This blog post is an assignment for a course I’m taking. It is written with my instructor and colleagues in mind, but as it is openly accessible online I encourage everyone to continue reading! Please let me know if you want to read any of the references without institutional access.
The Control Revolution
We find ourselves surrounded by rapid technological and social change. Exciting phrases like Information Society, Post-industrial Age, Networked Era, and the Digital Realm all seem to suggest that the current global proliferation of computers and internet access marks a distinct time period. Breaking from this trend, we will instead analyse the cultural implications of these changes in relation to longer-term processes following the work of sociologist and historian James Beniger:
“The Information Society has not resulted from recent changes […] but rather from increases in the speed of material processing and of flows through the material economy that began more than a century ago. Similarly, microprocessing and computing technology, contrary to currently fashionable opinion, do not represent a new force only recently unleashed on an unprepared society but merely the most recent installment in the continuing development of the Control Revolution” (435).
In other words, the changes in information and communications technologies occurring now are a result of the changes that occurred in the mid-1800s for manufacturing and transportation technologies. Digital sociologist Simon Lindgren explains, “so what may appear to be the advent of a new informational society, Beniger argues, is rather a digital intensification of industrialism” (15). Periodization such as the ‘Post-industrial Age’ obscures the fact that our favourite electronic devices and the latest networked communication platforms are still produced by and operate within the logic of industrialism.
This blog post will examine how the logic of industrialism continues to assert itself in the Networked Era. First, we will compare an example of colonization in the time of the Industrial Revolution to contemporary forms of colonialism following the Control Revolution. Second, we will look at how these different kinds of colonization are associated with different forms of property. Overall, we explore how new forms of colonialism and property continue to serve the needs of industry.
Colonialism: Past & Present
The Industrial Revolution accelerated societies’ production and processing systems. This led to a growth and tightening of what historians J. R. and William McNeill call ‘human webs’. For the British Empire and other great powers, this was an opportunity to renew their efforts at colonization on a global scale: industrial colonialism became possible.
The increased productive capacity would eventually backfire on the colonizing powers though, because as Beniger argues it also led to ‘control crises’. These took the form of imperial rivalries, political movements, social revolution, globalized war, and ultimately decolonization. In a way, the same forces of change that had strengthened colonization also strengthened resistance to it. The limits and negative consequences of imperialism were recognized, which in Beniger’s framework the great powers would have prevented if they could have done so through control of information and communications technologies.
In this sense, the Control Revolution we are tempted to call the Networked Era is the process of industrialism catching up to information and communications technologies. It is affecting our ideas, cultures, values, and socialization in ways that the great powers of the Industrial Revolution would have been quite interested in controlling. It is unleashing a new wave of colonization, no longer restricted by Beniger’s ‘control crises’. Now we have what Canadian media theorist Thomas McPhail calls electronic colonialism:
“Electronic colonialism is the dependency relationship established by the importation of communication hardware, foreign produced software, along with engineers, technicians, and related information protocols, that vicariously establish a set of foreign norms, values, and expectations which, in varying degrees, may alter the domestic cultures and socialization processes” (18).
The result of electronic colonialism is a facade: countries can maintain nominal independence while being subject to a foreign power’s influence. This pattern is described by former President of Ghana Kwame Nkrumah as neo-colonialism:
“The essence of neo-colonialism is that the State which is subject to it is, in theory, independent and has all the outward trappings of international sovereignty. In reality its economic system and thus its political policy is directed from outside” (1).
Technological disruption to the industries of information and communications are enabling the forces of colonization to reassert themselves in new forms. Colonialism continues to serve the economic interests of industrialized countries, just now through culturally-mediated industries. The forces of colonization, old and new, will seek strategies of maintaining their control.
Colonialism in the industrial era was fixated on expansion: the occupation and control of ever more territory, for resource extraction and sometimes for settlement. Canadian historian Allan Greer describes the “central business of colonizing ‘new’ lands [as] the dispossession of indigenous peoples and the imposition of new property regimes” (385). After displacing an indigenous population, we find that the agents of colonization produce culturally-mediated ‘property regimes’ that are then used to maintain ongoing control of land.
The city of Toronto in the province of Ontario provides us with an example of just such a property regime produced by industrial colonization. Ontario was established as ‘Upper Canada’ by the British Empire, originally for the resettlement of refugees from the American Revolution. This meant displacing the indigenous population from the remaining pockets of imperial control in the Great Lakes region, and then asserting a racial hierarchy in favour of the newly arriving anglophone migrants of European descent. The Toronto Purchase negotiated in 1787 between the British crown and the Mississauga of the Credit provides us with an example of the sort of property regimes produced by settler colonization at the height of the Industrial Revolution:
“[…] all that tract or parcel of land commencing on the east bank of the south outlet of the River Etobicoke; thence up same, following the several windings and turning of the said river to a maple tree blazed on four sides at the distance of three miles and three quarters, in a straight line from the mouth of the said river; thence north twenty-two degrees west twenty-four miles and one-quarter; then north sixty-eight degrees east fourteen miles; then south twenty-two degrees east twenty-eight miles, more or less, to Lake Ontario; then westerly along the water’s edge of Lake Ontario to the eastern bank of the south outlet of the River Etobicoke, being the place of beginning, containing Two hundred and fifty thousand, eight hundred and eight acres, together with all the woods and waters thereon […] And also all the estate, right, title, interest, property, claim and demand whatsoever […] except the fishery in the said River Etobicoke […] without trouble, hindrance, molestation, interruption or disturbance of them the said Principal Chiefs, Warriors and people of the Mississague Nation or any of them, their heirs or successors or any other person or persons lawfully claiming or to claim by, from or under them or any of them” [Emphasis added] (Toronto Purchase, Treaty 13).
Here the text of the Toronto Purchase shows evidence of both the urgency of industrial colonization and the perpetual stratification by descent which is characteristic of settler colonies. Usage of the ephemeral marker of a ‘maple tree blazed on four sides’ and the vague phrase ‘more or less’ show this document was produced not only in haste but also in a way that prioritized form over content. The exact boundaries were inconsequential to the British, because they planned to eventually incorporate the entire region. The British instead valued the document as a legal basis for a colonial logic of restriction. This property regime would be used to ensure that English-speakers loyal to the Empire could continue to settle in and dominate the Great Lakes region.
For the Mississauga of the Credit, the Toronto Purchase was merely one of several land cessions that successively restricted them to smaller and smaller portions of their territory. This map from the Mississauga of the New Credit First Nation website shows how most of the Greater Toronto Area is associated with these treaties:
Figure 1: Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation Treaties, 1781-1820, and Rouge Tract Claim, 2015
Now neo-colonialism is manifesting in a new form of property regime: intellectual property rights.
Intellectual property is being used to maintain control over less developed countries. American Professor and Internet governance scholar Laura DeNardis explains that intellectual property rights have the effect of restricting opportunities for developing countries. New technologies are developed based on standards that rely on proprietary protocols owned by profit-oriented corporations. These large corporations have exclusive patents, copyrights, teams of lawyers, and rapport with international institutions of commerce. This results in a new form of property regime that creates barriers to market for whoever cannot acquire intellectual property.
Local companies from less developed countries seeking to compete in technological industries face extra costs for manufacturing and access to markets. Licensing fees, royalties, and lack of upfront disclosure about intellectual property restrictions ensure that the uneven ‘playing field’ created by industrial colonization persists. This economic inequality is leveraged by large corporations from more developed countries so that they can also employ and sell back to the local populations of less developed countries. Essentially, the Control Revolution has produced a property regime that ensures colonized nations continue to serve as labour forces and consumer markets for entrenched corporations. The countries most subject to the violence of colonialism in the Industrial Era are the same countries that today make up the bulk of the less developed countries. This pattern is precisely what Nkrumah refers to in his book Neo-colonialism, the Last Stage of imperialism:
The methods and form of this direction can take various shapes. For example, in an extreme case the troops of the imperial power may garrison the territory of the neo-colonial State and control the government of it. More often, however, neo-colonialist control is exercised through economic or monetary means. The neo-colonial State may be obliged to take the manufactured products of the imperialist power to the exclusion of competing products from elsewhere. Control over government policy in the neo-colonial State may be secured by payments towards the cost of running the State, by the provision of civil servants in positions where they can dictate policy, and by monetary control over foreign exchange through the imposition of a banking system controlled by the imperial power.
Where neo-colonialism exists the power exercising control is often the State which formerly ruled the territory in question, but this is not necessarily so. For example, in the case of South Vietnam the former imperial power was France, but neo-colonial control of the State has now gone to the United States. It is possible that neo-colonial control may be exercised by a consortium of financial interests which are not specifically identifiable with any particular State. The control of the Congo by great international financial concerns is a case in point” [Emphasis added] (1).
Colonialism takes new forms to perpetuate the same power structures as before, as evidenced by the ongoing and unequal economic relations between less developed countries and great powers. Writing in 1965, Nkrumah hints at the changing nature of who benefits the most from neo-colonization. The beneficiaries of electronic colonization are not the same empires as those of industrial colonization. Since the Control Revolution, ‘consortiums of financial interests’ in the form of transnational corporations have expanded globally in ways similar to the wave of colonization following the Industrial Revolution.
The great powers of today are the globalized giants of the information and communications industries. Their hegemonic influence is illustrated in Italian economist Vincenzo Cosenza’s World Map of Social Networks:
Figure 2: World Map of Social Networks, January 2018
The social media corporation Facebook dominates 91% of the countries analyzed in the map. This reflects not only their business but also the influence of its host country, the United States of America. This should be unsurprising in what is often described as a politically uni-polar world. China and Russia provide the only non-American social media companies on the map. Notably, two Russian social media companies V Kontakte and Odnoklassniki show evidence of persistent Russian hegemony over post-USSR countries in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asian regions.
The rapid changes in computers and internet-enabled platforms are exciting, but do not mark a new era. On the contrary, these technological changes reflect the latest reach of the social, economic and political processes set in motion centuries ago by the Industrial Revolution. The acceleration of society caused back then enabled a wave of industrial colonization, which only ended after a series of control crises necessitated a process of decolonization. Now, the acceleration is resuming through the Control Revolution whereby industrialism begins to permeate our information and communications technologies. The forms of colonialism before and after the Control Revolution, industrial and electronic, produce their different forms of property regimes. The racial hierarchies of colonialist land cessions and intellectual property rights both serve the interests of the great powers of industrial and electronic colonization: imperial countries and entrenched social media corporations. Industrialism takes many forms, but in both historical and contemporary contexts reaches toward the same goals.
- Beniger, J. R. (1986). The Control Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Castells, M. (2004). Informationalism, Networks, and the Network Society: A Theoretical Blueprint. In M. Castells (Ed.), The Network Society A Cross-Cultural Perspective (pp.3-45). Northhampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing.
- Coleman, G. (2009). Code Is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise and Protest among Free and Open Source Software Developers. Cultural Anthropology.
- Cosenza, V. (2019). “World Map of Social Networks,” Vincos Blog. http://vincos.it/world-map-of-social-networks/
- Greer, A. (2012). Commons and Enclosure in the Colonization of North America. American Historical Review (Volume 117, Issue 2, pp.364-386).
- Lindgren, S. (2017). Digital Media & Society. London: Sage.
- McPhail, T. L. (1987). Electronic Colonialism: The Future of International Broadcasting and Communication. Beverly Hills: Sage.
- Mississauga of the New Credit First Nation. (2015). “Treaty Lands & Territory,” Mississauga of the New Credit First Nation. http://mncfn.ca/about-mncfn/treaty-lands-and-territory/
- Nkrumah, K. (1965). Neo-Colonialism, the Last Stage of imperialism. London: Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd.