A Message from Ilya Prigogine
First Monday

A Message from Ilya Prigogine

Dear Bertrand Schneider,

I want to congratulate you and the Club of Rome for the creation of the World Symposium on Network Media [1]. I regret that I am unable to attend this symposium. I am convinced that at present humanity is going through a bifurcation process due to information technology.

The great French historian Braudel has written: "Events are dust". This is only partially true. There are "well-defined events" which have shaped human history. A simple example is the neolithic bifurcation associated to an increased flow of energy, coming from the discovery of agriculture and metallurgy and leading to a complex hierarchical society.

We can of course quote other social bifurcations related to fossil energy: coal, oil which lead to the industrial society. Now we have the information technology which leads to the networked society. What will be the effect of the present bifurcation? Because of the scales involved we can expect a larger role of non linear terms therefore larger fluctuations and increased instability.

Will the networked society lead to some form of unification of humanity? This is not certain. My friend Professor Jean-Louis Deneubourg made the remark that networked societies exist involving social insects. We know today about 12,000 ant species. Their colony sizes are ranging from a few individuals to 20 millions of individuals. It is remarkable that the behavior of the small ant society and of the large ant societies are quite different. In a small insect society, individuals know at any moment what they must do. They go foraging, they come back to share their prey, they behave independently. However, once the society becomes large, coordination becomes the major problem. There appear complex collective structures that spontaneously emerge from simple autocatalytic interactions between numerous individuals and with the environment mediated by chemical communication. In small insect societies, the complexity is localized at the individual. In large ant societies, complexity is more on the level on the interactions between the individuals. It is certainly not a coincidence that in the largest and most integrated societies, that is in the army ants and termites, the individuals are practically blind.

The evolution from the small ant society to large ant society was the result of qualitative changes involving discontinuities. Such type of discontinuities appear in many fields of physics, chemistry and biology. They are associated with bifurcations. Bifurcations play an important role in our present view of nature. They lead to multiple possibilities which are associated to probabilities. They destroy the classical deterministic view of nature.

We are in a world in construction and the initiative taken by the Club of Rome is a non negligible factor in this construction.

The present bifurcation towards a networked society is part of the technological bifurcations which started at the end of the 19th century and went through the whole 20th century. We have therefore already a period of about one century behind us. What effect had the technological revolution on the life of humanity in the past? In the 20th century, there were and still are tragic events: wars, ethnic purification, ... . But war and bloodshed are not something new. They existed always in our history. But there is also a constructive positive part of the technological revolution that is the decrease of inequality. At the beginning of this century, we had the gap between the "civilized" and the "non civilized". The non civilized could be treated only slightly better than animals. The inequality between social classes has also decreased as well as the inequality within the family. However we are still far from a satisfactory situation. The gap between industrial states and developing countries is increasing. We develop also a large gap between people who know and people who don't know. This issue acquires a new formulation in the Networked Society. As Alvin Toffler puts it:

"The illiterate of the future will not be the person who cannot read. It will be the person who does not know how to learn."

Education objectives and priorities should change towards the ideal of continuous learning.

I believe that the role of the networked society will be judged according its impact on the inequality between the nations. Of course, there are advantages of the networked society which are well-known. Think about medicine, or business. However I believe the judgment has to be based on more fundamental criteria. The American philosopher Whitehead has stated that already the Greeks have developed two aims for humanity: first, the intelligence of nature that is a rational formulation of the laws which rule matter or life and on the other hand the establishment of a democracy based on the role of values. Will the networked society be a step in the direction of the realization of this goal? From this point of view it is interesting that each bifurcation in the past resulted in people who benefited from it and in people who became victims. The neolithic society led to extraordinary realizations in the field of arts. It led to the construction of pyramids for the pharaohs but also to common graves for the common people. Slavery started probably with the neolithic civilization and continued till recently. Similarly the industrial civilization led to the development of the proletariat at the same time as to an increase of wealth.

These are a few thoughts which came to my mind looking on the fascinating program of the World symposium organised by the Club of Rome. It is a timely event and I don't doubt it will be a great success.

With my best regards,

Ilya Prigogine

About the Author

Ilya Prigogine was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1977 for his work in nonequilibrium thermodynamics. He is Regental Professor and Ashbel Smith Professior of Physics and Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas in Austin. In 1967, he founded at the University of Texas the Center for Statistical Mechanics, later renamed the Ilya Prigogine Center for Studies in Statistical Mechanics and Complex Systems. Since 1959, he has been Director of the International Solvay Institutes in Brussels, Belgium.

Prof. Prigogine can be reached via annie@physics.utexas.edu


1. This letter was originally published as part of the proceedings of the World Symposium on Network Media (1-5 March 1999), Futuroscope, Poitiers (France), organised by UNESCO and the Foundation of the Club of Rome.

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