Re: The Death of Distance

Ian Andrew Bell (
Thu, 09 Jul 1998 13:50:50 -0700

At 09:49 AM 7/9/98 PDT, you wrote:
> > A. Countries with really good communications are, on the whole,
> > democracies. Democracies, on the whole, don't go to war with
> > each other. And on the whole, democracies are less likely to go
> > to war with their own citizens, and rich democracies are less
> > likely than poor ones. Therefore, it does not seem to me
> > unreasonable that this is going to be a force which will promote
> > world peace.
> Balderdash. That argument makes elementary mistakes of confusing
> cause and effect. Is a good communications infrastructure
> predicated on being a democracy? Or is it the other way around?
> Or neither?

While we have yet to see a society emerge with a highly evolved and
interconnected communications infrastructure, North America certainly is a
big contender. The arguments I could build to support or deny that claim
run about even, but I think it's important to remember that the fundamental
technologies of the Internet did not, and arguably could not have, evolved
in a democratic world. True, it was a democracy that paid for its
construction, but it was actually developed by the military-industrial
complex (not noteworthy for their egalitarian approach to humanity).

On the other hand, once you deploy a sufficiently evolved framework into an
open democracy though it's amazing what people will do with it. In Isen's
paper "The Rise of the Stupid Network" <> he compares IP
to a river system -- both networks based on self-organizing principles and
managed through overprovision. When capacity is exceeded, the network, or
the river, flows in new or broader directions.

On the Internet capacity is exceeded by the types of things we choose to
put over it. Some of those watery bits are forced down the stream by big
unwieldy authoritarians and some of those bits are forced into the network
by 14 year old boys with a Spice Girls fetish. In some ways, that's

I just finished briefing a VP on how IP has steadily progressed as a
network that is approaching ubiquity. It started out as a contained
network for a specific communications system, progressed into an open
network based on specific applications, and subsequently has replaced or
augmented LANs, WANs, Private WANS like banking networks and (in my view)
the Public-Switched Telephone Network -- very shortly.

Fairly soon everything will be an Internet application. At the Phone
Company we're working on Home Alarms over IP; we all saw the guy with the
Linux-based MP3 player in his Miata a few weeks ago; and somewhere I read
about an IP fridge. Think of it: a ubiquitous internet.

This reminds me of Michel Focault, whose writings I don't recommend, but
who raised the notion of the Panopticon:

>panopticon (def'n)
> The method of surveillance in the modern prison - this is the method
> that the modern state uses to execute and regulate its control of
> society. Unlike the monarchical state, which uses brute force to
> control its subjects, the 'democratic' state requires internalized
> and sophisticated coercion to perform this function. The term
> "panopticon" was a name suggested by Jeremy Bentham (Bentham, 1995).
> In a prison built with modern architecture that allows guards to see
> continuously inside each cell, the "panopticon" is the central
> observing tower even though the prisoners cannot see that they are
> being observed. This constant gaze controls the prisoners affecting
> not only what they do but how they see themselves. and replaced the
> use of a dungeon and dark cell to control the prisoner (1979a, 170).
> This image serves as a metaphor for the power in of governmentality
> in the modern state.


David Lyon does discuss this concept in his EXCELLENT book, "The Electronic
Eye" <>.

While the Internet presents no single point of observation as in a true
Panopticon (which necessarily is designed around a core) it's fair to say
that in such a network EVERY point can be the center. The IP Panopticon
then becomes extruded, sort of, because from the outside you can "see"
anywhere because of IP's underlying principle of the Interconnectedness of

The Electronic Eye misses the Internet (written in 1994) and its usefulness
to a Panopticon model but the relevance is sound still -- and the author
answers his email!

I think that a truly interconnected communications infrastructure, as we
will have within 10 years, truly represents both egalitarian and
authoritarian trends. Direct Marketing, if you believe this to be a bad
thing (as I do) is a perfect example of how cross-database lookups and
infringment on our privacy as purchasers, can lead to erosion of consumer
choice and inhibition of personal freedoms.

For egalitarians there is the possibility of reaching out into a Brave New
World and being heard. How much does this still hold true, with reference
to the World Wide Web? On spec, I thought that the Kurds might be a good
example to show how a group might make use of the Internet:


Sure enough, 10 of the first 10 results are all small advocacy groups and
individuals. No MSNBC, CNN, or Iraqi government links.

But that's an old story, what about:


Wow, just about even for Popular Media and People At Large (PALs). Not bad.

Now... if you subscribe to the notion that "Portals" are going to be how
MOST people get their information & news over the Internet, what's the
profile of important global issues and what kind of access do people have
to them?


Aha! Noam Chomsky is right! 6 articles in which "East Timor" appears, 3
of which are actually AP profiles. None did much more than allude to the
reality of Indonesia slaughtering and enslaving hundreds of thousands after
their 1975 invasion.

So maybe it's fair to say that the Internet has egalitarian tendencies,
like a river, but that the commercialization of IP has brought about the
same degrees of homogeneity and the same Amero-centric, White
Upper-Middle-Class Urban Male world view that has propagated on other media.

Bringing it all home, then, isn't it probable that mass communications
unify disingenious peoples, not through open exchange of free ideas as in
Lincoln's democracy, but instead by homogenizing culture and knocking all
of us back to a Seinfeld-esque baseline standard set of beliefs? Isn't
this the core value of America's "Melting Pot"?

Doesn't that really negate egalitarian principles? Can anyone support or
rebuke my autoritarian assumptions?

Just a thought.


Ian Andrew Bell
BC TEL Interactive (604) 482-5708

"Make it idiot proof and someone will make a better idiot."