Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ The Revolution

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 27, 2000

You see, what is happening in global society is nothing less than a revolution: to understand what is happening, and what we need to do, we need to understand the revolution.

Perrin Beatty, the former cabinet minister and now President and CEO of the Alliance of Manufacturers and Exporters Canada, recognizes this.

The internet and other new technologies are rapidly changing the landscape, he argued. We are going though a revolution and we don't completely understand the changes it will have on society. Because of this, we need to think twice before trying to regulate or control the outcome; government policy may end up working against the very objective it was trying to satisfy.

The best we can do in such a turbulent environment is to understand the forces at play (in a completely different context, Douglas Rushkoff, in Playing the Future, describes this as 'riding the wave' - we can't control the wave, but we can understand it).

Some things are evident, said Beatty: increased bandwidth is inevitable, increased computer power is around the corner, and we are enter an age of ubiquitous computing - the idea that computer intelligence forms a background, like electricity and water do in contemporary homes and businesses.

There are social consequences. Computer power is being decentralized, which means that information and intelligence are being decentralized. Production is growing and costs are declining; these combine to empower individual citizens. Because of the pervasive nature of information, it is not possible to regulate the transmission of information: artifacts like the CRTC and other regulatory agencies are doomed to failure.

Beatty's message - and one which would echo d'Aquino's and would be echoed by other speakers - is that because citizens can do more, and because government is as likely to do harm as it is to do good, government should do less than it does today. The role of government in many fields as regulator is over.

D'Aquino's comments provoked me; Beatty's comments provoked me into a response. Certainly, I said, we can entertain idea that government's role will be minimized, but this applies across the board: many government regulations exist to promote and protect business.

Terence Corcoran, in today's Edmonton Journal, for example, write that government should end corporate welfare. Fair enough, but how would Corcoran react if told that government and the courts no longer have any interest in protecting the Financial Post's copyright, that it was impossible to protect intellectual property, and that it might be doing more harm than good by trying?

Beatty's reply was evasive but accurate: publishers are going to have to change their business models, he said. They are going to have to get out of the habit of making money by hoarding and supplying information, and look to new methods of generating returns on their product.

Fair enough, but that is not where businesses are headed today. Patent and copyright lobbying and legislation is a flourishing business, pharmaceutical companies are profiting from extended patents, artist and motion pictures associations' are launching (and winning) numerous lawsuits, and new legislation, such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibit even the writing of software intended to decode proprietary formats.

This is a recipe for conflict: the irresistible revolution versus the immovable object.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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