The rise of the Internet is widely accepted as a benevolent force, a friendly tool with which we can get up-to-the-minute news, conduct research, buy stock or simply order a pizza with pepperoni and onions. From a technological curiosity, it has quickly become a cultural commonplace, a welcome new inhabitant in many offices and homes. Yet our understanding of what the Internet is doing to society and to us as individuals remains remarkably thin.
This is no small question because the Internet is a powerful agent in a real revolution. The Internet appears to be breaking down important hierarchies by putting individuals in charge, which means diminishing the stature of many figures of authority: public officials, news professionals and the middlemen of commerce, to name a few. As gatekeepers are bypassed, the control of decision making is devolving to the end user.
There is much to celebrate here. This individual autonomy is in many ways a boon to free speech, diversity and learning. It can provide unusual consumer choice, and fresh opportunities for work and commercial activity. It can also be tremendously fun--and a boost to the ego. As Norman Mailer once said, "What technology promises is that we can all be control freaks."
What makes this shift so unsettling, however, is its volatility and potential for unforeseen consequences. There is no guarantee that the revolution will turn out right. On the way, it will inevitably encounter resistance and it also could be pushed to excess, straining the bonds of society.
The first danger--resistance--is hardly surprising. In the face of individual empowerment, many institutions are fighting to retain their authority. Governments are trying to restrict certain uses and forms of technology. This is true not just in China and Singapore, where efforts to curb Internet access are well known, but also in the West. German officials prosecuted the head of an online service when it failed to prevent a user from obtaining illegal pornography, and the U.S. restrictions on encryption technology reflect unease with the ability of individuals to keep secrets from government.
Many corporations appear anxious about individual control as well. The canniest are able to create the illusion of personal freedom even as they manipulate our choices. Microsoft's slogan--"Where do you want to go today?"--is especially ironic, precisely because the company has steered customers where it wants them to go. This, in fact, is what is at stake in the Microsoft antitrust trial.
The second threat presented by the new digital autonomy is less obvious and potentially more dangerous: Quite simply, the individual control made possible by the Internet can be pushed too far.
Take news. There are good reasons to cheer the fact that anyone with an e-mail address can be a publisher. But the passion for unmediated dispatches from the likes of Matt Drudge also means we are dispensing with layers of writers, editors, libel lawyers--the professionals whose job it is to ensure the integrity of information. Without these gatekeepers, our media landscape could become even more infested with half-truths and falsehoods.
The lesson is that middlemen are often indispensable as guardians of the public interest. The founders of our nation recognized this in an analogous context when they established a system of representative government instead of direct democracy. The authors of the Constitution could not have foreseen a day when citizens could in theory act on political measures by hitting a computer key at home. But they did know that just results most often come from having a trusted delegate interpret the will of the people. They wisely distrusted plebiscites.
Such skepticism about absolute control for individuals is an idea that needs to be rehabilitated. Enthralled with the prospect of taking power from politicians, brokers and other middlemen, we should not forget the value of relying on the judgment and expertise of certain agents. Responsible personal power comes not from doing everything ourselves, but from knowing when to make our own choices and when to let others we trust make them for us. Delegation, in other words, is a key to balanced living in the advanced digital age.
Another aspect of individual control that can backfire is personalization, the signs of which are everywhere. With the click of a mouse, online features such as "My Yahoo!" and "My AOL" allow users to tailor their digital experience, selecting the categories of news and information they are interested in and filtering out everything else. So-called "virtual" communities similarly allow individuals to personalize their social encounters, choosing to interact only with like-minded people. Studies show that Internet users are increasingly doing so, and it is not hard to see why. Personalization gives individuals exceptional control over what they see and hear--essentially the ability to avoid connections they find bothersome or boring. It also may be useful for dealing with the torrent of information that is increasingly pushed at us.
Yet as we become comforted in the sanctuary of filtered order, we might narrow our horizons too much and become close-minded. This could also weaken community bonds that are already fraying. For all the uncertainty about what makes communities work, shared experience is indisputably essential; without it, there is no chance for mutual understanding, empathy and social cohesion. That, however, is precisely what personalization threatens to delete. A lack of common information would deprive citizens of a starting point for democratic dialogue.
The upshot of all this is clear: As we seize the individual control that the Internet makes possible, we must also learn to handle that power carefully. Sometimes, this will even mean saying no to certain forms of empowerment--rejecting the presumption that whatever new technology makes possible must actually be done.
Andrew Shapiro, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, is the author of the recently published "The Control Revolution: How the Internet is Putting Individuals in Charge and Changing the World We Know" (Public Affairs).