LONDON — The central proposition of our times was summed up neatly over 200 years ago by Samuel Johnson. “Society,” the sage doctor said, “is held together by communication and information.”
Exactly so. And if communication and information are revolutionized, so also is society in all its aspects — political, public, social, economic, cultural, and personal. That is precisely what we are all now experiencing — in rich societies and in poorer ones, in high places and low, in public spaces and in private relationships — in short, wherever people communicate and information passes.
This revolution is total, much more total, pervasive and enduring than anything dreamed of by the grim “revolutionary” ideologues of the 20th century, such as Mao Zedong or Vladimir Lenin.
There is much talk in some circles about the new age of information technology only applying to a prosperous minority and excluding the impoverished billions who make up two-thirds of the world’s population.
But this is not so. Every society, however remote and dispossessed, is being touched by the power and consequences of instant and interactive communication and knowledge transfer. Even drought-ridden Ethiopian communities or war-ravaged Central African tribes or families squatting in the poverty-filled fringes of the world’s swollen new megacities are touched and entwined, whether they know it or not, by the ganglia of the electronic-information system and its myriad Web linkages.
The point needs to be emphasized because so many sermonizers and self-appointed shapers of public thought, who tend to hold forth at the start of the New Year, seem not to have grasped it at all.
They rail against globalization as though it were a project that could be closed down or a rich man’s club that ought to be proscribed. They depict the universal market system, which has now brought transparency and connection to the entire world, as some sort of amoral corral, divorced from all virtues and good impulses in the human breast.
For instance, Britain’s highest religious leaders have again been sending out their familiar (and misleading) New Year pulpit messages, denouncing markets and commerce as havens of greed, deploring the culture of profit and enterprise and dismissing such motives as self-interest or the wish to advance one’s family welfare as selfish and antisocial.
The underlying attitude seems to be that it would be better for the world’s poor, and for the souls of everyone else as well, if Wall Street and world stock markets were to collapse tomorrow morning, if world-trade liberalization were to go into reverse, if nations were to turn inward to protectionism and people were to take to the streets to smash the new brand of capitalism that now rules.
Such admonitions are widely heeded and, of course, give moral encouragement to the outbursts of frustration, protest, street anger and violence against globalization and the networked world that are reported daily by the media.
Yet the tragedy is that those who offer such “guidance” are themselves trapped in a mental maze. They just cannot conceive of the thought that commerce and the market society actually work hand in glove with civic virtue and social cohesion and that in the age of the Internet — the “ultimate global marketplace,” as Bill Gates calls it — this new brand of capitalism, driven by the information-technology revolution, can be a more powerful force for good, for equality, for inclusion and for caring humanity than ever before.
The philosophers of the Enlightenment in the 18th and early 19th centuries understood this point very well. They had no doubt at all that commerce united rather than divided society. They saw the profit motive and markets as sources of vital social energy, and pride in property and wealth accumulation as the cement of the good society.
They also perceived that, even in their day, the sheer complexity and interdependence of active, business-minded human society meant that governments had little to contribute to the success, prosperity and growth of a society, beyond ensuring that the law was upheld and people and property well-protected.
What was true then is a thousand times truer in the electronic-network age, when trade and industry are set in a global, borderless market of infinite diversity and complexity. Yet it is extraordinary how moralists and social analysts still seem to believe that it falls to the state, or the government, to repair all social ills, reactivate growth and bind society together.
This fallacy is proclaimed in both rich advanced societies and in struggling developing ones. In Britain, for instance, it is still widely believed that government ministers can raise moral standards and deliver social cohesion and economic dynamism, just as the “experts” who analyze Japan’s ills seem to think it is all a matter of changing government policy and the economy will then take off again in a blaze of new vitality.
Such attitudes ignore history. A society’s health, self-confidence, dynamism and vitality come from the alliance of market commerce and the social order in a single enlightenment, not from their divorce, and certainly not from government interventions and master plans.
The amazing global market economy we have inherited today — created by no government plan or policy anywhere — ought to be an object of awe, respect and admiration and an unprecedented focus of hope for human betterment. This new system may have flaws, it may need better regulation, it may bring a staggering inequality of rewards. But it is nonetheless by far the best possible agent of social harmony and the best means of releasing man’s natural capacity for virtue and social responsibility.
This is the positive and profound message that the new millennium should be receiving from the opinion-formers’ pulpits. But instead, from too many quarters, it is still being offered quite the opposite.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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