|Issue No 29||03 September 1999|
Interview with Peter Lewis
Sean Kidney has been combining business savvy with social justice for more than a decade. He gives us his take on unions and the Net.
Why have you decided to get involved in this debate about how the union movement plans its internet strategy?
I set up Social Change Media eleven years ago specifically to try and help progressive organisations get their act together in communication and work for social change. I felt at the time, that the Left had good policy positions but very poor communication - meaning we were losing too many battles. Eleven years on I'm still doing the same thing. But one of the things that has changed in that time is the available means of communication.
A few years ago I started getting involved in the Web and the Internet because I saw it was going to have a revolutionary impact on the nature of communication; the nature of service delivery; and the nature of membership relationships. Through closed circuit internet-style communications the whole finance world has been revolutionised over the last 30 years as a result of digital communications. It is now no longer anywhere near like the sector that it used to be 30 years ago.
Unions and community organisations of all sorts are about to go through the same massive change so I'm concerned that we really think hard about it - that we take advantage of it, and that it can all work towards a better world, which is the thing that Social Change Media tries to do, rather than a world which is further agglomerised into competing sets of commercial entities with not enough attention given to social issues.
Of course, the majority of the ACTU Executive would no doubt argue that that's all very fine, but the point is that there is information rich and information poor and our job is to make our members part of the information rich by giving them computers. What's wrong with that argument?
Well there's a short term and a long term argument. Between now and the middle of next year, sure, I think the union movement should help it they can or if they want to, in spreading the word about what good deals are available.
There are 1,001 deals on the market and coming up and they change month by month, unions may have a duty of care to spread the word about what those deals are. But aligning yourself with one particular deal for more than a year is a tricky business. I mean, choosing which one is going to triumph when, in my own mind I've got three entirely different scenarios between now and next year as to which technology is going to prove to be the cheapest and best access technology, let alone the fact that I think telephone companies are going to offer free internet access anyway.
Well, give us those three scenarios.
Well, one of those scenarios is a games machine led access to the Internet. That is that Sony Playstation wheels out a playstation with full internet access and swamps the market with cheap devices.
A second one is that Web TV does work. I think it's a farfetched one, but if it does work it'll be a cheaper way of getting on the computers.
The third one is that the cost of computers continues to drop exponentially over the next 18 months to become giveaway items and there is some indication that this might actually happen. Particularly, as computer access gets subsidised by the Telcos and the like.
So there are at least three different hardware scenarios before I start talking to you about Internet access scenarios. I do think there is a benefit in spreading the word to members about the cheapest deal and trying to encourage cheap deals, but just make sure that you are not locked into anything long term.
So, it's a bit like the old Beta -v- VCR model at this stage?
Yes, I wouldn't want to take a bet just yet. The more important issue is that you need to understand what some of the certainties are about five years down the track when you are making decisions about what to do in the next six months.
And I'll tell you what a couple of those certainties are: A couple of days ago I went to a seminar run by Lucent Technologies which runs Bells Labs from the States, the largest research institution in the world. One thing became absolutely clear to me by the end of that session. That everything I've ever thought about connectivity was in fact going to happen. That is, in 5-8 year's time things like bandwidth will be not an issue. TV down telephone lines will be easy.
We're going to get the most extraordinary jump in widespread availability of computing technology. You have microchips now that sit on the point of a pin. You're going to have devices - all sorts of purpose built devices - including the home telephone, that will be much more than a full-scale Pentium 3 computer now. You're going to have ten foot high wallpaper display screens. You're going to wear clothes made of micro-optic fibres that let you take images via the Internet, downloading a new image each day.
You're going to have a vast variety and range of very very cheap hardware ways of receiving computing and Internet messages. Your whole house will be wired up through the electricity lines. You plug a computer into a power point or a telephone into a power point or whatever, and it's automatically connected. Or maybe it will be wireless. There's 10001 ways of connecting and computing.
Any kind of device you can imagine will be able to be used to communicate and compute, because it will be connected to the Internet. And they'll be cheap. Incredibly cheap, in the sense that people will be handing them out in the same way Time magazine gives away free watches for a subscription to Time magazine.
That's the order of magnitude of price that you're seeing about to happen. Recent technology has told us how just the amount of data they can get down an optic fibre cable has jumped a hundred-fold over the last year. That's the amount of data they can imagine getting down. A year ago they didn't believe it was possible. And that's happening in every single field of computing.
So, forget about the device you get - there's going to be a whole range of devices. It's going to lead to the most extraordinary industrial revolution that the world has seen in the last 1,000 years. It's going to be much bigger in terms of speed of change than the Industrial Revolution or the telephone revolution. We're going to see Third World countries leapfrogging the First World in terms of the nature of their communications networks. They're not going to bother with hard wired systems. They're not going to bother with land cable. They're already signing deals now with satellite consortiums to run their whole telephone network via satellite at a cheaper rate than we're paying Telstra.
All those sort of things mean that worrying about the hardware long term, to be frank, needs to be the problem of K-Tel. Not the problem of us.
So, what's our job then?
Our job is to worry about what the really important issue of that information poor and information rich problem - and that's information literacy. It's education. In the last 10 years the aid world and the World Bank itself has realised that the most critical thing that you can do to help poor people - people in countries like Bangladesh - is literacy. And more specifically, in those countries, literacy of women. If there's any one thing you can do, that's in fact the thing you need to do. To help them to learn to read and write and navigate through the information world.
Exactly the same thing now is hitting us. The people that are "information poor", as they're called now, are not going to be in the future "information poor" for lack of access. Any device they buy from any electronic store or the home handsets they will be getting free from the telephone companies, will be net-connected. Don't get me wrong - I think there is a political question about keeping a watchful eye over universal access. But we were never going to ensure all members had a phone by getting into the telephone handset business. It was a question for governments and we lobbied them.
The real issue is how the hell to use the new technology? How do you actually navigate through this vast morass of information to make sure you get a good deal - or whatever?.
I'll give you an immediate example. I've just bought a house. Now, I'm lucky because I was able to compare bank interest rates over the Web. And I found that on $150,000 loan I found a loan that was effectively $70 a month cheaper than the bank loans I was initially offeredI found it by using the net to comparison shop and it wasn't that hard. But admittedly I knew how to look. That's the secret.
So that kind of knowledge of how to navigate, translated directly into savings for me and that's wealth over time on a monthly basis. Someone who doesn't know how to look and shop and doesn't get help in that kind of ability to navigate through information will be worse off materially. Then multiply this in one thousand ways.
So the key thing we can do, as activists, as progressives, is support people with information literacy. How to actually find. How to navigate. How to question.
I do agree that we are about to go through a dangerous phase involving large disparities in access to information and, thus, wealth. Not because of hardware; not because of bandwidth; not because of access to communications - the physical access, but because people need to know how to actually use the plethora of information in front of them.
If you went into DJs and you had never been into a shop before, you would die of confusion. It's a learnt skill. Well, we are now about to take a big jump here. We are about to take a jump where the whole world is getting wired at an extraordinary rate. I mean, the number of people who have got connected to the Internet in the last five years is equivalent to the people who got connected to the telephone in its first 70 years. That's how fast things are growing.
We need to assume that in five years or ten years there will be, even if we do nothing about it, 95 to 97% - the same sort of access as phone systems - access to the Internet. But what are we going to do to help people use them properly?
And that's the $64,000 question isn't it?
The key thing we can do is to start helping our members navigate. Doing things like showing them what the choices are. Knowing what computer deals are that are out there. Showing them the different resources they could have. Showing them the job recruitment services they can get over the Internet - which are pretty substantial now. Creating "portals" or gateway pages that bring the most important information for members into the one place.
As distinct from trying to replicate these services. It's a mistake to create our own job services or to provide our own brand of computers. You know, it's going to be impossible for unions to compete in this wild market. But it is our role to try and negotiate to have gaps in service provision filled.
What about the old argument though, that the union movement has shown that it's not capable of running businesses so we've got to give it to professionals?
Well, I'm actually not convinced that we should necessarily be running "businesses". We should be negotiating for members the best of other people's businesses. I'm actually not necessarily a fan of the union movement getting into a DJs kind of retail. But I do think there is a really important need for the union movement to be able to help people to figure out which DJs and Grace Bros and Sportsgirl they should go to to get the best deals around. And that's the kind of "business" that it's important to us to us to be in.
What about issues around the actual nuts and bolts business of unions and organising though? Because you're basically talking about an E-Commerce model there..
What I'm primarily talking about is instead of the redistribution of income, the redistributing the means to income. Organising is a critical part of that process. So how can we use the web to support organising? How can we help members win workplace negotiations? How can we support workers to get their skills recognised industry-wide? Help them find resources of advice fast and easily. Help them figure out what others are getting so they know to ask for themselves. Help them work collectively. How do we use the net to get delegates talking to each other more? The net can be an enormously powerful tool in these areas. It's ours to make it work. We need to give members the where with all to make informed choices and decisions as distinct from aligning ourselves with closed choice models.
And, is that how you see the Vizard proposal?
My understanding of the Vizard - or is it now the Chris Clark ? - proposal is that it is a Microsoft Network model. Or at least it was a few weeks ago! If it is, then that means a sectioned off part of the web. They will sell a licence for individual providers who pay large sums of money to be the preferred supplier - and a large part of the revenue will apparently come from this. And then, whatever you ask for - let's say a home loan - you get that provider's home loan offered in front of you.
Now, that wouldn't have helped me save $70 a month on my home loan. I don't need to be sold off to the highest bidder because it has me as a supposedly captive customer, which is how the Vizard-Microsoft Network business model works.
Right. So, presuming this deal does go through, and it certainly looks like it is, is there any way out of it for the union movement or does that mean we are locked into the discarded Nine-MSN model?
I don't think unions are "locked" into anything at this stage. I think individual unions will obviously have to make their decision about what's the best thing to do for their members. The main thing they need to do is to think about how best they are going to be able to support their members. They need to be clear that the Internet is not some add on they can sell like free oranges to give away. It needs to be seen as a core part of their service.
In the financial services sector - and this will be exactly the same for the union sector - Ernst and Young are predicting that in five to eight years 60 per centof all communication will be by the Web. Now, if you're a union - and if 60 per centof communication is via the Web, as a core channel you want to control that.
You want to make it work for you. You want to have people inside your organisation managing it. And you don't want it confused by commercial messages, unless they're organisations that you actively support. Like union shopper for example. So, I think there is a real issue there that individual unions are going to have to look at in terms of making a long term decision about control of what's going to be the key to service delivery challenge for them, to support organisers and delegates.
Of course, I hope the final shape of the proposal may address this, but it's not a matter of an add-on; it's not a matter of cheap computers or cheap ISP. It's a matter of how a union delivers their core services to members.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005