Networks and the Subversion of Choice: An Institutionalist Perspective

Special Report: Sustainable Development of Technical Networks
By Gene I. Rochlin

One of the enduring characteristics of the twentieth century was the growth of large technical systems that provided a variety of social as well as economic services. Railroads, the telephone, electricity, postal services, airlines and others were shaped not only for profit but to achieve specific social and political objectives. As the century ended, these systems were being progressively dismantled in the name of a free-market ideology disguised in economic terms as competition and efficiency and in socio-political ones as empowerment and choice. But as these deregulated systems evolve, those who depend upon the systems to function — the « customers » — increasingly find competition to be a chimera, efficiency elusive, social empowerment negligible, and choice at best a burden and at worst an illusion. Infrastructure systems that had become institutionalized as part of the social fabric are being torn from it, and from the hands of regulators, in a return to the market structures and practices that first caused regulation to come into being when the century began; the supposedly competitive units are being rebuilt, manifesting new dimensions of unbridled market power. Re-regulation would nevertheless be difficult, both because of the dominance of the new ideology of economics and the increased difficulty of controlling increasingly decentralized and transnational companies and corporations.

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