World Future Society

It is with sorrow that we report that Dr. Eduard Prugovecki passed away at his home in Lake Chapala Mexico on October 13th 2003

Utopias Forum

Coordinated Group Decision Making:
A Sociological Model for Future Democracies

By Eduard Prugovecki

SUMMARY: Utopias that advocated economic egalitarianism fell in disfavor along with communism at the end of the Cold War. Yet, economic egalitarianism is fully compatible with freedom and democracy. The author describes how a complex of interrelated computers could facilitate a utopia of egalitarian democracy.

t.jpg (1246 bytes) he March-April 2002 issue of THE FUTURIST was largely devoted to utopian thinking.

In the editorial article Being Realistic About Utopia, its author, Cynthia G. Wagner, made the following pertinent observations: "Utopia has a bad reputation. People thinking utopian thoughts are branded as unrealistic dreamers, and people trying to make utopias work are labeled totalitarians (sometimes justifiably)."

These statements represent a sad comment on the contemporary North American perceptions of the sociological role of utopias and utopian thinking.

As is well-known, the term "utopia" (meaning nowhere in Greek) dates back to Thomas More's Utopia. This novel, first published in Latin in 1516, was largely inspired by Plato's Republic, which represented the earliest known instance of utopian thinking.

Coming from a lord chancellor of England, Utopia was a remarkable literary work, given the fact that it was implicitly critical of the unrestrained rise of economic individualism. This was a phenomenon heralding the emergence of capitalism, which at that time had brought much misery to the dispossessed in the medieval villages of fifteenth century England. Hence, Utopia was not regarded by More's contemporaries as the output of an "unrealistic dreamer;" rather, it was read eagerly throughout Europe, and inspired many subsequent "utopian" ideas and movements. Some of these movements even led to "practical" results in the form of experimental utopian communities which, whatever their failings, were certainly not "totalitarian."

As a person born and raised in Europe, I was struck when I came in the early 1960s to the United States by the fact that such dystopian novels as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four were much better known than such utopian novels as Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and B.F. Skinner's Walden Two—although Bellamy's 1888 novel enjoyed enormous popularity towards the end of the nineteenth century, and Skinner's 1948 book eventually inspired utopian communities that survive to this very day. I soon realized, however, that the idea of Utopia was yet another victim of the Cold War, since admittedly most utopian literature, including More's Utopia, advocated some form of economic egalitarianism.

But, contrary to simplistic preconceptions, economic egalitarianism is fully compatible with the ideas of freedom and democracy which are deemed to be the cornerstone of Western democracies. In fact, if humanely and judiciously implemented, it provides a fertile soil in which both freedom and democracy can prosper to their fullest extent.

Indeed, as first pointed out by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his The Social Contract published in 1762, in any civilized society there cannot be absolute freedom for any individual, since no member of such a society can be allowed to cause harm with impunity to its other members. Rather, freedom in a social context is a matter of social equilibrium: the more civilized and progressive a society is, the more freedom an individual can enjoy as long as that individual's exercise of freedom does not deprive other individuals of their freedoms. As implicit in the work of many utopians, that includes the freedom to enjoy a fair share of the material benefits offered by that society. In particular, this entails the freedom from economic exploitation. Thus, the greater the disparity between the rich and the poor in a given society, the more curtailed is the freedom of the poor to enjoy the opportunities offered by that society. Viewed from this perspective, utopian communities actually optimize the amount of freedom enjoyed by all their members, by providing everybody with a fair share of economic opportunities and rewards in addition to civil and personal freedoms.

What many utopians as well as other enlightened individuals intuitively understand is that maximizing the freedoms of the rich and the powerful to exercise their economic privileges implies minimizing the freedoms of the poor and the powerless. Thus, since the time of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has been realized more and more that the idea of freedom is inextricably intertwined with that of social justice. In fact, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man of August 27, 1789 was based on the American declaration of 1776 and laid down the "natural" right of every citizen to liberty, equality, and security. The later massacres and other excesses of the French revolution were inexcusable, but its professed ideal of liberté, egalité, fraternité is a legacy that has to be respected.

These observations are also pertinent to the historically evolving notion of democracy. In the universally acknowledged cradle of democracy, namely ancient Athens, women and slaves did not have the right to vote. Thus, ancient Athens was not a democracy by contemporary standards. But nowadays one can ask the question: Is a country in which political freedom is restricted to choosing between two or more national parties representing the same basic political and economic interests a true democracy? Even more fundamentally: Is representative democracy the best form of democracy that mankind can hope for at the present stage in its economic and technological development?

Witnessing the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and many other similar phenomena which vividly demonstrated how unresponsive elected official can be to the goals and desires of their constituents made me wonder whether mankind has not reached a stage of technological progress in which traditional forms of representative democracy are virtually as outdated as they are ineffective. After giving the matter considerable thought, I came to the conclusion that genuine forms of participatory democracy might be eventually implementable on a national level in advanced countries due to a foreseeable progress in mass communications and computer technology.

In 1974, I presented my ideas in the context of a utopian/dystopian novel entitled Memoirs of the Future. In it two totally different countries are juxtaposed: Terra and FWF. Both incorporate features which represent extrapolations, in two very distinct directions, of present-day social, political, technological and cultural trends.

In Terra a gigantic complex of interrelated computers, called Coordinating Computer Complex or CCC, is used by the Terrans for coordinating the activities of a society in which all forms of government have vanished, having been replaced by grass roots forms of participatory democracy. These manifestations of participatory democracy are embodied in various protocols for coordinated group decision making, or cogdem. Due to the possibilities afforded by CCC as a source of technological means for instantaneous visual, verbal and written communication between all members of any Terran community—from local neighborhoods to the entire country—any member of such a community can come forward with innovative ideas that initiate cogdem protocols. Any such proposal is then deliberated according to the cogdem rules devised by Terran mathematical sociologists, meant to eliminate redundancy and enhance decision-making efficiency. Once a mini-max point in the debate is reached, beyond which further discussion would become wasteful and counter-productive, the appropriate programs of CCC automatically submit the final choice between the proposed alternatives to a voting procedure involving all those concerned. The voting can be carried out virtually instantaneously by each individual concerned due to the advanced computer technology available to every Terran in his or her home and workplace.

Thus, the need for any political leaders—or, for that matter, of any leaders at all—is effectively nullified. Instead, legislative and executive initiatives are at everybody's disposal, and are governed by a "code of social decency," inculcated into Terrans as part of their educational process. As with the rules of "civilized behavior" in contemporary countries, the rules of this code make for social harmony in Terra, but at a socially much deeper level. The resulting workings of the system are not the expression of a person, class, or special interest group, but of the popular will of all Terrans. By directly participating in all important decisions that affect their own lives, Terrans have a personal stake in the welfare of all their communities—from local neighborhoods to the global level involving all of Terra.

By contrast, in FWF, a counterpart of CCC is used by those in power to monitor and control all working individuals through computer-integrated bank accounts, centralized employment records and other bureaucratic devices, coordinated by means of social security numbers assigned to each citizen from the moment of birth. This reflects a scenario anticipated by Aldous Huxley in the Foreword of the 1963 edition of his Brave New World, where he stated that "it is probable that all the world's governments will become completely totalitarian." Thus, in FWF the epitome of a totalitarian corporate state has been achieved: the rich and powerful govern a docile populace conditioned by subliminal techniques, which have originated in the present era, to react with Pavlovian predictability to the subliminal cues of their masters. The same technology that in Terra is liberating, in FWF is surreptitiously enslaving.

Due to this dichotomy, it might have been a bit difficult to accuse me even in 1974 of indulging in the kind of "unrealistic dreams" of which utopians are nowadays presumed to be a priori guilty. However, at the time I wrote the novel there was no Internet, so that I could indeed be accused of such a misdemeanor with respect to the postulated technology.

My few colleagues at the University of Toronto who were interested in what was called at that time "futurology," and who were kind enough to take a look at my novel, did not proffer, however, any such accusations. On the other hand, the several publishers to whom I sent the manuscript pointed out that utopian novels were no longer appealing to the North American public, and that therefore they were not interested in publishing my novel. Clearly, Utopia had already acquired a bad reputation!

Preoccupied with a difficult research program in quantum physics, I shoved the manuscript of Memoirs of the Future into a drawer. There it remained untouched until after my retirement, when I rediscovered it prior to my permanent move to Mexico. I subsequently updated it during the year 2000 by emphasizing its relevance to Internet and other technical developments that had taken place in the intervening quarter of a century. The revised version was finally published in November 2001 by Cross Cultural Publications of Notre Dame, Indiana.

What had happened in that interim quarter-century was that Internet had become an everyday fact of life in the United States and other advanced countries. Hence, the idea of cogdem is nowadays technically implementable, so that, in principle, the citizens of democracies no longer have to rely on elected politicians to make and implement their decisions for them—politicians who, once in power, can systematically disregard the promises they made during their election campaigns. Furthermore, with present-day technology there is no longer any need even for polls based on small samples which, as illustrated in Arianna Huffington's most recent book, provocatively entitled How to Overthrow the Government, are of necessity biased. With the Internet being widely accessible, ordinary citizens have at their disposal the technological means to directly express their preferences to the community at large. Mathematical sociology in combination with computer science and programming can help to make this process quick and efficient.

In fact, each time we use the Internet to carry out financial transactions we employ computer routines that are secure and can be equally well used to express our individual will with regard to key political issues—if only we were given the chance. Instead, in some of the present day democracies we are much too often confronted with political scandals originating from manipulations of electoral procedures, in the course of which the very limited political rights of common citizens are egregiously trampled upon.

Obviously disillusioned with the present political process and the offered alternatives at election time, the majority of the American electorate did not even bother to vote during several recent national elections. As a matter of fact, according to the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, since the 1960s national voter participation in the United States has declined by 25%. Therefore, perhaps it is time to search for new ways to express the will of that electorate.

Coordinated-group-decision-making takes advantage of the potential available in present day technology and reflects a mode of "utopian thinking" that is indubitably democratic rather than totalitarian. Some of its aspects could already be implemented at various levels of the contemporary democratic electoral process.

This shows that "utopian thinking" is not the prerogative of "unrealistic dreamers," but that it can lead to realizable sociological models for future social organizations. In fact, viewed from this perspective, "utopian thinking" is a special case of the kind of thinking that is common to all endeavors in the exact sciences: one builds theoretical models, and then tests them empirically to check on how well they conform to the laws of nature. In a fundamental sense, this remains true in the social sciences: by constructing models of social behavior and organization one can achieve a better understanding of mankind's future potential. It is left to the realities of life in actual social settings to test the extent to which such models are realizable at a given stage in human evolution.

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