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With the title "Living and Working in the Information Society", IST98 took place in Vienna from November 30th to December 2nd 1998. One of the highlights of the event was a panel about "The Networked Society" with the Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Ilya Prigogine. Two books are quoted in the following article. The French titles are "La Nouvelle Alliance. Metamorphose de la Science" Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengers, Gallimard, 1979, and "La fin des Certitudes. Temps, Chaos et les Lois de la Nature" Ilya Prigogine, Editions Odile Jacob, 1996. The translations of the quotations are made by myself.

Complexity and the Networked Society

In his book "The New Alliance" written with Isabelle Stengers, Ilya Prigogine writes "It is no longer stable situations or permanency that interest us, but rather evolutions, crises and instabilities".

In that book, Prigogine and Stengers depict modern science as being "against nature because it denies the complexity and the coming-into-being of the world in the name of a knowable, eternal world that is dictated by a small number of simple, unchanging laws". It is true that a great many phenomena can be described in terms of simple, linear mathematics. Yet, as Prigogine and Stengers point out, this approach unfortunately led to a mechanical vision of Nature in which Science became an instrument of domination and the scientist shut himself off from Nature with the rest of humanity in the ivory tower of supposed objectiveness.

Prigogine and Stengers plead for a new approach to science in which "the experimental dialogue is based on the two essential elements of the relationship between man and nature: understanding and modification." They go on to say, "Experimentation demands an interaction between theory and practice that implies a veritable strategy." In another book entitled "The end of Certainties", Prigogine writes, "We are witnessing the emergence of a science that is no longer limited to simplified, idealised situations but rather one which confronts the complexity of the world and allows human creativity to flourish as a singular expression of a fundamental trait common to all levels of Nature."

In presenting Ilya Prigogine at IST98 during a session entitled "The Networked Society", Roger Camrass pointed out that the development of logic had enabled the emergence of modern science, modern economics and modern social theory. However, logic alone no longer provides a suitable framework to carry us forward in today's transition to the networked age. "We are seeking new tools to replace or compliment those techniques that have enabled our sciences and our many academic fields to mature, new techniques that will form a framework for the future." He went on to say "One such powerful tool is complexity theory as a possible underpinning of our new information society."

Professor Prigogine began his talk to a packed hall in Vienna by saying that nobody planned the networked society, nor the information revolution. He consider this to be a sign that self-organisation was at work, drawing a parallel to certain phenomena observed in physics and chemistry. He went on to talk about the importance of bifurcation in self-organisation. By bifurcation he meant all those moments when a choice is possible, a choice that can lead to novelty.

Bifurcation in physics and chemistry requires two conditions according to Prigogine. The first is that the system has to be far from equilibrium. The open systems Prigogne was interested in differed from the closed systems hitherto described by physics in that they managed to maintain a stable state even though (or rather because) there was a continuous flow of energy or matter through them. The second condition was that the pertinent equations governing those systems have to be non-linear. The difference between a linear and a non-linear system being that in the former, the effect of change on the system is proportional to that change, so small changes will have little or no effect. Whereas in the non-linear systems, small changes can have dramatic effects because their impact may be repeatedly amplified by self-reinforcing feedback. Bifurcation leads to novelties: new space-time structures. These bifurcations occur when the system moves from one stable state to a new one. For given boundary conditions, for a given environment the system has many possibilities. Prigogine explained "That is why I spoke about self-organisation, because it is not the boundary conditions which create the self-organisation, but elements of spontaneous development. The human universe is only one of the possible realisations. The possible is richer than the actual."

Going on to relate this to the Information Society, Prigogine raised the question as to the effect of the present bifurcation with the move to extensive use of information technologies. He argued: "Because of the scales involved we expect larger fluctuations and increased instability. That is why we need more precise methods to deal with all these things. That is why we need the theory of complex systems." Apparently, in the last meeting of the Nobel prize winners there was a discussion as to whether the technical revolution hailed the arrival of the Apocalypse or the beginning of a new dignity of men. According to Prigogine, the vote for the dignity of man won by a very small majority.

Prigogine ended his talk with three questions which he felt were more of guidelines for reflection and action than questions. "We have to direct the information revolution so that these questions can be answered in a positive way." Here are Prigogine's three questions:
  • Who will benefit from the networked society? Will it decrease the gap between nations?
  • What will be the effect of the networked society on individual creativity?
  • A recent poll shows that for the large majority, their hope for the Third Millennium is a greater harmony between men and nature. What will be the impact of the networked society on this issue?
Alan McCluskey, St-Blaise. Share or comment
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Created: December 8th, 1008 - Last up-dated: December 8th, 1998