2. The Machine Revolution Today
THE MACHINE REVOLUTION TODAYThe next three chapters attempt to articulate a vision of history. This is not history in the sense of that academic science where a suitable distance is maintained between the present and some part of the past conceived of as a dead object. For me history is the story of the movement of society and that means locating the present as a moment in transition between the past and the future. Since we are condemned always to write history from the perspective of a rolling present, we must make a virtue of starting concretely with the here and now, however far we subsequently travel within humanity’s trajectory. By looking back to the past, we anchor any forward-looking vision of future possibility in self-conscious knowledge of what has already happened. It is of course easier to know what has gone than what is happening; and it is impossible to know what is to come. That is why those who prefer the certainty of being to the uncertainty of becoming live in the past.If our time in history is unique, as it must be, that uniqueness lies principally in our reliance on machines for the means of everyday life. Regions vary greatly in this respect; indeed that is one of the principal sources of inequality in our world. But by any reckoning the last two centuries of world history stand out from the rest by virtue of a machine revolution which throws the whole future of life on this planet into the balance. I approach this revolution from two angles. The first is to ask how its current phase, which I take to be characterised by the birth of the internet in the 1990s, can be understood in relation to previous phases of mechanisation. This inevitably means treating the history of modern technology as if it were separate from other social processes. Moreover, my aim in general is to uncover the potential of these changes for helping us to improve the human condition. This does not make me a gung-ho promoter of information technology as an unmitigated boon. I am as aware as anyone of the massive power discrepancies in this situation and of the processes of social exclusion involved. But I still want to ask what is special about the communications revolution and how it might be harnessed to the ends of economic democracy, if only by a few pioneers who are currently outnumbered by the forces of the dark side. And so I make this chapter my starting point for the book’s substantive argument.
The second angle, however, is the main one of this section. It is that the machine revolution is itself an outcome of economic development, specifically of the age of money or rather of that system of making money with money which we know of as capitalism. In the course of the next three chapters, I will outline how I think capitalism relates to the rest of world history and especially how it has evolved in the period of mechanisation. It is one benefit of our situation that we can look back at two major distinctive phases of the conjuncture of money and machines which preceded this one. In general, however, I resist that modernist outlook which suggests that some sections of humanity at least have made a decisive break with the past as a result of capitalist mechanisation. We are to a significant degree the creatures of 5,000 years of agrarian civilisation and we must not forget that half of humanity still work with their hands in the fields. The burden of this section, which culminates in an analysis of the political economy of the internet, is that we are still primitives who have recently stumbled into a machine revolution we don’t know what to do with. This is why world society is stagnant and corrupt, allowing the obscenity of widespread poverty to co-exist with an elite lifestyle unimaginable 200 years ago. This is why life on earth is threatened as never before. If the 21st century is governed by the same principles as the last century, there will not be a 22nd.
I have said that I have extended the limits of this enquiry beyond my scholarly competence. This is particularly true of the present chapter. I have been engaged in economic anthropology for thirty years; but my exposure to the communications revolution dates back only to 1993-94 when the internet went public and the World Wide Web was born. So, to the acknowledged difficulty of writing about an unfinished present, I add a lack of intellectual preparation for or professional engagement with the subject of machine technology. This may well be irritating to those who are more expert in such matters and confusing to those who are not. The paradox of this book is that I have chosen to privilege in my argument an aspect of modern history with which I am less familiar than others. But that too is a message I want to convey to my readers: we are in the early stages of the revolution linking machines and money to the formation of an increasingly unified world economy. On an analogy with the invention of agriculture 10,000 years ago, we are like the first digging-stick operators in a process which culminated in Chinese civilisation. We have little more chance than they did of anticipating what the results of current changes will eventually be. But we must try to work towards a better future somehow; and contemporary specialist knowledge may not be wholly adequate to the task.
A civilisation built on machines
The half century since the second world war has seen astonishing developments in technology. To begin with, we are the first generation to have seen the earth from outside. The impact of space travel on the human imagination is immeasurable. Then too for forty years the Cold War threatened to destroy us all with nuclear weapons. Television has unified the globe as never before, with audiences of up to half the population watching events like the football world cup final. Transport has been revolutionised by the aeroplane and the motorcar. Chemicals, plant genetics and synthetic substitutes have transformed the food chain. Human health and reproduction have been altered irrevocably by mechanisation and molecular biology. And, of course, the convergence of television, telephones and computers in the 1990s, the communications revolution, strikes to the core of modern existence. All of this comes with an unknowable environmental, social and personal cost. It is unsurprising that what Edmund Leach called “a runaway world” [i] leaves many people wondering whether the consequences of this explosion of machine production are bearable.
The machine revolution has its origins in improvements made to the steam engine in the 18th century; but the period 1800-2000 may plausibly be described as “the age of mechanisation”. Although the penetration of machines into our lives has been a continuous process throughout this period, it is possible to identify three main phases, corresponding to steam power, electrical power and information processing, respectively.  [ii] Each of these has been expressed in a distinctive organisational form: the factory, the office and the internet. These phases in turn have been linked to growth in the power of the owners of money (capitalism) and to significant changes in the social forms of that power. At the same time, the prime location of the economy has moved from the house via the city and the nation-state to the world. So that it is possible to identify schematically three sets of broad social changes associated with the development of machine production:
Table 2.1 Three Stages of the Machine Revolution
There is, of course, considerable overlap between the above; but it is evident that we are living in the transition from the dominant pattern of 20th century economy and technology to whatever will become its equivalent in the 21st. One principal aim of this chapter is thus to place the emergence of the internet in the 1990s within a historical scheme which embraces not only the successive phases of the machine revolution, but also the wider context of human development of which it is just the most recent part.
Marx and Engels correctly foresaw that machine production entailed the centralisation of society; and they hoped that the newly formed industrial working class would seize the chance of being concentrated in the cities to organise effectively against the factory owners and their allies in government. [iii] Instead the bureaucratic revolution of state capitalism beat the workers to it, while harnessing the energies of the professional middle-classes to the task of nation-building. The communications revolution is based on a more decentralised technology than before (at least at the level of use, rather than infrastructure) and it has accelerated the integration of world society, principally in the form of a network of markets. Does the emergence of a world market mediated by miniaturised machines contain new democratic possibilities for expressing general human interests; or are we merely witnessing the culmination of a global capitalism run by and for huge corporations?
The key to understanding the part played by machines in the rapidly evolving human economy is to consider their consequences for the performance of work. In modern English usage, work is usually human effort made social by being paid for. It is the way most of us expect to make money. Mechanical aids to human labour are very ancient; but, for reasons which will become apparent, I reserve the term machine for the means of converting inanimate energy to human ends; whereas tools will be taken to be inert instruments handled by human beings in the course of their work. The growing number and sophistication of machines aiding human effort may be called mechanisation; and it is this process which is the most distinctive feature of the modern economy (making money with money being as old as civilisation itself, as we will see).
Because the first systematic application of machines to the objectives of production was the 19th century factory system based on coal-fired steam engines, mechanisation has been conventionally associated with smokestack industries and hence with what we generally call “the industrial revolution” or “industrialisation”. At the end of the 20th century, when technological progress is focused on the mechanisation of human brains rather than muscle-power, it is more appropriate to stress the relentless advance of machines without tying the idea to the imagery of industrial manufactures. Whatever else he may be responsible for, Karl Marx was the first major social theorist to notice the centrality of machines in modern economic development. [iv] The cities we live in would be impossible without them; and in this sense the whole relationship between humanity and the natural world has been irreversibly changed by mechanisation.
In two centuries, the differential rate of application of machines to production has been the single greatest indicator of uneven development in the global economy. Although there are few people in the world today who do not have access to the simpler machines in general use — fans, trucks, radios, corn mills — the majority still work with their hands in a production environment largely devoid of machines. Productivity, now a function of the machines supporting human labour, is a measure of the output generated by a worker in a period of time; it is the most direct guide to the growing gap between haves and have-nots in the world today. The staggering proliferation of machines on the whole reinforces this polarity. Machines use energy, mostly a dwindling supply of fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas; and the world’s population is divided increasingly by the degree to which everyday life is mediated by these mechanised sources of energy.
Thorstein Veblen, writing at the turn of the century in America, [v] believed that the “pecuniary” system of free enterprise and market competition was archaic, even barbaric. It stood opposed to an emergent civilisation based on the qualities required for working with machines. These were: standardisation, scientific precision, disciplined regularity, increased interdependence and a matter-of-fact rejection of conventional ways of thinking. He felt that such an ethos had already been embraced by industrial workers and, to a degree, by everyone in society, except for the bosses (“captains of industry”) who were rather addicted to money profits and cultivated indifference to the real needs of society. In an impersonal world driven by an interlocking system of machines, personality was expressed in work only by a handful of destructive monopolists, of whom the literary prototype was Captain Ahab. [vi]
In a sense, the bureaucratic capitalism which evolved in the first half of the 20th century (sometimes called “Fordism” after Henry Ford’s automobile plant near Detroit) could be said to have answered the need for a less chaotic approach, with corporate managers assuming authoritarian control of the production line and its “hands”. C.L.R. James, echoing many radical critics of industrialism, caught the resulting alienation of workers when he wrote of the fearful mechanical power of an industrial civilisation which makes incredible advances at the same time as destroying human personality. [vii] In other words, faced with the regimentation and enormous scale of modern industry, most workers were reduced to being no more than “cogs in a machine”, while an impersonal management hierarchy likewise took on the attributes of a machine technology to which human endeavour was relentlessly subordinated (“systems theory”).
So, thanks to a line of polemicists, from the Luddite machine-breakers to Charlie Chaplin, the modern power of money is linked indelibly in our imaginations to its physical manifestation as belching, clanking behemoths, machines which reduce human labour to an almost pointless tending exercise. I grew up near Trafford Park, Manchester’s pioneering industrial estate. Twice every day all the factory shifts in this huge engineering complex were ended together by an awesome sound, known as “The Buzzer”, which told housewives for miles around to get a meal ready for their husbands. The last trump of the Day of Wrath was a routine experience for us. The only comparable phenomenon was when Manchester United scored a goal on a Saturday afternoon and the unified roar of 50,000 men was truly bestial, a reminder to women and children alike of what raw collective male power can be.
This kind of mechanisation supported an imperialism in which the western working class, itself oppressed by machines and the power of the owners’ money, was invited to celebrate “our” collective dominance over colonial subjects who were unlucky enough to have no machines at all. Now the Fordist crisis of machine production is to some extent receding in the West as another phase of mechanisation ushers in new working conditions. Indeed the loss of smokestack industries to the communities built around them a century or more ago has spawned a poignant genre of films and literature in itself.  The millions of people who spend their days in front of computer screens are the coal-face or automobile workers of our times. Theirs is the central work experience of an economy whose leading sectors are now driven by information technology. Following Veblen’s analysis at the turn of the century or indeed those of Hegel and Marx earlier, we need to ask whether these new experiences of work contain the possibility of more or less personal satisfaction, more or less democracy. What kind of ethos do information technologies support? Will the world be a more or less equal place as a result of their spread?
The answers to such questions are highly contested. Some argue that the historical alienation of machine workers is being reversed, with the emphasis now being on the individual learning process and self-management of work; while others point just as plausibly to sweat shop conditions and strict regimentation in the information industries.  [viii] The trend of machine technology over the last century has been on the whole towards miniaturisation and domestication. In the process the scale of machines has become more human, more personal. Compare the first steam engines with what drives the average motor car today, the first IBM mainframe computers (only three or four decades ago!) with the laptop on which this book was written. It is a long way to your kitchen fridge from the ships which pioneered refrigeration to bring Argentinian meat to England last century; but this story has been repeated thousands of times. It is sometimes said disparagingly of the 1960s space race that its only useful by-product was the teflon-coated frying pan. That seems quite a lot to me. But technology alone does not shape the conditions of work and we have not yet put the horrors of early industrialisation definitively behind us.
The typical trajectory for machines, however, has been to start out as huge public monsters dominating the people working with them, then to become smaller and more efficient, allowing widespread diffusion into private domestic and public use. If the steam locomotive has served as a symbol of modern history from Tolstoy to Bertolucci, what kind of history is symbolised by the mobile phone? Of all the sectors of modern production, the increase in the efficiency of information processors has been staggering. An article in Scientific American once began with the observation that, if transport had made the same improvements since 1945 (and it has hardly stood still in that period), we would now be able to fly around the world for $5 in 30 minutes on half a gallon of kerosene. Some comparable changes have taken place in the food chain, with more contradictory and potentially worrying results.
The implications of all this for the location and type of economic opportunities have been profound. There have always been hi-tech (well-paid) and low-tech (badly paid) variants of capitalism, sometimes in direct competition (as, for example, in the textiles industry), sometimes existing in parallel. Their relationship is a major theme here, to be discussed in the next chapter. In 1947 Lancashire’s cotton textile exports, the culmination of the world’s first industrial revolution, supplied one-third of Britain’s foreign exchange earnings. Its workers were contemptuous of cheap, shoddy competition from Japan. They felt they owned the world market. At about the same time, Hong Kong produced labour-intensive products for the colonies like enamelware and plastic flowers. No need to recapitulate what happened next in Japan. It is perhaps less well-known that Hong Kong has since come to rival Europe’s richest high-tech economies (Germany and Switzerland) in some of their most sophisticated production lines, like optical instruments. The relocation of the world’s ship-building industry to Korea is another case in point. Meanwhile, the blackened textile mills of Lancashire lie derelict and abandoned, like the dockyards on Tyneside and the Clyde.
The shift to long-distance trade in information services obviously depends on an even higher, more integrated level of machine civilisation than earlier phases of industrialisation. The telecommunications corporations which control the infrastructure of this commerce and many of its specific products (AT & T, Microsoft, News International) obviously wield market power on a scale that J.D. Rockefeller would have envied. But the network of machines linked together by the internet is more mobile and decentralised than before. If home-based production was traditionally associated with the exploitation of cheap family labour, the communications revolution now makes it possible for the most highly-paid service workers to operate from home, if they choose. Many of the simpler tasks of data-processing have already been “put out” by satellite to Third World countries like India with a well-educated, low-wage workforce. San Diego doctors now have their medical notes made digital in Bangalore.
But this is just the beginning. Who knows where it will lead? Africa more or less missed out on the first and second industrial revolutions. Perhaps some Africans will make a more fruitful connection with this third phase; certainly the African market for telephony is attracting the attention of multinational suppliers. In any case, mechanisation has been the source of large swings in global economic inequality over relatively short periods. Towns in Britain’s Northern and Celtic fringe now compete with well-educated, low-paid labour forces elsewhere for investments by Asian and American capital in assembly plants producing mass consumption goods for the European market. Meanwhile, in California, the best-paid, most sophisticated workforce in the world lives alongside illegal Chicano labourers whose conditions and pay are grotesquely inferior. And the nightmare of America’s black inner cities builds to a climax that most Americans cannot bear to think about. It is not necessary to invoke the gap between rich and poor regions of the world; stark inequalities can be seen in every country.
So ours is a civilisation built on machines; and it seems likely that the process of mechanisation has brought with it much greater economic inequality, not less, especially in the last two decades leading up to the communications revolution. At every previous stage, critical social thinkers have been concerned to resolve the paradox of how technology designed to aid human work might be turned from a means of exclusion and oppression into a source of greater human freedom and equality. The same question preoccupies us today. Any answers are inseparable from the institutional forms taken by money, whether as capitalism or as the market. But first we must try to place the machine revolution in the context of human history as a whole.
In the long run: the age of mechanisation
“In the long run we are all dead” – Maynard Keynes
To recapitulate, the industrial revolution took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. [ix] It was an integrated complex, centred on Northern Britain, bringing together cotton, iron and coal. The commercial product was cotton textiles (clothing); production was based on the steam engine powered by coal; before long railways provided the transport. The second stage saw America and Germany overtake Britain in the late 19th/early 20th centuries with new large-scale industries: steel plants, chemicals, printing, shipyards and high-rise office blocks. This concentration of mass production in huge enterprises underlay the widespread assumption of the day that society was inexorably bent on a path of centralisation. It was linked to the harnessing of electric power in what became national grids. The third stage is our own and the 1990s are certainly in the thick of it.
At the same time that the bureaucratic revolution was ushering in an era of mass production, discoveries were being made which led to the forms of machine technology which subsequently dominated the 20th century economy: petroleum, the electric motor, the telephone, cinema, radio and mass circulation newspapers, the automobile and the aeroplane, domestic appliances, steel-framed construction, office equipment such as copiers (without which new businesses like advertising would be unthinkable). The drive to occupy the centre of mushrooming cities was reversed and suburbanisation set in, increasing the distance between work and home, at least for male breadwinners.  [x]
Similarly, the key discoveries underpinning the communications revolution were made in the 1940s during the second world war (the transistor, computers, radar etc.) and only now are they coming into general use. It could be said that the impact of information technology is still superficial, since the bulk of humanity is as yet left untouched by it. But how many people used telephones a century ago and how many use them now? And, in the 1840s, when Marx and Engels found a world revolution in a few Lancashire textile factories, what proportion of global production was organised in that way then? We can be sure that the principles of the technologies which will shape the way of life of most human beings in 21st century have already been discovered. Our historical knowledge of earlier phases of mechanisation should help us to make sense of our own transitional moment. Two centuries is a long time from the perspective of the human biological clock; but it is a blink of an eyelid in the scale of world history. We need to place the present within the widest context of time and space – human evolution and world population as a whole.
The project of imagining national communities, largely by means of statistical extrapolation, is a century and a half old. Even so, we now accept without question the idea that Italian and Spanish women have the lowest birth rates in Europe or that Britain has sunk to being the 18th richest country in the world. Since the second world war and the formation of the United Nations, it has become normal to collect statistics on the global population; but thinking about human society as a single entity has not yet taken hold. It is about time that it did. For now is the time when world society is being formed in a meaningful sense; and the fragmentation of perspective produced by national consciousness prevents us from imagining the human community as a whole. Numbers are one way of beginning that process.
Table 2.2 Population, cities and energy 1800-2000  [xi]
Urban share of world population
1 in 40
1 in 2
The year 1800 may serve as an arbitrary marker of the beginning of the age of mechanisation. In that year the world’s human population has been estimated at 1 bn; only 1 in 40 people lived in cities (the largest, London and Beijing, having populations of around 1 mn); and animals and plants were responsible for almost all the energy produced and consumed by human beings. In 2000, world population is about 6 bn; half of us live in cities, many of them 10-20 mn in size; and inanimate sources (mainly fossil fuels) account for the bulk of energy production. Seen as rates of increase over two centuries, the human population has been growing at an annual rate of 1.5%, while the rate of growth of cities has been 2%. This apparently small difference accounts for the huge rise in the proportion of city-dwellers. Energy production has been growing at around 3% a year since the mid-19th century. The fact that this figure is double the rate of population increase indicates the considerable economic expansion of the last two centuries; but the distribution of this increment has been grossly unequal, with American citizens, for example, consuming on average 400 times more energy than their Ugandan counterparts.  [xii]
Let us start with the population boom. It seems that births routinely exceeded deaths by 1% in agrarian societies. If left unchecked for the 10,000 years in which agriculture dominated the economy of the planet, this surplus would have led to the land mass being covered with a layer of human flesh thousands of miles deep and expanding into space at a speed fast approaching that of light. The reason why this did not happen was that periodic gluts of death (caused by war, famine and disease) wiped out the surplus, allowing instead for a modest net increase to around 1 bn by 1800. [xiii]
Table 2.3 The demographic transition
By modern standards, then, agrarian populations managed to tick over only by maintaining high birth rates to match equally high death rates. The modern demographic trend has been first towards lowering death rates and then eventually to reductions in birth rates, as people became more confident in the survival prospects of their children. This trend has normally included a period of rapid population expansion when birth rates remained high while death rates were falling. Europe was the first to experience this “demographic transition”, with births exceeding deaths significantly for a century from the 1830s to the 1930s, after which the current pattern of population stagnation and decline was established. In this same period Europeans grabbed most of the earth’s land mass, controlling four-fifths of it by the time of the first world war, thereby allowing many of them to leave home for lands of new settlement overseas (50 mn between the 1880s and the first world war, mostly to the United States).
A similar transition has been taking place in the rest of the world since 1945. Here too sharp reductions in death rates as a result of better medicine and more secure food supplies have been accompanied by continuing high birth rates, especially in Africa. This is especially so when the conditions of habitat and production remain largely those of traditional agriculture. The result is that people of other than European descent have been reclaiming their share of world population; but this often appears to the Europeans as a threat to their recent ascendancy. The main difference between this wave and its predecessor is that, despite winning independence from colonial rule, non-westerners have not been afforded the luxury of territorial expansion and have been subjected to highly restrictive controls over international migration. Even so, the movement of people from the poor to the rich countries has been a significant feature of the second half of this century, leading to quite marked changes in the latter’s perceived racial composition, especially in the main urban centres.
One measure of the extraordinary shift in world population taking place during our epoch is the ratio of Europeans to Africans. In 1950 Greater Europe (including Soviet Central Asia) had twice the numbers of Africa. Today Africa has a population 120 millions larger than Europe and Central Asia and is projected to be well on the way to double the size by 2010. [xiv] A glance at the map will reveal that the two regions are neighbours, a proximity which has sustained a history of slavery, imperialism and discrimination. And now immigration policies in Europe seem to be founded on a fortress mentality which not only seeks to keep Africans out, but even holds that the days of interdependence between Europe and Africa are over. Colonial exploitation has been replaced with massive indifference to the inequalities between the regions. It is hard to imagine a peaceful denouement to such a blighted relationship.
A much more general feature of the modern period, however, has been the rise of the city as the normal human habitat, at the expense of the village. Whereas no region in the world could sustain more than a tenth of its population in urban centres during the agrarian era, today no country is less than 20% urbanised and many are less than 20% rural. Of the half of humanity which still does not live in cities, the vast bulk are Chinese, Indian and African peasants.
Marx and Engels claimed that human history was summed up in the changing relationship between town and countryside. [xv] Until recently, agrarian inequality was sustained by states run by small urban elites. The life of the city – variously called urban commerce, the bourgeoisie, civil society or even politics – was the exceptional antithesis of rural drudgery. As the medieval Germans used to say, Stadtluft machts frei (“City air makes you free”). So far, the modern trend has been to live in cities, even in countries which so far have not incorporated machine production into their economies on any significant scale. While it is true that lack of spending power (“money”) is the most tangible manifestation of Third World poverty, such a wholesale shift to urban living without a corresponding level of mechanisation is fundamentally unstable. Cities have grown up there because modern states have been able to concentrate expenditure of revenues derived more from their monopoly of the international means of finance than from traditional exploitation of their own peasantries. As I have argued elsewhere for West Africa, [xvi] these states are built on thin air and must surely collapse if they cannot develop a sound basis for centralisation in some mechanised sectors of the economy. But for now the expansion of Third World cities seems to be inexorable.
If we want to understand global demography (what Sir William Petty, the discipline’s founder, called “political arithmetick”) [xvii] , we must focus on production, on the application of animate and inanimate energy to the work purposes of human beings. The force propelling humanity to a new relationship with the natural world is the use of inanimate energy sources with machines as converters. From a modern perspective, human history seems to be divided into three periods – our own two centuries of mechanisation, the ten millennia when agriculture dominated world production and the vast tracts of prehistory before we settled down on the land. Until very recently all economic activity rested on harnessing the energy stored in plants and animals, including the work of human beings themselves (energy fuelled by consuming plants and animals). Other inanimate energy sources – water, wind, fossil fuels – and machines driven by them made a negligible contribution. The significance of agriculture lies in the change it brought about in the ratio of human to non-human energy deployed in production drawing on animate sources.
Before the invention of agriculture, human beings conserved their own efforts by letting plants and animals do most of the work involved in bringing products to the point of consumption. They moved to the locations where these sources grew naturally, leaving only the tasks of collection and processing to be performed by human labour. People who live this way today (“hunter-gatherers”) allow large spaces to accommodate small mobile bands (generally no more than 1 person per square kilometre); and the food quest does not seem to absorb very much of their time. Marshall Sahlins has called them “the original affluent society”, rich in leisure because they limit their material wants. [xviii]
Agriculture is perhaps best thought of as a system of food production in which the growth of plants and animals comes increasingly within the control of human beings. Human work is progressively substituted for natural processes of reproduction. By settling down in one place, human communities are obliged to protect animals and plants from threats to their wellbeing. The resulting pattern of irrigation, pest-scaring and weeding involves an intensification of labour input with diminishing returns. That is, people have to work harder and harder for proportionately less reward.
This logic of development through intensification of labour lent to agriculture a dynamic of inequality which eventually reduced the bulk of the population in most advanced centres to a life of coercion and servitude (slaves and peasants working under varying degrees of unfreedom). Thus the richest civilisations of the world in the late 18th century, Western Europe and China, rested on peasantries which could barely stay alive. Chinese peasants were once compared to people standing in a lake with the water fractionally below their noses: the merest ripple and they drown.  This was also the time when Robert Malthus developed a theory of population for Europe in which life and death were regulated by short-term fluctuations in the food supply. [xix]
Because we are used to the neat hedgerows and paddy fields of “civilised” agriculture, it comes as something of a shock to learn that the untidy confusion of so-called “swidden” agriculture (shifting cultivation of plots often undertaken in semi-cleared forest by tribal peoples) conceals much higher levels of labour productivity, since so much of the work involved is left to natural regeneration and the amount of protection required is less. [xx] When peasants work for absentee landlords, the emphasis is on maximising yields from the land area owned, regardless of the drudgery involved in its cultivation.
It is a long way from the neolithic revolution (the expulsion from the Garden of Eden) to China’s half-drowned peasants. Yet I would argue that the extremes of preindustrial civilisation, which erected splendid urban enclaves on the backs of impoverished country-dwellers, are entailed in the origins of domestication. The social forces necessary to bring animals and plants within a sphere of human regulation also were deployed to compel some parts of the population to work harder than their own immediate reward would justify. It took time; but eventually what we take to be civilisations were built on the systematic neglect of the interests of large sections of the workforce.
This argument has obvious affinities with Rousseau’s. [xxi] Like him, I locate the turning point of human history in agriculture as a mode of production, even if the subsequent excesses of civilisation cannot be explained solely by this means. I also join Marx in supposing that the mechanisation of production holds out some hope for humanity. For the machine revolution introduced the possibility of releasing us all from the drudgery of village life, even if, as Marx showed, its immediate consequence was to make matters even worse for many workers. Indeed, in asserting that the world at the end of the 20th century exhibits very similar conditions to those typical of the ancien regime, I support both Rousseau and Marx in opposing the triumphalist claim that humanity has already made the decisive leap to a progressive civilisation.
Nevertheless, increased resort to machines converting inanimate energy sources did reverse the direction of the agricultural regime. Now human beings were able to produce much more for less work; more abundant means have been generated with less back-breaking toil. It is hardly surprising that peasants worldwide have voted with their feet to join the life of greater freedom afforded by machine production in cities. At first, mechanisation was almost exclusively an urban phenomenon and slow to penetrate agriculture. In fact people were initially displaced from farming in Britain by horses. Animals also dominated many sectors of transport throughout the 19th century, giving rise to the term “horsepower” as a measure of a machine’s strength.  Only since 1945 has agriculture been truly mechanised, with consequences that we have still to discover.
The pursuit of human freedom, the idea that society is set on a course of material improvement, the rise of modern personality and of subjectivity itself — all this is supported by the underlying trend I have noted, namely that inanimate energy sources are progressively being substituted for human labour. Many people live longer now, they work less and consume more, at least the majority of those who have escaped the rigours of traditional agriculture. But a lot of peasants remain in our world, mostly in Asia and Africa. There are those (including Rousseau) who would turn the clock back to a preindustrial way of life. They do not include this writer. Millions of Mexicans trying to emigrate to the United States can’t all be wrong.
Apart from the quality-of-life issue, people throughout the modern period have feared that machines would displace human beings as well as animals from work. The machine-breakers of the early 19th century (“Luddites”) have their counterparts today, not least among intellectuals whose control over book knowledge is being undermined by television and computers. Mechanisation is a hugely complex process, as well as being recent; at all stages there are undoubtedly winners and losers. The benefits and costs of machines cannot be understood independently of the social organisation of production (the subject of the next two chapters especially). The fact that the financial rewards of mechanisation are distributed so unfairly should not be used to justify resistance to more effective ways of working. This ongoing contradiction, between increased efficiency and the unfair distribution of the benefits, underlies the economic divisions which make ours such an unequal world.
The origins of the communications revolution
A moment is a point in time when something moves. It may last several centuries (the end of the Roman empire) or the nanosecond that it takes for a computer to flip from one binary digit (bit) to the next. Moments are meaningful only as periods in stories which define what comes before and after them. Our moment in history, in my vision at least, is the birth of the internet, a meaningful event in the communications revolution, the time when humanity as a whole became a single interactive network. The significance of this for human evolution is that, after two centuries when mechanisation was an alienating burden for many people, it now becomes possible to imagine machines as instruments of human freedom, allowing us, separately and together, to make ourselves at home in the world to an extent that once seemed gone for ever.
If we are to grasp the significance of this moment, we must take further the reflections of the previous section on the place of humanity in life as a whole. Most of life divides into the two great classes of plants and animals. The principal difference between the two is that, while animals move to wherever their food supplies can be found, plants sit in one place waiting for the food to come to them. There are grounds for supposing that the primary function of the brain is to co-ordinate movement. There is a sea-anemone which is born with a vestigial brain. It needs this to search for the right spot on the sea-bed to put down its roots; but, once it is settled, the brain withers away and it becomes a plant. This allegory is useful since human beings are obviously animals with big brains and lots of capacity for movement; but we are also adapted to living with, off and like plants. The tension between staying in one place and moving about defines the main contradiction in society at this time and perhaps throughout human evolution. It has long been mediated by communication at distance.
A North African, called Ibn Khaldun, lived in Cordoba during the 13th century. A thousand years ago, Cordoba, with Constantinople, was the main centre for civilisation on the planet. Ibn Khaldun wrote a book, The Muqaddimah, [xxii] which entitles him to be thought of as the Max Weber of his day, since no-one before and few since had such a comprehensive understanding of society and history. He lived at the far western edge of a civilisation linked by dry spaces stretching from the Atlas mountains to the gates of Beijing. Nomadic herders inhabited these spaces, moving with their animals in search of water and grass. They often developed ferocious military organisation and, of course, Islam emerged as a thread unifying the region’s many peoples. On the borders of the desert, usually in riverine and coastal areas, were to be found the world’s first cities and their successors. The water allowed for continuous cultivation of plants, but was more important for the easy movement of trade goods. The life style of these urban oases was luxurious compared with the rigours of herding animals. So, from time to time, the hard men would come sweeping in from the desert to take over the cities.  Ibn Khaldun calculated that the turnover rate in this sedentary/nomadic cycle was about four generations. A battle-hardened elite would establish a new dynasty, grow soft before long and be replaced by the next wave.
Another historical dynamic, to which we will return, is the tension between settled military occupation of the land and water-borne urban commerce. As the great French historian of the Mediterranean world, Fernand Braudel, made clear, that sea provides another means of linkage between diverse territories. [xxiii] And the struggle for political control between warrior aristocracies and maritime traders, between property in land and property in money, countryside and city, lasted a thousand years – from the Assyrians and Phoenicians, through the Persians and Greeks, the Peloponnesian war and Alexander’s conquests, until the Romans, in defeating Carthage, made their world safe for landlords for almost another two thousand years.  [xxiv]
So here we have the theme of place and movement on a grand historical scale, with thin strips of urban civilisation connected by deserts of sea and land, by water-borne commerce and territorial conquest. What lay behind this development of early cities and their hinterlands was the food-producing revolution, beginning about 10,000 years ago. [xxv] This is the epochal event that I liken to the machine revolution of the last two centuries and to the formation of a global communications network in particular. As long as we understand that more than just farming is involved, it is convenient to label it “the invention of agriculture”. Before that human beings moved around to collect food from where it occurred naturally. Hunter-gatherers lived in small flexible bands spending relatively little energy on the food quest and much more on the elaboration of culture. They roamed the earth without limit or hindrance at very favourable ratios of food supplies to people. Their modern successors have been driven into the parts of the world that farmers and city-dwellers don’t want or cannot reach; but even so they work a lot less hard than the rest of us. Our greatest task is to grasp the significance of the relationship between these two revolutions, agriculture and mechanisation. If we wish to be emancipated from the former, we must reflect on what life was like before it or is now without it. The comparison hinges on the relative emphasis we place on work and on the exchange of meanings as leading human preoccupations.
Domestication involves bringing some plants and animals within the protection of human groups who are thereby usually committed to maintaining a stronger attachment to one place. From the start it is probable that farming and herding were combined, since animals had to be fed and could be used for haulage. But once people grew plants for a living, they were stuck with protecting their fields and granaries from all sorts of predators. In a way they became like plants, fixed in the ground, unable to move. And the labour costs escalated: weeding, irrigation, storage. A question to which we will return is why such a development should be attractive and to whom. The standard answer is that food supplies became more reliable and that some presumed Malthusian threat was averted by agriculture. But settling down makes people easier to control and inequalities of wealth become more pronounced, since people can afford to accumulate property when they don’t have to carry it everywhere. Whatever the reason, the way was now open for the reduction of the rural masses to a condition of unfree drudgery which is still the standard by which we measure work.
Hunter-gatherers seem not to draw sharp distinctions between themselves and others, nor between themselves and the world around them. Their main mechanism of distribution is sharing rather than centralised allocation. Farmers especially see the world in strongly dualistic terms, as the domestic versus the wild. They struggle to maintain an internal order which is constantly threatened from the outside and that threat is human (reinforcing an “us versus them” mentality) as well as natural and spiritual. Stability becomes the aim and raison d’etre of their way of life; and memory is grounded in the timeless security of ancestral land. Nomads of all sorts –herders, travellers, merchants, sailors, outlaws – cherish their fixed points, but they have to develop habits adapted to movement. The interaction of the two is dramatised in countless western movies, such as John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (itself based on Kurasawa’s The Seven Samurai), where peasants, made helpless by their sedentary way of life, secure the services of professional thugs to fight the bandits who terrorise them.
Communication is a word cognate with common and community. It appears to have at its root the ability of a group or network of people to share objects and ideas through interaction. This usually takes the form either of the circulation of material objects by means of money or the exchange of signs by means of language. The first of these is the main topic of this book; but the second is a submerged current of the argument which rises to the surface by the end. The two circuits are converging in the communications revolution of our day: money is becoming information and information money. In both cases, the signs exchanged are now increasingly virtual, meaning that they are bits detached from persons and places which pass at the speed of light through the ether. The means of this convergence is digitalisation, the process that lies at the core of our moment in history; but the precedents for it go back to the origin of writing and probably further than that.
Information is an intentional signal from the perspective of the sender, perhaps anything that reduces the uncertainty of a receiver. The transmission of information through machines has traditionally come in the form of waves, imperceptible gradations of light and sound. For communications engineers, analogue and digital computation rest on measuring and counting, respectively: on the one hand, continuous changes in physical variables like age, height, warmth or speed; on the other, discontinuous leaps between discrete entities, such as days of the week, dollars and cents, puppies in a litter, letters of the alphabet, named individuals. Analogue processes, such as time and distance, can be represented digitally; but it was something of a breakthrough for early modern science to measure continuous physical change with precision. Before that the clarity of phenomena was generally enhanced and comparison facilitated by constructing bounded entities that could be counted, by digitalisation.
Digital numeration is at its clearest when the only possible signals are binary: on/off, yes/no, either/or, 0/1. And it is this reversion to an older system of simple enumeration which lies behind the latest revolution in communications. Digitalisation greatly increases the speed and reliability of information processing and transmission; it also lies behind the rapid convergence of what were once discrete systems: television, telephones, computers. The last have been digital from the beginning and telephones have almost completed the shift from sound waves to digital transmission. Television too is now beginning the process of digitalisation. What it means is that any kind of information can be carried by any piece of equipment which becomes essentially substitutable. Communications technology in future will consist in various combinations of screen, computer and transmitter/receiver. The manufacturing monopolists will fight over whether the resulting hybrids resemble more a television, a PC or a telephone. But the process common to all is digitalisation and it is this precise moment of convergence which lends the decade of the 1990s its specificity.
It is wrong to stress information at the expense of people. For the relationships that people make with each other matter more than the content of the messages that pass between them or the means of their transmission. That is why I prefer to call what is going on a communications rather than an information revolution. It may, therefore, be worth stepping back and examining briefly the historical antecedents of this revolution, as a way of placing it within a broader context of social life.
Human communication starts out as speech and the words exchanged are usually between people who can see as well as hear each other. A lot of non-verbal information accompanies the words – gestures, tone, emanations of feeling – and this helps us to interpret what is said and how to respond. This is surely what we mean when we say that social interaction is real. The words are abstract enough; but the exchange is face-to-face, grounding what passes between us in the exigency of place. Writing made it possible to detach meaning from the persons and places in which it was generated and to communicate at some distance in time and space, not only in the here and now. Even then, the signs were often highly particular, too many for all but a select few to understand and variable from one scribe to the next. The alphabet took the process of simplifying the signs a step further, one sound for one unambiguous letter, thereby making it possible for writing to be adopted more widely and reliably. It was, if you will, a cheapening of the cost of transmitting information. [xxvi]
The Phoenician city states, maritime traders of the Lebanese coast, were the main pioneers of alphabetic writing at the beginning of the first millennium BC; and it came into Europe through the Greeks. I like to speculate how books were received at first. For example on Homer: “All today’s youngsters want to do is read at home. You can’t get them to go out or anything. They have no idea what it was like hearing the old boy in a torchlit barn on a Saturday night, with his voice echoing in the rafters. It brought tears to your eyes. Well, some of it was the smoke too.” Many more people have had access to the bard over the last 3,000 years than could ever have been in the same room as him during his lifetime, even if the experience of reading is less sensational than a live performance. Virtual communication takes place more in the mind than in actual fact. The only way people could escape from the restrictions of the present was through exercising their imagination, usually under the stimulus of story-telling. Alphabetic writing, ultimately the book, vastly increased the scope of the collective imagination. It also made possible more practical exchanges at distance.
At more or less the same time as the alphabet (around 700 BC), coinage was invented in Lydia, now a part of Turkey. Alphabetic writing and this new form of money were profoundly subversive of old ways. Until then, wealth and power were concrete and visible, being attached to the people who had them. They took the form of cattle, vineyards, buildings, armed men and beautiful women. Now riches could be concealed as gold coins, allowing for a double detachment from persons – impersonal exchange at distance and unaccountable (because hidden and private) economic power. From the beginning writing found a ready application in palace bureaucracy. The king could send messages while remaining himself invisible. It is one thing to be beaten up by thugs; but imagine the terror of receiving a written message saying “please commit suicide before tomorrow”. We feel something of this dread whenever we receive a tax demand from the unseen hand of a remote authority.
Plato captures some of this in a story he tells in The Republic. Gyges was one of the Lydian king’s servants. The king had a ring which made him invisible. He took Gyges with him one night to spy on his wife getting ready for bed. Gyges and the wife eventually ganged up to kill the king. Gyges got the ring, the wife and the kingdom, making him a precursor of legendary rich rulers like Midas. Marc Shell [xxvii] argues persuasively that this myth expresses the contradictions widely felt at the time between visible/personal society and invisible/impersonal society. The Greeks were very concerned about the security of contracts between strangers. They insisted that each contract (for which they devised the word symbolon) should be marked by an object like a ring split in the presence of both parties and a witness. They didn’t quite believe in pieces of paper.
As long as books were handwritten, their circulation was restricted to a small literate elite capable of copying and reading them. In my old university, Cambridge, until the 16th century teachers carried their own scrolls around in the deep pockets of their gowns and read them out for payment to students who thereby ended up with their own copies. Copying was not in itself a major obstacle to the diffusion of texts. It was the ability to interpret the texts which was scarce and costly. Printing made it possible for many more people to get hold of written material; and to an extent it eliminated some of the ambiguities of handwriting. It took a line of business away from the hacks with gowns; and shifted the emphasis far more to the act of interpretation and hence to understanding. When my first-year students complained of “lack of structure” in my lectures, as they sometimes did, meaning that they wanted to be told the half dozen points which, when memorised by rote, would ensure a decent pass in the examinations, I used to ask them to consider the success of Cambridge University Press over the last 450 years. [xxviii] This was built on putting books directly into the hands of students, so that they could make up their own minds what they meant, with the help of learned and hopefully inspiring teachers. Instead, some of them wanted me to recapitulate the role of a reader of scrolls before the print revolution, passing signs from one person the next without touching the minds of either.
My grandmother was born before the car, the radio, film, air travel and all the other transport and communications technologies which came to dominate 20th century society. I used to marvel at the way she adapted to all of them. Now I am beginning to grasp something of what she went through; for, having been alive every year since the second world war, I realise how profoundly my world has changed in these respects. Having grown up without television in the home and with very limited opportunities for travel, I relied on books as my main way of transcending the limits a particular place. It feels as if the intensive indoctrination I received then in the manipulation of words and numbers (Latin, Greek and maths) belongs to another age. Certainly, few of my students today share my mastery of spelling and grammar nor do they care if they don’t. I have managed to get a toehold on the communications revolution, largely through the tolerant assistance of very bright young people who have grown up with it. For them, the phase of national television which I largely missed is already a bygone era. We all enter this extraordinary time with a bundle of advantages and drawbacks. I take pride in a facility for writing coherent e-mail messages at a pace somewhere between essay-writing and a phonecall. Yet I also know that communicating through keyboards will soon be replaced by audio-visual methods, thereby removing one point of convergence between the book and the screen. Many of my academic colleagues are still fighting the war against television, refusing to allow one into a living room designed to show off their books. It is quite a trip being a professional communicator right now.
One consequence of the rapid shift in the means of communication is a tendency for teachers and scholars to consider books and computers to be opposed rather than complementary technologies. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that print media are expanding almost as fast as their new electronic counterparts. Face-to-face exchanges, instead of being displaced by telecommunications, take on an added value when one spends the working day in front of a computer screen. Simple pursuits like reading and conversation, which used to be taken for granted when they monopolised our means of communication, can be approached in a more analytical and creative frame of mind now that there are so many ways of acquiring and transmitting ideas. I wrote a large part of this book in a Paris flat, the traditional retreat into privacy of a long-distance writer; nothing new about that. But I maintained throughout e-mail dialogues with friends living all over the world. And no writer was able to do that before the 1990s. I also developed in recent years a virtual office to accommodate a life of movement; but then I was forced to recognise the value of my own memory when my laptop was stolen.
The present chapter is an attempt to make some sense of all this in terms of general ideas which might allow us to step back and consider the potential of what is happening in our world. Each of us experiences the communications revolution in our own way; yet there are palpable changes taking place which affect us all. The next section seeks to place the birth of the internet within the context of the machine revolution as a whole; while the last one attempts to relate this process to previous turning points in the history of humanity, the invention of agriculture and of civilisation, ten and five millennia ago.
The birth of the internet
Computers have been with us for over 50 years, television for a bit longer and telephones for twice that long. What is unique to the 1990s is the convergence of these technologies into an increasingly unified institutional pattern and the emergence of a worldwide network of communications, the internet. Many people still do not understand what the term “internet” refers to nor how it relates to similar-sounding entities like “the world wide web”. The internet is the most inclusive term for all the electronic communication networks in the world. These are decentralised to a large extent, but they constitute a conceptual unity in much the same way as “the world market” does. Indeed the transactions of the latter are increasingly carried out on the internet. The “web” is a disembodied machine, a type of software, which emerged in 1994 for use on the internet. It allows people to display messages in a non-interactive way through a multi-media format, employing words, pictures, sound, animation and video. At the time the big innovation was the move from words and numbers to visual images. All messages are transmitted between computers and television screens (hardware) by means of telephone and radio signals. The infrastructure for these transmissions in turn constitutes a rapidly evolving network of satellites, cable grids and other means.
The internet was for several decades restricted in use to a strategic complex of military, academic and business interests, based in the United States and Europe. It was designed specifically to resist an all-out nuclear attack from the Soviet Union and so was decentralised. Being immune to a single strike, it was also impossible to control from a central point. For some time, the most intensive use of the internet was between physicists located near the two main nuclear accelerators in Illinois and Geneva. These scientists lent to the medium its definitive style and content in the early decades: highly technical, closed and clubby. By the time that the internet went public in 1993, there were only three million users in the world. In the next five years the number of users increased to 100 mn. At the time of writing internet traffic is doubling every 100 days. Between 1993 and 1997, the number of domain names (the exclusive address of a computer terminal) rose from 26,000 to 1.3 mn, a fifty-fold increase.
The internet is an American invention. Certainly they behave as if they own it. Western Europe played a part from the beginning and the Europeans are now trying hard to get a world regulatory authority for the internet set up, preferably in Geneva. But the Americans still constitute over 60% of users and most of the practical instruments for intervening in the network are located there. By 2002 several hundred satellites will make high band-width communications available to users worldwide.  Only a handful of companies are capable of putting up those satellites. This side of the internet revolution thus favours large corporations, even as it distributes the medium to an ever-widening network of decentralised users. At present, the fastest-growing use of the internet, perhaps reflecting American priorities, is for electronic commerce, something almost unknown before the 1990s. At the same time, companies and private individuals are forming intranets, exclusive circuits of information exchange offering higher security than the public medium. If ever there was a challenge to empiricism, the habit of extrapolating from previous experience, it is posed by trying to guess what the social impact of all this is likely to be.
Compare, for example, the adoption of iron in the lands bordering the Eastern Mediterranean 3,000 years ago.  Iron is the commonest metal ore on earth and it is extremely robust and malleable. When the technique of smelting it was first discovered, small quantities of iron were used principally for prestigious ornaments worn by the ruling classes. Then it found a military use as weapons which allowed some groups to gain a temporary advantage over their neighbours. It took several hundred years in most cases for iron to find its most significant application, as tools used in the production of food and manufacture by the common people. If you had happened to be living in Assyria, say, at the beginning of iron production, you would have guessed that its destiny was to be a symbolic and practical means of maintaining the dominance of a military caste. Much the same inference could have been drawn in relation to the internet at any time during the Cold War.
So what is the communications revolution? It consists of rapid changes in the size, cost and especially speed of machines capable of processing information. This is now generally measured as millions of instructions per second or MIPS. The world’s first computer, the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC), was built soon after the second world war; it cost millions of dollars, was 50 metres wide and 3 metres tall, and processed 5,000 instructions per second. Twenty-five years later, an Intel micro-processor chip, 12 mm square, cost $200 and processed 60,000 instructions per second (0.06 MIPS). Today Pentium PCs have a processing capacity of 4,000 MIPS and this is expected to reach 100,000 MIPS by 2012. In 1980 copper phone wires transmitted information at the rate of a page of print a second; today, hair-thin optical fibres can transmit the equivalent of almost a million encyclopaedia volumes per second. The modems (linking computers and telephones) most commonly in use today take 46 minutes to download a three and a half minute video; new technologies currently available can perform the same operation over copper wires in ten seconds. [xxix]
It may be helpful to contextualise this cascade of technical change by referring to the table on the three stages of the machine revolution above. These, it will be recalled, were inaugurated by steam-power, electrical power and information-processing, respectively. The steam-engine was invented in 1712; but it was another sixty years before James Watt’s improvements made it feasible to power factories by this means; and the industrial revolution proper did not take off until after the Napoleonic Wars (roughly a century after Newcomen’s engine). Electricity was first identified and harnessed in 1831; just over fifty years later, Thomas Edison began generating it for public use. Again, it was only in the first decades of the 20th century that factories made the wholesale gains in efficiency that came with adoption of electric motors; and widespread domestic use of electrical appliances had to wait until the middle decades of this century. It took a hundred years from Faraday’s discovery before 80% of Americans were supplied with electricity at home.
If ENIAC is analogous to the inventions of Newcomen and Faraday (its inventor being suitably anonymous for a bureaucratic age), our time bears comparison with those moments, half a century later, when the discovery first began to have widespread social application. It seems to us that the rate of change today is much faster and more general than those earlier revolutions; and this may be a justifiable impression. Certainly, a premise of this book is that the significance of this third phase is much more far-reaching than earlier phases, if only for its relationship to the formation of world society as a single interactive network. But we should remember that vast populations on this planet have not yet joined the steam- or electrical-power revolutions. In parts of Africa, agriculture is currently being transformed by iron ox-ploughs replacing hand hoes, thereby bringing production in parts of the region to a technological level long considered normal in preindustrial Eurasia. In the industrial West, as we have already seen, human labour was replaced for most of the 19th century not by machines, but by horses; and full mechanisation of food production had to wait until the second half of this century.
The main conclusion to be drawn from these comparisons is that it will be another 50 years at least before we can tell how society is affected in the regions most open to the adoption of information technology. Differences in the rate and manner of such adoption between the world’s regions, classes and sectors of production will likewise only emerge in the course of the 21st century. Steam-power allowed factories to be located away from their principal source of energy (once water and wood, now coal) and to deploy machines replacing manual labour. These factories were operated by a new class of industrial entrepreneurs, individuals like Richard Arkwright who were later parodied in Dickens’ novels. [xxx] Electricity helped turn factory production into a streamlined system of managerial control, powered the office complexes of the bureaucratic revolution and eventually made domestic life more convenient. It required a physical network for its distribution and this encouraged governments to own or licence monopoly operators of grids which became among the most tangible symbols of the national economy.
The internet harnesses light for almost instantaneous communication between machines using microscopic circuits to process and store information. It is not the aim of this book to give a comprehensive account of its likely social significance. But there are profound implications for the system of transactions involving money, for the market economy and its evil twin, capitalism. Now that the internet is no longer primarily a research tool, its use is increasingly as a sphere of economic activity, as a link between and within businesses and between businesses and their customers. It is becoming an electronic marketplace. The point about electricity is that it travels at the speed of light and the passage of information itself is essentially costless. This then is a market with unusual time and space dimensions, where the personal and impersonal aspects of economic life meet on new terms. It would not be surprising if it took us a while to adjust our expectations to this situation. In the meantime, however, the pioneers of cyberspace are getting on with making the most they can of these new opportunities. The world opening up to us in one in which borderless trade is transacted at the speed of light. Very little of social significance will be left untouched by it before long.
It is relevant to ask who is behind the expansion of the internet and who its users are. But possible answers to that question require an analysis of the money system itself, beginning with the next chapter. Eventually, at the end of Chapter 6, I will summarise how this has already been transformed by the internet. But some preliminary comments are in order here. The main player in the early stages of the internet was the US government which funded its development in the interests of “national security” (the Cold War). Its expansion today is financed largely by private telecommunications corporations who plan to spend $27 bn between 1998 and 2002 on building a global broad-band network in the sky capable of reaching that one-third of humanity which currently lacks access to phones and television. In the richer countries, companies operating with local licences are laying thick cable wires with capacities ten times faster than high-speed phone connection. Radio and television companies are rapidly integrating their transmissions with the internet (BBC on-line is the second most visited web site in the world). This kind of infrastructure development is expensive and there will not be many players in the global competition to provide it. But the power of these corporations (and of the governments with whom they have an increasingly ambivalent relationship) to extract payment from use of the internet differs in important ways from the public service monopolies which supplied utilities in the 20th century.
Almost two-thirds of internet users today are Americans; but the country with the highest ratio of internet users to the population is Finland (which also has the highest rate of mobile phone use in the world). America comes second (but first by a huge distance in the total number of machines connected to the internet), followed by large countries of sparse settlement such as Canada, Australia and Sweden. The Dutch break with the trend as a small, densely occupied country and the main European states, such as Britain, Germany and France come some way behind the leaders.
Table 2.4 The top ten internet users (countries) 
hosts/pop. hosts (thousands)
Finland 1:18 284
U.S.A. 1:26 10,113
(63% of world total)
Australia 1:35 515
Sweden 1:39 233
Canada 1:48 603
Netherlands 1:55 271
U.K. 1:98 592
Germany 1:114 722
Japan 1:170 734
France 1:236 233
The prominence of Scandinavia in this league table is proof enough that, despite the size of America’s lead in the communications revolution, others are adapting to the potential of the internet at a rapid rate. These include smaller numbers of users in non-Western countries where already network communications are taking distinctive forms. Language is a hotly contested issue on the internet, with English having emerged as the lingua franca by a long way. The words for describing participants are not yet established. Perhaps the most universal term is “wired”, with its negation “the unwired” (echoes of “the great unwashed”). Aspirant poets of naming have the field relatively open at this time. Who will be the Homer, Dante or Shakespeare of the internet? The prize is to enter the collective memory of humanity for all time.
Between agrarian civilisation and the machine revolution
At the mid-point of the 18th century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was walking down a lane in rural France, thinking about a possible entry for the Dijon essay prize competition. The question to be addressed in 1750 concerned the contribution of the sciences and arts to the progress of civilisation. A flash of intuition brought tears to his eyes and forced him to sit down. He suddenly realised that the answer was negative. Science was ruining the world; modern culture made us neither happier nor more virtuous; progress was an illusion. This was an extraordinary conclusion for an Enlightenment philosopher to reach; and, when he consulted his fellow philosophe, Denis Diderot, the latter assured him that he had a good chance of winning, since no-one else would be presenting that line of argument. Rousseau won. Four years later, he entered another essay for the Dijon prize entitled A discourse on the origins and foundations of inequality among men. [xxxi] This time he lost; but The Second Discourse (as it is often called) deserves to be seen as the first great work of modern anthropology and it is the precursor of Rousseau’s revolutionary contributions to our understanding of politics, education, personality and sexuality, written in the 1760s (Le Contrat Social, Emile, Confessions and La Nouvelle Heloise).
Rousseau was concerned in his discourse, not with individual variations in natural endowments, but with the artificial inequalities of wealth, honour and the capacity to command obedience which he derived from social convention. In order to construct a model of human equality, he imagined a pre-social state of nature, a sort of hominid phase of human evolution in which men were solitary, but healthy, happy and above all free. This freedom was metaphysical, anarchic and personal: original human beings had free will, they were not subject to rules of any kind and they had no superiors. The essential human motives, according to him, are self-preservation, compassion and a desire for self-improvement. At some point humanity made the transition into what Rousseau calls “nascent society”, a prolonged period whose economic base can best be summarised as hunter-gathering with huts. Why leave the state of nature at all? He speculates that disasters and economic shortage must have been involved. In any case, this second phase represents his ideal of life in society close to nature.
The rot set in with the invention of agriculture or, as Rousseau puts it, of wheat and iron. Cultivation of the land led to incipient property institutions whose culmination awaited the development of political society.“The first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying ‘This is mine’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founder of civil society.” [xxxii] The formation of a civil order (the state) was preceded by a Hobbesian condition, a war of all against all driven by inequality of all kinds and the absence of law. The key difference from Hobbes, of course, lay in Rousseau’s insistence that such conflict was the result of social development, not an original state of nature. He believed that this new social contract to abide by the law was probably arrived at by consensus, but it was a fraudulent one in that the rich thereby gained legal sanction for transmitting unequal property rights in perpetuity. From this inauspicious beginning, political society then usually moved, via a series of revolutions, through three stages.
“The establishment of law and the right of property was the first stage, the institution of magistrates the second, and the transformation of legitimate into arbitrary power the third and last stage. Thus the status of rich and poor was authorised by the first epoch, that of strong and weak by the second and by the third that of master and slave, which is the last degree of inequality and the stage to which all the others finally lead, until new revolutions dissolve the government altogether and bring it back to legitimacy.” [xxxiii]
One-man-rule closes the circle.
“It is here that all individuals become equal again because they are nothing, here where subjects have no longer any law but the will of the master…” [xxxiv]
For Rousseau, the growth of inequality was just one aspect of human alienation in civil society. We need to return from division of labour and dependence on the opinion of others to subjective self-sufficiency.
“The savage lives within himself; social man always lives outside himself.”
“The savage man breathes only peace and freedom; he desires only to live and stay idle and even the ataraxia of the Stoic does not approach his profound indifference towards every other object. Civil man, on the contrary, being always active, sweating and restless, torments himself endlessly in search of ever more laborious occupations; he works himself to death, he even runs towards the grave to put himself in shape to live, or renounces life in order to acquire immortality.”
“Let the civilised man gather all his machines around him, and no doubt he will easily beat the savage; but if you would like to see an even more unequal match, pit the two together naked and unarmed, and you will soon see the advantages of having all ones forces constantly at ones command, of being always prepared for any eventuality, and of always being, so to speak, altogether complete in oneself.” [xxxv]
This subversive parable ends with a ringing indictment of economic inequality which could well serve as a warning to our world.
“It is manifestly contrary to the law of nature, however defined… that a handful of people should gorge themselves with superfluities while the hungry multitude goes in want of necessities.” [xxxvi]
Surely the stale odour of corruption which so revolted Rousseau is just as pervasive today. Dictatorship in one form or another has been normal for too long in many parts of the world and we are all compromised by intolerable inequalities of wealth and power. Something has got to give; but our intellectual task today is to envisage a revolution which is universal, not just limited to individual states.
According to the United Nations Human Development Report, [xxxvii] the world’s 225 richest men (and they are men) own more than one trillion dollars, the equivalent of the annual income of the world’s 47% poorest people. Three of them have assets worth more than the Gross Domestic Product of the 48 least developed countries. The West spends $37 billions a year on pet food, perfumes and cosmetics (“let them eat Pedigree Chum”), almost the estimated additional cost of providing basic education, health, nutrition, water and sanitation for those deprived of them. The rate of car ownership in industrial countries is 400 per thousand, 16 in all developing countries. The rich pollute the world fifty times more than the poor; but the latter are more likely to die from the pollution. World consumption has increased six times in the last 20 years; but the richest fifth account for 86% of it.
As a thought experiment, we could conceive of humanity as a unit stratified by wealth, race, age and gender. Women everywhere are struggling with the legacy of patriarchy. The world’s poor, however, are concentrated in what came to be called the Third World and latterly the South, the outcome of western expansion over the last 500 years and particularly of imperialism in the19th century. The ideology sustaining this expansion was racism, the belief that the power of “white” people derived from a biologically founded superiority to the “darker races”. Although racism is nowhere officially sanctioned today, it still plays a major part in organising cultural responses to global inequality. Then also the world’s young people are to be found predominantly in the South owing to a lag in the fall of birth rates there. For the age distributions of rich and poor countries are skewed heavily towards the old and young respectively.
There are tremendous inequalities within countries and regions (Bill Gates owns as much as the annual income of the 106 million least affluent Americans); but it is not difficult to summarise the above description in terms of a two-class model. A rich, mainly white, ageing minority (about 15%, if we take North America, Western Europe and Japan together) is surrounded by a majority (five-sixths of the total) which is on average a lot poorer, darker in colour and especially much younger. Seen in terms of the reproduction of humanity as a whole, we can say that a stagnant western elite is about to be replaced by a hugely proliferating generation of non-westerners from whom it is separated by a tradition of cultural arrogance and by ingrained practices of social exclusion.
The situation is not unlike that found in agrarian civilisations, where small urban elites sought to maintain control over rural masses condemned to drudgery and political impotence. The main difference between the two cases lies in the fact that modern world society is supposed to be organised by an ideology of human freedom and equality. This is the legacy of a democratic revolution, begun in the 17th and 18th centuries, which aimed to install rule by the people in general as the only legitimate form of government. The industrial revolution, which closely followed its political counterpart, implied that humanity might now be released from material as well as social constraints on its development. But the evidence of global inequality today shows that this emancipatory rhetoric is an illusion.
World society today is at base as rotten as the aristocratic regimes which preceded the modern age. Power has been concentrated into forms held against the people, first in the hands of owners of big money (capitalists) and then in a revived and strengthened state apparatus. In the second half of the 19th century, no major thinker envisaged the possibility of imposing state control on the restless energies of industrial/commercial society. Yet in the course of our own century, the rule of elites has been restored: state bureaucracy is absolute; and world society is divided into national fragments. There is no popular government anywhere; and most people have forgotten when they last took an active interest in such a possibility. The confusing part lies in the widespread use of a rhetoric derived from the democratic revolutions to cloak the purposes of those who reserve effective power to themselves. Western states are no more liberal than the Soviet Union was Marxist. At least the old regime of agrarian civilisation called itself what it was. The vast majority of intellectuals are complicit in the lies needed to sustain this latterday revival of the state. Behind a smokescreen of democratic slogans, the bureaucracy relies on impersonal institutions to maintain grotesquely unfair levels of inequality.
One method for an anthropology of the contemporary human condition would thus be to conceive of world society as a single population divided into rich and poor or, if you like, polarised between a remote elite and the undifferentiated masses. This society is unsustainable, in that most of its members are exposed to conditions of poverty and violence that are humanly unacceptable, while a few enjoy the benefits of wealth in forms that were unimaginable before the industrial revolution. Moreover, a society so cruel and indifferent to the general human interest is heading for ecological disaster. Ours is a corrupt ancien regime [xxxviii] which must soon find a new democratic revolution, if human intervention in the life of this planet is not to end in catastrophe.
The form of social organisation underpinning this universal crisis for humanity in the 20th century has been state capitalism, the attempt to manage markets and money through nation-states. [xxxix] We know that agrarian civilisations ruled the earth for 5,000 years before the machine revolution altered the conditions of human life irreversibly.
Today’s societies everywhere claim to rest on science and democracy, the twin foundations of modernity and the lasting legacy of the 18th century revolutions. This modern religion is similar in many ways to older claims made on behalf of God, and with the same plausibility: if society is omniscient and good, how can there be so much suffering in the world? The obvious answer to this question is that society is not run by and for the people as a whole and, whatever its principles, they are not based on effective knowledge. Perhaps we are less emancipated from the past than we imagine and are further from a desirable future than we hope.
The institutions of agrarian civilisation, developed over five millennia with a passive rural workforce in mind, are our institutions today: territorial states, landed property, warfare, embattled cities, money and markets in their traditional form, world religion, racism and the family. Consider what happened to all the wealth siphoned off by western industrial states since the second world war, the largest concentrations of money in the history of humanity. It went on subsidising food supplies and armaments, the priorities of the bully through the ages, certainly not those of the modern urban consumers who paid the taxes. No, as Bruno Latour says, [xl] we have never been modern. We are just primitives who stumbled recently into a machine revolution and cannot yet think of what do with it, beyond repeating the inhumanity of a society built unequally on agriculture.
The vision I have begun to sketch out in this chapter offers a number of angles from which we might perceive our moment in history. I have suggested that we are at the point when a third wave of mechanisation, the communications revolution, first took on wider social use. This represents a new stage in the formation of world society as a single interactive network and the evolutionary implications of that development are immense. It is also a time when the organisation of capitalism by states may be moving to another, virtual stage driven by the possibilities inherent in digitalisation. From the perspective of the human population as a whole, the course of the machine revolution has been very uneven, leaving large sections stranded in traditional agriculture. The problem of economic inequality, therefore, consists in the persistence of agriculture both as a mode of production and as the original matrix for institutions which still dominate our world. But it also consists in the forms of wealth and power specific to the modern age, to capitalism in its various guises.
The final chapter will address what might be done to accelerate the transition to a better world in which economic democracy is not just a figure of sham rhetoric. Certainly the issue of finding an appropriate time perspective for constructive change is a thorny one. I have been arguing here for a view of current developments as being rich in possibilities for far-reaching change in the relatively short run, yet also subject to institutional forces whose power to shape our lives has been greatly underestimated. Ours is a world of hectic movement and of remarkably stable institutions. The combination of a machine revolution and the legacy of agricultural society is potentially a lethal one.
Guide to further reading
The only anthropologist I know who tried to grasp the modern movement of technology and society as a whole was Edmund Leach, whose Reith Lectures, “A Runaway World?”, were published in the mid-60s (note 1). This is still an inspirational work. Another of my teachers, C.L.R. James, an itinerant revolutionary, made a brilliant stab at capturing the movement of America at the beginning of the Cold War (7). I probably owe most to the man who supervised all my early training, Jack Goody, whose influence pervades this book. A recent example of his materialist approach to culture in world history summarises much of the rest, The East in the West; [xli] but no-one has done more to investigate the consequences of that earlier communications revolution, the invention of writing (26).
Since Karl Marx was the first major economist to notice the importance of machines, it would obviously pay to read what he had to say on the subject, particularly the long Chapter 15 of Capital Volume 1 on “Machinery and modern industry” (4). A longer-term perspective on the evolution of the relationship between city and countryside is provided by his colleague, Engels (15). After them, the most significant writer on capitalist industry was Thorstein Veblen. His Theory of Business Enterprise (5) is just the best of several classic works on the contradiction between machine production and markets.
Tom Kemp’s overview of the literature on industrialisation is comprehensive; while David Landes’s treatise is more personal and engaging (9). Carlo Cipolla has the field to himself as the author of an Economic History of World Population, even if the figures are now out-of-date (11). I wish there were a history of 20th century urbanisation to match A.F. Weber’s of the 19th (10); this book has always been indispensable to me. Alvin Tofler is more than just a populariser; try his The Third Wave (2). I tried to assess the long-run impact of the machine revolution on an underdeveloped region in my book on West Africa (16). The annual reports of the World Bank and the United Nations Development Program, especially that for 1999, provide a global perspective on inequality. [xlii]
There are some classic works which bear on parts of the thesis advanced here. The Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun (22) offers a fascinating view of the social dynamics of the Mediterranean world 600 years ago. This should be read with Fernand Braudel’s amazing treatment of the same region a couple of centuries later (23). Gordon Childe (25) and Marshall Sahlins (18) offer very different, but highly readable takes on the perennial questions of human social evolution. I believe that Rousseau’s Second Discourse is the original source for such an evolutionary anthropology (21) and I find it to be still the most thought-provoking example of the genre. Sir William Petty (17) and Robert Malthus (19) inaugurated the modern taste for population economics; although Petty was probably more accurate in calling it Political Arithmetick. And, while we are on the subject of classics, don’t forget to read Dickens’s Hard Times for a jaundiced view of Manchester’s pioneering industrial experiment (30).
If one of the main messages of this chapter is that contemporary world society is more like the old regime of pre-revolutionary France than anything else, I can only point to Tocqueville’s remarkable analysis of the antecedents and consequences of that decisive revolutionary moment (38). As for the idea that we are less modern than we think, Bruno Latour certainly got there first with that one (40). But again, Rousseau seems to me to be the most modern thinker dealing with our dilemmas today.
I have disclaimed any authority as a guide to the information economy and the communications revolution of the 1990s. But the following would constitute a start for interested readers: Nicholas Negroponte Being Digital; Don Tapscott The Digital Economy; Carl Schapiro and Hal Varian Information Rules. The first two are set at a very popular level; the last advances the challenging thesis that mainstream economic principles apply to the internet. [xliii] I like Negroponte’s book best.
 The idea of periodising the machine revolution is far from new. Economic historians have long distinguished the late 19th century industrial complex from what went before it. Alvin Tofler’s The Third Wave is a recent, well-known example, combining recent and longer-term changes.
 The citizens of Paris, my adopted home, love working-class nostalgia movies from Northern Britain such as Brassed Off and The Full Monty. Perhaps it has something to do with French resistance to globalisation.
 Although there are many popular works emphasising the positive side of the communications revolution, the balance of serious academic and leftwing opinion is, of course, the other way. For two recent exercises in the political economy of information, see note 8.
 Adna Weber calculated in the first decade of this century that the maximum range for commuters was five miles, since no-one would be willing to spend more than half-an-hour travelling each way and the average speed of trains was then ten miles per hour!
 I have been using these figures in my lectures since the mid-70s. At least some of them come from Carlo Cipolla’s Economic History of World Population.
 In 1995, Americans each consumed 8,000 kgs of oil equivalent, compared with 22 kgs in Uganda.
 I believe the comparison was made by the economic historian, R.H. Tawney.
 It is worth recalling that there were 20 million working animals in the USA at the time of the first world war.
 For me the enduring image of this is taken from David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia when a Bedouin cavalry charge overruns the coastal town of Aqaba whose guns are pointing uselessly towards the sea.
 Two millennia ago, as Max Weber pointed out, Marseilles was easier to reach from the eastern Mediterranean than from 100 kilometres inland.
 This matters now that the internet is being used for a wide range of audio-visual transmissions, whereas not long ago it mainly carried hand-written messages. Pictures, especially moving pictures, take up a lot more bits than alphabetic and numerical scripts. High-bandwidth transmissions are necessary if video, for example, is to be accessed quickly and cheaply.
 I came across this issue when teaching an interdisciplinary seminar to graduate students at Yale during the late 1970s; it was called “The transition from bronze to iron in the Eastern Mediterranean, 1600-500”.
 Number of internet hosts as a proportion of the national population in 1997.
[i] E. Leach A Runaway World? The 1967 Reith Lectures, BBC, London, 1968
[ii] A. Tofler The Third Wave, Bantam Books, New York, 1981
[iii] K.Marx and F. Engels The Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848 in Marx-Engels Selected Works, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1968
[iv] K.Marx Capital: a critique of political economy Volume 1, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1970 (1867)
[v] T. Veblen The Theory of Business Enterprise, Charles Scribner, New York, 1904
[vi] C.L.R. James Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: the story of Herman Melville and the world we live in, Allison & Busby, London, 1984 (1953)
[vii] C.L.R. James American Civilisation, Blackwell, Oxford, 1993
[viii] O. Gandy The Panoptic Sort: a political economy of personal information, Westview, Boulder, 1993; R.McChesney, E. Wood and J. Forster eds Capitalism and the Information Age: the political economy of the global communication revolution, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1998
[ix] T. Kemp Historical Patterns of Industrialisation, Longman, Harlow, 1993; D. Landes The Unbound Prometheus: technical change and industrial development in Western Europe from 1750 to the present, Cambridge U.P., Cambridge, 1969
[x] A.F. Weber The Growth of Cities in the Nineteenth Century, Cornell Paperbacks, Ithaca, NY, 1967 (1899), p. 471
[xi] C. Cipolla The Economic History of World Population, (7th edition), Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968
[xii] World Bank Development Indicators 1998, IBRD, Washington DC, 1998, p.144
[xiii] See note 11
[xiv] See note 12, p. 44
[xv] F. Engels The Origin of Private Property, the Family and the State, in Marx-Engels Selected Works, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1968 (1884).
[xvi] K. Hart The Political Economy of West African Agriculture, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1982.
[xvii] W.Petty Political Arithmetick: or a discourse concerning the extent of lands, people, power at sea etc, Clavel and Mortlock, London, 1691
[xviii] M. Sahlins Stone-Age Economics, Aldine, Chicago, 1972.
[xix] R.Malthus An Essay on the Principle of Population: or a view of its past and present effects on human happiness, Cambridge U.P., Cambridge 1992 (1798)
[xx] H. Conklin, Hanunoo Agriculture: a report on an integral system of shifting cultivation in the Philippines, FAO, Rome, 1957
[xxi] J.-J. Rousseau A Discourse on Inequality, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1984 (1754)
[xxii] Ibn Khaldun The Muqaddimah: an introduction to history, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1987
[xxiii] F. Braudel The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the age of Philip II, Collins, London, 1973
[xxiv] M. Weber The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilisations, New Left Books, London, 1976
[xxv] V.G. Childe, Man Makes Himself, Moonraker Press, London, 1981
[xxvi] J. Goody The Domestication of the Savage Mind, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977; The Interface between the Written and the Oral, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1989
[xxvii] Plato Republic, J.M.Dent, London, 1976; M. Shell The Economy of Literature, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1978
[xxviii] D. McKitterick A History of Cambridge University Press Vol. 1: printing and the book trade in Cambridge, 1534-1698, Cambridge U.P., Cambridge, 1992
[xxix] U.S. Department of Commerce The Emerging Digital Economy, report published on the web in 1998 (www.commerce.gov)
[xxx] C. Dickens Hard Times for These Times, Bradbury and Evans, London, 1854; J. Crabtree Richard Arkwright, Macmillan, New York, 1923
[xxxi] See note 21
[xxxii] J.-J. Rousseau A Discourse on Inequality, p.109 (see note 21)
[xxxiii] Ibid. p. 131
[xxxiv] Ibid. p. 134
[xxxv] Ibid. p. 136 , p. 82
[xxxvi] Ibid. p. 137
[xxxvii] United Nations Development Program Human Development Report 1998, UNDP, New York, 1998
[xxxviii] Alexis de Tocqueville The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Doubleday, New York, 1955 (1856)
[xxxix] C.L.R. James and associates State Capitalism and World Revolution, Charles Kerr, Chicago, 1986 (1950)
[xl] B. Latour We Have Never Been Modern, Harvester Wheatsheaf, Herts., 1993
[xli] J. Goody The East in the West, Cambridge U.P., Cambridge, 1996
[xlii] See note 12; UNDP Human Development Report, New York, 1999
[xliii] N Negroponte Being Digital, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1995; D. Tapscott The Digital Economy: promise and peril in the age of networked intelligence, McGraw Hill, New York, 1996; C. Shapiro and H. Varian Information Rules: a strategic guide to the network economy, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1999