Paul Cohoon 

The control of information has been intrinsic to institutions throughout history. Recent technological advancements in the ‘Information Age’ have seen traditional institutions struggle to maintain their dominance of control. Internet – the new medium – was to liberate knowledge from the clasp of institutions, to be claimed by the masses. However new institutions (née corporations) have risen which monopolize and commodify information. Existing within the digital sphere and therefore outside the realm of national institutions and applicable laws, these emerging agents have subverted the control of information, whereby the subject (the mass) is now the product. The lack of physicality of this exploitation enforces its clandestine nature. As business, commerce, communication and socialization increasingly move ‘online’, institutional order is required to determine, lobby, and enforce ethics of information mining and sharing; to enact an evolved idea of institutional control of information for our new digital age.

Institutional Control of Information

Man was created in the Garden of Eden and granted utopia; tempted by ‘knowledge’, he was banished. The Tree of Knowledge is prevalent as a symbol in various religions and cultures. Most significantly, The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden is a merism; by contrasting two opposing words, it suggests an entirety of knowledge; or the realm of knowledge of God himself.

The Fall of Man is representative of man’s consequence for the seeking of knowledge. Christianity teaches that mankind is punished for his quest of knowledge, suggesting that some knowledge should not exist within the realm of human understanding. In place of this understanding, we are encouraged instead to seek faith or belief, which is inherently lacking truth. The belief placed in a ‘higher power’ in lieu of ‘truth’ negates a desire for knowledge, or information seeking. In this void, information coming from the church (as institution) is freely propagated.

The physicalization of the church’s network of control is easily read in the series of churches built by Nicholas Hawksmoor in the early 1700s. As the suburbs of London extended to the East, the lack of identifiable parishes as defined by the physical construction of churches was deemed to be reflected in a moral inadequacy amongst the population. The extension of the Anglican institutional network to the east would instate order – both in the realization of the urban realm, but also as a means of behavioural control. This system of control was beneficial to the government as well, to prevent disorder and revolt.

The printing press presented the first real threat to governmental and religious control of information; as a response, the Stamp Act of 1712 was imposed. The duty was attached to each ‘sheet’ of news (irregardless of document price), disproportionally affected circulation of cheaper papers of popular readership. The tax was implemented as a means to prevent media that would ‘excite hatred and contempt of the Government and holy religion.’1 Others plainly declared it a ‘tax on knowledge.’2 The tax has been recognized as a major contributor to the decline of British literature critical of the government during its enforcement.

Control of information was most salient during the two world wars, when the Ministry of Information was instituted. The governmental arm was explicit in it’s agenda to restrict media that would be damaging to the war effort, as well as producing and distributing propaganda at home and abroad. It was disbanded expeditiously following the end of each war.

Mass Media and the Information Age

Institutions are constructions of ideology. They are defined by – and define – a certain dogma, which prescribes societal and behavioural rules, laws, codes, practices and traditions. The notion of dogma suggests ‘a belief that is accepted by the members of a group without being questioned or doubted3.’ This suggests an inherent truth, but is belayed by agents of bias, power, and influence.

The dissemination of media (noun: the object, or plural of mediums) is integral to institutions, as a means to propagate their ideology (or ‘suggested truth’) and incite reverence and deference.

Mainstream Media (mass noun: construed as singular to denote the collective product) has become an institution in its own right. Mass Media cultivates, curates, and conveys information to the masses. By virtue of what is shown and how it is biased, Media has previously been responsible for putting a value on – and crediting a legitimacy to – information. As a system of information control and bias proliferation, agency is its inherent agenda.

Aristotle stated that “all men by nature desire to know.” Knowledge may be considered as the sum of information, understood as truth through human intellect and cognition. The control of information therefore equates to a control of knowledge, and ergo a hinderance to truth. Control of Knowledge = power. This has been fundamental to institutions (who attempt to prescribe their own ‘truths’) throughout history.

In 2015, public trust in Media was only 18%. This is less than both government and religion (both at 31%). The distrust is due to several factors: Technology has allowed information to be omni-accessible4, creating a system of instantaneous knowledge and truth-determining. This has instigated an expectation that all information should be available, and free. The ability to freely access information (in fiscal/time cost, and liberty) has resulted in a groundswell against traditional institutions, as truth, accountability, and transparency (T.A.T.) are demanded.

As a reaction, a number of digital sites under the umbrella term of ‘wiki-’ have been created which intend to collate information without an institutional overseer. The most prodigious of which – Wikipedia – has become the de facto source for quick information. WikiLeaks, which defines itself as a ‘journalistic organization’ for the publication of ‘secret information, news leaks, and classified media,’ is a pioneer in the rousing fight for freedom of information, set up in 2006 - 4 years after ‘Whistleblowers’ were named TIME magazines Persons of the Year.

Nevertheless, multiple procurers and distributers of classified or otherwise ‘secret’ information have been demonized, incarcerated, and exiled. As humanity has raced into hypermodernity and the Information Age, questions of who ‘owns’ and has rights to information remains unclear. With the advent of mass communication in peer-to-peer networks, the providence of information control has been co-opted by ‘New Media’ corporations – most notably Facebook, Google, Apple, and other data-rich startups. The user of ‘New Media,’ in search of information and knowledge, has become the product to be commodified by the corporations.

Control and Architecture

The panopticon and the colosseum represent two very different models of control, as architecture.

Bentham described his prison as ‘a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example: and that, to a degree equally without example.’ He employed the notion of the ‘all seeing eye,’ to enact a deference to authority that was physically invisible, and potentially non-existent. It was solely the ‘belief ’ that the authority was observing (and therefore a retributive punishment would be consequential) that enforced morality.

The colosseum is primarily considered a public space of entertainment, but was also an instrument for social and behavioural control. As a subversion of the panopticon, the viewer looked towards the centre, and by doing so was participating in a collective activity. The demonstrations of Roman wealth and might through architecture, battle stagings, and tributes to the Emperors ensured the collective activity incited pride, togetherness, and inclusivity amongst the ‘plebs’, thereby exorcising any malignant feelings of contempt towards the ruling class.

Walled Gardens and Intentional Illiteracy

The internet promised unremitting knowledge; an intellectual utopia. Unknowingly, we have been banished to Walled Gardens.

The Walled Garden refers to closed systems within which we voluntary occupy. Facebook is the prodigious example, as well as Twitter, Google and various image sharing websites.

The panopticon and colosseum can both be intuited within the Walled Gardens. Within them, we are simultaneously individualistic, as well as part of a collective. Our behaviours are self-regulated within the collective, for fear of persecution. We are also aware of malicious and surveillance forces online that could impose consequences.

Systems track and record data – we are constantly creating information that is owned by the corporations. This information is invaluable for product and research development, targeted marketing, as well as to foresee trends, desires, and increasingly predict human behaviour and interaction. Brand loyalties have become paramount for technology producers, who require information as raw material to remain competitive in the marketplace. Simply by our usage, we are surrendering value personal information to increasingly powerful, and monopolizing corporations.

Due to it’s profitability, the Walled Gardens intend to keep us contained, mining our data. Users are made to feel dependent on consumption of entertainment, news, communication and images. Being preoccupied (by videos of cats and arguing inanely in the comments section) ensures we are blissfully unawares of our exploitation.

Freedom Fighters

The monopolizing of data is antithetical to the original idea of the web, as posited by Tim Berners Lee. He has recently called for an online ‘Magna Carta’ – a digital bill of rights to govern the internet, which would have implications on many freedoms; ‘Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture.’

Berners Lee is optimistic. He rejects the idea that government and commercial control of such a powerful medium was inevitable; Berners Lee said it would be impossible: “Not until they prise the keyboards from our cold, dead fingers.”


1.    Control of Information on the Web, Network Diagram, overlaid on Peter Paul Reuben’s Medici Cycle Triumph of Truth. Authour’s image.
2.    Apple (fruit from the Tree of Knowledge) equated to the Eye of Horus, a historic symbol of control.
3.    Apple headquarters - the Walled Garden physicalized.
4.    Wolfgang Krodel the Elder, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, 1543
5.    The Flavian Amphitheatre
6.    Bentham’s Panopticon
7.    (overleaf ) Silicon Roundabout is Dead, Long Live Tech City. Authour’s image


1 John Simkin, Taxes on Knowledge.
2 Ibid.
3 Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.