The Birth of a New Society

The Birth of a New Society

1. The Birth of a New Society. It is not often that one gets to witness the birth of a new society. Yet the birth of a new society is exactly what is happening on the Internet today. The society is growing quickly. Numbering 40 million people in 1996, it reached 375 million in 2000. It is conservatively projected to grow to more than 700 million by 2005 (see Figure 1). In 2005, only China and India will be bigger than the society of the Internet.

FIGURE 1: NUMBER OF INTERNET USERS, 1996-2005 (PROJECTED)

Internet use is disproportionately concentrated in the most highly economically developed countries (see Figure 2). English is far and away the predominant language of the Internet (see Figure 3). However, that is changing. Internet use is growing especially quickly in Asian countries – notably China, Japan, and South Korea. In September 2000, for the first time, just under 50% of sites on the World Wide Web used the English language.

FIGURE 2: INTERNET USERS WORLDWIDE, DECEMBER 2000

Sources: “The World’s …” (2000); “Worldwide Internet…” (2000)

FIGURE 3: INTERNET USAGE BY LANGUAGE GROUP, SEPTEMBER 2000

Source: “Global Internet…” (2000)

2. But Is It a Society? A society is a large, enduring network of social interaction that survives by accomplishing five main tasks: (1) preserving order, (2) producing and distributing goods and services, (3) teaching new members, (4) providing its members with a sense of purpose, and (5) replacing old members (Aberle et al., 1950). Bearing this definition in mind, does the Internet form a society? We believe it does.

Internet society accomplishes many of the same tasks as other societies. For example, although control of members is much less centralized and extensive than in other societies, Internet society has established governing structures, such as those that regulate conventions in the use of HTML code, the allocation of domain names, and user behaviour on specific sites. Similarly, although e-commerce is still only a fraction of economic activity in the world of bricks and mortar, it is growing much more quickly than the economy as a whole. Meanwhile, distance education is becoming increasingly popular (some universities already offer entire degrees online) and the Internet has become an important agent of informal socialization. Thus, the first three tasks of an enduring society – preserving order, producing and distributing goods and services, and teaching new members – are all performed by Internet society.

So is society’s fourth task: providing members with a sense of purpose. More precisely, Internet society provides its members with many senses of purpose by enabling social interaction in a wide variety of contexts.

Today, Internet users interact socially by exchanging text, images, and sound via e-mail, Internet phone, video conferencing, computer-assisted work groups, mailing lists, and chat groups. Some forms of computer-assisted interaction operate in delayed time. “A” sends a message to “B.” “B” receives the message when he or she logs on, responding when convenient. For example, as of December 2000, people had created about 30,000 “Usenet newsgroups” and 80,000 “mailing lists” that allow delayed computer-assisted interaction on defined subjects (“Liszt’s Usenet…,” 2000). Some of these discussion groups focus on particle physics. Others are devoted to banjos, lawyer jokes, Russian politics, Francophone culture, sadomasochism, and just about every other human activity imaginable. Each discussion group is composed of tens, hundreds or thousands of individuals.

Other forms of computer-assisted interaction operate in real time; people communicate by means of “instant messaging.” As of December 2000, there were about 25,000 “IRC chat channels” functioning on the Internet (“Liszt’s Usenet…,” 2000). Most have small memberships. Others are very large, commercial operations. The largest IRC chat channel, ICQ, claims that 86 million people around the world had logged on by the end of December 2000 (“ICQ.com,” 2000).

The proliferation of computer-assisted communication in delayed and real time has resulted in the creation of “virtual communities.” Virtual Communities are associations of people, scattered across the country or the planet, who communicate via computer and modem about subjects of common interest. Membership in virtual communities is fluid but the communities endure. They are self-governing bodies with their own rules and norms of “netiquette” (McLaughlin, Osborne, and Smith, 1995; Sudweeks, McLaughlin, and Rafaeli, 1999).

For example, one of the earliest, and therefore well-studied, forms of virtual community is the MUD or “multiple user dimension.” A MUD is a computer programs that allow thousands of people to role-play and engage in a sort of collective fantasy. These programs define the aims and rules of the virtual community and the objects and spaces it contains. Users log on to the MUD from their PCs around the world and define their character – their identity – any way they wish. They interact with other users in real time, either by exchanging text messages or by having their “avatars” (graphical representations) act and speak for them. The first MUD was created in 1979 at the University of Essex in England. In April 2000, there were more than 1,600 MUDs worldwide and perhaps a million MUD users (“The MUD Connector,” 2000).

Internet users form social relationships. They exchange confidences, give advice, share resources, interact and get intellectually and emotionally involved.

Therefore, the culmination of the IT Revolution will be the birth of a New Society -- an information society that will be significantly different from the current industrial society and the economy as a whole and will be radically effecting the nation state system into the 21st century. It is likely that aspects of the system of rules and regulations that govern the old economy and the current nation state system will not apply to this information global society that is emerging around the world.

Through the medium of the emerging Internet Society, it is essential that the critical issues of our time be debated openly in a global civil society in order to redefine the systems and processes of an older society to the needs, concerns and pressures of our current time.

In a simplistic sense the path of human evolution can be divided into two: the time before humans desired material wealth, and the time after.

The juncture between these eras represents a social revolution more powerful than any other. Every value was re-evaluated and turned upside down - everything changed.

Ancient civilizations died out either because the need for a full values based revolution escaped them, or because once it became obvious that such an overhaul was necessary, it was already too late and the civilization began to fall. In our present time we may be the first civilization that has the ability through self reflection to prevent this from happenning to us.

In Tokyo the Japanese Vision Network suggests that Humans, using both their material desires and logical propensities, recognize space according to three dimensions comprising of length, breadth and depth. It follows, therefore, that civilizations have been constructed using the same recognizable and three-dimensional strategies and shapes. To date Humans, using both their material desires and logical propensities, recognize space according to these three dimensions. In the future, we will shift gears into the fourth dimension, which includes time. Society's ability to successfully navigate this shift entirely rests on the combined will of all individuals.The current focus on just the third dimension of views produces and results in an over dependence on tangible physical resources. If humans, instead, thought more inwardly and used intangible resources connected to their consciousness, pure theory would result, as would a better understanding of the universe and human society.

A world with four dimensions can only start after groups of like-minded people with new values and evolved ideals find each other. If these people unite and foster communities with small workable economies based on truth, the fourth dimension will grow.

The fourth dimension of our world can only come from the human mind. This means that a four dimensional world of values, models and philosophy that address the needs of our current time will be created out of our minds and feelings in just the same way that the three dimensional world was created out of people and physical objects.

The new world will never arrive without a requisite shift in the way people think and feel about being connected to each other, the earth and the universe itself. If this process spreads throughout the world, the future will overflow with transformation and possibilities.

Additional Research and References provided by:
Dr. Robert J. Brym Department of Sociology, University of Toronto
and Dr. Rhonda L. Lenton Department of Sociology, McMaster University