Standing in the Way
of Control

Adam Greenfield, guru of the digital world and author of the essay Radical Technologies, transports power and control to today's world, where the most daring technologies of the present provide us with more and more power, even if the reality is that we have not yet learned to control them

Home life Standing in the Way
of Control
Standing in the Way
of Control

For a quarter-century now, Pirelli has offered its wares to the world under the slogan “power is nothing without control.” This, it has to be said, is highly unusual among commercial catchphrases: in the first place because it is true, but also in that it happens to encapsulate a valuable life lesson.

It is above all true in its original domain of application. The lover of driving immediately thinks of, say, Kimi Räikkönen, his low-slung Ferrari tenaciously gripping the wet Spa-Francorchamps asphalt as he pushes it through a 300kph turn. Or, reaching further back into automotive history, the sheer brio of an open-topped Fiat 514 clinging to the rooftop curves of the Lingotto test track, the banked concrete warm in the Turinese sun. These are situations in which brute motive power alone, in whatever amount it might be gathered and yoked by the ambitious, will not and cannot guarantee that one achieves one’s objective; if anything, its heedless application can easily spell disaster. What is asked of the driver at such moments is to exert the most precise direction over the massed energies at their command, a precision that can only be achieved when one is both furnished with the right equipment and has some degree of insight into the nature of its interface with the world.

So far, so good. But perhaps the sentiment has more to teach us if we pursue its implications beyond the realm of the merely literal.

It will be true of any situation in which there’s some gap, some slippage between one’s capacity to exert raw force upon the world and their ability to direct that force with any particular finesse. And this is why it has never rung truer than it does at this very moment in history, for the distinction between power and control ranks among the central challenges of our time. Our Promethean technologies offer us more and more power by the day, but the 
plain fact is that we haven’t yet learned how to control them. Equipped with an array of shiny new tools, we clumsily intervene in systems of the greatest complexity — systems like the climate, the genome or the sum of interactions we think of as human society, whose cross-connections, interdependencies and feedback loops produce emergent order in ways far subtler than we currently understand.

These are situations and contexts that confound our ordinary, everyday sense of causality. They break the push-harder-to-go-faster logic of the simple Newtonian mechanics we learned in earliest childhood — a logic most of us long ago internalized, and still unconsciously rely upon even in circumstances where it simply does not apply. In short: systems like these don’t respond to our desires in straightforward, linear ways. If we ever hope to operate effectively in such domains, we must give up our simpleminded insistence on linear force, and learn how to apply the power of our tools with all the suppleness, tact, insight and discretion the situation calls for.

And make no mistake, that power is all but unprecedented. In no previous moment of our history as a species, excepting only perhaps that in which we first acquired the mastery of fire, have we found ourselves equipped with such transformative capabilities. The entire globe is girded with networks that reach into every household on the planet, and touch just about every life. The sensing devices connected in this way span from the surface (or even the interior depths) of the individual human body straight up to the constellation of platforms glittering in their geostationary orbits. Taken together, they register our doings, comings and goings even if we ourselves believe we’ve opted out, along with the state of every other tktktk. As a result, it is now given to us to perceive patterns of rise, fall and flow that (whether because they transpired beneath or beyond the threshold of sensibility, in either their temporal or spatial extent) have eluded us since time out of mind. Increasingly we aim to rearrange the very bonds of life. Truly the reach of our ambitions is unlimited.

But again, we lack control in any of these dimensions. And that is why, before departing entirely from the realm of the literal, we should note that the interface between engine and road has one final lesson to teach us. Where driving is concerned, control requires traction, and traction upon a road surface in its turn depends on friction — that is to say, on difference, even resistance. Control, in other words, is an emergent property: a dynamic negotiation of the interface between differences as it is expressed in any given moment. Even US military doctrine recognizes this, defining “command” as “the exercise of authority,” and “control,” by contrast, as “feedback about the effects of the action taken.”

It is, to be sure, an open question whether there can be any progress in human affairs but that which is strictly technical. But in 2019, with the evidence of our failures of control piling up all around us, perhaps we’re finally learning respect for the complexity of the circumstances in which we’re embedded — for nothing teaches respect quite as effectively as having once been burned. Power in this sense is an adolescent thing. But it is not completely ridiculous to think that at least where our capacity to wield and control powerful tools is concerned, we may at last be nearing childhood’s end. As never before, there is quite literally a world to win. The hard work — and with any luck, the earned satisfaction and pride in a difficult job well done — begins now. I can’t wait to see what we do together.

Adam Greenfield

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