The Internet: Bureaucracy or Fiefdom?

From the Bayeux Tapestry

Bruce Schneier declares:

It’s a feudal world out there.
Some of us have pledged our allegiance to Google: We have Gmail accounts, we use Google Calendar and Google Docs, and we have Android phones. Others have pledged allegiance to Apple: We have Macintosh laptops, iPhones, and iPads; and we let iCloud automatically synchronize and back up everything. Still others of us let Microsoft do it all. Or we buy our music and e-books from Amazon, which keeps records of what we own and allows downloading to a Kindle, computer, or phone. Some of us have pretty much abandoned e-mail altogether … for Facebook.

These vendors are becoming our feudal lords, and we are becoming their vassals. We might refuse to pledge allegiance to all of them — or to a particular one we don’t like. Or we can spread our allegiance around. But either way, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not pledge allegiance to at least one of them.

The whole piece is worth reading.  For my part, I’ve often wondered if the Internet doesn’t fit Max Weber’s conception of a bureaucracy.  Weber described six major characteristics of bureaucracy (here‘s a handy summary of his views.)  First and most familiar in the popular use of the word, a bureaucracy has a formal hierarchical structure.  While there is no group of people who are the president and board of directors of the Internet, the machines that make up the Internet do in fact relate to each other according

Max Weber, by ludilozezanje

Max Weber, by ludilozezanje

to set routines.  Weber described bureaucracies staffed by human officials, but parts of his description still apply where, as in the functioning of the Internet, the officials are replaced by machines.

The second characteristic of bureaucracy in Weber’s description is a set of rules that consistently transform particular decisions made in one part of the structure into particular actions taken in other parts of the structure.  In this regard every bureaucracy aspires to the condition of a machine; as a bureaucracy composed of machines, the Internet would in a sense represent the ultimate bureaucracy. Along with these rules comes a heavy emphasis on written documents and permanent records, to ensure that decisions are communicated from one part of the structure to another accurately and that they are converted into action appropriately.  Here again, the Internet’s tendency to preserve data makes it the ideal form of bureaucracy.

Third, Weber says that bureaucracies are organized by functional specialty.   Here we see two levels of organization taking place independently of each other.  Of course, the machines are sorted together by their functions.  At the same time, the people who use the Internet develop specializations in their ways of relating to it.  Those who resist specialization remain on the fringes of the Internet.  So, a general-interest blog like this one toddles along for years with a handful of readers; start a tumblr site devoted entirely to eighteenth-century cocktail recipes, and you might  draw a thousand followers in a week.  Through them, you can learn more about your topic than you had imagined possible.  Because of the efficiency that results from the Internet’s specialization and consistency, users have strong incentives to specialize their own use of the system and to respect its rules.  Thus, the Internet’s human users behave as they would if they were clients of a bureaucracy staffed by human officials.

Fourth, Weber’s bureaucracies have missions.  These missions are not simply tasks for which groups might be established ad hoc, but are the overarching goals that justify the organization’s continued existence.  Because so many people have stakes in the continued existence of large bureaucracies, their missions tend to become rather broad and ill-focused over time; the last thing anyone wants is for the bureaucracy that provides his or her livelihood to have completed its mission.  A phrase like “the distribution of information,” precisely because it is so vague, is therefore a perfectly apt mission statement for a major bureaucracy.

Fifth, bureaucracies are impersonal structures, in which the relationship of one person to another is restricted to the roles that those people are playing.  So, if Alice is a sales agent for her company and Bob is a purchasing agent for his, their business discussions are between vendor and client, not between Alice and Bob.  When Internet cafes first appeared, nearly twenty years ago, a huge percentage of them had Peter Steiner’s cartoon from 5 July 1993 The New Yorker taped to the wall:

Now we’re living in the age of Facebook, and on the Internet everyone knows that you’re a dog, what you had for breakfast, where you like to do your business, etc.  Still, there is an element of impersonality built into online interactions.  So online political discussions, even on Facebook itself, quickly become interactions between supporter of Party X and supporter of Party Y, even when those supporters are close friends in other settings.  Obviously people can turn each other into symbols of opinions they dislike in any social environment, but I don’t think it’s controversial to say that online discussions are particularly prone to this sort of reduction.  Moreover, the most pleasant online relationships tend to be the simplest, those in which participants change their personas least often.  If Alice and Bob meet at a site devoted to eighteenth-century cocktail recipes and interact simply as devotees of those recipes, I suspect they are likelier to look forward to hearing from each other than they will be if they start talking about other topics and expecting other kinds of emotional and intellectual support from each other.  Offline, I would think it would be the opposite, that people who discuss only one topic and present themselves to each other in only one way are unlikely to become close.  I’d be interested to see studies on this hypotheses, a quick Google Scholar search hasn’t shown me any but if you know of such, please enlighten me.

Sixth, employment in a bureaucracy is based on technical qualifications.  Civil service exams, educational requirements, efficiency ratings, and other devices for measuring competence are not necessary if the best person for the job is the person who has inherited it as a matter of right.  They are necessary if the best person is the ablest.  Of course, every human bureaucracy exists within a society where there are laws, institutions, and ethical ideas that predate the rise of bureaucracy and survive independently of it.  So one does not expect a certifying authority to require the person who owns a business to prove that s/he is the ablest person to oversee its operations.  Nor does one expect anyone to require potential parents to demonstrate any particular abilities in order to earn a license authorizing them to produce children, or to raise the children they have produced.  If all social life were subject to the demands of a single bureaucracy, we would expect to see such requirements.  Indeed, as bureaucratization proceeds apace, we see ever more footprints of bureaucracy in areas which were once matters of right.  In many parts of the USA, for example, voters are routinely required to produce identification before they are allowed to take ballots, even though there is no evidence that anyone has ever impersonated a voter, and absolutely no way to affect the outcome of an election by impersonating voters.  These laws are accepted, not because they serve any legitimate purpose, but simply because it seems natural to the residents of a social world dominated by bureaucracy to be called on to produce one’s papers.

As for the Internet, there are technical specifications devices must meet in order to be connected.  This automated bureaucracy rarely sorts its human users by technical qualifications, though they do sort themselves in much the way that the clients of bureaucracies staffed by humans sort themselves.  And, as they do when interacting with bureaucracies staffed by humans, Internet users do tend to see themselves as clients receiving services rather than as citizens asserting their rights.  Zach Weiner expressed that point very effectively in February, with his now-classic cartoon about the so-called “Stop Online Piracy Act” that was then before the US Congress:

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, 2 February 2012

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, 2 February 2012

So you can see why I have thought it made sense to look at the Internet as a bureaucracy in Max Weber’s sense.  Perhaps, though, it makes more sense to follow Mr Schneier and look at it as a feudal realm.  While every element of a bureaucracy is, at least in theory, accountable to some overall authority that regulates that bureaucracy, the elements to which we trust our online security are accountable to no one.  As Mr Schneier writes:

In this new world of computing, we give up a certain amount of control, and in exchange we trust that our lords will both treat us well and protect us from harm. Not only will our software be continually updated with the newest and coolest functionality, but we trust it will happen without our being overtaxed by fees and required upgrades. We trust that our data and devices won’t be exposed to hackers, criminals, and malware. We trust that governments won’t be allowed to illegally spy on us.

Trust is our only option. In this system, we have no control over the security provided by our feudal lords. We don’t know what sort of security methods they’re using, or how they’re configured. We mostly can’t install our own security products on iPhones or Android phones; we certainly can’t install them on Facebook, Gmail, or Twitter. Sometimes we have control over whether or not to accept the automatically flagged updates — iPhone, for example — but we rarely know what they’re about or whether they’ll break anything else. (On the Kindle, we don’t even have that freedom.)

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I’m not saying that feudal security is all bad. For the average user, giving up control is largely a good thing. These software vendors and cloud providers do a lot better job of security than the average computer user would. Automatic cloud backup saves a lot of data; automatic updates prevent a lot of malware. The network security at any of these providers is better than that of most home users.

Feudalism is good for the individual, for small startups, and for medium-sized businesses that can’t afford to hire their own in-house or specialized expertise. Being a vassal has its advantages, after all.

For large organizations, however, it’s more of a mixed bag. These organizations are used to trusting other companies with critical corporate functions: They’ve been outsourcing their payroll, tax preparation, and legal services for decades. But IT regulations often require audits. Our lords don’t allow vassals to audit them, even if those vassals are themselves large and powerful.

In some of my darker moments, I’ve wondered if the USA is undergoing a revival of feudalism.  Mr Schneier makes a strong case that it is, at least in this area.

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