March 15, 1999 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on March 15, 1999.
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More on the Club of Rome, and FWS, Futuroscope World Symposium on Network Media held at Poitiers, March 1-3 (see FYI France issue of Feb 15, at http://www.fyifrance.com ) --
"I believe that the role of the networked society
will be judged according to its impact on the
inequality between nations"
Ilya Prigogine -- Comments from a Nobelist
Nobel laureates have a knack: for putting enough distance between themselves and the incredibly detailed accomplishments which earned them their prizes, enabling them to explain to us the implications of their work for ourselves and for life in general.
The late Glenn Seaborg won his prize for work of such great detail that very few humans either could or would want to understand what he had done; yet he then devoted the rest of his long life to patient, warm, simple explanations of why work such as his needed to be done, delivered humbly and magnificently to groups of schoolchildren, the elderly, high policy - makers, impatient journalists, and anyone really who would listen.
Other Nobelists, equally accomplished, have done the same: it is a community which is not very content to rest on its laurels, all of its post - prize energy perhaps best illustrating the characteristics which win such a prize in the first place.
Ilya Prigogine won his Nobel Prize -- in chemistry, in 1977 -- for work in "nonequilibrium thermodynamics, particularly the theory of dissipative structures"...
But, as with Seaborg and other Nobelists, although the work which won Prigogine his prize may have great significance, it is his work done since the award which reaches the greatest number of us most directly -- particularly those of us who trip over terms like "thermodynamics" and "nonequilibrium" and "dissipative".
Since 1977, Prigogine's activities have been many:
"In 1989, Prigogine was awarded hereditary nobility and personal title of Viscount by the King of Belgium. He is a member of 30 national and professional organizations, among which are the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The most recent of Prigogine's many international activities are Special Advisor to the European Community in Brussels, Belgium and Honorary Member of the World Commission of Culture and Development of UNESCO, chaired by Perez de Cuellar...
"Prigogine has received numerous national awards and prizes, including the Golden Medal of the Swante Arrhenius, Swedish Academy; Rumford Gold Medal, Royal Society of London; the Descartes Medal, Paris; Commander of the Legion of Honor, France; Imperial Order of the Rising Sun (Gold & Silver Medals), Japan and Medaille d'Or, France, Russian International Scientific Award. He has received 40 honorary degrees."
and his many publications over the years have included,
and if you would like to own a copy --
Order The end of certainty : time, chaos, and the new laws of nature
So, Ilya Prigogine, Nobel Laureate, to the "FWS, Futuroscope World Symposium on Network Media":
"I am convinced that at present humanity is going through a bifurcation process due to information technology.
The great French historian Braudel has written: "Events are dust". This is only partially true. There are "well-defined events" which have shaped human history. A simple example is the neolithic bifurcation associated to an increased flow of energy, coming from the discovery of agriculture and metallurgy and leading to a complex hierarchical society.
We can of course quote other social bifurcations related to fossil energy : coal, oil which lead to the industrial society.
Now we have the information technology which leads to the networked society. What will be the effect of the present bifurcation ? Because of the scales involved we can expect a larger role of non linear terms therefore larger fluctuations and increased instability.
Will the networked society lead to some form of unification of humanity ? This is not certain.
My friend Professor Jean-Louis Deneubourg made the remark that networked societies exist involving social insects. We know today about 12000 ant species. Their colony sizes are ranging from a few individuals to 20 millions of individuals.
It is remarkable that the behavior of the small ant society and of the large ant societies are quite different. In a small insect society, individuals know at any moment what they must do. They go foraging, they come back to share their prey, they behave independently.
However, once the society becomes large, coordination becomes the major problem. There appear complex collective structures that spontaneously emerge from simple autocatalytic interactions between numerous individuals and with the environment mediated by chemical communication.
In small insect societies, the complexity is localized at the individual. In large ant societies, complexity is more on the level of the interactions between the individuals. It is certainly not a coincidence that in the largest and most integrated societies -- that is in the army ants and termites -- the individuals are practically blind.
The evolution from the small ant society to large ant society was the result of qualitative changes involving discontinuities. Such type of discontinuities appear in many fields of physics, chemistry and biology. They are associated to bifurcations. Bifurcations play an important role in our present view of nature. They lead to multiple possibilities which are associated to probabilities. They destroy the classical deterministic view of nature.
We are in a world in construction, and the initiative taken by the Club of Rome is a non - negligible factor in this construction. The present bifurcation towards a networked society is part of the technological bifurcations which started at the end of the 19th century and went through the whole 20th century. We have therefore already a period of about one century behind us.
What effect had the technological revolution on the life of humanity in the past ? In the 20th century, there were and still are tragic events: wars, ethnic purification... But war and bloodshed are not something new. They existed always in our history.
But there is also a constructive positive part of the technological revolution that is the decrease of inequality. At the beginning of this century, we had the gap between the "civilized" and the "non - civilized". The non - civilized could be treated only slightly better than animals. The inequality between social classes has also decreased as well as the inequality within the family.
However we are still far from a satisfactory situation. The gap between industrial states and developing countries is increasing. We develop also a large gap between people who know and people who don't know. This issue acquires a new formulation in the Networked Society. As Alvin Toffler puts it : "The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn." Education objectives and priorities should change towards the ideal of continuous learning.
I believe that the role of the networked society will be judged according to its impact on the inequality between nations. Of course, there are advantages of the networked society which are well-known. Think about medicine, or business. However I believe the judgment has to be based on more fundamental criteria.
The philosopher Whitehead stated that the Greeks developed two aims for humanity : first, the intelligence of nature that is a rational formulation of the laws which rule matter or life, and on the other hand the establishment of a democracy based on the role of values.
Will the networked society be a step in the direction of the realization of this goal ?
From this point of view it is interesting that each bifurcation in the past resulted in people who benefited from it and in people who became victims. The neolithic society led to extraordinary realizations in the field of arts. It led to the construction of pyramids for the pharaohs, but also to common graves for the common people. Slavery started probably with the neolithic civilization and continued till recently. Similarly, industrial civilization led to the development of the proletariat, at the same time as it led to an increase of wealth."
Editor's note: "blind army ants and termites"!...
There is much to guard against, in the "Networked Society", in spite of the undoubted advantages which it will bring.
Many of the dangers will be inherited: as Prigogine points out -- he was born in Russia in 1917, and lives now in Belgium, both places which have endured much of the chaos of the 20th century -- "wars, ethnic purification... war and bloodshed are not something new". Insert relevant "those who do not remember the past..." quotation, I suppose -- Prigogine has an historical sense which is lacking in most information technology writing.
Inheritance, particularly genetic inheritance and social behaviors, does not just go away. "Information technology" will not just erase it. The "Networked Society" will not solve "wars, ethnic purification... and bloodshed": it may make some of it better, it may make some of it worse -- we still will have some "blind army ants and termites", and as our human societies grow larger and more complex and more inter - dependent, albeit "networked", our proportions of "blind ants" just may increase.
So, these are the concerns of a Nobelist.
And it is interesting to see that his concerns are international, as were those of most who attended FWS at Poitiers: "Inequality between nations" is the basic worry, from Belgium and Russia and Europe and Asia -- and Africa and Latin America.
Nobelists do not "rest on their laurels", and neither should information technology: the hardest work comes after the awards and prizes. Just so, it is one thing to achieve a "networked society" within the United States, but another to ensure that such a society will be beneficial, and equal... and very much still another to extend the benefits of this -- and not its dangers -- to the rest of the world.
Thanks are due to Bertrand Schneider, Secretary General of the Club of Rome and President of the "Futuroscope World Symposium", for permission to reproduce Prigogine's remarks here.
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