Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Whale and the Reactor (7)

The idea that Reagan Ruined Everything seems to dominate, silently, the next chapter, “Decentralization Clarified.” I take this passage from its last paragraph to be its central idea:

In Kropotkin’s of G. D. H. Cole’s time it was still possible to imagine an entire modern social order based upon small-scale, directly democratic, widely dispersed centers of authority. Industrial society had not yet achieved its mature form; it was thinkable that decentralist alternatives might be feasible alternatives on a broad scale. Today, however, ideas of decentralization usually play a much different role, an expression of the faint hope one may still create institutions here and there that allow ordinary folks some small measure of autonomy.

A melancholy statement, and one that is truer now than when Winner wrote it. After all, it was about halfway between the writing of this book and out own moment when Scott McNealy told us, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

Which in alternate moments makes me want to give up and makes me want to renew my determination to escape from Google. Ah, my early and innocent determination, how beautiful it was — and how distant it now seems. . . .


  • "In Kropotkin’s of G. D. H. Cole’s time it was still possible to imagine..." I wonder if "imagine" might not be the operative word here. I just finished reading the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (read on my Christmas-present Nook, downloaded from Project Gutenberg - what a world!). At the end of his memoir (1884), Grant muses that the decentralized system that enabled free states and slave states to coexist in the early USA was gone forever because of "rapid transit" - railroads, steamboats, and the telegraph. I'm inclined to think that this tipping point happened far earlier than Winner seems to think, and that "widely dispersed centers of authority" are not necessarily better than centralized authority. It all depends on what that authority is like.

    Throughout the memoir, Grant refers in passing to a number of late night conversations with Lincoln and other Washington-based officials conducted via telegraph, sometimes (as in Lincoln's case) well before they ever met face-to-face. It's a fascinating example of early long-distance, real-time communication.

  • Great stuff, Mike!

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