About this author
Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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Brain Waves

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February 10, 2004

Emergent Democracy, Participatory Economics and Social Software

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Posted by Zack Lynch

By viewing history as a series of techno-economic waves with accompanying socio-political responses it is possible to understand how new technologies shape human society.

As Brian Arthur has successfully argued, the information technology wave has reached the golden age. While the global infrastructure build-out marches on, the socio-political impact of IT continues to gain momentum.

The growing emergent democracy movement provides an excellent example of how IT's latest innovation, social software, is reshaping the political landscape. Yesterday's digital democracy teach-in at E-tech used social software to share and capture the latest emergent democracy issues in the US, developing nations, and across the world.

While the political ideals underlying emergent democracy are crystallizing quickly (e.g. emergent democracy is not direct democracy) it has yet to define or adopt an economic framework to compliment its goals. One perspective that shares some similarities is participatory economics, or parecon.

Parecon is being touted as an economic alternative to capitalism and socialism. According to Michael Albert's recent treatise, Parecon: Life After Capitalism, a participatory economy is a democratic economy. "People control their own lives to appropriate degrees. Each person has a level of say that doesn’t impinge on other people having the same level of say. We impact decision in proportion as we are affected by them." (see case studies from the Balkans and Argentina.)

Parecon is built on four key values:

Solidarity: Economies affect how people interact. They affect the broad attitudes people have toward one another.
Diversity: Economies affect the range of options that people have in their work and in consumption.
Equity: Economies affect the distribution of output among actors. They determine our budgets or what share of the social product we receive.
Self-management: Economics affect how much say each actor has in decisions about production, consumption, and allocation.

It is important to note that I have many problems with Albert's vision of parecon, including: the innovative capacity of job complexes; the effective implementation of cross-cultural resource allocation mechanisms; and his static view of human nature (just to name a few). However....

Evolving social software represents the technological glue that can tie emergent democracy and participatory economics into a functional political economic alternative. Indeed, both participatory economics and emergent democracy inherently depend upon a global information infrastructure that supports transparent information exchange and collaborative decision-making across multiple social and geographic scales (i.e. social software).

So while social software continues to prove itself within businesses, its impact on our political lives in only just beginning.

Comments (2) | Category: NeuroWave 2050


1. phil jones on February 11, 2004 6:20 PM writes...

Good points. At the moment there isn't enough dialog between the internet / hacker communities who are becoming interested in politics; and the groups interested in alternative economics.

But there are signs that that's changing.

The project that I'm involved with, OPTIMAES ( is about trying to apply an amateur, hacker mentality to thinking about economics using computer simulation.

In addition, there are other groups with an understanding of social software and internet culture, who are using it to explore economic alternatives.

Some links : (connected with London LETS) (has good connections with alternative money researchers around the world) (where to meet people to discuss this.)


phil jones

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2. kevin jones on February 15, 2004 6:50 PM writes...

The business case for social software, as well as the political case, has to be a process improvement. Perhaps that is developing in e democracy, where engagement of all the participants is one of the core values. Business is more about effective allocation of resources, so the need for that engagement (and agreement) is less essential to prevailing notions of value. Greater involvement, a concept of wealth that includes a sense of providing for the greater good (which some union pension funds are starting to do, recalibrating the definition of fiduciary responsibility so that they can hammer on Safeway for its desire to cut health care benefits and reduce its employees from lower middle class to the working poor, i.e., unable to buy a house in modest neighborhood) is starting to become an economic value through shareholder activism. I'd love to see those premises which are at the cutting edge of a new economic theory and practice by strategic practioners, have a retail level of involvement, something like to let you evaluate your portfolio's policies on, say, employee benefits and then put pressure on your mutual fund or common stock holdings.

That, to me, would be a good synergy of social software's strengths for mobilizing and enabling a social network's functions and a new way of thinking and influencing the economy.

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