The World Future Society's 4th General Assembly was held at the Sheraton Washington, in Washington D.C., July 18-22, 1982. Attendance was about 4000-a respectable number. Even so, it was smaller than the 3rd General Assembly, held in Toronto last year. The lower attendance reflected both the state of the U.S. economy, and the smaller number of non-D.C. attendees. While Europe and Japan were well represented at this Assembly, “third world” types were less numerous than at Toronto.
The theme of this Assembly was “communications and the Future.” There were some 300 sessions held during the course the Assembly with as many as 18 sessions scheduled in parallel. They dealt with virtually all aspects of communication, from interpersonal to international and from the technology required to the psychology involved. It was an absolute smorgasbord of ideas and facts about communication.
Because it was impossible to taste everything, I concentrated on my particular interests of communication in the work place and the formation of networks.
One of the best was that organized by Everett Rogers, a long-time scholar in the field of communication innovations. He brought together a group of people who had studied Silicon Valley in Northern California as a microcosm of the workplace of the future. One of the most significant points he made was that it is now possible to make money selling information. This was always true to some extent (e.g. newspapers, magazines), but now a significant fraction of the work force makes its living selling information, and that fraction is expected to grow in the future. One of the major consequences of this, according to Howard Bogart of Dataquest, is that decision-making must be pushed to the lowest possible level. He was speaking of private companies in particular, but, I believe what he said is equally true of other organizations, particularly government. In the information age, society will no longer be able to tolerate the inefficiencies of over-centralized government.
I was surprised to find that “networking” was a hot topic at the Assembly. There were numerous sections on it. A network was defined as a “web of free-standing participants linked by shared values.” That is, people who join a network do not lose their autonomy or freedom of action. They do join with other individuals or groups in a non-hierarchical manner to achieve some common purpose. This struck me as a mode of operation highly compatible with libertarianism, even though most of the “networkers” with whom I spoke failed to appreciate the virtues of the free market. They were all too prone to equate it with some version of the corporate state.
There were two foci of the networking sessions. One was the book just published by Jessica Lipnack and Jeffrey Stamps: Networking: The First report and Directory. It is a survey of all the “networks” the authors could locate and which were willing to provide Information about themselves. The authors appeared at several sessions describing their findings. Most of the networks they found seemed to be “alternate technology,” counter culture, underground economy, and so on in nature. One was somewhat different in nature, however. It was a network of free-lance artists in the Washington D.C. area. The network representative who spoke described it as an attempt to form a viable business, with the group obtaining such things as group health benefits for its members, while providing them with the opportunity to form ad hoc project teams, inform each other of work opportunities and so on.
The second focus for networking was the work of Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lorenz, a husband and wife team of free-lance computer programmers. They were describing what amounts to a commercial venture on their part. It is a series of linked computer programs which allow a personal computer user to serve as the node for a network. Any network member can call in with another computer or a terminal read notices on a “bulletin board” receive messages from other members and tease messages for other members, and so on. The virtue of the programs is that they automate much of what has to be done to keep a network functioning, but which does not involve the actual work of the network itself. On one occasion they were able to generate a massive turnout at a city council meeting on two days' notice, using the program's capacity to search an address file by street name and to generate tests of telephones for a telephone tree.
The emphasis on networking ought to be of Interest to libertarians as welt as to appropriate technology types and science fiction fans. “Fandom” has been “networking” for years. In many ways, libertarians are trying to establish a network of people with shared values, ultimately, a libertarian society would look something like a “web of free standing participants.” Perhaps networking is something libertarians should look into more carefully. (Editor's note: see Milton Mueller's comments on the Assembly following for another aspect of this question.)
In addition to the regular sessions, there were other activities to keep the attendees busy. One of these was the “options room.” Any attendee could submit an “option” which was a statement of something watch they would like to see in the future. Another of these “sideshows” was the “Poet Tree” This was an old-fashioned clothesline stuck in a concrete block. Anyone who wanted to could hang a “poem” on it with a spring clothespin. The resulting poems were at least as good as those produced under grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The organizers of the Assembly also provided several large tables for the distribution of literature. Mike Grossberg sent me a stack of the “Future of Freedom” issue of Free Texas, and some back issues of Reason, as well as some pamphlets. I kept an eye on the literature table, and everything eventually got picked up. (One amusing reaction: people who saw Free Texas asked “Why should Texas be independent?”
I found quite a few closet libertarians at the Assembly, who didn't know there were others out there who agreed with them.
All in all, I think the futures movement is ripe for some vigorous outreach. Libertarian ideas will gain a sympathetic hearing from a fairly large minority right now, and the minority might grow as the ideas become more openly held.
In addition, I think libertarians should pay more attention to the note working phenomenon. Many of the current networkers would likely be sympathetic to libertarian ideas. They have already come to the conclusion that the State isn't working. They need to be shown that a free market is not an invention of big corporations, but is simply the economic extension of the freedom they already want in the rest of their lives. Second, libertarians could learn a lot from networkers about linking themselves together for common purposes, without the organizational hassles that plague the movement today. As one speaker put it a network has no single leader but it isn't leaderless. It has many leaders, each in a specific area. Any participant can exert leadership to the extent he/she has the time and inclination. It is the perfect example of a voluntary society in which the freedom of each participant is respected, while all work toward shared objectives.
To sum up, I found this Assembly of the WFS to be fascinating, but at the same time more serious-minded than others I have attended. There was the usual collection of “freaks, flakes and phonies” but there were also many people who were quietly going about the process of producing useful results. The proportion of cloud-castle builders was down; the proportion of serious, hard-working builders of a realizable future was up. I don't know which was in the majority, but the trend was encouraging.
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