Communication and Control: Networks and the New Economies of Information

G.J. Mulgan

This book is about the implications of electronic networking for control. Communication systems are viewed as control infrastructures which are currently undergoing profound transformation. The new technologies are introducing new layers of complexity at an accelerating pace, such that the increasingly interconnected world experiences a permanent crisis of control. Not only this, says Mulgan, but the "virtual world" replacing the familiar spaces of buildings and cities displaces power as physical control, creating new strategies of power and thus new challenges for conventional discourse on communications.

Control is shown to be highly paradoxical and complex. For example, it may be abstract and exogenous or communicative and endogenous. New technologies enhance both aspects, but Mulgan argues that the long-term trend is towards the latter and to decentralization. He also proposes that cybernetic, purposive, and instrumental control be distinguished from "positional" control. By this he means power and position in situations of uncertainty, an important point, but not one that is clearly illustrated in the book. Another, related comment is that communications technologies may augment organizational control, but simultaneously their proliferation may yield a sense of uncontrollability. After all this, it will come as no surprise that Mulgan would see contemporary societies not in terms of "information" but of "control." Even here, though, lies a curious paradox: "Control can be liberating as well as oppressive" (p. 8).

These ideas may be traced, sometimes rather lightly, throughout the book. But they give a specific flavour to the book. And they help Mulgan avoid several pitfalls (to change the metaphor!). He stresses that control must be conceived in new ways, involving new analysis and fresh political strategies. Thus he goes beyond both the hype of technical determinism and technical fixes and the myopia of marxist and conventional "public interest" responses. He acknowledges that the technologies themselves contribute to the development of new social formations (e.g., p. 87) thus skirting the quasi-deterministic accounts from the "social constructionist" stable. His book is thus refreshingly un-doctrinaire and free from the paralysing pessimism that pervades some perspectives on communicative control.

That said, some loose ends remain. For example, one key concept increasingly used in discussions of new technology, surveillance, and power is the "Panopticon." While Mulgan makes passing reference to this, it is unclear whether he believes it to be a useful paradigm for control. Shoshana Zuboff, who makes extensive use of the panoptic idea in relation to the computerized workplace, is quoted approvingly, despite the fact that Mulgan is at pains to show how contemporary control is not necessarily centralizing. And the massive growth of consumer surveillance, which could be analysed in panoptic terms (whether advisedly or not), is hardly mentioned.

On another level, while Mulgan laudably eschews dogmatism about political alternatives, his treatment of certain kinds of approaches is thin. For instance, he has little to say about the role of social movements in re-channelling communications, nor about the role of law in limiting or mitigating control. Yet for Raymond Willams, again quoted positively, democratization of communications is bound up with genuine "community" expression and thus social movements. And as for law, many still view legal measures as constructive contributions to "communicative society." Mulgan seems to agree with this kind of position (pp. 260-261) but more could have been said.

Mulgan's book is a densely packed compendium of ideas and data drawn from a broad range of information and communications technologies. He refers, at least briefly, to many significant theorists and commentators in the field, but seldom pauses long enough to work through the implications of his approach for theirs. He alludes to numerous important debates about communication, from ancient times to postmodernity, but the relevance of his own position is always crisply if not cryptically put. And in many places the alphabet soup of acronyms is dauntingly thick. What he says of electronic networks could also apply to his book: "...an extraordinary and excessive feast that has left no time for the digestion..."



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