George Walford: Two Suits = 1 Bike

Conrad Hopman, The Book of Future Changes – living in balance in the electronic age. London: Institute for Social Inventions 1988. A4, 153 pages, perfect bound in glossy wrappers. The edition said to be limited but the number of copies issued not given. £9.95 (£14.95 libraries and institutions).

Conrad Hopman’s title echoes that of the Book of Changes, the I Ching, and this is unlikely to be accidental. Brought up in the East, with a background of mysticism and philosophy, later working for fifteen years in information processing, he suggests that the unusual width of his experience may have placed him “in a unique position to see not only the promise, but also the unity underlying the problems of this age.” This may be so, but let us remember that although the phrase “information processing” has acquired an impressive aura, we are all engaged in the activity it denotes. To think is to process
information, and our wet computers are superior to the electronic ones except for mechanistic, repetitive tasks.

At first I found the book exasperating. Following a complex train of thinking, one is brought up short by a piece of windy rhetoric or unfortunate phrasing:

One can hardly imagine how people could make this world more chaotic and insecure if they tried.

Not so; it is easy to imagine a world more chaotic and insecure than one which supports five thousand million people.

Examples are known of primitive peoples who regularly ate their own parents.

Eat your own parents; OK, but regularly? How many parents did they have, for God’s sake?

Hopman can see this:

A system in thermodynamic perpetual motion is in a stationary state of eternal changeless change. And, because the theory states that such states are impossible, it reconfirms the proposition that only those phenomena can be said to exist whose behaviour is not completely predictable by any laws, including those of thermodynamics.

But in selecting examples of what may be accomplished with the unlimited powers of the human mind he sinks back into the merely sensuous imagination:

People can reach the stars, evolve into angels or demons, or do whatever else catches their creative fancy.

If your pleasure is to sit back and watch an author getting into difficulties, keep away, for Conrad Hopman insists on taking you with him. Repeatedly, on reaching the crux of an argument, as you wait with moderately bated breath for the decision, he throws it back in a rattle of questions. Does colour reside in the object, in the light upon it or in the observer’s eye? Is it located in space? Is it a quality, a quantity, a thing, a movement, a number of ions, an electromagnetic frequency or a substance? If you want answers you provide them, and you can hardly do this without being led to question, seriously and deeply, ideas you have been taking for granted.

Among the ideas which need questioning appears one of the arguments advanced by our author. He ends his section on the body by recommending an approach deriving from the observation “that the words ‘healthy’ and ‘holy’ are both related to the word ‘whole.'” In other passages, also, he suggests that connections between words indicate significant relations between their referents. But if the etymological closeness of words is a measure of the connectedness of their referents then an absence of this closeness shows the referents to be related. Generalising Hopman’s argument leads to the conclusion that there is no particular connection between love and sex, or war and suffering, or humour and laughter, and I don’t think he would want to maintain that.

He sees that non-existence does not exist, yet that for existence to exist it must be different from non-existence, which must therefore exist. The main theme of the book is a demonstration that the limits surrounding us are less final than they appear, the argument leading to this:

So that ‘commonsense’ attitude which holds that there are demonstrable limitations to what people can or cannot do is not really rational. There is no exact dividing line between what is possible and what is impossible…

This, and the discussion leading to it, is good, sound dialectical thinking; nothing existing independently, each general concept revealing itself, on close examination, to be real only in conjunction with its opposite, and the world imposing no rigid limitation on the human spirit. Commonsense, the “laws” of science, the certainties of religion, the solidity of matter, all lose their hard edges in the solvent of critical thought and the thinker emerges into freedom. This theme is developed over a range of contexts, and set out with a direct vigour and absence of pomposity rarely found in exposition of these ideas. Such writing is harder than it looks; fluid as words and meanings are they still impose limitations, and thinking conscious of its freedom is not easily induced to submit to them.

On getting near the end of the book we find – to me it came as a surprise – that what we have been reading is only the first volume. The second (nothing is said, either yea or nay, about further volumes after that), available from the author on microfiche, is entitled Community Co-operation Co-ordinator, and this first volume includes a three-page Appendix entitled: How the CCC Works in Practice. The CCC (abbreviations do have their uses!) is “a computer network
package using computer recorded agreements to facilitate exchange.” It uses these agreements instead of passing real or notional sums of money around; to call it computerised barter seems justified. Conrad Hopman is proposing to sell sets of the program-disks for operating the system, together with manuals, for $500 apiece, and I wish him the best of good fortune in the enterprise.

Since nothing is impossible it must be possible to devise an economic system which would work better than our present one. Conrad Hopman goes farther, fording it not only possible but “surprisingly easy” to do this:

Once it is realised that the universe can be understood as a place in which all meaning is defined in give and take [ie, in which there are no rigid limits and nothing is impossible – GW] it becomes surprisingly easy to develop economies which suffer from no inflation or depressions and in which the redudion of unemployment and other forms of waste depends only on peoples abilities to create and cooperate.

While agreeing that the proposed economy has produced no inflation, depression, unemployment or waste, I have to add that it has produced no goods and no wealth either. It is, in fact, not an economy at all; only a plan for one. Or (since we are now operating at a level where the absence of rigid distinctions has to be born in mind) it is a theoretical or imaginary economy rather than a real or functioning one.

In order to function, to be realised, it needs to be taken up, and Hopman tells us twice, once at the end of his Preface and again at the end of his Appendix, that “a new way of thinking is required.” (I think this is the only significant phrase he deliberately repeats). He does not specify what he means by “a new way of thinking” and it is a notably elastic phrase. General adoption of the dialectical thinking he favours would be one interpretation of it, and if his scheme cannot work without this I would not advise readers to part with their $500. We are agreed that everything is possible, so such a change cannot be completely ruled out; but it is also possible for elephants to ride bicycles; we do not therefore rush out to strengthen the cycle tracks. All things are possible, even to those who do not love God, but some are more probable than others, and the response over the centuries to the efforts of some philosophers and many mystics shows general adoption of dialectical thinking to be among the less likely eventualities.

Other interpretations can be placed on the phrase, and at least one of these offers the scheme a more hopeful prospect. The Appendix outlining how it would work mentions buying and selling, debits and credits, employment, trade exchanges, price tags, “k-keys much like intelligent credit cards,” dividends, ownership of shares, customers, trade unions, and tokens that may be used like bank notes. This suggests that the novelty of thought required would not be so very radical, and Hopman agrees that “From the practical point of view of the average user, the CCC operates in almost exactly the same way as a monetary economy.” (It makes good sense not to move at a jump far away from our present system, since this has not failed; on the contrary, some of the greatest dangers we face – population growing beyond supportable limits, damage to the ecology, the risk of nuclear extinction – are caused by its astonishing success).

Given a minority who understand the CCC well enough to prepare operating routines the general body of untheoretical people, rich and poor, need only adapt their behaviour to it in much the same way as now, in the course of growing up, they adapt themselves to the present system. Whether they will in fact do this, or continue to do it after some experience of the new methods, is of course a different question, one to be answered according to the perceived balance of advantages. Here I am only saying that, on the information to hand, the scheme does not require a change in thinking so profound or extensive as to be highly improbable. It appears to be compatible with the existing ideological structure.

The CCC does not have to be introduced, either to begin with or eventually, on any very large scale; Conrad Hopman mentions a scheme somewhat similar (though, I gather, less developed), which is already operating in a relatively small way. It would seem to be perfectly practicable for interested groups to take up the CCC for use among themselves, extending their operations if successful. The risks seem slight and controllable, the advantages may be large.

Unlike socialism, communism and anarchism, these proposals do not offer a new earth or constitute any big step towards one, but Sigmund Freud is said to have remarked (probably only once, and when at a low ebb) that the most psychotherapy could hope for was to reduce furious rage to ordinary unhappiness, and there is much in Blake’s remark (which Hopman quotes) that whoever would do good must do it in minute particulars.

from Ideological Commentary 37, January 1989.