The Internet and Everyone

by John Chris Jones,

Batsford Books, London, UK, 2000
529pp., illus. Trade, £20
ISBN: 1 899858 20 2

(A short version of this book is available at:

Reviewed by Chris Crickmay

"The Internet and Everyone" is about the, so far unrealised, implications of modern soft technologies - phone, TV, computer, credit card.... and of course, the internet. Best known for his ground breaking writings on design, Jones has always stood somewhat outside the design world - advocating a wider vision than designing as a professional activity generally achieves. In Jonesā vision designing is concerned, not with style, nor even primarily with artifacts, but much more generally with initiating change at any level including society as a whole - something that clearly touches and potentially involves everyone. The implication is that we are all to some degree 'designers' in the modern world.

Jones has spent much of his career envisaging what designing could be like if it were approached holistically rather than piecemeal in the usual way. He was one of the early thinkers to realise back in the 1950s that contemporary large scale problems required systemic solutions, but not ones imposed from above.... as he says, "My method is simply to put myself at the receiving end". Close study of what it feels like to use any product or system forms the basis of rethinking the whole thing from scratch. A key part of rethinking any of our large public systems which seem today so dysfunctional and unwieldy is to give each individual the means (the information), to use their own intelligence in order to operate successfully. Electric information technologies allow this in a way that mechanisation never did. The internet, the mobile phone, automation..... offer a profoundly radical possibility - one that anarchists have long advocated - that is, trusting us all to do the right thing, the principle of a self organising system. We donāt need to be told what to do provided we each have a picture of the whole, or enough of the whole to make intelligent choices. It is this 'decentralised intelligence' that typifies much of the functioning of our own nervous systems. If projected onto human affairs, can this work? What if there are different and conflicting pictures of 'the whole'? What about networks with agendas that are destructive to all or part of the rest (e.g. al-Qaida )? Similar questions are raised in the book, which is a conversation around what could exist - deliberately not a blueprint, since any such prescription would be contrary to its participatory and improvisational approach to change.

In Jones' view, our problem is not machines, but our mechanistic ways of carrying on. Although the age of mechanisation has passed, we still live as if it had not. Our schools, families, businesses, systems of government, services, patterns of work and leisure, our fragmented ways of thinking and perceiving, still owe more to the industrial age than the post- industrial. Somewhere within our present way of life is the germ of the life we could be living, but it is hard to recognise because our very language, our way of naming and categorising things, is rooted in older patterns of living. The internet and other information technologies seem to favour loose and changing networks of people, rather than fixed and institutionalised hierarchies and suggest more flexible, interactive, holistic and playful ways of living with machines. Jones' view is that somewhere here is the seed of a hopeful future which is largely held back by our antiquated attitudes and perceptions. As Marshall McLuhan used to say, "We look at the present through a rear view mirror. We march backwards into the future" The originality of this book is that it tries to embody rather than describe a vision. If the result seems unfamiliar and challenging, then so be it. In moving into the future we should expect things to appear which so far lack a name and can therefore be disconcerting. Yet the new must do more than disconcert if it is to draw us forward, and this book offers many rewards in its incredible diversity.

Dedicating his book to Walt Whitman, Jones is equally at home discussing Milton or Wordsworth as he is with the effects of new technology. In fact he sees the two realms as strictly linked. From the 'chance' proceduresā of the composer John Cage, to sung proposals for a radio station, to bizarre stories and plays, this is a wild and eccentric book, put together with humour, insight and imagination. Consequently it is full of asides and diversions and apparent irrelevancies which later may come to seem relevant (or even central) to the main thread. In addition to normal discursive text, some of it is written as imaginary letters; some reads like a diary or personal note. At times it is written in the words of imaginary people - voices that anarchically speak out with views of their own which may even conflict with those of the author. The logic is this: if you believe in decentralising control (as a social proposition, a way forward for the future), then the first thing to trust is your own spontaneity - we know more than we know we know. With various literary devices Jones tries to avoid the didactic voice, the false authority of the author which would cut across his claims for a more participatory world.