Netiquette is the key forthe new society

We've come to see that we can do wellin the world by extending cautious trust to people who don't happen to be of thesame family, or religion, or nationality
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The Independent Online

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

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

I found myself pondering thisfavourite theme as I waited for a breakfast appointment in, of allplaces, Las Vegas. There's no town like Las Vegas for cogitating onmoral and ethical issues; indeed, the subject of ethics and computers wasto be the topic of my breakfast meeting. The words of author and academicFrancis Fukuyama came to mind: "The greatest problems we face are in ourmoral and social life. Everything else is going prettywell."

Fukuyama has a long article in the current Atlantic Monthlytitled "The Great Disruption", a treatise about the social disruptionthat he feels is accompanying the US transition from an industrial to aninformation economy. Even as our material well-being shows constantimprovement, deeply troubling moral and ethical issues arise daily in placeslike Kosovo and Littleton, Colorado.

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

Fukuyama argues that the disruptionthat began in the 1960s, and which saw negative social indicators such ascrime rise sharply through the 1990s, was the result of fundamental economicchange. Many observers blame other influences, such as the welfare stateor the decline of traditional religion, but Fukuyama thinks that a moreprofound shift was in process. The decline of religion and family orientationwere symptoms, not root causes.

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

Freedom and individualismhave come to be more highly prized. Governments and corporations havedevolved power from centralised control, relying on people toself-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 thinair, without any central enforcement body.

Simply put, people sawthat things would work better if everyone kept their behaviour within certainlimits. This didn't mean that there weren't instances of egregiousabuse, but by and large people were guided by enlightenedself-interest. We've come to see that we can do well in the world byextending cautious trust to people who don't happen to be of the samefamily, or religion, or nationality.

I first observed this when mystepson began regularly contacting teenagers all over the world who liked thesame music as he did. Their community was self-organising,self-governing and built completely on shared tastes. Otherbroad-based communal norms have sprung to wide acceptance. Individualexpression is not only allowed, but encouraged, as is vigorousdebate. Only rarely are courts or law enforcement required to mediate issuesin cyberspace.

Fukuyama notes that the tidal wave of negative socialeffects rose at the same time in many countries with differing cultures . Thesharp decline in those same indices in this decade has been simultaneous aswell. The only common facet of these cultures was that - under pressureof global developments - they were all undergoing an accelerated process ofchange.

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

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

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