Apr 072016
 
how can governments tax the internet?

Governments are struggling with the new channels of communication and the structures that will manage our societies are far from certain.

Last night the University of New South Wales’ School of Computer Science and Engineering in Sydney held a panel discussion about Digital citizens and the future of government. The group looked at how the open government movement is progressing and how public servants and politicians are dealing with a data driven world.

The panel featured Dominic Campbell, the founder of the UK’s FutureGov who are currently advising the Australian Digital Transformation office; Penny Webb-Smart, the Executive Director of Service Reform for the NSW Government’s clumsily named Department of Finance, Services and Innovation and Amelia Loye, a social scientist who worked on Australia’s first Action Plan for Open Government.

Centralising decision making

One key question for the panel was how governments use data which gives rise to two views. The prevalent view is information systems tend to centralise power – something that has been a feature of the last two centuries – while access to information is a democratising forces that hands control back to individuals and local communities.

Amelia made the point in some respects we’re already at the point where individuals can take control, “the tools for participatory government are already available, we have to start looking at – and talking about – how to use them,” she said.

That conversation certainly isn’t happening at the moment despite the odd blurting of fine words from ministers and public servants and while in some areas government data is being freed up, in others it’s increasingly being hoarded for political purposes or due to ill thought out privatisations.

Commercial in confidence

Private sector data is another problem for the open data movement as many of the functions carried out by governments are outsourced to companies which generally reluctant to share information with the public. This leaves communities with an incomplete picture of the data affecting them.

The main unanswered question in the discussion was the relationship between local and central governments, the panel’s consensus was central government would become more dominant and in the Australian context the states would become irrelevant. This however may not be true.

Centralised government is by no means a given, as the prevailing corporatist ideologies of Western governments strive to cut services it’s likely communities are going to increasingly find ways of delivering those services independent of national bureaucracies and politicians in capital cities.

Cumbersome central governments

Another unspoken aspect was the increasing cumbersome nature of central government. In fast moving economies it’s hard for the decision making structures based in capital cities to quickly react to societal and political changes. National governments may simply be too big to manage the data flows coming into them.

The main conclusion out of the evening’s discussion is there is great uncertainty about the structure of government in the digital era.

Uncertainty over how governments will be shaped by today’s changes isn’t surprising, increased communications and the change in public finances radically altered the role of government last century – the wars and economic downturns of the first third of the century saw the introduction of central government income taxes which central power in capital cities.

Changing communications

Similarly mass media communications, the radio and television, dramatically changed the politician’s role and how citizens interacted with government.

One great mistake today is many of our political, public service and business leaders think the current models are inviolate and fixed when in actual fact they are dynamic systems which are evolving with technology.

Governments are a reflection of the societies and economies they lead. Just as both the economy and society are changing so too will the structures of the public service and politics. We may not recognise some of those changes until well after they’ve happened.

Oct 242015
 
comcast-cable-tv-channel

Thought of the day. We’re in at point of change in social and consumer behaviour similar to that of the late 1950s.

Sixty years ago the drivers were; the first baby boomers entering their teenage years, the rise of television, an era of accessible and cheap energy, along with rising incomes from the post World War II reconstruction.

Today the drivers are; the baby boomers entering retirement, the rise of the internet, an era of abundant and easily accessible data, the rise of the internet along with stagnant living standards following the late 20th Century credit orgy.

Your thoughts on where this goes?

Sep 182014
 
the-golden-fish-hotel-arts-barcelona

Yesterday Barcelona won the 2014 Bloomberg Mayors’ Challenge — a ideas competition for European cities.

Barcelona’s winning idea was collaborative care networks for older citizens. In Barcelona’s case one in five residents is over 65 and by 2o40 seniors will make up a quarter of the city’s population.

The approach Barcelona’s council has proposed is a combination of high tech and the community working together.

Barcelona will use digital and low-tech strategies to create a network of family members, friends, neighbors, social workers, and volunteers who together make up a “trust network” for each at-risk elderly resident.

Last year I had the opportunity to interview the Deputy Mayor of Barcelona, Antoni Vives, on how the city was using the internet of things to improve citizens’ lives.

In that interview Vives spoke on how important was that these technologies improved the lives of all citizens, not just the young and the rich. Today’s prize illustrates how the city is applying that philosophy.

For technologists, one of the tasks ahead is to show how today’s inventions are more than the toys of rich men, but are things that genuinely improve society’s well being.

 

Sep 012014
 
broken-computer

A briefcase sized device could wreak havoc in today’s networked world warns William Radasky in the IEEE Journal.

Fans of the  wave of nuclear war movies like The War Game or The Day After will remember the first bomb detonated in the attacks was a high level explosion designed to knock out electronic equipment.

The resultant Electro Magnetic Pulse leaves everything from military radar to civilian communications systems unusable.

In both The Day After and The War Game the high altitude detonations over Rochester and Kansas City destroyed motor cars’ ignitions leaving a key part of the nation’s infrastructure paralysed.

Unlike a zombie TV series, the unlucky survivors of a nuclear strike weren’t going to leap into the nearest abandoned Camaro and speed away from the heaving hungry masses.

What should be considered is The War Game was filmed in 1965 when electronics were not ubiquitous. Even then the scale of the damage from an EMP was substantial.

In today’s world, an wide scale EMP would bring down a region’s entire economy.

I’m writing this post on the 28th Floor of San Francisco’s St Francis hotel and were such a blast to happen now I’m not sure I’d be able to find the fire escapes as the emergency lighting would be fried — it’s not even worth considering the lifts.

What a first world city like San Francisco would like after all its technology, including electrical and communications systems, were knocked out doesn’t bear thinking out.

On the bright side, this means a devastating nuclear war killing millions may not be useful military strategy any more. To bomb a first world nation ‘back to the stone age’ just needs a handful of well targeted high altitude nukes.

The IEEE article is a timely reminder of both the fragility of our systems and the society that depends upon them.

Feb 082014
 
happy guy with lots of money

Adam Curtis in his wonderful BBC series All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace discusses how Ayn Rand influenced many in the tech industry.

Having been accused of being a ‘techno-utopist’ Curtis’ story is a good reminder of the limits of technology and how the future doesn’t usually turn out how we imagine.

The Ayn Rand influence is worth reflecting on as Rand’s libertarian outloook is shared by many in the technology industry – from the lowest PC technician to the highest flying software mogul.

Rand’s beliefs are best portrayed in her own words, in a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace she tells of how she believes in “challenging the moral code of altruism.”

In Rand’s world view it was the duty of each man to achieve their own happiness, self sacrifice and caring for other is weakness.

That technologists should have those views is curious in that the entire computer industry, the internet and Silicon Valley itself is the result of massive US government spending during World War II and the Cold War.

An more delicious irony is the centre of Silicon Valley, Stanford University, is itself the result of a bequest by railroad tycoon and former Californian governor Leland Stanford.

So self-sacrifice, altruism and government spending forms the basis of the entire modern tech industry – something that computer industry’s libertarians ignore, if they are conscious of history at all.

An even bigger contradiction is the belief that the internet dismantles government and corporate power – one of the lessons of Edward Snowden’s revelations is how comprehensively intelligence agencies monitor online communications.

When the history of Silicon Valley and the 21st Century tech boom is written, one of the compelling themes will be the contrast between the industry’s beliefs and reality.

The final chapters of that history will describe how that contrast between reality and beliefs is resolved.

Jan 192014
 
workers

This week’s edition of The Economist asks about the Future of Employment and where the jobs are in a society where work is increasingly done by machines.

For the Economist the conclusion is that the future of employment is ‘complex’ and observes economists and politicians haven’t given enough thought to the effects of the changing workplace and the dislocation of many workers.

Much of the Economist’s story is based around the ideas of professors at MIT Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their upcoming book “The Second Machine Age”.

The race with the machines

Professor Brynjolfsson gives his view at TED 2013 in the key to growth? Race with the machines, a presentation countered by Robert Gordon in the ‘death of innovation, the end of growth’ and followed by an excellent debate between the two.

Brynjolfsson cites the dilemma of bookkeepers being displaced by software applications such as Intuit Turbotax as an example of where service sector staff are being displaced.

“How can a skilled worker compete with a $39 piece of software?” Brynjolfsson asks.

“She can’t. Today millions of Americans do have cheaper, faster, more accurate tax preparations and the founders of Intuit have done very well for themselves. But 17% of tax preparers no longer have jobs.

“That is a microcosm of what’s happening not just in software and services, but in media and music, in finance, manufacturing, in retailing and trade. In short, in every industry.”

The great decoupling

Brynjolfsson’s key point is that workers’ wages have been decoupled from productivity and that the workforce isn’t sharing the rewards of improved practices and increased wealth.

That is certainly true over the last forty years, however that may not be a technological effect, but the business consequences of liberalising the financial sector which has seen massive pay increases to the banking industry and managerial classes that has been way out of kilter with the rest of the workforce.

It may well be the current golden era of high executive salaries is a transition effect of an evolving economy, albeit one where our grandchildren will puzzle over an era where a failed executive can receive a $100 million payout on being fired.

As The Economist points out technological change itself tends to create new jobs that make up for those displaced in old industries, this is a view supported by GE’s Chief Economist Marco Annunziata.

The main problem that Brynjolfsson identifies is the medium term issue of dislocated workers finding themselves out of work with superseded skills and, as The Economist point out, it’s clear the developed world’s political leaders haven’t though through the consequences of that transition.

In almost every sense, the current crisis of confidence about employment prospects is more a political and social problem rather than technological.

Helping displaced workers is going to be the greatest challenge for today’s generation of business and political leaders, the real question is are they up to that task?

Oct 152013
 
Fibre broadband rollout

The assertion that internet connectivity drives economic growth is largely taken for granted although getting the maximum benefit from a broadband network investment may require more than stringing fibre cables or building wireless base stations.

A key document that supports the link between economic growth and broadband penetration is the International Telecommunication Union’s 2012 Impact of Broadband on the Economy report.

While the reports authors aren’t wholly convinced of the direct links between economic growth and broadband penetration, they do see a clear correlation between the two factors.

ITU Impact of broadband on the economy report 2012

ITU Impact of broadband on the economy report 2012

One of the areas that disturbed the ITU report editors were the business, government and cultural attitudes towards innovation.

The economic impact of broadband is higher when promotion of the technology is combined with stimulus of innovative businesses that are tied to new applications. In other words, the impact of broadband is neither automatic nor homogeneous across the economic system.

For South Korea, internet innovation is a problem as the New York Times reports. Restrictions on mapping technologies, curfews on school age children and the requirement for all South Koreans to use their real names on the net are all cited as factors in stifling local innovation.

In reading the New York Times article, it’s hard not to suspect the South Korean government is engaging in some digital protectionism, which is ironic seeing the benefits the country has reaped from globalised manufacturing over the last thirty years.

The problem for South Korea is that rolling out high speed broadband networks are of little use if local laws, culture or business practices impede adoption of the services. It’s as if the US or Germany built their high speed roads but insisted that cars have a flag waver walking in front of them.

Indeed it may well be that South Korea’s broadband networks are as useful to economic growth as Pyongyang’s broad boulevards just over the border.

Similar problems face other countries with Google’s high speed broadband network in the US so far not attracting the expected business take up and innovation, although it is early days yet and there are some encouraging signs among the Kansas City startup community.

In Australia, the troubled National Broadband Network has struggled to articulate the business uses for the service beyond 1990s mantras about remote workplaces and telehealth – much of the reason for that has been the failure of Australian businesses to think about how broadband can change their industries.

Like Japan’s bridges to nowhere, big infrastructure projects look good but the poorly planned ones – particularly those no-one knows how to use – are a spectacular waste of money.

Hopefully the fibre networks being rolled out won’t be a waste of money, but unless industries start using the web properly then much of the investment will be wasted.