PowerShift, Information, and the Internet

I’ve been asked numerous times what books I recommend about the Internet. I don’t. The infobahn is a way of life, a culture, a way of living. It is not the shitload of computer programs that most books about the Internet describe in minute detail, thus ensuring their own obsolence a month later when new operating systems and Internet services are borne into the world. I’ve never seen a good book about the Internet; that’s why I wrote What Your Children are Doing on the Information Highway. But if you’re interested in someone else’s prognostication, you might check out Alvin Toffler’s PowerShift, which—without ever mentioning the Internet—discusses in detail what the Information Superhighway is all about. As Warren Zevon sings it, the three sources of power in the world are “lawyers, guns, and money”—knowledge, violence, and wealth. Two hundred years ago, the Power Shift was violence: firearms in the hands of individuals made popular revolutions possible. Today, the Power Shift is knowledge, as the infobahn brings unlimited information to every person.

The Democratic Difference

From Alvin Toffler’s PowerShift

Besides its great flexibility, knowledge has other important characteristics that make it fundamentally different from lesser sources of power in tomorrow’s world.

Thus force, for all practical concerns, is finite. There is a limit to how much force can be employed before we destroy that we wish to capture or defend. The same is true for wealth. Money cannot buy everything, and at some point even the fattest wallet empties out.

By contrast, knowledge does not. We can always generate more.

The Greek philosopher Zeno of Elea pointed out that if a traveler goes halfway to his destination each day, he can never reach his final destination, since there is always another halfway to go. In the same manner, we may never reach ultimate knowledge about anything, but we can always take one step closer to a rounded understanding of any phenomenon. Knowledge, in principle at least, is infinitely expandable.

Knowledge is also inherently different from both muscle and money, because, as a rule, if I use a gun, you cannot simultaneously use the same gun. If you use a dollar, I can’t use the same dollar at the same time.

By contrast, both of us can use the same knowledge either for or against each other—and in that very process we may even produce still more knowledge. Unlike bullets or budgets, knowledge itself doesn’t get used up. This alone tells us that the rules of the knowledge-power game are sharply different from the precepts relied on by those who use force or money to accomplish their will.

But a last, even more crucial difference sets violence and wealth apart from knowledge as we race into what has been called an information age: By definition, both force and wealth are the property of the strong and the rich. It is the truly revolutionary characteristic of knowledge that it can be grasped by the weak and the poor as well.

Knowledge is the most democratic source of power.

Which makes it a continuing threat to the powerful, even as they use it to enhance their own power. It also explains why every power-holder—from the patriarch of a family to the president of a company or the Prime Minister of a nation—wants to control the quantity, quality, and distribution of knowledge within his or her domain.

The control of knowledge is the crux of tomorrow’s worldwide struggle for power in every human institution.