The Net-savvy new elite

Netocracy: the new power elite and life after capitalism, by Alexander Bard and Jan Suderqvist.

Netocracy: the new power elite and life after capitalism, by Alexander Bard and Jan Suderqvist.

This is an absurd but extraordinary book, writes Robin Guenier. Its thesis is that our world is changing utterly: capitalism is giving way to a new order where those with the ability to manipulate information, use networks and exploit interactive media technology have the power and status.

This is the "netocracy". Perhaps Computer Weekly readers qualify for membership? The function of the rest, the underclass of the digital age, is to consume things.

The book describes a revolution in human affairs going beyond the well-trodden paths of the "digital divide".

It has had great reviews: "A brilliant synthesis"; "The cleverest minds to come out of Scandinavia since Kierkegaard"; "Hugely ambitious and thought-provoking; the first genuine attempt to pull together the big issues shaping our world".

When the book was published in Sweden, it went straight to the top of the best-seller lists.

Its authors, Alexander Bard and Jan Suderqvist, are extraordinary people - writers, lecturers, television luminaries. Bard has been described as "a Nordic renaissance man" - Zoroastrian; bisexual pop star; "author of 80 hit singles"; adviser to the Swedish government; Internet guru; economist; sociologist; artist; and philosopher. Phew.

If Bard and Suderqvist are right, we are living in interesting times. Everything is changing and it is going to be a wild ride: the end of the nation state; the death of democracy; money no longer matters; neither does formal education. Unwelcome, perhaps, but stimulating and exciting, at least for those coming out on top.

There is, however, a problem: netocracy is superficial and intellectually lightweight. The impact of information technology on society and the changes it is bringing are important themes. They merit rigorous, thoughtful and careful examination.

The authors are right to describe much discussion of the digital future as characterised by "ignorance and childishness". Yet, long on assertion and short on analysis, this book displays exactly those characteristics. For all its pretentious historical and philosophical observation, it fails to get to grips with its subject.

For example, a central theme of the book is that, just as the feudal system, where the aristocracy had power over peasants, gave way to the capitalist system, where the bourgeoisie had power over the proletariat, so the capitalist system is today giving way to the "informationalist" system. Now the "netocracy" has power over the "consumtariat".

This is utterly simplistic. The feudal system (a social and political contract developed to meet the needs of 8th century Europe) was fading by the 13th century - and capitalism, a worldwide phenomenon, is arguably still getting established today.

So, if one can be said to have given way to the other (which it cannot), the process took about 800 years. Yet the so-called "information revolution" got going only about eight years ago.

Eight hundred years for one "paradigm shift" and eight years for the next? Hmm.
Power cannot avoid responsibility - those feudal aristocrats did more than go around exploiting the peasants. So how are the "netocrats" going to use their power?

I trawled the book and found only trivial examples. For instance: take exotic holidays; exchange "exclusive information"; have servants; enjoy exotic restaurants; have "strange experiences"; enjoy a "stimulating cultural environment"; treat sex as a hobby; get the "most extreme kicks"; be hip and "in the know".

Oh, yes, and avoid taxation while "having little interest in money".

Otherwise, "The new elite does not perceive itself to have much to do with society in general," the authors assert.

The massive availability of information today is changing our world. Yet this book deals in trivia: more an adolescent wet dream than a serious treatise.

Robin Guenier is chairman of iX Group.
Netocracy: the new power elite and life after capitalism, by Alexander Bard and Jan Suderqvist. ISBN 1 903 68429 3

Read more on Data centre hardware