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  Issue No 101 Official Organ of LaborNet 06 July 2001  

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E-Change

1.1 Email Nation


In the first of a series of articles on politics and the new economy, Peter Lewis and Michael Gadiel argue network technologies are reshaping the fundamentals of society.

 
 

E-Change

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The world is changing fast. Things have stopped making sense. Some are revelling in the opportunities of the time; while for others the future seems bleak and insecure. Voices proliferate, but the chatter becomes white noise. There is information everywhere but the truth has never been more elusive. Our leaders react, but to what? We seek a vision and get only a sound-byte, switching instead to infotainment where no-one tries to pretend they're profound. What's going on?

We argue that at the heart of it all is a change in the fundamentals of our society. Each age reflects the technology of the time - and our rate of technological change has increased exponentially from the valve computers of the fifties, when digital information first began to be processed. Today we are citizens of an email nation sitting at the centre of a wired world. Network technology has changed the way we interact, giving us the potential to communicate with anyone else at anytime without a third party medium. With this enabling technology has come new possibilities for connectivity and relationships that could not have been imagined even a decade ago.

Look at the email and you are looking at more than an inbox on a personal computer. You are seeing a new enabling technology, with quite profound and, perhaps, subversive potential. By allowing individuals to connect across time and space, to state their views, tell their stories, share information, this technology is actively eroding the authority of the key Industrial Age institutions in our society, which rose to power by virtue of their command of scarce information. As this technology takes hold and spreads it will affect the way we do most things, and by extension shape our attitudes and ideas. Understand the impact of the technology and you begin to understand the change to society. This book is an attempt to do just that.

We have embarked on this book because - despite all the hype around the New Economy and the Information Age - we have not found a coherent analysis of its impact on politics. Without this, we are left (both collectively and individually) to react to the effects of the change rather than to engage in the broader dynamics of change: cause-effect-cause, the infinite and dynamic web. To take this second, higher road, of engagement requires an analysis of the change that is beyond the five second grab.

In doing so, we recognise that we are questioning some of the orthodoxies of the broader labour movement. While skeptics argue that the impact of the new technologies have been overstated, we ask: what if they have been under-stated? While one-time progressives becry the New Economy and work out ways to reverse the change, we ask: what if the change is actually for the greater good? What if the impact of a technology that places pressures on the existing power structures in our society is a force for the long-term improvement to the plight of working people. To be dramatic, what if we are witnessing the revolution unfold, but can't see the wood for the trees?

About Our Approach

In the first section of this project, we'll attempt to construct an analysis around this change. We'll do this as a journalist and an engineering student activist turned union official, not as academics. The ideas are the product of an 18-month period of conversation where we have developed our ideas by sharing very different ways of thinking. We hope this project reads as a conversation, even if it is written in a single voice. The ideas and theories are from the edges of different people's ideas and theories and will only benefit from more ideas and theories.

In lay terms, we'd call this a structural analysis. We will argue that we are entering a stage where technology has taken up the post-modernist mantle - following art and philosophy into new territory. The institutions that have underpinned modern society (government, law, culture and education) are collapsing under the weight of network technologies, creating new structures that more resemble a matrix. We look at how new ways of communicating will change the way we operate as a community. And we look at how this new technology has driven the process of globalisation and created a crisis in the nation state.

In the second section of this project, we look at how these changes are effecting the existing institutions of society. We do this by adapting discussions we have held with a series of people working within the emerging technologies. These discussion involving one, two or sometimes three participants have been edited down into a form that is hopefully more readable than the spirited debates that took place and represents the emerging conversation in a form that synergises the ideas into a single, ownerless, voice. The aim of this section is to chart the scope of the emerging debate, rather than to lay claim to any authoritative truth.

As we enter a new century and a new millennium, one of the exciting things is that we have the opportunity to start new debates, rather than trying to win old ones. When we talk about a road map for the Information Age, we are talking about making sense of where we are going. It seems to us that the road map that our political leaders are using now is so obviously out of date. The political responses from both mainstream parties to the new challenges are deficient because the map they're using was drawn to chart the Industrial Age. When they look at it now, it's not telling them how to get to the right place anymore.

What we will try and do in this project is to chart this emerging email nation; by examining the scattered matrix that is our new society and looking at how institutions that used to lie in a hierarchy are changing and will change into the future. Not every institution of the Industrial Age will survive in the Information Age and institutions that don't adapt may collapse. The question for the Labor Party and the labour movement and those on the progressive side of politics is whether they'll make it or fall by the wayside.

The Nature of the Change

In this project we make big claims - and a few sweeping statements. So we'll start by trying to exhibit some discipline and recognise that it's really easy to get carried away with sweeping statements when trying to explain something as complex as the change being driven by this 'thing' that's happening so fast around us. But the advent of this technology has some basic characteristics that we think we can all agree on.

For the purpose of this analysis we'll use the term 'network technology' to describe what we're on about. To understand the term, we need to understand what we mean by a network. A network is simply a series of interconnected nodes (or points). The interconnectivity of a network depends on the number of connections between the nodes. A network with the highest degree of connectivity would have a connection between every pair of nodes in the set. A poorly connected network might only have one or two connections going to each node - a straight line with the nodes strung out along it - this looks pretty much like broadcast. When we use the term "network" we are really talking about a highly connected network. The Internet is highly connected, since the nodes (in this case people) are effectively connected up to every other node.

Another concept is "bandwidth" - the bandwidth of a network determines the amount of information that may be sent down - analogous to the width of a pipe carrying water. The Internet is by no means the first large scale network. Indeed networks have existed throughout the Industrial Age, the first large scale communications network was the postal system. The telephone system is also a network structure. Despite their high degree of connectivity these networks had a narrow bandwidth and were slow. Because networks had, up till now, low bandwidth, faster technologies have come to be dominant. Broadcast technologies such as television can be delivered quickly to many different people. The downside is that the communication that flows down the pipes moves only in one direction.

So our definition of 'network technology' is the technological advances that allow information to move more freely within a network and extend the bandwidth of the network. The change is happening quickly because as the technology develops, the size and the speed of the network flow increases, creating its own momentum. From the Local Area Network computers to the immense, theoretically global network of the Internet, masses of information are now being transferred, at least to the human eye, instantaneously. With the increased speed and access comes increased connectivity - any person on the network can communicate with any other.

While the shift from the broadcast to network model is being driven by specific technologies - the world wide web, the internet, WAP, The Next Killer App - the most important thing is not the particular form that technology takes. More important is the way it affects the way we communicate. Once enabled, individuals can communicate with any other individuals anywhere within the network, rather than having to rely on a newspaper or television show. Yes, there is the server and the associated technical platform on which the internet rests - but nobody owns or controls it. The information is transferred in its pure form, not controlled, interpreted or packaged by a third party. One user merely has to place their information on the network and another member of the network can pick it up.

This represents a significant shift from the broadcast structure, where information was beamed out from designated hubs. Everybody received the same material from a single voice, but it was a one-way interaction. When an institution spoke, be it a company, a government department, even a trade union, the decision would come from the top - approved by the CEO, the Minister, the State Secretary. It would be processed through a public relations department, officially 'released' to the media, then published or broadcast to the individual citizens.

This hierarchical, broadcast structure is now under stress because in a networked environment there are too many hubs to control. With the advent of network technologies it is leaking out everywhere. The structures that exert power through control the information collapse when the information becomes more accessible - layer upon layer of power based on access to information is hollowed out when the information ceases to become a scarce commodity. The last to know that this is going on are those at the top of the hierarchy, because they have so many buffers between them and the real world, each dedicated to proving they are still needed and, thus, maintaining their position.

But on the ground there's something very different going on. People are communicating - through emails, discussion boards, Website chat rooms, people are sharing information on subjects as diverse as share prices to used cars to Sunday's cricket game. Instead of being passive receivers, sitting in their darkened lounge room being fed advertising in a one-way transaction, they are seeking out the information that suits them, placing themselves in a network of other people who share their interests. When this happens, a quite unpredictable phenomenon occurs. People begin to communicate directly, to synergise, to function as a group rather than as a series of individuals. And the better people communicate, the more effectively people are able to build on other people's ideas rather than constantly reinventing the wheel. In this way our general knowledge, our common intellectual property, increases in value.

Let's not get carried away - we are not there yet. We are in a period of transition where networks are becoming more important and are growing rapidly. Western culture is still dominated by broadcast. The institutions that dominate our society are supported by things other than information, such as access to resources and skills and will be a feature of society for some time to come. But they are flattening and changing - more rapidly than anyone would have expected. And this is a good thing.

The Information Dis-Economy

A New Economy is growing around this network technology, as companies attempt to create commercial opportunities around this new dynamic of information exchange. Much of this activity is dominated by the roll-out of the network technology, laying cables to build the network that will carry the information, building and distributing personal computers to tap into the network. This is why telecommunications firms have been performing so well and will continue to, despite the Nasdaq Bubble hype. They are literally laying down the information super-highway infrastructure.

There is a bigger question, though: what will we do with this great new network once we're hooked into it? It is here that New Economy companies are rising and falling on the strength of new ideas. Start-up companies are being backed by investors on the strength of applications of the new technologies - ways that they will be used. Because the technology is new and the market so large, the rewards for those who create useful applications that will be taken up are huge. The prospect of stupendous growth and profit brought near hysteria - hence, the dot com speculative bubble.

But there is also another dimension. There is a sense in which large monolithic corporations are toying with forces that could quite possibly eat them. The established media giants, for example, whose wealth has been built on their control and commercial broadcast of scarce information, are watching their base eroding. The massive media empire Time Warner merges with the dotcom AOL (as the junior partner!); Packer and Murdoch pump millions into the Internet, trying to win cyberspace like they have won a hundred previous battles. But their problem is that at this stage there are no guarantees this will make money any of their money back. In fact the information economy could well be an Information dis-economy. By undermining the scarcity of information, the technology, perversely takes away its value. Through this prism, attempts to limit the spread of new technology that would spread information faster, such as the commercial networks have done lobbying against the opening up of datacasting and the digital spectrum begin to make sense.

The response of both the business and government in attempting to limit the take-up of new technology give an early hint of some of the challenges the institutions of the Industrial Age are facing as the implications of network technology become more apparent. Right now there appears to be a collective scratching of the heads. While business sees how the new technology can cut costs, they're stumped if they can find a business model to make money from the public. And for government it is worse - not only having to deal with the change, but to pretend to a flummoxed electorate that it can stop and start it at will. The problem is that - viewed through the current language of power - network technologies are indeed a hostile force; they inevitably disrupt the status quo and, worse, create instability.

Post-Modernity in Practice

It's said that every significant technological revolution has been conceived or been preceded by a philosophical revolution. In this light, the emergence of the Internet at this time in history sort of makes sense. Over the past 100 years we've seen the contest in western thinking between the certainty of modernism, asserting a series of essential truths existing in and of themselves, challenged by the post-modernists who claim it is all just a construct of the observer. This debate raged across the 20th Century until Popstars finally closed out the game for post-modernity. And once the structures were junked, what was left? A world without certainty, where one accepts responsibility for constructing one's own reality from the ground up.

The advent of network technology seems to fit within this post-modern framework, as a technology of its time. Here is a tool that facilitates a conversation based on layer after layer of context - real voices making sense of the world from an infinite number of reference points. If the nightly news broadcast by TV stations, with an authoritative voice telling us 'the way it is' each night reflects a modernist adherence to an essential truth, then the Internet is a technological which undermines this by allowing members of the network to build their own communities of information and interest seems more at home in the post-modern world of deconstruction and pastiche.

What network technologies offers is the means by which ordinary people can construct their own reality, choosing who and what to engage with from a theoretically limitless pool. We can only begin to imagine the voices that will emerge as this process gathers pace. What we can be confident in that, by taking away a 'centre' that controls the flow of information, network technologies will serve the interests of the marginalised. In later years we can foresee analyses of how the Net has worked to promote the interests of racial minorities, women, the young and the old - by providing the means to participate in a public domain on their own terms.

At this stage, many in these groups will see the Net as a negative - confusing the valid issues of accessibility with applicability. As the debate matures, we think the true potential of this technology will come to the fore. If the connections are free to find their own mediums, rather relying on a pre-existing platform, the capacity to dominate and control is diminished. In doing so, very different models of community will come to the fore.

Next Week: Community - The Ultimate Communication Network


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*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 101 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: A Little Knowledge
Labor's science spokesman Martyn Evans was the Opposition's key player on the Knowledge Nation inquiry. He fills us in on the process.
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*  Education: Theory and Practise
Whether or not you agree with the priorities for of Barry Jones’ Knowledge Nation Taskforce, Julie Wells argues its boldness has to be admired.
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*  E-Change: 1.1 Email Nation
In the first of a series of articles on politics and the new economy, Peter Lewis and Michael Gadiel argue network technologies are reshaping the fundamentals of society.
*
*  Economics: Banking on the Goodwill
Given their history, Evan Jones wonders whether banks can really claim to be "just like any other business"
*
*  International: A Deathly Struggle
In this dispatch from PNG, a trade union leader briefs us on the situation following the shooting of seven students at an anti-privatisation rally.
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*  History: Enlarging Human Personality
Mark Hearn argues that Lloyd Ross's post-War approach to Workplace Democracy seems contemporary by today's standards
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*  Satire: Shit is a Four Letter Word
Australian TV drama is lame and gutless just look at the ABC's Love is a Four Letter Word, says Tony Moore
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*  Review: Tribute to an Artist
Dalgarno painted the seagulls circling the seafarer like flies buzzing around the face of a bushman. Thus did the artist depict the maritime worker.
*

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»  Activist Notebook
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Columns
»  The Soapbox
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»  The Locker Room
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»  Trades Hall
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»  Tool Shed
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Letters to the editor
»  Mate Against Mate
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»  Disconnected from Reality
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»  Applause for the Ton
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»  Unions Online? Not Yet!
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