The Immaterialisation of Aspirations:

using ICT to Achieve a

Sustainable Global Network Society. 


David Leevers,  VERS Associates, Nov 2000


Objective. 1

From Telework to “Telelife”. 2

From Distributed Abstract Communities to Networked Grounded Neighbourhoods. 3

The Travel Rebound Effect 3

From Dematerialisation to Immaterialisation. 4

Quality of Life versus Standard of Living. 4

The peacock’s tail and the Pokémon card. 4

From Traditional Culture to Global Culture. 5

Brands and the Network Society. 6

Creating the Network Society. 6

The EC IST research programme – a research programme towards Immaterialisation. 7

Jump forward to “From Dematerialisation to Immaterialisation”. 7

More on the Network Society. 8

Building Non-Material Satisfiers. 9

A Global Icon Language?. 12

From Dematerialisation to Immaterialisation. 13

From Travel Presence to Tele- and Virtual Presence. 13

From a Western Information Society to a Sustainable Global Network Society. 13

From Subsistence Society to Network Society. 14

Traditional, Industrial, Multinational and Global Societies. 14







This paper suggests that immaterialisation of consumer needs will be more effective than the dematerialisation of industrial processes in achieving global sustainability.   Immaterialisation is achieved through culture change. It is deeply associated with the self image of individuals,  their aspirations and status.  The new marketing skills that are being refined in such products as Pokémon can be used to turn  global sustainability into an opportunity for improving the quality of life rather than a threat to Western lifestyle and a cap on third world development.


Immaterialisation is defined as the replacement of an energy and material intensive product or service by an information based alternative that meets the same fundamental human needs. 


The best  solution for global sustainability is to use the next 50 years to change from the dematerialisation of existing activities to the immaterialisation of consumer needs, i.e. reducing the need for energy and materials at source,  rather than trying to satisfy existing needs more efficiently.  This requires a better understanding of the fundamental human needs that are expressed in the urge to use a car, to travel to faraway places and to occupy large houses so that  these needs can be satisfied with immaterial equivalents -  a range of digital services that satisfy the  fundamental needs for collaborating and competition of the human species



As the power of Information and Communications Technologies, IST, have increased to match and then exceed the bits per second that the brain can assimilate, so the scope of the technology is changing from presenting bits of information to delivering complete interactive experiences that engage both mind and body. We have now reached the point where the technology can be bent at will to provide virtual environments that are closer and closer to the real world.  This leads to the immediate but limited opportunity of providing an alternate world - Virtual Reality and the more substantial opportunity of enriching the real world - Enhanced Reality.


The industrialisation and then informatisation of the West is increasingly polarising society.  By some measures inequalities have increased over the last 30 years and quality of life has remained static.  If the global network were to be confined to information transfers,  rather than interactions between people,  the economies of scale of information monopolies  would continue to widen this gulf between rich and poor.


Fortunately we are already seeing a fundamental shift in the way the network is used.  The fastest growth area is not information gathering but interacting with other people, both collaboratively and competitively.  This is why we have chosen to label the next stage in globalisation the  “Network Society”.  The “Information Society” started with Gutenberg and is already mature. 


The last century was the century of information; the new century will be the century of networking.  Information can only take us so far.  At its limit it reinforces mind-body dualism and strengthens meritocratic elitism.


Global sustainability will only be achieved by recognising and enthusiastically accepting the ongoing  transition from today’s Information Society to a future Network Society.  Key features of the Network Society of  our children will include an enlightened use of branding mechanisms to support the immaterialisation of symbols of social order and social status, and the use of the network to support multiple overlapping communities, communities that are so interrelated that the polarisation required for conventional conflicts, including war,  are no longer possible.


This paper is summarised in the last few sections starting at “From Dematerialisation to Immaterialisation”.  This optimistic scenario is summarised in the final diagram showing first world and third world migrations from many isolated subsistence societies to a single global network society.


From Telework to “Telelife”


Teleworkers were some of the first to take full advantage of the two way power of the network.  Although the delivery of information is still an important factor it is no longer the dominant one. Even now overnight postal delivery  of a CD-ROM is often more effective than transmitting the information over the network. 


What has really brought telework to life is the development of two way synchronous services,  those that allow a remote individual to feel they belong to a wider community. These include the telephone,  the video conference, text chat and on-line communities. 


Already significant social impacts can be seen.  Teleworkers have historically included a substantial proportion of people who have been motivated by essentially post-materialist considerations.  As an example, the (relatively common) phenomenon of individuals leaving well-paid direct employment in urban areas and choosing to Telework from more rural locations is generally ascribed to choices concerned with Quality of Life, despite the likely consequent reduction in income (i.e. in Standard of Living).  The most common single reason cited is the benefit to children of growing up in a rural area (an opinion that is not always shared by the children).  Such considerations have little to do with material consumption.


Telework thus operates at two levels.  It offers direct workplace related reductions in consumption and  it also offers the prospect of indirect, lifestyle-related, gains by encouraging a post-material Quality of Life orientation.

From Distributed Abstract Communities to Networked Grounded Neighbourhoods

The first networked communities   were those that could not exist in any other way. academic and scientific Internet discussion groups that could be distributed around the whole world.  However, as the effectiveness of these groups grew, the sustainability situation actually looked worse because they encourage long distance travel.  More recently,  as the technology has been adopted by a wider and more representative cross section of society  the situation has changed; a  discussion group supporting the local football team  will be very local. Increasingly the web is seen as enhancing local communities rather than creating a homogenised global community.



Networking achieves a dramatic from the desk-based “mind society” of the PC to a society of “embodied minds” networked through emerging mobile technologies.  The office PC has dominated thinking for too long, shifting the emphasis from person to paper document and from community to industrial process.  By explicitly joining up mind and body the new technologies are simply following what the social and the neurosciences are now telling us about ourselves; that thinking is a multilayered process framed by the body and driven by the emotions of the body. 


Tourist trends have been disconcerting – jumbo jets of tourists absorbing consuming non-renewable resources and disrupting traditional communities throughout the developing world. This tourism has actually been encouraged by the early information society technology of television.  Unfortunately global tourism is not a one-way information transfer process, conveying the uniqueness of an isolated culture to the tourist. It is a two way interaction,  changing the society being observed faster than it is enlightening the jet-lagged tourist.  For the world to become truly sustainable and truly equitable these cultural differences seen at their most extreme in tourist gazing at tribal ritual may have to be transformed into lifestyle differences within the context of a liberal democratic culture. The US is a good example of how   ethnic and historical groups can coexist with the global culture of pop music, global movies and computer based crazes.


The non-cultural reasons for holiday travel are increasingly satisfied locally.  The health club, the theme park, the African avatar and the indoor beach, are already delivering physical aspects  of the long distance experience.


Perhaps the general public is already ahead of the policymakers in accepting immaterialisation. Audience forecasts for the Millennium Dome and Expo 2000 were based on past world fairs and ignored the fact that  the mix of local shopping mall,  local health centre and global television provide much the same experience without travel, without queues and without political agenda.


The Travel Rebound Effect

Travel enriches the mind but homogenises the culture. Globalisation and IST are adding the best of other cultures to the Western repertoire and rejecting the rest. For instance we enjoy the arts of fundamentalist cultures but reject their exclusion and mutilation of women.  The end product could be a single global culture.  However such trends do not continue past the point of diminishing returns and  the increasing importance of fashion and of respect for the uniqueness of the local environment should provide an adequate counterbalance to global homogenisation.  Increasing sameness will reduce the rewards of travel and hence preserve those differences that have been most resistant to global uniformity and are perhaps the most worthy of protection because they have survived the test of western liberal democratic values.


Already many prefer the “Enhanced Reality” of the theme park and IMAX experience to the dangers of geographical reality. But it is still difficult to convince those who have succeeded in traditional Western culture of the potential of IST powered alternatives.  This may well be because the PCs of today are so limited, sensorally deprived and unreliable compared with the “Mature IST Infrastructure” of 50 years hence. 


From Dematerialisation to Immaterialisation


Dematerialisation may actually be hindering sustainability because efficiency improvements increase the market size and  tend to prolong the life of obsolete industrial processes while ignoring the ICT stimulated cultural changes that are already underway.  Already the developing world is adopting a less material culture than we passed through in the last two centuries, with little in the way of coal and steel, nothing in the way of steam engines.  Even the telephone networks are being dematerialised into mobiles.



Quality of Life versus Standard of Living


From the time of the Brandt Commission it has been assumed that no cut in consumption was possible in the developed world because of the equation  “consumption cut = standard of living cut”, which has long been thought to be politically unacceptable. However the equation no longer seems necessarily to apply.  Western consumption of the pattern described in Frank’s “Luxury Fever” does not show any positive correlation with perceived Quality of Life and may even be  negative.  Average life-satisfaction has repeatedly been shown to flatten out once a threshold level of affluence has been reached :  to that extent, no great purpose is served by additional consumption[1]. 


Frank suggests that once basic necessities are met and a lifetime of about 70 years is reached additional income does very little for quality of life.  Yet people are still driven by the work ethic to do better and work harder.  It is clear that the primary pressures are more to do with status than subsistence.  Local attempts to load the dice in favour of lower differentials seem doomed to failure in the global economy because the most innovative and the most enterprising individuals simply move to where differentials are greater.  Global governance might be an idealists answer but such governance is unlikely to progress beyond fairer World Trade Organisation agreements in the time available for achieving global sustainability.


One advantage of the increasing differential between rich and poor both globally and nationally is that the consumption problem is confined to a very small fraction of the world population, the top 10% of the 10% of the global population in the developed world, 1% of 6 billion, about 6o million people.


The peacock’s tail and the Pokémon card

Examples such as he peacocks tail,  fins on the 50s American cars,  the sizes of leisure yachts and the four-wheel-drive vehicles (essential for reaching the local shops during floods caused by global warming!) shows that much material consumption is driven by social status rather than material need.  The lesson from the natural world is that any sexually reproducing species will accentuate the features that, although wasteful in themselves, demonstrate that their owner is so fit or successful that they can support this gross inefficiency.  The current challenge is to choose new symbols that will require a minimum of material and energy resources yet will be truly difficulty to achieve.  This may require a degree of social engineering,  but no more than is evident in the way demand for the Pokémon cards has been built up by the management of scarcity of this virtually immaterial product .  Fortunately  it is the Pokémon generation that must develop the new attitudes.  There is no reason why they will not continue to rely on non-material status symbols such as the Pokémon cards when they grow up.


From Traditional Culture to Global Culture

Less than a quarter of western GDP is devoted to the basic needs of mind and body. The rest is culturally determined; primarily by the belief system built up in early childhood.


European  youth of 50 years ago developed aspirations that included international travel, large cars and large houses. Western youth of today have only retained international travel. Perhaps that is because the immature IST of today cannot yet deliver experiences that are better than directly experiencing the ecosystems, the geographies and the people of different parts of the world. However this universality is no longer hidden by the superficial differences between east and west, between national identities anor between different religious metaphors.


Affluent children worldwide are already influenced by the same global media culture. They all pick up the increasingly complete set of human values embedded in each new generation of computer game; universal values concerned with winning and losing, competition and cooperation, male and female, respect for peers and for elders.


50 years ago most children acquired the single belief system of their tribe or nation as conveyed through religion, myths, fairy stories and the values of elders and peers.  Now each child is still part of its local community but, through television and Internet, is aware of many different lifestyles at the time its belief system is forming. Later on it can belong to  a number of diverse networked communities through fan clubs chat groups, e-mail and of course global media.  


A single rapidly changing global culture is being integrated with  to a wide range of more stable traditional cultures.  The empowerment of the young from network enabled appreciation of many different cultures is the home equivalent of empowerment in the workplace through access to information.


Since these communities transcend national, racial and cultural boundaries it becomes impossible for local leaders to motivate the population to sacrifice themselves in partisan conflicts


Sharing global aspirations is a vital step towards a stable global society.  The many virtual communities to which Internet-enabled children belong cross so many of the traditional national, racial and cultural boundaries that conventional nationalistic war becomes impossible.  No group is self-contained enough to be singled out as alien or sub-human, justifying the ultimate sacrifice of death in war.


Building Immaterial Satisfiers


New technologies are offering  a profusion of new combinations of presence,  telepresence and virtual presence that can be used as immaterial satisfiers of human needs.


In the specific context of satisfying non-material needs, it is particularly important to distinguish between the cognitive and sensory aspects of tele- and virtual presence.  Academic research, and media attention, initially focused on the sensory experiences of virtual reality.  Such experiences can only last for a short period of time before the audience have had enough - the few minutes of the average roller coaster ride or the virtual reality glide.  However, in cognitive experiences it is the power of the narrative flow, the flow of thought, that leads the audience forward, not the immediate sensory impact. The “virtual reality” of a novel is more powerful than that of a movie, and can be sustained for much longer but it is primarily a one-person experience.


New forms of entertainment and work are emerging.  A common theme is the shared visualisation or shared multimedia experience. Something that draws every participant into a common cognitive experience regardless of the nature and disposition of their individual bodies at a particular moment in time.  The shared network supported experience can become an extremely powerful tool for establishing common ground, avoiding misunderstanding, encouraging collaboration and defusing conflict.


Brands and the Network Society


We should remember that, although we are still in a state of very rapid development in IST, the Information Society “revolution” is quite well advanced and the Network Society, should also be becoming visible. Some aspects of such a new wave are indeed visible: a new emphasis on seeking new experiences (travel and adventure, mind altering pharmaceuticals etc) and on enhancing the experience content of everyday activities (theme restaurants, shopping malls etc) and of everyday products (the return to fresh breads for instance).


These manifestations are all essentially immaterial shared experiences, even if they have substantial material elements.   These “consumption substitutes” will be made aspirational by, e.g.,  the use of brands.


Brands are primarily the expression of non-material, experience-based characteristics (trend-setting, enhancing social attractiveness etc). Brand in this context is a shorthand term that describes the inclusion of a significant non-material element within an apparently material good : with this viewpoint it becomes possible to see manifestations of brands in most aspects of consumption, but most of all in the generation of new aspirations.  This generation of new aspirations is one half of the answer to the problem of cutting consumption.


If brands generate the aspirations, can IST generate the necessary immaterial products and services?  In order to design these new entities, we will need quite new methodologies. We do have some pointers to the content of these methodologies, however.  American experience from the early 1930s, of  design for “creative waste” provide an inverse analogy.  Through the 1920s industry’s capacity to create material goods expanded far more quickly than people’s needs :  the resulting over-capacity was seen as a major factor in the 1930s Depression.  Particularly in the U.S.A., industry set out to resolve the problem by creating new aspirations and new needs (planned obsolescence, for example, was a designed response to this problem).  If America in the 1930s could produce solutions to under-consumption, then it should not be beyond us today to produce solutions to the directly analogous problem of over-consumption.


User needs are a more complex question with immaterials: just what is it that is “needed” in the purchase of a luxury item, for instance?  Immaterial needs embrace a far wider range of issues than do material needs. Providing experiences, for instance, requires a greater understanding of the basic drives of the human species than does improving established products and services.  Much of this new understanding is likely to involve a re-assessment of what we regard as rational behaviour both at the individual and the community level. Finding ways of discussing these aspects of personal belief systems, these social and psychological reasons for consumption ,is perhaps one of the most sensitive and challenging aspects of a shift towards immaterialisation.  


Creating the Network Society


The immaterial nature of consumer demand is not new.  It exists for anyone who rises above subsistence level.  What is new is recognising the enormous potential for   Information and Communications Technologies to satisfy the inherently escalating nature of status symbols without drawing on increased material and energy resources.  Moore’s law,  indicating a doubling in digital price performance every 18 months, is the guarantee that this process is inherently sustainable with resource requirements dropping in spite of the market broadening to include a future global population of perhaps 10 billion people.


The modification of human aspirations was once the prerogative of religion: later it became that of political revolution,  more recently political spin. It has also become a marketing issue, particularly in the promotion of brands.  It is also being addressed in developing SME Telework to be part of  post-material ways of life but is not generally seen in corporate approaches to Telework.


The Information Society of today seems immensely sophisticated and almost inconceivably clever, but we should be aware that it is likely to prove historically, only an early and immature prototype, a first glimpse of its future manifestations.  Future products and services will be far more effective  “immaterial satisfiers” for existing material consumption.  The means and techniques already exist in contemporary marketing ,   we simply have to apply them to more fundamental aspirations.


Our task for the future is to create the mature immaterial products and brands that can reduce material consumption radically, and to ensure that they are used.  This sets a new agenda for the use of Information Society technologies to achieve a Sustainable Global Network Society.  Work is required on a better understanding of the reason for consumption;  on the specific means of changing aspirations in the direction of immaterialisation and Quality of Life; and on creating the methodologies required for use in design of the new immaterial products and services required to enhance sustainability.


The goods and services of the Consumer Society are perhaps inefficient simulations of experiences that could be directly delivered by future “Mature Information Society Technologies”.  Europe’s opportunity may lie in encouraging development of immaterial alternatives to western consumer goods.  Perhaps an early step along this path is the current explosion in Europe’s mobile services.  We can already see how the new Satisfiers,  the Internet enabled mobile phones,  the personal organisers and the pocket games take a very different form from the services they supersede:  telephone boxes and service industries of many different forms


The EC IST research programme – a research programme towards Immaterialisation


Immaterialisation relates to fundamental changes in lifestyles that replace unsustainable activities with information intensive alternatives (e.g. home located virtual theatres in which IST offers an awareness of the rest of the audience as well as of the actors). Immaterialisation has largely been ignored because the relevant technologies of telepresence and  shared virtual environments have only just become effective enough to convince the socially aware technologist let alone those struggling with  conventional office applications.


The aims of Telepresence in this respect are therefore:

·                     To demonstrate that digital augmentation of reality does not diminish that reality

·                     To show that the synchronised global network culture complements but does not drive out physically grounded local cultures.

·                     To show that virtual reality can provide analogues for satisfying non-material needs that are as good or better than the current material     analogues.

·                     To demonstrate that the human "need to consume" can be accommodated with a sustainable framework

This is the new agenda for the IST Programme :  over the course of the next few years there is an urgent need to demonstrate achievement of these aims:  without that achievement we will remain stuck in an old paradigm, unable to make the leap needed for the achievement of real benefits. 


Jump forward to “From Dematerialisation to Immaterialisation”

Unedited notes on the Network Society


The technologies of the Network Society will enhance local reality with a range of telepresent and virtually present components and will supersede the clerical reality of the desktop PC and the “Virtual Reality” of the immersive multimedia experience.


IST technologies have been continually improving over the last half century.  As power has increased to match and then exceed the bits per second that the brain can assimilate so the scope of the technology is changing from one way delivery of facts to the brain worker to supporting complete two way experiences that engage both mind and body of members of a community delivering complete experiences that engage both mind and body and, through this engagement,  support two way social interaction as well as the one way flow of information. We have now reached the point where the technology can be bent at will to provide contexts are closer and closer to the real world.  This leads to the short term opportunity of Virtual Reality as well as the long term one of Enhanced Reality.


Virtual Reality is depressing. However hard it tries,  it can never match the validity of reality.  Every Moore’s law doubling in computer power simply halves the distance between the virtual and the real.  The asymptote never touches reality and can never extend beyond reality.


The phrase Enhanced Reality is intended to convey future more abstract and fundamental evolution of what is today referred to as augmented reality  AR is confined to enhancing the audio and visual world with graphical and text overlays, perhaps via a head mounted display.  The hope for global sustainability lies in using the technologies of enhanced reality to achieve a Global Network Society that is more attractive than previous societies, the  Subsistence Society of traditional tribes, the Industrial Society that reached its peak in the industrial revolution, and today’s Multinational Society that has been the first result of past Information and communications technologies.


Enhancing reality appears to be an expression of our basic human drive to improve our lot with tools. There have been many previous enhancements to reality, perhaps the first was the enhanced fingernail of the stone age flint,  followed by the enhancement of food with fire and the enhancement of  skin with jewellery and clothes.  We are now overwhelmed by the enhanced legs of the car and airplane.  We are at a turning point, future enhancements must  be achieved through digital technologies rather than through those that use  material and energy resources.  For the first time we are playing a win-win game in which giving away the commodity, information, actually increases its value to the giver.  The act of giving also forges stronger social links, increasing social capital as well as increasing economic capital.  The first step along this new path was taken when the  shared benefits of a telephone call superseded the  one way information transfer benefits of the telegraph, the Victorian e-mail.


We know how this win-win scenario can be played out with raw information. Whenever information is shared the benefits are increased in the long term, although there can be some immediate loss to the giver in the short term. We do not know yet how this win-win scenario will be played out when the two way technologies of telepresence and virtual presence are used to build a network society.


We can already see the increasing enrichment of our surroundings with the trappings of an integrated global culture of video games, movies, pop songs and news events. Although the first web applications were long distance,  doing things that could not be done in more conventional ways   the real commercial opportunities have been in improving the effectiveness of local activities,  activities that do not require a paradigm shift in the mind of average person the a,  to enhanced shopping, stronger neighbourhood links and a better reflection of the fact that  people  a re not disembodied intelligences but embodied minds. It is the interplay of the web enhanced local services and totally new global services that promises a continually enriched cultural environment that captures the excitement of living dangerously and competitively with the comfort of  living safely and collaboratively.


This as yet poorly understood global society, one made up of a mesh of many interlocking local and global communities can be expected to rise above the  western fetish for physical travel and consumer goods and reach a more eastern framework of cultural exchanges and shared experiences.


The use of  future  mature Information Society Technologies  to achieve global sustainability is as much of a challenge to the world of 2000 as going to the moon was seen 30 years ago.  For the first time we are starting to see IST is the only way of turning sustainability into a opportunity  and not a burden



We are at a turning point, a paradigm shift, as we enter the 21st century.  The last century was the century of information; the new century will be the century of networking.  Information can only take us so far.  At its limit it reinforces mind-body dualism and strengthens the elitism that can be implied by this split.


We are in the middle of leapfrog from a desk-based mind society to a society of embodied minds networked through mobile technologies.  By joining up mind and body we are simply following what the old psychoanalysis and the new neurosciences agree on, that thinking is a multilayered process framed by the body and driven by the emotions of the body. 



E-Mail and its successors will be accessible to every 3 year old, adding excitement to the process of learning to read.  Books were a less attractive carrot in the past, encouraging only a small fraction of children to enjoy reading before school. The PC is already delivering a far more substantial pay-back.  The simplest  e-mail from a 3 year old on the other side of the world can have far more impact than even the very best children’s storybook.


The west may be standing in the way of global sustainability by focusing on the progressive dematerialisation of the  industrial processes that support our current lifestyle while ignoring the benefits of culture change.  Already the third world is developing a less material culture than we passed through in the last two centuries,  with little in the way of coal and steel,  nothing in the way of steam engines.  Even the telephone does not require massive numbers bored operators and twisted pairs, only a few aerials and inexpensive mobile telephones.


Dematerialisation of products is the rust belt solution; immaterialisation of demand is the IST solution.  That culture change has already started; first and third world 3 year olds are already communicating constructively without the need to travel.


Global sustainability can be achieved by using Information Society Technologies to achieve the immaterialisation of lifestyles and more equitable global frameworks. The emerging global network infrastructure is already creating an ecology of networked individuals that is complementing the ecology of the planet; perhaps Gaia is being superseded by CyberGaia?

The emerging Network Society is one in which each person may belong to a number of communities, some local, some global, but all interlinked to such an extent that polarisation into friend and foe cannot be achieved in real life, only in the adrenalin driven myths of the network society such as virtual, and real, football.

Building Non-Material Satisfiers

As some first signs of maturity appear in the technologies we find ourselves presented with a profusion of new combinations of presence,  telepresence and virtual presence.  Technology developers have responded, as their first priority, to the intellectual challenge of making the tele- and virtual present indistinguishable from the 'real' present.  There are sound commercial reasons for this.  The leading edge applications, surgery and tasks in dangerous or inaccessible environments, do indeed require maximum realism.


However, in the specific context of satisfying non-material needs, it is particularly important to distinguish between the cognitive and sensory aspects of tele- and virtual presence.  Academic research, and media attention, initially focused on the sensory experience.  Such experiences can only last for a short period of time before the audience have had enough - the few minutes of the average roller coaster ride or of the virtual reality glide.  However, in cognitive experiences it is the power of the narrative flow, the flow of thought, that leads the audience forward, not the immediate sensory impact. The “virtual reality” of a novel is often far more powerful than that of a movie, and can be sustained for much longer.  It is a minimal implementation of virtuality, but it provides just what the active and imaginative mind wants when decoupled from the kinaesthetic playfield of the body. 


One of the opportunities offered by the new technologies is to use the richness of the sensory experience to ensure that all members of a distributed  audience are drawn into much the same cognitive experience. Given this background, the shared visualisation of the computer screen can become an extremely powerful tool for establishing common ground, avoiding misunderstanding, encouraging collaboration and defusing conflict.



The European ACTS programme was the last stage of implementing a vision of European broadband communications, a vision that  was formulated at the start of the RACE programme (Research into Advanced Communications for Europe) in 1985. RACE encouraged the introduction of a broadband infrastructure for Europe. ACTS has been developing the services and technologies that will make effective use of this infrastructure.


ACTS results among others are opening a window of opportunity for combining global sustainability with a high quality of life. This is only a narrowly open window that will permanentlyt close within a few years. Until now the technology was too immature. Within a decade the opportunity for sustainability may well have been lost; shrinking biological diversity, a warming planet, and growing reactions to the increasing inequity within the West and between  the West and the rest.


Few of the ACTS projects touched on such social issues. However a small number of the technical projects, such as CICC, COVEN and COBRA explored how our lives might change as many different services mature and are integrated into a unified and persistent "Personal Information Environment". Whatever the final shape of the global sustainable society, it will assuredly differ markedly from today's national cultures and networked communities, and it be more pervasive and deeply integrated in every part of our lives. 


This is the last opportunity at which it is still possible for  enlightened developers to influence the social and cultural style of Personal Information Environments so that they lead to an enriching  sustainability (the situation today is comparable to that at the birth of the Internet. Alternative protocols could have been adopted that would have been equally effective at satisfying its initial defence role but which would have delayed or distoerted its role in building  the first global open society. It was the hidden agenda of a group of designers who, living under the shadow of the bomb and Vietnam, consciously chose equitable network architecture for their vision of a world of electronic telepathy, also known as the Internet. 


Over the last 25 years the IT industries have been  increasing contributors to environmental protection by improving the efficiency of industrial processes. Although Telecommunications technologies have appeared to offer comparable potential, early alternatives to physical travel are still trapped by a rebound effect: better communications encourages more travel. This trend has to reverse at some point, but it will not do so  until the quality of simulated travel (telepresence and virtual presence) is more enriching that visiting.


We are about to experience a dramatic paradigm reversal. We will no longer think of telepresence and virtual presence as simulations of a total real world experience (travel to and from plus some social geographical or cultural event that required presence at another place). Now that we are within sight of providing total presence experiences that are better than the real thing, the package of travel event plus reality event, will be seen as an inadequate and expensive simulation of the fundamental experience.


One key to this paradigm switch is the concept of the personal information environment; the combination of the natural surroundings plus intelligent components that link every person to the global information network. The Personal Information Environment includes intelligent artefacts in the surroundings as well as wearable computers on the body.  Once perfected, and they have a long way to go, they are expected to become the missing link that both increases quality of life and achieves sustainability.


The  first stage of the IST contribution to Sustainable Development is under way with the dematerialisation  of industrial processes, improving the effectiveness of the artefacts of the western consumer society. However a sustainable society can only be reached by a profound shift from the consumer society of today to the experience society of tomorrow.


Already the instabilities of urban life are speeding this transition. As more and more children are kept at home for fear of the twin dangers of  traffic and the socially  disturbed so life becomes even more dangerous for those still allowed to travel. This has forced today's children to find more and more inspiration from their bedroom computer rather than from the kids at the end of the street. On the one hand this has encouraged he technology of computer games to race ahead faster than that of office applications.  On the other we are bringing up a whole generation that may already be thinking that a football match on a wet and muddy pitch is a crude simulation of the best computer based football games, particularly those that are driven from the run and kick machine in the local multi-gym.


Such experiences will comprise a new culture of immaterialisation.


Immaterialisation relates to fundamental changes in lifestyles that replace unsustainable activities with information intensive alternatives (e.g. virtual theatres in which IST offers an awareness of the rest of the audience as well as of the actors). Immaterialisation has largely been ignored because the relevant technologies of telepresence and  shared virtual environments have only just become effective enough to convince the socially aware technologist let alone those struggling with  conventional office applications.


Over the last decade  shared digital environments have evolved substantially.  The first stage was extending the graphical interface metaphor from the flat Macintosh desktop to support specific multimedia activities such as video conferences. This helped to define a wider family of metaphors that covered all communications modes.  These metaphors are now joining up into a complete reflection of reality that have the potential to be seamlessly integrated within it. However the next stage requires a far more explicit understanding of the social nature of human beings, of how we use the full repertoire of implicit as well as direct communications channels and of how we actually go about our daily lives, continually switching from one form of communications to another, using the four primary communications modes.


  1. One to one  -  rapport  and fact transfer, supported by the telephone
  2. One to many - dissemination, supported by broadcasting technologies a
  3. Many to one - information retrieval, supported by data communications
  4. Small group - collaborative, supported by audio and video conferences


The IST approach is still a leap of faith, vulnerable in that it depends on as yet unproved hypotheses about the “humanity” of telepresence technologies and their ability to be truly “better than being there” for most of the time. The track record of the IST industry is not uniformly good in making good on such promises. Credible demonstrations of the cultural richness of networked experiences are desperately needed in order to break free from associations with the IT disasters of the past, and there are lessons to be learned here from, for example, the initial over-hyping of Artificial Intelligence.


The immediate objective is to ensure an adequate political and social framework for developing appropriate matiure IST.



The aims of Telepresence in this respect are therefore:

This is the new agenda for the IST Programme :  over the course of the next four years there is an urgent need to demonstrate achievement of these aims :  without that achievement we will remain stuck in an old paradigm, unable to make the leap needed for the achievement of real benefits. 

A Global Icon Language?

In the traditional village the words of the storyteller were sufficient to evoke images of the same familiar landmarks in the listening children.  Without the virtual reality of global television the mental imagery would be profoundly different from equator to tundra, from prairie to mountain.  We are at last finding a visual lingua franca that can establish rapport without requiring physical co-presence.  This language is no more than a pidgin tongue at present, made up as it is of fragments of pop videos, Coca-Cola adverts and MacDonald’s experiences and indeed almost totally dependent on the brand culture for its growth.  However the next generation of interactive imagery will give the next generation of people the ability to build the "deep structure" of a Creole. A further generation may well use fully mature animated and interactive environment as their first language.


To make these large steps in development of the mature “Network Society” we need not only to develop the new and more mature technologies, but also somehow to free ourselves from old ways of thinking, to move on from the Information Society.  We must stop thinking about thinking and start thinking about being: the embodied mind is the new challenge.





From Dematerialisation to Immaterialisation


Dematerialisation of business processes has achieved an improvement of 20 times over the US in the last 100 years.  However continuing dematerialisation will be cancelled by the rebound effect because the rest of the world is adopting the trappings of a western lifestyle


Immaterialisation of consumer needs is the real hope offered by Information Society Technologies.


From Travel Presence to Tele- and Virtual Presence

The many different ICT products and services of today are slowly being integrated into a single seamless whole,  a persistent information and experience environment. This integrates telepresent and virtually present components into our immediate environment of place, people and our own body.  The “anti-social PC” in the bedroom is being superseded by networked  intelligent appliances in all our social locations.


The new enhanced reality of the network promises to provoke a culture change as great as earlier enhanced realities:  the enhancement of food by fire, the enhancement of the body by clothes.


The Immature IST of television stimulated travel but the Mature ISTs of tele- and virtual presence have the power to make travel unfashionable.  Few enjoy the “extreme DIY” of using their own body to build their own home or their own car. Similarly few may wish to use their own body to experience remote cultures, individuals or places. Surrogate travel has many advantages.   The aspirations of children in the west might then downsize to line up with the only option for other 90%.  This may be the only conflict free solution - there is no way that dematerialisation can offer 10 Billion people the amount of travel enjoyed by the West today.



From a Western Information Society to a Sustainable Global Network Society

Information was the spearhead of the silicon revolution.  However it is not the heart of it.  The embodied mind of a complete human being requires more than just information at the fingertips.  A complete social, ecological and physical environment is needed to both develop and satisfy the individual


The Information Society was born at Gutenberg but did not mature the end of the 20th century.  Its essence has been the open delivery of facts in two stages; production then delivery.


The Network Society was born the day of the first three-person telephone call. Asynchronous delivery was replaced by synchronous mediated exchange. 


Even that distributed community of only three people exchanges have a social context that embraces the whole person, not just the rational Information processing part of the brain.  It is by networking people around the world that IST supports the leapfrog from multiple conflicting polarised communities to a single global society.


The Network Society will mature in the 21st century when the immense power of broadband, wireless and  multimodal networking will help to build rapport and trust across the network more quickly than it can be built when people meet in the same place. Already it can be easier to get to know someone by reading their home page and speaking over a high quality videophone than when constrained by the social conventions of the local community, especially when there are major differences in status, background of language.


There has been no war between two countries which both have telephone densities of more than 50 per 1000. Imagine what a more comprehensive shift to the collaborative culture of the network society can achieve. 

From Subsistence Society to Network Society

Europe has suffered all the problems of the pioneer:  a couple of world wars, increasing gulf between rich and poor, increasing inequity, fragmented  families, 40% of children born outside marriage, increasing violence. Perhaps the most we have to offer the developing world is the knowledge to avoid making our mistakes so that they can leapfrog straight from a sustainable subsistence culture to a sustainable network culture.


The concept of European sustainability is meaningless. The Gulf Stream could switch off from excess carbon dioxide from the rest of the world, regardless of what Europe can achieve. Europe’s real opportunity may well be to act as a temporary and unsustainable prototype for the future Sustainable Global Society.  The framework of EC supported collaborative research and trials is expected to be a key driver for this process.


Traditional, Industrial, Multinational and Global Societies

The diagram shows a classification of society along two axes, collaboration versus competition, open versus closed.  The Global Information Infrastructure is restoring the ability to collaborate that has been frustrated by centuries developing through industrialisation and multinationals phases.  Thus it is restoring the ability to interact with any member of the community an ability that was lost as soon as tribes could grow beyond the size at which everybody know everyone else. 


The west has had to pass through the industrial and multinational stages to reach the potential nirvana of the network society.  The current reactions to the inequity of competitive multinational world is being spearheaded by NGOs and consumer groups and may take us on a material downsizing but experience enriching route to the network society.  Those who started later can learn from our experiences, and our hard won technology, and  leapfrog straight from Traditional to Network society.


The shift from an inherently hierarchical architecture to a networked one has yet to be manifest in a more equitable distribution of wealth. This may be because conventional measures of wealth fail to represent perhaps the most important aspect of personal wealth,  quality of life. Or it may be because it is too early to see the effects of an  across the recognise that we now have a technical infrastructure that allows the implementation of the liberal western democratic model across a global scale.  The technology has provided a way of achieving the ideal Of Athenian democracy (without the slaves) but it may take 50 years for this to fully permeate the structure of global society.





[1] Townsend P - Development of Research on Poverty in “Social Securities Research - Definition and Measurement of Poverty” London HMSO 1979.