SNS in the News - January 2, 2002


By Joshua Gliddon, The Bulletin

Australia is hosting the definitive congress on information technology and, as Joshua Gliddon reports, its focus is the holistic nature of the industry rather than the latest gadgets.

How much more can be left to say about the information technology revolution? Microprocessors double in power every 18 months, while optic fibre's capacity to carry digital information outstrips even that radical pace. The phrase "cheap as chips" is a literal truth: soon microchips will be small enough to weave into fabric and cheap enough to build into disposable packaging.

Wireless and fixed-line networks have fundamentally altered our perception of space and time. Global events are reported as they happen, and citizens are able to form their own ad hoc information communities using the internet and mobile phones.

It's because of this rate of change that talking about IT is still relevant. The World Congress on Information Technology is more than just another mover and shaker gabfest. The biennial event, organised by the World Information Technology and Services Alliance, the peak body for the world's information industry, including the Australian Information Industry Association, will be held in Adelaide between February 27 and March 1. What's remarkable is that the focus isn't on the newest and greatest. It's neither a geek gathering nor a product showcase. It's a meeting of some of the most advanced thinkers about the nature of information technology.

What is that nature? It's constant change. How does technologically driven change affect businesses and governments? And how does it affect citizens of the developing and the developed world?

Mark R. Anderson writes a newsletter. This might appear to be an underwhelming activity for a keynote speaker on the first day of a major international congress. Anderson takes the pre-lunch session, following an opening presentation by Prime Minister John Howard, an economic overview by former United States president Bill Clinton, and a youth-oriented presentation by Diana Howard, a postgraduate computer science student at the University of Adelaide.

However, Anderson's newsletter isn't just another IT fanzine. It's read by IT luminaries such as venture capitalist Esther Dyson, Dell Computer founder Michael Dell and, as one would expect, Microsoft chief Bill Gates. Because of the audience, subscribing to the Strategic News Service is not cheap, yet thousands do so. Why?

Anderson is adept at understanding the collision between business, technology and politics and predicting the outcomes. "I take the larger view," he says, speaking from his home base in Washington state.

"I look at the impact of politics, the personality of the politicians, the way that business is conducted in different countries. CEOs don't have the time to find this information themselves, yet it's vital for them if they're going to run their companies."

Anderson's presentation will zero in on convergence. Not the convergence of mobile phones and handheld computers, but what happens when several great trends collide at a unique moment in history. "We can put communications devices - fast, intelligent communications devices - in the hands of everyone," he says. "Infrastructure is being built out at a massive rate. The number of people with wireless access last year was 500 million; in 10 years' time it will be 4 billion people."

When the connected population hits 4 billion, says Anderson, we're going to be at a fundamental inflexion point. And when we get there, we'd better be prepared. "The positive aspect of this interconnected world is that we'll see disenfranchised people able to communicate and initiate change," he says. "And so in that there's a challenge for government. But the negative aspect of all these empowered people is that they're consumers. The growth in consumption will be exponential, and we're going to have to figure out how the Earth is going to cope."

He's not a hippy. Anderson is presenting because his ideas are given credence by a business community that, as author and consultant Don Tapscott, who follows Anderson, puts it, are often like deer caught in the headlights.

"I was at a similar event not so long ago," says Tapscott, who lives in Canada. "And someone asked me, 'When are things going to get back to normal?' Well, the answer to that is that this is normal. This is the new normal."

Tapscott's not simply referring to the pace of technological change. He's not helping people who are wondering whether ditching Sun's Solaris UNIX for Windows 2000 is a good idea. That sort of change is manageable. "The new normal is restricted mobility. It's turmoil. It's about maximum attention to the customer. Business must rebuild, innovate and rethink fundamental tenets."

Which is an easy thing to say, and a hard thing for business leaders, jaded after years of downsizing, outsourcing and process re-engineering, to heed. But it's the truth. The rate of change is, like the capacity of fibre optics, exponential, and government and business leaders must learn to adapt to that pace of change.

"The basic institution of government is changing through the internet and through networking," says Tapscott. "And I'm not talking about taking government online. The new model is based on partnership with citizens, offering transparency to citizens and value to citizens at a lower cost. Broadly, we're talking about the citizen as a stakeholder or shareholder in government."

Whether this bodes well for the federal government, given recent events such as the Woomera media restrictions and questionable surveillance by the Defence Signals Directorate during the Tampa affair, is hard to judge.

Although it seems counter-intuitive, many of Tapscott's ideas could find resonance with the Seattle-S11-No Logo crowd. One of the leaders of the Seattle movement, Juliette Beck, is attending the congress to participate in a panel discussion about that chestnut, bridging the digital divide. Beck, the economic rights co-ordinator at San Francisco-based non-profit organisation Global Exchange, says that the digital divide is as much about corporate accountability as it is bridging the gap between the developed and developing world.

"In particular, we're concerned about the growing inequalities between people, both in developed and developing countries," she says. "The demonstrations [like S11] are there to draw attention to the way that world trade and corporate interests have overrun the rights of workers, and are contributing to a fundamental breakdown in democracy."

These are ideas that Tapscott addresses with his notion of the blue corporation. "Colours impart symbolism. You've got companies in the red, in the black, the green movement and so on. A blue company is one that enhances shareholder value through having strong moral and ethical stances. It has good behaviour, and not just because it is forced to be a good corporate citizen.

"A blue company knows that the capital it builds through relationships, which I call relationship capital, is as important as any other form of capital. In a transparent environment, where anyone can find out almost anything about a company in a couple of clicks of a mouse, ethical behaviour isn't just a bonus. It's an absolute business fundamental."

Tools, or technology, are morally neutral. But using them requires thought and responsibility. The world congress is in part about responsibility. Responsibly deploying our technological tools, ensuring that people have access to them, and that our tools are sustainable.