Netocracy

BOOK REVIEW: NETOCRACY

If Karl Marx were alive today this is the book he would have written. This is the bold, if not slightly ambitious, claim of Swedish authors Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist.

For Marx, society’s power politics, ideology and social dynamics are shaped by the economy, most notably in modern times by capitalism. In the Swedish authors’ new book, Netocracy, they pick up where Marx left off and take a good, long, hard look at the world today and pose the questions: what is a the major economic driving force of today and the future and how will society change as a result?

Their answers provide an intriguing glimpse into what the world could look like in the distant future. We are only at the tip of the information revolution. The more information technology dominates, the more everything else changes along with it: culture, society and economy. It’s a birth of a “whole new world”, they say — a world undergoing a paradigm shift right under our noses.

The authors don’t mince their words. It’s a book, they say, written out of the “deepest frustration” about the “ignorance and childishness” of public debate about the digital future.

Say goodbye to the nation state and governments. Capitalism will be no more and its chief proponents, the bourgeoisie — who, aided by the invention of the printing press and mass media, once wrested power from the land-owning feudal aristocracy — will gradually lose power and become a mere “underclass”.

Bard and Söderqvist’s basic premise is that the breakthrough of digital interactivity as the ever-increasing dominant form of communication is a paradigm shift which entails, in turn, a shift in power of the same extent as when the bourgeoisie took over from the feudal aristocracy with the breakthrough of industrialism.

The authors say that the move from a society controlled by printed and broadcast mass media to an information age that provides interactivity is “at least dramatic as the move from feudalism to capitalism”. The interactivity that the Internet, cellphones and Interactive TV provide is just the beginning.

We may live in the 21st century, but today’s society is still a society of class divisions. What class power struggles will there be in an advanced information age society, ask Bard and Söderqvist? Who will take over from the rotten, old capitalists and the bourgeoisie as society’s new ruling classes? How will status and power be distributed within the new hierarchies that are emerging?

Their answer: a powerful, pragmatic elite called the ‘netocrats’ will emerge — a global dominant class who will harness the information age and the opportunities it offers, such as digital interactivity. These netocrats will be defined by who they know and what they know and the social and digital networks they create and control, rather than how much they earn.

The authors point out today that ‘networks’ are turning into the major means of doing business, organising action and getting knowledge — and controlling these networks count for more than controlling capital. It is these people, these so-called ‘netocrats’, who will manipulate societies’ networks, control the flow of information and ultimately wield the most power in the future.

The Internet is changing everything. The dot bomb crash, which Bard and Söderqvist claim to have predicted, is largely a result of an old-style capitalist economy and rusty, old capitalists failing to grasp the new, interactive media and the social dynamics it is creating.

Netocracy emphasises the major difference between yesterday’s mass media and the mass media of today and the future: digital interactivity. The internet is interactive, cellphones are interactive — and it is this interactivity that will change the very social and political fabric of the world as ordinary users begin to create networks and communities around themselves that bypass traditional communication channels. It will be a world where knowledge, networking and social intelligence become the primary respected qualities. Money, the source of capitalism’s power today, becomes “vulgar”.

Another consequence of Bard and Söderqvist’s theory is that the nation state will disappear as we know it. For Bard and Söderqvist the state is becoming increasingly irrelevant — global companies often operate and exist across several countries making it increasingly difficult to define their nationality. Voter turnouts around the world are dwindling and people are less willing to die for their country than ever before.

More people voted for the reality TV show Big Brother in the UK than the national elections. Economies are moving offshore to the extent that there will be “nothing left to tax”. And if a government does not have control over its economy then what does it have control of? Make way for a world government, they say.

So it is technology that will empower individuals but disempower the control governments have over its citizens. Nation-states will lose their vitality as independent entities since information and wealth cross international boundaries with impunity. Nation-states will become less important while the netocrats and their networks, their “electronic tribes”, will have a tremendous impact on world events.

Bard and Söderqvist say that the nation state is a fundamental part of the capitalist paradigm and therefore has “no credibility in informational society, where communication is built upon tribal identities and subcultures that are constructed according to completely different principles”. Geographic space is becoming less significant on the Internet.

Probably their most controversial claim is that “democracy is doomed”. But what exactly will take its place is unclear. In fact, the netocracts bear an alarming resemblance to Plato’s omniscient “Philosopher Kings”. Will they be the de facto rulers of the world? It’s all rather dusty, and pretty idealistic.

How likely are governments going to hand over power to the netocrats? If anything, recent history shows governments clutching for greater control and relevance: increased regulation over the Internet, vigilant taxing of offshore interests. Even though voter turnouts are waning, Australia makes it a criminal offence not to vote. It’s quite an irony that Sweden, the authors’ home, has one of the highest voter turnouts in the world.

The authors dismiss these as “counter trends”, small battles that ultimately will not change the inevitable course of world’s netocratic future. They expect governments and capitalists to fight and cling on to power in the same way that the feudal aristocracy clung to power before finally relinquishing power to the bourgeoisie.

It’s also unclear why the authors insist that a paradigm shift is needed. Why can’t democracy or capitalism exist hand-in-hand with the unstoppable information revolution and digital interactivity. Surely capitalists will do their utmost to harness digital interactivity for power and profit? Surely the capitalists aren’t going to let these “money-making” opportunities slip through their greedy fingers and hand over power to the so-called network-savvy netocrats?

Despite these issues, Netocracy is a lucidly written account and a fresh take on the information revolution that is gripping the world. Bard and Söderqvist’s concepts are clear and meticulously explained. Even if some of Netocracy’s claims are a bit too far-reaching and maybe too ambitious, the book is a brave and visionary account of the challenges we face in the future in an information economy.

Netocracy has been billed as one of the first major works of philosophy of the 21st century and it is a book that has moved the debate in the right direction. It has people using new concepts to explain power politics. But it’s just the start: these concepts and ideas need to be built on, tested and further articulated – something which even the authors won’t deny.

Capitalists, you have been warned.

Matthew Buckland is the editor of the Mail&Guardian Online. You can read more of this review and read an extract from Netocracy at http://www.mg.co.za

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