ALTHOUGH THE experts have been proclaiming the ''end of ideology'' for several decades now, something that looks suspiciously like -- yes -- a new political ideology is exploding in our midst and gaining converts with a speed that Marx and Engels would have envied.
It is cyberism, the creed of information. The cyberists are not organizing any new political parties -- indeed, a certain contempt for conventional politics is one of the articles of the new faith -- but they show a lot more energy and enthusiasm than you are likely to find among the politically committed of the traditional left and right.
The key premise of cyberism is that information and technologies connected with it -- notably the personal computer and the home television set -- are creating a new social order. The data banks and the smart machines -- not the working classes, not the intellectuals of academia, certainly not the politicians of the capitals and the courthouses -- are heralded as the true drivers of revolutionary change. This is the core belief around which have grown up all the other elements -- opinions about everything from economics to human nature -- that it takes to build an ideology. Cyberism has plenty of theoreticians, from Marshall McLuhan to today's prophets of chaos and complexity.
Cyberists are suspicious of traditional organizations -- anything centralized, any effort at rigid top-down control or planning. The Internet is not only the great transmitter of information; it is also, with its centerless system, the model of what an organization ought to be. ''When everything is connected to everything in a distributed network,'' says Wired editor Kevin Kelly, ''everything happens at once. Wide and fast-moving problems simply route around any central authority.''
In the business world, this idea has led to massive reorganizations of corporations, as managers have sought to create companies more like networks than hierarchies. In politics, it has led many people to believe that tyranny is becoming obsolete because centralized power simply can't withstand the subversive flow of information. David Gergen declares that ''the communications revolution, especially the television camera, has become the greatest friend of individual liberty in the world. It is empowering people all over the world. The communications revolution is supplanting the communist revolution.''
For cyberists, information is not only a political force; it is also the new economic power that supplants or transforms all the other forms of capital. Management guru Peter Drucker, another information pioneer, describes a ''post-capitalist'' era in which wealth is created by ''knowledge workers.''
His favorite economist, Paul Romer, says that information and information technology are capable of bringing about a permanent change in the rate of discovery and the rate of economic growth. He believes that the world is now poised on the edge of an unprecedented burst of innovation and wealth-creation as people break free of traditional economic thinking and industrial-age limitations.
A fig for geography
Cyberists don't take geographic distance very seriously, and believe that technology makes it possible not only for people to ''telecommute'' to work, but also to find entirely new kinds of societies in cyberspace. California author Howard Rheingold wrote a book about ''virtual communities'' a few years ago, and more recently MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle, in her book ''Life on the Screen,'' has documented that many people are living on-line lives -- with created identities -- that they find much more satisfying than the ones they live in ordinary reality.
Like any ideology, cyberism has its true believers and its more cautious advocates. The former are sure that we are moving inexorably toward a wondrously free and prosperous technological utopia. The latter see the headlong rush into a global information society as a mix of promise and peril. They worry that many people -- possessing neither TV sets nor personal computers -- are being left behind, that the information era brings new threats to personal privacy and new opportunities for manipulating the public through advertising and polling.
Some of the most outspoken critics of cyberism were cheerleaders for the new ideology of youth and protest a few decades back. Theodore Roszak, who coined the term ''counter culture'' in the 1960s, is now a strong critic of what he calls ''the cult of information.'' Kirkpatrick Sale, once a leader of the student New Left, is equally dedicated to deflating the tekkies.
Their critiques make sense. Yet there are echoes of their earlier movement in today's cyberism. Its ideas may be different, but its web-surfing believers have the same confidence that they own the future, the same serene certainty about the wrongness of all other ideologies, and the obsolescence of all that has gone before.
Walter Truett Anderson is the author of the new book ''Evolution Isn't What It Used To Be.''
Pub Date: 4/03/96