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  • Things That Run by Themselves

    This is Chapter 8 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    The peer-to-peer connectivity we celebrate on the Net is not a recent invention. Within groups of restricted size -- small companies, intentional communities, old-fashioned neighborhoods -- it is common to find individual communicating freely with individual across the entire group.

    As communities grow larger, however, the significance of peer-to-peer connectivity becomes uncertain. We cannot simply extrapolate from the small group. After all, the telephone gives us near-perfect connectivity across the entire country. But if we were all to begin calling each other, chaos would ensue. That is why structure is inevitably imposed: conventions and etiquette, social boundaries, personal interests, connection costs, privacy laws, time constraints -- innumerable factors lead to patterns of network use that look quite different from any naive ideal of peer-to-peer connectivity. Try reaching the CEO of your telephone company. (Or just try penetrating the computerized, automated answering system to reach a customer- service agent.)

    The need, then, is to develop some sense for the social structures likely to take shape around large-scale networking technologies. A good place to start is with the corporation. Corporations are dynamic entities, often multiplying many times in scale over several years. Here we can watch the efforts of integral, highly networked communities to continue functioning integrally as they expand. We can observe their unaccountable transformations. And when we do, we begin to see the extraordinarily difficult human challenges posed by expanding networks of interaction.

    It has been an oddity of the Internet's early phases that it evoked such a rush of unqualified optimism about the inevitable benefits of raw "connectivity." The Net was going to free the individual from the System. That optimism has already darkened a bit, if the Net discussions going on as I write are any guide. But the corporate experience suggests more than a few peripheral shadows around the earlier hopes. As we consider the evolution of networking technologies, we also need to consider the evolution of totalitarianism. By means of networks, the System has a remarkable ability to take hold of us in an ever more absolute -- and ever more invisible -- manner.

    From start-up to behemoth

    One of the dramatic features of the past two or three decades has been the prominent role of the start-up venture, particularly in what we call "high-tech" industries. Of course, every company has to have started at some time. But this recent period has seen an unprecedented surge of new ventures, many of which have contributed to the technological re-shaping of society