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Roger Clarke's 'Networked Nation' Ch. 3

Information Infrastructure for The Networked Nation
Chapter 3

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 25 November 1994

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1994

This is chapter 3 of a multi-part Monograph whose contents-page is at

This document is at

3. Opportunities, Impact and Implications

The information economy offers great opportunities for Australian industry. Hardware is needed. The country has proven capable of competing even in mass market products, but has an especially good record in niche products, esepcially in the communications area. The diversity of services and demand will create many opportunities for local manufacturers, and for domestic manufacturing subsidiaries of multinational information technology suppliers.

It is in software and services, however, that the greatest prospects exist. Software design and engineering standards are very high. The openness of our economic borders ensures that a significant proportion of new technologies deveoped overseas are released in Australia, in some cases first, as it has been used on many occasions as a test-market. Leveraging on this early access, Australian software product engineers are able to apply their considerable imagination and design talent to the development of refinements, adjuncts and specific-market products. Support, education and training and consultancy are areas in which Australia already has considerable strengths, and these can be applied to the new fields that are opening up.

The information infrastructure is not a localised phenomenon, but a global matter; accordingly Australian companies can readily address the world-wide market for products and services, provided that Australia remains within the mainstream of international developments. From a serious trade deficit only a few years ago, to a significant export-earner and modest trade deficit today, the information technology sector promises to become a major element of Australia's future clever country, which depends equally on natural resources, agricultural and pastoral commodities, and value-added goods and services.

In addition to the macro- and micro-economic effects, there will, of course, be substantial social impacts and implications of the information infrastructure and the uses to which it is put. It is infeasible to predict or plan those uses, their impacts on individuals, processes, groups and organisations, and their implications for people and society. What can reasonably be done, however, is to reflect on the most mature of the user communities, researchers. Sophisticated computing and communications infrastructure is in place to support the research endeavour. Many and varied services are available and will come to be delivered. These services are highly open-ended, and their users will apply them to different purposes, and perceive them differently. This section focuses on a few key aspects.

Electronically published 'papers' have been appearing on resumés for some years, particularly in computer science and information systems, but now also in the business disciplines. An increasing emphasis on electronic publication, involving down-loading and local printing of hard copy on-demand can already be detected. Electronic publishing is set to have a devastating effect on conventional publishing houses, as the relative costs of electronic publishing make the large bureaucracies of the publishing houses untenable. The forthcoming decrease in the availability of key journals in hard copy can be expected to spur very brisk improvements in the professionalism of electronic journals.

Never-finished articles have hitherto been a liability rather than as asset, because the ideas contained in them had neither been contributed into the common pool, nor subjected to assessment by peers. A new environment has arisen, in which some kinds of articles can be living reference works, in a state of permanent revision. Collaboration is facilitated, among researchers, between researchers and sponsors, and between researchers and publishers. It is also feasible to improve the peer review process, because reviewers can enjoy a convenient working environment, and spend less time, while providing more prompt feedback, in a form which is more convenient for the author, editor and co-reviewers.

Another effect of information technology is the democratisation of research: as network connectivity increases, it is not just researchers in recognised research institutions who have access to data, communications and processing capacity. Private individuals with an interest in a topic extract ideas from researchers, and inject their views into the process. In some circumstances, researchers will welcome this; for example in the early stages of a new and urgent challenge such as the sudden emergence of the next exotic and potentially fatal virus. It is to be expected, however, that many researchers for much of the time will seek to protect themselves from interested amateurs.

Less benign and more predatory are commercial interests, particularly those which are not contributing to research, but who use the networks to monitor developments in areas in which they perceive an opportunity for profit. In much the same way that the security of research servers has had to be enhanced in the wake of virus and hacker attacks, research groups are establishing closed groups within the open net, and filtering the data that they allow out into the public domain, and the communications that they allow in (Denning 1990). There is also the prospect of individual research workers, project-teams, institutions, regions or countries seeking to isolate their work from other researchers. For a discussion of the international implications of communications technologies, see Clarke et al (1991).

In the physical, chemical and biological sciences, it is increasingly attractive to replace costly and generally messy laboratory work by digital simulation: 'virtual reality' is not merely a creation of the entertainment industry (Krueger 1982, 1983, Helsel & Roth 1991, Daedelus 1992). An unavoidable effect is the creation of an 'ideal world', in which experiments nearly always work, and theory presents itself as gospel. Such anomalies as do present themselves can be explained away as programming errors, as failures in the mapping of the theory into silicon. The leaders in any discipline will not be fooled by the apparent authority of the digital experiment; for the gullible majority, however, established theories will be more authoritative than ever before, and the psycho-shock of the occasional paradigm-shift will be that much more dramatic.

Cumulative change in information technology through the 1980s and 1990s will have both intensive and extensive impacts on research. There will be effects on the choice of research topics, methods and tools, the dissemination of research outcomes, and even the very nature of research itself. In some cases, computing and telecommunications will be used merely to automate existing research practices, but in other cases existing practices will be augmented or rationalised. There are prospects of wholesale (but accidental) 'transformation', and of deliberate 'research process re-engineering'.

The application of the Internet is also exacerbating existing tendencies to misunderstand and abuse important concepts. For example, the terms 'data' and 'information' are often used interchangeably. It is more useful to regard data as symbols which represent, or purport to represent, real-world entities and processes. 'Data' are intrinsically valueless, but can come to have value in a variety of contexts. The simplest context is that of a decision to which the data is relevant, i.e. where a decision-maker would reach a different conclusion, and therefore take different action, depending on whether that data is or is not available. On this interpretation, 'information' is data which has value arising in a particular context. Hence whether data are information can only be judged situationally, and only in the presence of intelligence.

In recent years, there has also been some amount of confusion between 'information' and 'knowledge', particularly in the artificial intelligence community. What is recognised by the cognoscenti as hyperbole is often accepted by the less discerning at face value (Haugeland 1981, Bolter 1984). So-called knowledge engineering techniques are nothing more than clever processing capabilities using data representation methods rather more abstract than those which were conventional a decade or two earlier (Dreyfus 1972, Dreyfus & Dreyfus 1985).

Some commentators judge the prevalent mis-use of the term 'knowledge' not as mere ignorance, but as dangerous arrogance (Weizenbaum 1976). They infer from computer scientists' statements and behaviour a philosophical stance that not only information and knowledge, but also judgement, wisdom, mind and conscience, can be reduced to a common denominator of data. The following is one particularly scathing attack on the mechanistic 'data is information is knowledge is wisdom' notion of information technology:

"information, [even today], is no more than it has ever been: discrete little bundles of fact, sometimes useful, sometimes trivial, and never the substance of thought [and knowledge] ... The data processing model of thought ... coarsens subtle distinctions in the anatomy of mind ... Experience ... is more like a stew than a filing system ... Every piece of software has some repertory of basic assumptions, values, limitations embedded within it ... [For example], the vice of the spreadsheet is that its neat, mathematical facade, its rigorous logic, its profusion of numbers, may blind its user to the unexamined ideas and omissions that govern the calculations ... garbage in - gospel out. What we confront in the burgeoning surveillance machinery of our society is not a value-neutral technological process ... It is, rather, the social vision of the Utilitarian philosophers at last fully realized in the computer. It yields a world without shadows, secrets or mysteries, where everything has become a naked quantity" [Roszak 1986, pp.87,95,98,118,120,186-7].

As information technology changes the face of research work, charges such as these must be confronted.

This section has drawn on the experiences of research community, because it has been at the 'cutting edge' of the prototype information infrastructure, the Internet. Similar patterns are already discernible in other segments of business, government and the community, which adopt network-based communications and data-access facilities.

The Australian economy and society as a whole face dramatic change as a result of the information infrastructure and the burgeoning and diverse services available using it. Some of these changes will be largely positive, some negative, depending on the perspective of the observer. It is possible that the good will happen of its own accord, and the bad will be countered by natural equilibrating mechanisms.

In a matter as complex and far-reaching as this, however, it seems a forlorn hope that an invisible hand will, unfettered, ensure the dawning of an electronic utopia. There are many existing forces at work which will intersect with the information economy and society, and parallel forces which will arise. There are also manifold imperfections, measures and counter-measures in place that will affect developments. There are many perspectives on social, economic, environmental, national security and other aspects of Australian society. In short, the information infrastructure and the services available using it will emerge in the cauldron of a complex society. If the information infrastructure is allowed to simply happen, we are highly unlikely to be able to exploit the opportunities it offers; it is imperative that an active policy formulation process be undertaken.

This is chapter 3 of a multi-part Monograph. Chapter 4 is at

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