Issue 4 - Summer/Fall 1996
Freedom, Community and the Third Wave: An Analysis of the Magna Carta for a New Civilization and The Community Builders Guide to Telecommunications Technology Documents (page 1 of 2)
by Paul Shafer

This is the dawning of a New Civilization. By now the claim that we are entering a new age of some kind or another is routine. Alvin Toffler's Third Wave argument, for example, claims we are experiencing a technological revolution of dramatic proportion that is changing the way we think, communicate, and act. New technologies have created previously unimaginable possibilities for the exercise of individual enterprise and for participation in the evolution of a new society. In short, the so-called Third Wave offers civilization a new conception of freedom, both in terms of individuals and communities, a freedom unencumbered by the mass mentality of the old forms of civil society and state.

Fact or fiction? In part the answer to this question depends on your point of view. According to a recent document distributed by the Progress & Freedom Foundation entitled A Magna Carta for a New Civilization, the Third Wave is a promising and inevitable reality that ought to be ushered in with all due speed. Viewed through the telescopic lens of privilege and optimism, the future holds all the excitement of the latest high-end automobile: it's speedy, stylish, and its sheer novelty is exhilarating. Who wouldn't want to drive a BMW or Mercedes? Of course in reality most people settle for something far less, even the bus or subway, and would have a difficult time imagining a future so rich in technological possibility.

It should not be surprising, then, that there are other perspectives on technology. The National Community Building Network and The Center for Human Resources at Brandeis University have collaborated on a more practically oriented document entitled Community Builders Guide to Telecommunications Technology. Their insights are derived from the real needs of people and their communities. In what follows I will review the major points of both positions, concluding with an evaluative analysis of the Third Wave argument.

The Magna Carta for a New Civilization is based on the thoughts of its four co-authors: Ms. Esther Dyson, Mr. George Gilder, Dr. George Keyworth, and Dr. Alvin Toffler. Its primary function is to provide theoretical description of the new epoch humankind has entered--the Third Wave--and to suggest a political, economic, and cultural agenda the authors believe is necessary in order to make a complete transition from Second to Third Wave.

The Magna Carta begins with a provocative, if controversial, thesis:

"The central event of the 20th century is the overthrow of matter. In technology, economics, and the politics of nations, wealth--in the form of physical resources--has been losing value and significance. The powers of mind are everywhere ascendant over the brute force of things."

Given this thesis, the bulk of the document is devoted to a descriptive analysis of the major components of the social sphere by focusing on important distinctions between Second and Third Wave elements in each area. The authors explain the nature of typically Third Wave concepts like cyberspace, though most of their analysis focuses on more traditional Second Wave components of Western society like property, the marketplace, freedom, community, and government. In conclusion, they sketch out a set of recommendations for the remaking of government in order to pave the way for a Third Wave civilization. The political question of our age, an age still in transition, asks who will shape the nature of cyberspace and with it the character and institutions of a new age.

The central metaphor for the changes in society that have given rise to speculation about an epochal shift to a new age is cyberspace. Cyberspace is a bioelectronic environment of knowledge that exists everywhere there are telephone wires, coaxial cables, fiber-optic lines or electromagnetic waves. In this sense, it is both universal, stretching across the globe in every direction, and formless. Like a frontier, cyberspace is continually expanding as people create and define its limits at an increasingly accelerated pace. According to the authors of the Magna Carta, the exploration of cyberspace is the key to a future filled with individual opportunity and freedom:

"Cyberspace is the land of knowledge, and the exploration of that land can be a civilizations's truest, highest calling. The opportunity is now before us to empower very person to pursue that calling his or her own way."

The bioelectronic frontier poses some critical challenges to a society still largely enamored with the old ways. In fact, as the Magna Carta argues, the social institutions of the Second Wave must all be radically transformed before the Third Wave can fully take root. Primarily, this means that the mass mentality of centralization and standardization with which our institutions and culture have been built, must be "demassified." Consequently we must rethink some of the most basic concepts of our culture, including property, the marketplace, freedom, community, and government.

There are several forms of property that make up cyberspace: "Wires, coaxial cable, computers and other 'hardware'; the electromagnetic spectrum; and 'intellectual property' -- the knowledge that dwells in and defines cyberspace." The Magna Carta argues that intellectual "cyberproperty" is the key Third Wave property form. The most fundamental social transformation in the new civilization will be the shift from a mass-production, mass-media, mass-culture civilization to a demassified civilization, which means that knowledge must itself be demassified:

"The dominant form of new knowledge in the Third Wave is perishable, transient, customized knowledge: The right information, combined with the right software and presentation, at precisely the right time."

Thus, the big question as we stand at the threshold of the new civilization concerns the ownership of cyberspace property rights. Who will define the nature of these rights and how?

Actionable knowledge--a concept encompassing "data, information, images, symbols, culture, ideology, and values"--is also the key to understanding the Third Wave economy. "Customized knowledge permits 'just in time' production for an ever rising number of goods." This transforms the market, creating the potential for a dynamic competition to replace the static competition typical of the mass production mentality of the Second Wave. The downsizing and restructuring trend of recent years is an example of business using Third Wave technology to make themselves more dynamic.

Third Wave innovations demand not just a re-thinking of property and markets, but of the American concept of freedom itself. The authors of the Magna Carta understand freedom in terms of individual liberty, and argue that a reaffirmation of the basic principles of such freedom is necessary for a genuine exploration of the latest American frontier--cyberspace. In practice this means rejecting the mass institutions of the industrial age--"corporate and government bureaucracies, huge civilian and military administrations, schools of all types"--to make room for the flourishing of individual liberty and the pioneer spirit. No longer will individuals be required to give up their freedom in order for the system as a whole to work:

"The complexity of Third Wave society is too great for any centrally planned bureaucracy to manage. Demassification, customization, individuality, freedom--these are the keys to success for Third Wave civilization."

Given all the talk about individual liberty and the accompanying plurality of interests in the Third Wave society, what will be the nature of community? The Magna Carta argues that the freedom and diversity already emerging as mass society breaks up should not be understood in terms of the fragmentation and balkanization of society, but as an opportunity for new forms of community. Though no one knows what they will look like, "cyberspace will play an important role knitting together the diverse communities of tomorrow, facilitating the creation of 'electronic neighborhoods' bound together not by geography but by shared interests."

Finally, the Magna Carta argues that government must be reinvented for the 21st Century. Third Wave government will be vastly smaller than the current one (by 50 percent or more), though it will not necessarily be weaker. In fact, the transition from Second to Third Wave "will require a level of government activity not seen since the New Deal." The authors outline five proposals defining the role of government during this transitional period:

1. Creating and facilitating the conditions for universal access to interactive multimedia.
2. Promoting dynamic competition through antitrust regulation.
3. Defining and assigning property rights in cyberspace.
4. Creating pro-Third Wave tax and accounting rules.
5. Remaking government through the model of decentralization.

In order to grasp the future, the authors of the Magna Carta argue that we must understand that the most basic political question does not concern control over the last days of industrial society, but who will shape the new civilization rising to replace it:

"It is time to embrace these challenges, to grasp the future and pull ourselves forward. If we do so, we will indeed renew the American Dream and enhance the promise of American life." More >>


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