Network: `Netiquette' the key for the new society

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IS MODERN, technologically-driven society driving us to a better or a worse life?

I found myself pondering this favourite theme as I waited for a breakfast appointment in, of all places, Las Vegas. There's no town like Las Vegas for cogitating on moral and ethical issues; indeed, the subject of ethics and computers was to be the topic of my breakfast meeting. The words of author and academic Francis Fukuyama came to mind: "The greatest problems we face are in our moral and social life. Everything else is going pretty well."

Fukuyama has a long article in the current Atlantic Monthly titled "The Great Disruption", a treatise about the social disruption that he feels is accompanying the US transition from an industrial to an information economy. Even as our material well-being shows constant improvement, deeply troubling moral and ethical issues arise daily in places like Kosovo and Littleton, Colorado.

Futurist Alvin Toffler has labelled this epoch the "Third Wave", the previous two waves being the transition from hunter-gatherer society to agriculture, and from agriculture to industry. Both movements caused huge social disruption. Some might argue that the tale of Adam and Eve is an allegory of the transition from the "natural" hunter-gatherer state to a structured agrarian society, while Dickens prospered by chronicling the wrenching shift from an agricultural to an industrial economy.

Fukuyama argues that the disruption that began in the 1960s, and which saw negative social indicators such as crime rise sharply through the 1990s, was the result of fundamental economic change. Many observers blame other influences, such as the welfare state or the decline of traditional religion, but Fukuyama thinks that a more profound shift was in process. The decline of religion and family orientation were symptoms, not root causes.

While many of us equate the information age with the rise of the Internet, the 1960s saw the US begin the move from the muscle jobs of an industrial society to today's economy where 60 per cent of jobs can be described as "office work". In the process, almost everything about our social behaviour has changed. Women entered the workforce in huge numbers; divorce rates shot to 50 per cent; and one in three US children are now born out of wedlock.

Freedom and individualism have come to be more highly prized. Governments and corporations have devolved power from centralised control, relying on people to self-organise. The 21st century will rely heavily on informal norms, argues Fukuyama. Internet denizens already know about this process: "netiquette" is an example of rules that sprang seemingly from thin air, without any central enforcement body.

Simply put, people saw that things would work better if everyone kept their behaviour within certain limits. This didn't mean that there weren't instances of egregious abuse, but by and large people were guided by enlightened self-interest. We've come to see that we can do well in the world by extending cautious trust to people who don't happen to be of the same family, or religion, or nationality.

I first observed this when my stepson began regularly contacting teenagers all over the world who liked the same music as he did. Their community was self-organising, self-governing and built completely on shared tastes. Other broad-based communal norms have sprung to wide acceptance. Individual expression is not only allowed, but encouraged, as is vigorous debate. Only rarely are courts or law enforcement required to mediate issues in cyberspace.

Fukuyama notes that the tidal wave of negative social effects rose at the same time in many countries with differing cultures . The sharp decline in those same indices in this decade has been simultaneous as well. The only common facet of these cultures was that - under pressure of global developments - they were all undergoing an accelerated process of change.

The good news, says Fukuyama, is that what can be broken can be made whole, albeit in new ways. Researchers at the University of Chicago have published studies suggesting that shared communal norms are far more powerful than law at influencing behaviour.

And since the Net has proved itself to be a powerful medium for self- organising communities, I have little doubt that much of what is built in the near future will be built at least in part on the Net. New Declarations of Independence and Magna Cartas are daily being created, modified and encoded as FAQs.

This is the raw stuff of the future, in my humble opinion, and there's no time like the present to get going on it. So I'm off to my meeting to hear an idea about setting up a computer ethics curriculum that will help us find our way in the 21st Century. Maybe just a little scary to be doing this in Las Vegas.