Notes on a utopian information system

Paul Axel

TIME: 22d century

WORLD CONDITIONS: Population greatly reduced from 20th century levels, stabilized at a level low enough for reasonable abundance of physical necessities (no need for anyone to live on flood plains, irrigated deserts, or earthquake faults), high enough for physical and cultural variability. Production and consumption stabilized at low levels, with maximum durability of goods and local self-sufficiency. World government with plenary power over behavior measurably affecting global or international conditions, human rights, and the information system. Local autonomy on other matters.

PHYSICAL NATURE OF INFORMATION SYSTEM: All storage is random-access high-speed electronic. Terminals in all residences and offices, with keyboard and audiovisual input, color and stereophonic output. More limited terminals in public places. Storage and processing duplicated or triplicated for emergency back-up.


(1) Information Retrieval: Initial data bank formed from contents of world's libraries, halls of records, and other sources, mostly input by optical scanner and character-recognition programs. Materials beyond capability of such programs either transcribed by humans or stored in photo-image form. New materials input directly in various forms by individuals or by inanimate sensors. Enough blank storage to last thousands of years, given rate of production of new material predictably low compared to 20th century because of lower population and stable conditions. Indexing: initially a union of library catalogs, indexes like Readers' Guide, and indexes of individual books; ultimately, a virtual concordance of the whole data bank. New materials automatically indexed when accessioned. Not much human scanning of index required, because system can be asked to display only items satisfying very detailed conditions.

(2) Entertainment: Print form materials displayable as such or in audio. Audiovisual materials reproducible with good quality, but probably not as good as live theater or music; therefore those institutions will continue. Commercial radio and television as the 20th century knew them will have died out, as will also publishing on paper. For those who don't want to select their own entertainment, a random selection with any desired restrictions is easily programmable. Censorship, if it exists at all, will be of violence rather than of sex.

(3) Information Processing: High-speed computing with abundant storage, available to everyone. High degree of human language manipulation ability. Automatic translation between any languages. Private storage files. Hardly anybody uses paper for anything. Notetaking, composing, various kinds of audiovisual art are done directly into private electronic storage. Publishing consists simply of transferring something from a private file to the public data bank.

(4) Communication: The information system takes the place of telephone and postal systems. Messages may be sent in typed or audio form, with or without video, and with or without request for immediate interactional reply. You can know who is calling before deciding whether to reveal that you are home. Most business is conducted from home, with little long-distance travel necessary. People may have to pass tests on the customs of places they want to visit, in order to avoid giving offence. High-speed travel will probably be restricted for economic or ecological reasons.

(5) Education: Formal education will take place largely through the information system, with programmed instruction pursued at the student's own place. Sleeplearning may be extensively utilized. Examinations also programmed. The rest of education will be informal, communal, and outdoors as much as in. Portable terminals with limited capabilities may be available to assist in things like field identification of flora and fauna.

(6) Government: Participatory democracy. Frequent public debates and referenda, on local, national, and world levels. Thorough information on pending bills. Automatic allocation of speaking time to individuals with original points to make. Immediate counting of votes, with breakdowns by various categories of voters, making possible passage criteria more complex than percentage of total vote (e.g., a measure fails if opposed by a majority of any racial, sexual, age, or local category). Recordkeeping. Planning (10,000-year plans: planning for conservation of resources for as long as man stays on the planet, and planning how to get off before the sun expands). Job allocation (much dirtywork will have been automated, and that remaining will be shared equally by everyone, a few hours a week or a few weeks a year full-time. Large number of choices will be available to each person of how to fulfill work obligations).

(7) Solemnities: Audiovisual recognition of the person by the information system. No need for identification numbers; everyone will have a unique name. There will be a maximum allowable number of characters for a name, sufficiently large to maintain uniqueness of names through the life of the system. Anyone may change name as often as once a year. System keeps track of previous names so you can't escape legal obligations by name-changing. Family names will be retained by those who wish, but will be of no legal significance. Most conceivable forms of sexual combination will be socially accepted, whether solemnized or not. Probably most popular will be a communal family of several adults with an approximately equal number of children.

DOWNTIME: At random intervals and for random lengths of time, but averaging out to a constant low proportion of time (say, a week out of the year), the entire human interface of the information system will automatically shut down, to ensure continued self-reliance and to add interest to life. The existence and proportion of automatic downtime will probably be a matter of continuing debate.

WILDERNESS: Everyone will be free to leave the system on condition of living self-sufficiently in the wilderness and making no significant change there.

APOLOGY: Doubtless most of these ideas have been previously published, but I have not searched the literature.