Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists

Kevin Kelly

Information Takeover

“The proliferation and convergence of communication channels is a technical revolution. It’s also a political revolution.”

That’s Stewart Brand’s explanation of the sustained fervor infusing a loose underground of social visionaries, artists and maverick hackers. As our society shifts from one governed by materials to one regulated by information, those who control information have political power. But controlling information is a slippery thing. The technologies of camera, copier, computer dismantle the time-honored notions of ownership. When ideas become the coin of the realm, and ideas can be multiplied and spread to the masses in the miraculous way of fishes and loaves, then paradoxes reign, and paradoxical will be the politics.

Almost every claim about the information revolution is steadfastly true. Small computers inevitably combine into oppressive big brothers; small computers inevitably empower individuals. Global communications make the world smaller; global information makes the universe bigger. Art is stunted by machine; artists are liberated by machines. The paperless office in the backwoods generates more tree-fed paper than ever. All true. All contributing to a fluctuating reality.

The bugaboos about copyright and who owns ideas (see “Bettered by the Borrower” p. 104) is one example of this oscillating signal. Being first with an idea doesn’t guarantee power. Neither does being the largest. Big government and the military-industrial complex are amazed, confused, and anxious because they can no longer control the course of information any more than the little guy can. The circuit has its own life. The political revision begun by a communication underground like computer networks (see “The Bulletin Board Proletariat,” p. 77) is to acknowledge the standing of this other thing now living among us: the circuit of information.

Charting the current is partially what Jeanne Carstensen (managing editor
of the Essential Whole Earth Catalog) and I have done in this issue. We’ve used the most versatile technology we have to date, paper and ink. You’ll notice gaps in our crude survey. When the current comes your way, send a signal back with what we’ve missed.

New York publishing doesn’t see anything of this invisible uprising. We sent a couple of proposals to Publisher’s Row, and got back a shrug. We’re sitting on three times the amount we could fit into 144 pages. Perhaps it’s time we slapped it all into a rough, home-brewed, reader-written, self-published, funky, oversize Catalog. Again.

Perhaps we are whistling in the dark. If the task of providing access to a knowledge economy strikes you as necessary, write us.

Whole Earth Review: Signal, No. 57, Winter 1987, p. 2. PDF