First in a series of columns inspired by the The Sovereign Individual: Mastering The Transition To the Information Age, by authors James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Mogg. As the Information Revolution picks up steam and supplants the Industrial Age for good, will it undermine the great civic myths of the 20th century? This book argues that individuals are going to be liberated at the expense of the increasingly fatigued nation-states that have governed for centuries. (Part two upcoming: Virtual Merchant-States).
Predicting the future is risky, especially when it comes to technology, whose history defies anything like a rational approach. But The Sovereign Individual, recently published in paperback by Touchstone, raises profoundly interesting questions about the information age and the future, the kind of questions worth kicking around.
In my work, I read lots of books about technology and the future, but this one captured my imagination in an unusual way. While I don't have the answers that Davidson and Rees-Mogg are looking for, I have the feeling they are asking many of the right questions. So we're plucking several of the most interesting ideas from Sovereign Individual and passing them along.
One of the major themes in The Sovereign Individual is the notion that the revolution unleashed by digital technologies is liberating individuals at the expense of the nation-states that have governed much of humanity for thousands of years.
Though all of human history, there have been three basic stages of economic life: hunting-and-gathering societies; agricultural societies; and industrial societies. Now, sparked by the rise of computing and the growth of the Net and the Web, something entirely new and different may be just over the horizon, something all of us are already a primitive part of, a fourth stage of social organization: information societies.
To Lord Rees-Mogg, a former editor of The Times of London, and Davidson, a venture capitalist, the civic myths of the 20th Century are beginning to erode under the pressure of the ascending information age. The death of Communism is only the latest evidence. Western governments, the authors say, may be more benign but are also tired. They're losing their governing authority, their leaders void of answers and ideas, mouthing platitudes fewer and fewer people believe or listen to. An entirely new reality will emerge in cyberspace, ruled by a cognitive elite based in cities like Frankfurt, London, San Jose, Singapore and Tokyo.
Unlike the Agricultural or Industrial Revolutions, the Information Revolution will not evolve over hundreds of years. Like the technology that created it, it will take hold more rapidly than any other social phase of human life. The Information Revolution, now already well underway will play out within our lifetimes, and it's time to get ready.
"Technical and economic innovations will no longer be confined to small portions of the globe," write the authors. "The transformation will be all but universal. And it will involve a break with the past so profound that it will almost bring to life the magical domain of the gods as imagined by the early agricultural peoples like the ancient Greeks (and SF writers in games like Mage and Shadowrunner). To a greater degree than most would now be willing to concede,it will prove difficult or impossible to preserve many contemporary institutions in the new millenium. When information societies take shape they will be as different from industrial societies as the Greece of Aeschylus was from the world of cave dwellers."
In a world awash in punditry and hype, why take The Sovereign Individual more seriously than any other attempt at futuristic navel gazing? One is these authors record: In previous books, they predicted the stock market crash of the late 80s and the fall of Communism. Their view is also less America-centric than much contemporary writing about technology, incorporating a global and economic perspective that is original and provocative.
Are we the first citizens of a new kind of society? Or simply participants in the ongoing modification of the old one?
Look soon for Part 2: Reviving Laws of the March; Virtual Merchant States that Transcend Nationality