Microchip for change

2013-07-02 00:00

THE advice of the Italian revolutionary, Antonio Gramsci, constantly comes to mind these days: exercise pessimism of the intellect, but optimism of the will. But exercising pessimism has become a great deal easier over recent months, both domestically or globally.

The major reason is that those in positions of power are constantly prophesying that the global economic crisis is over or that this or that country is leading the way to recovery.

Each of these predictions is as hollow as the next because there is no way out of the crisis, certainly not in the short to medium term. And if the system is to recover, it will only be at a horrendous cost in terms of human suffering and environmental despoilation.

The reason is simple — a technological revolution more profound in its effects than the invention of the wheel. It is the development and increasing use of the integrated circuit: the microchip. Over the past 50 years, these slivers of silicon have made possible the biggest boost to productivity known yet.

Today, courtesy of a technological revolution with the microchip at its base, I cannot think of any socially necessary item, from clothing to motor vehicles to footwear, and even, for now, food, that the world does not have in surplus.

This reality underlines the comment attributed to Mahatma Gandhi: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed.”

If abundance is not needed or used, it is wasted.

Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of this technological advance can be seen in the auto industry, where robots have taken over the work of people. The system is in the process of making redundant most of humanity.

According to the International Labour Organisation, there are now more than 197 million men and women without work, who will probably never work again. This is an obscene waste of human potential.

But it is also a recipe for economic collapse, since the system demands that wage labourers work to earn wages to provide a market for the goods produced.

This is inherent in the nature of a system that has spread across the globe over the past five centuries. It is a system of oscillations, of booms and slumps, in what gradually became a global city of competing nation-state suburbs.

The result has increased wealth for a minority, caused a growing wage and welfare gap, and social fragmentation. The inevitable violence and destruction this leads to is the only path to salvaging — via rebuilding — a system that is incapable of using, to the benefit of all, the technology human ingenuity has devised.

Yet that very technology provides the means to create a truly democratic alternative; one that may be the only hope of ending the endless cycles of booms and slumps, of obscene wealth and the even greater obscenity of poverty and starvation in the midst of plenty.

There are numerous examples throughout history of relatively small egalitarian societies where communities get together to decide on all matters concerning them.

Today we live in what is referred to as a “world village”. Modern communications technology, based on that ubiquitous microchip, can put each of us in instant touch with one another. Such instant communication enabled the opposition in Egypt to rally, resulting in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. So how can it best be used?

In the case of Egypt, those who were rallied by means of the new technology, had only one aim: to depose Mubarak. That is as far as it went, and little subsequently changed. This highlights the need for a positive alternative to exist at the time of rebellion, rather than mere opposition to the status quo.

In this regard, South Africa is in a unique position. We have a Bill of Rights that can be interpreted as an egalitarian political programme that could be the harbinger of a truly democratic society. To achieve this requires that citizens who agree with the programme be marshalled to support its implementation. How can this be done?

The answer: use modern, microchip-powered communications technology to link individuals and groups throughout the country to a central database as voting members of a collective. The database should be administered by people who have no political influence or control.

Such members of a “citizens’ coalition” should determine who should represent them in Parliament. And candidates standing on such tickets should sign contracts stating that, if elected and allocated to a constituency, they will be answerable to that constituency.

Communication is the essence, because informed decisions can only be made by people who are in possession of all available information. Such a system would locate the decision-making power with the majority of an informed population within the framework of the Bill of Rights. Worth considering as an apparent plethora of parties prepares to enter the 2014 election.

• Terry Bell is a journalist, commentator and author, specialising in political and economic analysis and labour matters.

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