electronically to computer memory, or photolithographed into the silicon wafers of microprocessors. It is through the understanding of these capabilities, the essential life processes of organization, programming, and decision to effect control, that we can best hope to answer the many challenging questions raised by the Control Revolution.”

I tend to agree with him in the above. Once you think of different cultures throughout history as enacting the natural processes of information processing, communication, control, and decision-making of the brain itself you begin to see over time the externalization of those processes as human kind struggled to work within the larger surround of its environment: Neolithic society – organized around time computers built in stone (Stone Hinge, Southern France, Germany, etc.); Egypt – the organization of society around Pyramid and Temple construction; Greece – organization of society around the city State; Rome – organization of society around infrastructure (canals, aqueducts, baths, games, circuses); Feudalism – organization around the Catholic church – libraries; Amsterdam and Venice – organization around mercantile trade; all the modern Empires culminating in America: organization around never-ending technological innovation or information processing…

What he’s saying is that our brains are information processing systems and have been all along, we’ve just externalized many of the brain’s functions as society became more and more complex and individuals could no longer keep up with the processing needs of the socius.  The true problem of control in our time is that we are “out of control”: we are living through a major crisis of control rather than needing to see “control” as the enemy. If as Nicholas Luhmann has suggested that “Society is Communication” then the balance between information processing and control are in our time skewed, imbalanced, bound to a culture in which communication is the problem not the solution. In our time communication is used as a tool of enslavement to ideologies, war, genocide, resource depletion, etc. We have allowed the few to override the needs of the many and because of that we have lost our ability to control the entropic forces that forever seek to destroy us.

What Beniger is saying is that information processing, communication, and control are no longer in balance… each of these if aligned help us to overcome the entropy of the earth’s system; yet, because we are out of control the processes are destabilizing the earth system which will ultimately lead to a correction: that correction will be the end of the human species; that is, unless we can regain control and begin to rebalance ourselves. Literally, the elite, the financiers, etc. have allowed their greed to overreach the threshold of this delicate fragility. To rebalance the system is to forge new political and social tools of communication to bring control and information processing to bare on this problem. This is the form of Resistance that we see in such things as the Chiapas, the different types of revolutions some call “Springs” popping up around the planet, etc. – these indigenous peoples are the first signs of a new communication, challenging us to find our way back to the balance of life itself. If we do not then the human species has no future.

4 thoughts on “Information processing, Communication, and Control: The Crisis of Control

    • I don’t see that he is trying to cast everything in terms of information as much as he is casting it in terms of “filters”: what he seems to be saying is that we have way too much information, that’s obvious; but, what is not obvious is how do we filter out the noise, the misinformation in information processing. That is the big question. He defines it against the notion of an editor (newspaper) or curator (museum, art house) as an expert who does the filtering for us and offers us a selection from the broad stream of information. Which is one path. The other is engines such as google in which a feedback mechanism or conversational model between user and system narrows down the information based on certain criteria rather than a random set of possibilities.

      I was reminded that in the good old days of print one went to a literary critic to discover what was worth reading or not based on a sort of trust ratio. Think of the old tv cinema critics Rogers and Eibert who would give differing views of films then allow the viewer to decide for themselves whether it was worth spending one’s hard earned money on seeing or not.

      In our time most of the old print based systems are going the way of the dinosaurs because of the economic failure of finding a viable mechanism in which to survive on the web. Google works because it offers a non-selective algorithmic approach to information, and yet it feeds on you like a vampire sucking out of your queries and preferences all the data it can get to feed back into commercial advertising agents to further its own selfish goals. This new selfish web is more like Richard Dawkins and the orthodox Darwinian model of information theory as a selfish meme obliterating all to further its own selfish agenda.

      To be honest I think Gleicks book might be good for the average reader, but for a better overall approach Philip Mirowski’s Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science is the best in depth historical resource I’ve found for really understanding the information age we live in. There are others such as The Control Revolution by James Beniger, too.


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