Masthead CMC Magazine / April 1, 1996
 The Status of the Information Society, by Michel Bauwens

On the Fragmentation of Mass Society

Computer networks like the Internet, will free mankind of the constraints of space, just as the invention of writing and print liberated mankind from the constraints of time. The Internet could very well reverse the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution and usher in a New Middle Ages. This will have both benefits and drawbacks.

The Internet is a new type of meta-medium, combining the characteristics of the mass media (broadcasting), like television, and personal media, like the telephone. As has often been said, on the Internet every recipient is also a sender. It is no hyperbole to say that every Internet user has the power of a printer of the Gutenberg era, and soon will have the power of radio and television. This fundamentally changes the balance of power in society, which is based on the so-called manufactured consent operated by the advertising-dependent mass media. The Internet is the death of mainstream culture; the center simply collapses and becomes one of the countless paradigms fighting for the attention of the electronic audience, without a definitive means for skewing the debate in their favor. Of course, they do have larger marketing budgets and will have more technological expertise, but this will no longer be sufficient to quiet those other voices. Witness the power of the anti-McDonalds site called McSpotlight, where critical information is now permanently available, globally, at a local cost. This is only one example of how the Internet will offer a profound antidote to mass-media dominated culture.

Is this trend wholly positive? The Internet will be a force of fragmentation. Instead of mass media, we will have permanent archives and real-time feeds for ever shrinking niche groups. Instead of the collective global time of the mass media (for example, the Gulf War coverage on CNN), we'll have the increasingly personal time of groups and individuals. I wholly recommend the book Diamond Age, by science fiction author Neal Stephenson which shows the possible dislocation effects of such fragmentation. Not unlike Umberto Eco, Stephenson predicts a kind of "New Middle Ages" in which most of the social trends resulting of the Industrial Revolution, i.e. centralization, urbanization, massification, will be reversed. The author predicts a withering away of the state (who can't easily collect taxes anymore, due to the generalization of encrypted and anonymous digital money) and its replacement by a society of networks, in which citizens belong to socio-cultural or ethnic "phyles." These phyles have their own factories, schools, and self-help institutions. Some facts could illustrate the realism of such predictions: according to an Andersen Consulting survey, 48% of the new jobs created in the last five years (USA) were tele-jobs. Also, there are more than half-million home-schoolers in the U.S. and more jobs are created in rural areas than in cities.

In the fragmented, internetted world of the near-future, social and political movements will find it more easy to organize themselves globally and create real and virtual communities. Perhaps the Internet can be interpreted as a revival of the old dream of the pre-marxist Utopian Socialists like Saint-Simon and Fourier: witness the cyberspace country experiments like Terra Libra, Oceania, Nexus, and the social contract experiments of the Extropians. ^


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