World Future Society

Utopias Forum

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


By Eduard Prugovecki

Methods of implementing computer-coordinated forms of participatory democracies by means of the Internet are discussed in light of the foreseeable progress in communication technology. Comparisons are drawn between the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the Communications Revolution at present in the making. The role of future Internet developments in changing the perceptions of social and political realities is examined.

t.jpg (1246 bytes) HE TERM UTOPIANISM has acquired in recent decades a bad reputation through its association in the minds of some people with the twentieth century communist "experiments" in Soviet Union, China and elsewhere, and even with other totalitarian ideologies, such as Nazism and Fascism (cf. the Utopias Forum article Utopia Revisited by Michael Marien). Those historians and other scholars who subscribe to the point of view that these ideologies are "utopian" argue that any "vision" of a society that is "radically better" according to its originator is utopian regardless of the nature of that society and/or of the advocated means for achieving the stated aims.

In order to avoid getting involved in sterile arguments about terminology, we shall use in this essay the hopefully neutral term terranism as an umbrella embracing the sociological ideas presented in the context of a futuristic Terran society described in two recently published books: Memoirs of the Future (Cross Cultural Publications, Notre Dame, 2001) and Dawn of the New Man (Xlibris, Philadelphia, 2002). Terra being the Latin name for Earth, the term terranism indicates that these ideas pertain to mankind as a whole, rather than to a particular nation, creed or ideology.

In contradistinction with the above mentioned associations of utopianism with beliefs that involve some form of totalitarianism, the terranism discussed in this essay is the very antithesis of totalitarianism; and, as opposed to "utopian" ideas that might be deemed to represent the prerogatives of "unrealistic dreamers," those of terrranism are realistic in the context of the new means of communication afforded by computer technology, and specifically by the Internet.

The basic tenets of terranism were briefly described in the essay Coordinated Group Decision Making: A Sociological Model for Future Democracies, recently published by this author in the Utopias Forum. Furthermore, they are illustrated in a great variety of social settings in the two aforementioned futuristic novels. In essence, they are rooted in a totally horizontal organization of society, which is achieved in Terra by means of a computer-assisted form of coordinated group decision making, for which the acronym cogdem will be used.

In Terra any individual has the basic right to come forward with innovative ideas that initiate cogdem protocols. Any such proposal is then deliberated via a Coordinating Computer Complex, or CCC, according to 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, in Terra legislative and executive initiatives are at everybody's disposal, and are governed by a "code of social decency," inculcated into Terrans since infancy 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, 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.

The social philosophy of terranism shares with that of William Godwin, Pierre Proudhon, Lev Tolstoi and others its rejection of the idea of state and of coercive government in a society of truly free men and women. However, it goes beyond those ideas by advocating a well-integrated, albeit decentralized, global society whose members keep in close touch with each other by means of the earlier mentioned Coordinating Computer Complex, which represents a highly advanced tool of inter-personal as well as public communication. Thus, in a Terran social milieu all group actions are coordinated rather than being in any way "anarchic," and the computer-assisted coordination is a democratic expression of the will of the majority after everybody has had a chance to publicly express his or her opinion at a local or at a global level.

Terranism also represents a departure from the two main social doctrines in the twentieth century: communism and capitalism.

On the surface, these two forms of social organization appear to be at opposite ends of the political spectrum: communism is supposed to be economically egalitarian, but is often accused of being dictatorial; whereas capitalism is supposed to be economically individualistic, but is often accused of being exploitative.

Of course, those who have had the opportunity to live under both systems, and have nevertheless retained their critical faculties, know that this kind of rhetoric can be quite divorced from everyday realities: in practice communism was, and still is where it has survived, certainly dictatorial but not egalitarian; and capitalism was, and still is, exploitative but not necessarily economically individualistic in its present corporate form.

Indeed, as first pointed out by Milovan Djilas, in the practice of communism the Marxist "dictatorship of the proletariat" transcended into the dictatorship of communist party cadres, who have formed a "new class." And in the present-day practice of capitalism, successful capitalist enterprises have a tendency to transcend into huge corporations which incorporate many of the bureaucratic features of the state enterprises of the communist world, and capture entire sectors of the economy, thereby discouraging competition and individual enterprise. In both cases, strong social pressures to conform in order to survive and succeed are in evidence.

It is also interesting to note that both these social systems claim to be, in their own peculiar sense, "democratic"—the term "democratic republic" having been adopted by some of the satellite countries in the Eastern bloc before the collapse of Soviet-style communism, and that of "democracies of the free world" being routinely used in the West.

The communist "democratic republics" are by now mercifully all gone—except for North Korea, which still uses the title of "The Democratic People's Republic of Korea." As for capitalist democracies, the members of various electorates have only to ask themselves how much difference their individual votes make once politicians of any stripe have been elected, and feel free to break even their most solemn promises in the by now well established "read my lips" tradition.

In US alone the answer to that question was unwittingly provided by the majority of the American electorate who did not 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%. This indicates that perhaps it is time to consider new methods of expressing the will of that electorate.

There is no doubt that the emergence of new technologies can revolutionize social relationships in fundamental ways. One only has to think of the influence on social habits and behavior of the automobile, the radio and the TV as prime examples.

But there is one invention, which emerged from the research conducted during World War II, whose impact on mass culture and social relationships was not that obvious until several decades after its discovery: the electronic computer.

Until the 1970s only large mainframe computers existed and various sophisticated "languages" were necessary in order to interact with them. Hence, only trained individuals were capable of using computers. But with the advent of the personal computer and of the corresponding software that communication barrier between man and machine was removed, and Internet was made possible.

The Terran society described in Memoirs of the Future and Dawn of the New Man is based on a cogdem system mediated by a network of inter-connected computers covering the entire globe, and coupled to three-dimensional television devices. This Coordinating Computer Complex, or CCC, enables face-to-face communication regardless of one's location on the globe. Furthermore, CCC has taken over in Terra the role played by all the present media of public and private communication, including the newspapers, the telephone, the radio and the television.

The emergence of the Internet and of e-mail is the first step towards CCC, and has made the ideas about a Terran way of life based on cogdem realistic at least at the technological level. Indeed, although the Internet-email combination has not yet reached the level of sophistication of CCC, it does possess some of its key features: 1) it has become widely available in advanced countries; 2) as opposed to newspapers and TV, it enables two-way communication; 3) also as opposed to newspapers and TV, it is not controlled by the wealthy owners of communication empires. In other words, present-day Internet is an intrinsically democratic medium, to which anybody can have access for a modest fee, and which can be used by anybody to disseminate information, and not be just a passive recipient of news programs reflecting the establishment point of view.

Hundreds of discussion groups already exist and operate via the Internet, exchanging information about various topics of common interest. However, sociologically speaking, what is still lacking as a first step towards cogdem is a deeper sense of involvement, which would make some of these groups arrive at decisions about matters of common concern.

What might prompt such a social initiative?

Past thinkers tended to envisage various types of elites, which would act as "leaders" in movements or revolutions leading to social change.

The best known example is, of course, that of Karl Marx, who postulated that the "working class" in industrialized countries would acquire an intrinsically higher level of "class consciousness" than the rest of the population, and that such a presumably superior consciousness would qualify it as the leader of revolutions establishing a "dictatorship of the proletariat," leading to an egalitarian and progressive society. The fact that this was not the way it worked out in practice in Soviet Union, China, and other communist countries is well-known and requires no further comment.

At the other end of the leftist political spectrum, such utopian thinkers as H.G. Wells envisaged a "world revolution" led by a highly educated elite, whose members would range from scientists to bankers. According to Wells such a nonviolent revolution would eventually result in an enlightened and peaceful global society free of material wants and exploitation. However, despite the considerable prestige that Wells had accumulated during the course of his colorful and socially very active life, all his urgings fell on deaf ears, and nowadays we are no closer to his ideal global society than we were seventy years ago, when he published The Open Conspiracy in which he fully described his program.

On the other hand, one of the most significant revolutions in the entire history of mankind was the Industrial Revolution. It took place gradually, but its effects were more far reaching—for better or for worse—than those of any other revolution in human history. In fact, those effects are still very much with us today, as we enter the age of the Communications Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution did not have "leaders" as such, but it had initiators, namely all those inventors who developed its basic tools, starting with the steam engine. Once those technological tools became commercially available, and some enterprising individuals realized their potential, the Industrial Revolution evolved on its own, without any need for gifted individuals to guide it.

But what was the primary driving force behind this development?

Unfortunately, it was not altruism, or the desire to better the state of mankind, but as has so often been the case in human affairs, that driving force was the kind of self-interest manifested in the desire of some individuals to exploit the newly developed inventions of others for their own private financial gain and for the accumulation of economic power for their own private benefit. In Marxist terms, this driving force manifested itself in the final consolidation of the power of the capitalist class, which exploited the new means of production, as well as the workers handling those means, for its own benefit.

Is the same going to be the case with the Communications Revolution, in which the computer plays the role that the steam engine did in the Industrial Revolution, as exemplified by the Internet?

One answer is that it might. This possibility is presented in Memoirs of the Future and Dawn of the New Man by introducing a counterpart to Terra, called the Free World Federation, or FWF for short, since it has two political parties that rotate in the seats of political power. Their political programs display differences in the rhetoric employed, and the personalities of their charismatic leaders are usually quite distinct, so that the illusion of political choice is maintained. However, in FWF a counterpart of CCC, called Centro, is used by the Free-world oligarchy 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.

If all this sounds somewhat familiar, that is not entirely coincidental: Internet, or its future developments resembling CCC and Centro, can be used to control and subjugate as much as to educate and liberate.

Which is it going to be?

This depends on a variety of social forces which are at work right now, and it is by no means certain what that outcome will be.

On one hand, there is the keen desire, and maybe even compulsion, of some individuals to acquire wealth, and, once they acquire it to use it in the exercise of power, thereby joining the upper strata of the societies in which they live and function. In addition, there are those who have either inherited wealth, and those who have been elected to high-ranking political posts with the help of campaign contributions from the moneyed elite, and view themselves as the natural leaders of the "common people." As was the case during the industrial revolution, all such individuals will try to take over total control of the new means of communication and use it for their own private gain, thus proving that history indeed moves in circles.

On the other hand, there is the rest of humanity whose economic, political and social environment is controlled by this type of individuals. There are few altruistic reformers amongst them, and even fewer selfless revolutionaries. But although such individuals do exist, one should not fall prey to the temptation of past social analysts and decide that any of these exceptional types of men and women will make, on their own, any more difference in the future than their counterparts have done in the past. In other words, it is far too much to expect that either the Marxist or the Wellsian scenarios might occur in the foreseeable future in a form that will serve the interests of mankind as a whole, rather than of select individuals, groups and social classes.

Rather, in the countries with a higher level of general education, one can hope that due to an increased variety of political points of view presented on the Internet many of the "common" people will achieve a higher level of enlightened self-interest, whereby they will finally glimpse the truth behind the web of disinformation fed to them by mainstream media controlled by those in power. They might then decide by means of rudimentary cogdem procedures to take into their own hands matters which are of immediate concern to them all—not out of altruism, but in order to protect their own personal interests.

This might happen at first at a local community level: in municipalities, in townships, in small companies. In such small-scale social and business institutions people could use ordinary e-mail (and later on audio-visual e-mail, as it gets developed), to communicate with one another about matters of common concern, to exchange opinions about possible courses of action, and eventually to democratically pass amongst themselves resolutions about courses of action to be adopted by their entire discussion group. As this idea spreads and experts get involved, various software programs might be developed to facilitate this cogdem process and remove redundancy. Fifth generation computers, which display "artificial intelligence" (as the CCC in Terra does), might further streamline various cogdem protocols. Mathematical sociologists might make significant contributions to these protocols, so that they would allow each participant to express his or her point of view without that giving rise to endless debates resulting in virtual filibusters.

It has to be emphasized that the enlightened self-interest motivating such initiatives would be rather different in nature from the kind of perceived self-interest that is still so prevalent nowadays amongst "ordinary" people. Here is a mundane example illustrating that difference: perceived self-interest occurs when a customer walks into a car dealership, falls for the sleek sales talk of a car salesman who emphasizes all the desirable features of a given model, and then closes a seemingly "fantastic deal" by buying that model at a 10% discount off the "list price"—without, however, first shopping around, consulting Consumer Reports, talking to other owners of that model, etc.; by contrast, a case of enlightened self-interest is exemplified by a car buyer who has investigated all these avenues of information before making a purchase at the lowest price available, and who therefore stands a much better chance of not ending up with an inferior product which would not justify even a 50% discount off the "list price."

In the political arena of present-day democracies members of the electorate are bombarded daily by the news media with information that is slanted or misleading. They are, therefore, in a situation analogous to those of American car buyers before the technical superiority of German and Japanese automobiles became well-known in North America, eventually forcing Detroit to pay more attention to quality, and not rely exclusively on salesmanship. Similarly, the existence of the Internet makes accessible to the electorate points of view divergent from those presented by the mainstream media, thus making the "political consumers," i.e., the electorate, aware of when they are being offered an inferior product. Thus, Internet and its future counterparts may eventually mediate the emergence of a politically more astute and sophisticated electorate, which might not as readily fall for glitzy political slogans and empty promises, and eventually start engaging, for their own self-protection, in activities which would represent rudimentary forms of cogdem.

Of course, such an evolutionary process would not happen overnight, but over decades. New educational methods, such as those discussed in Memoirs of the Future and Dawn of the New Man, might be gradually introduced to facilitate and enhance the kind of social harmony in a truly democratic society, consisting of alert individuals who are not prone to falling for cheap political slogans and empty promises.

The fundamental thesis behind these projections into the future is that, although by no means certain, the existence of Internet in its present generally accessible form makes possible the emergence of a more sophisticated and better informed electorate which might ultimately search for cogdem forms for the political expression of their common will; and that if this does happen, the basic motive will not be utopian altruism (which, at the present stage of development of the human race, is an extremely rare commodity!), but enlightened self-interest.

It is the role of educators with a social conscience to make people aware that this possibility exists, and that narrow self-interest based on greed and the desire to dominate others is injurious in the long run to the great majority of members of the human race—and perhaps self-defeating even for that minority whose personal psychology is conditioned by a myopic desire for power, and who nowadays think that they can forever rule and twist the fate of mankind to suit their own selfish needs and desires.

There are at present communication experts who have researched the way the mainstream media interpret political reality, and revealed in their writings how TV shows and broadcasts are subtly—and sometimes not so subtly—doctored so as to serve special interests. Internet, however, is still an exception —although by now there already are those who advocate a "Control Web" (cf. the May-June issue of The Futurist) which is capable of removing even that freedom of uncensored interpersonal and public communication.

An interesting case illustrating the role that the Internet can play as a socially enlightening medium was provided very recently (July 6, 2002) on the PBS program NOW, hosted by Bill Moyers. It dealt with the unprincipled exploitation by a US company of the water rights of common people in Bolivia, and it emphasized the fact that this story was totally ignored by all the US news media, but that it was nevertheless eventually spread around the world by means of the Internet—cf. Thus, by using the Internet as a medium of public communication, it opened the eyes of many in Europe and elsewhere (and hopefully also in US, after the story was finally picked up by PBS!) about corporate abuses of this nature, and how some courageous but otherwise ordinary people coped with them.

In Terra, each Terran has equal access to CCC, and can disseminate his or her own version of any newsworthy event, which then receives the same exposure as everybody else's. This is taken to be a basic democratic right of each Terran. Of course, a very sophisticated CCC distribution system is required to automatically and impartially classify and distribute on the global level news gathered in this manner.

Internet does not yet possess these features, so that the freedom of expression it affords applies only within the context of relatively small discussion groups; whereas on a larger scale the scene is already dominated by Internet media with great commercial power. Nevertheless, even the present freedom of the Internet as a communication medium is certainly better than the situation a scant decade ago, when these opportunities for public expressions of one's point of view simply did not exist.

Ahead of the next generation there obviously lies a struggle between those who want to control and manipulate the Internet and its successors for their own private interests—as has been the case in the past with many other inventions that are the common heritage of mankind—and those who want every human being to have equal access to such a wonderful medium of communication. Will the model of FWF or of Terra ultimately prevail?—that is the question.

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