The Information Age as Threat

Roger Clarke

Principal, Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra

Visiting Fellow, Department of Computer Science, Australian National University

Version of 14 October 1994

© Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, 1994

This paper is a (loose) interpretation of an address to the Round Table on 'Public Access to Networked Information', held at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra on 13-14 October 1994, under the auspices of the National Scholarly Communications Forum (NSCF).

This document is at


This address is concerned with the question as to whether the information infrastructure that will emerge from the efforts of the 1990s will serve the interests of Australia and Australians as a whole, or will significantly benefit some participants to the serious detriment of others. The notion of the 'public interest' is used to refer to non-corporate participants in society, including individuals, informal groups and communities of common interest, not-for-profit incorporated associations, and at least small and perhaps also medium enterprises (SMEs). It is used in distinction to large corporations, including government agencies and authorities, government business enterprises and large joint stock corporations.

Corporations delivering telecommunications, entertainment and news services are vast, and have large investments, market share, profitability and influence to protect. Government agencies possess significant empires that they seek to protect. They also have established agendas they pursue over long periods, overlaid by policy initiatives of the governing party or parties. Within the research sector, 'high-science' has ongoing linkages with government and industry, and a need for access to information technologies which are, by definition, advanced, high-capacity, demanding, and expensive. It is argued that the information infrastructure movement in Australia is in danger of being hi-jacked by these 'big battalions'.

The Limited Focus of Contemporary Debate

Discussions about information infrastructure have used a vocabulary that reflects historical relationships between people and social institutions, rather than the relationships which are more appropriate to the present and the future. Key elements of that vocabulary include:

These terms and their usages are consistent with the force-feeding of the public by institutions who possess the information and services. They are also consistent with the 'cable-TV / videos-on-demand' conception of the information infrastructure, the 'supplier-push' approach, and 'technology-driven' policy.

Even the term 'access' is primarily used to mean the ability to receive data pumped down a channel to the consumer. Users are expected to demand what the providers are capable of and want to supply; and providers invest in consumer education, to ensure that consumers appreciate what will be offered. This is the now-classic 'revised sequence' in marketing that Gabraith wrote about three decades ago.

The Vocabulary That's Needed

In the 'information age', 'access' should imply much more than passive consumption of the user's choice among pre-determined alternatives. It should go beyond the puny ambition implicit in some proposals, that people be able to offer feedback to the providers whose information and services they access. It should instead be consistent with the 'Internet' conception of the information infrastructure. It should mean access to the net, and all that the net enables. It should imply the ability of individuals to participate.

Full participation in the net means that people must be able to perform multiple roles. In addition to acting as passive listener / watcher / consumer and perhaps chooser of data and services, an individual must be able to act as a provider, of:

Justifying Public Participation in the Information Infrastructure

It's not adequate to simply assert that people matter, because the fact is that Australian society, like most others, is dominated by institutions, not the public. There is a range of socio-political motivations that can be invoked, ranging from inherent rights to notions of participative democracy. But in the political environment within which decisions about Australia's information infrastructure will be made, the arguments that matter are economic in nature.

An appropriately designed information infrastructure can assist companies and government agencies to avoid or significantly reduce many of the costs of organisation. Teleworking was heralded a long time ago, and failed to explode as predicted. It has, however, slowly become a reality, as it has become apparent which applications are appropriate, the relevant levels of trust have been achieved, appropriate controls have been put in place, and the costs of equipment and software to support it have come down.

Teleworking is currently enabling organisations to reduce their office-sizes, through an arrangement sometimes referred to as 'hot desking', in which many staff-members are mobile, work primarily at home, on the premises of clients, business partners and suppliers, and/or on the move, and visit their own organisation only occasionally. They are then allocated an office and services as needed.

The effects of such changes in work-patterns are compounding the collapse in demand for commercial premises in central business districts which accompanied the recent recession. The emptying of CBDs has resulted in commercial buildings being converted to apartments, and alarmed some Chambers of Commerce to the extent that they have appealed to governments to halt the trend towards residential use of CBDs by refusing planning approval.

The economic arguments in support of a participative information infrastructure go beyond such cost-replacement justifications. The prototype of a democratic, participative information infrastructure, the Internet, represents an 'electronic playground'. Students in tertiary institutions make what some people regard as frivolous use of transmission capacity to file diatribes about matters of ephemeral significance to small groups of highly dispersed afficionados, to participate in multi-user games, to conduct opportunistic, poorly conceived and poorly managed searches, and to experiment with new ideas for services. Yet precisely these frivolous uses are providing these young people with the means to pursue ongoing self-education and discovery. Distance education doesn't have to be legislated for; it's happening. The foundations have been laid for our own ongoing 'cultural revolution' - a welling-up of new and revised ideas and artefacts.

Culture is often talked about as a quality to be protected, but it also happens to be a major export, and a major reason for foreign tourists to spend their money in Australia (BTCE 1994, Cutler 1994). The dynamics of culture are also tightly bound up with industrial design. A participatively-oriented information infrastructure, and the services it inspires, are incubators of creativity. Australia will live or die in economic terms, depending on the extent to which the aspiration to being 'a clever country' is just rhetoric, or is achieved, by harnessing the potential.

Principles Underlying Participative Information Infrastructure

There are many factors which need to be considered in the development of an architecture. The following are elements which, from the perspective of the public interest, are presently being underplayed, or are missing entirely:

The 'Big Battalions'

It was suggested earlier that the large players in the information infrastructure arena include corporations in the telecommunications, entertainment and news industries, government agencies, and 'high-science'. These organisations have a natural desire to dominate and control - in the case of corporations, that's the role they are expected to play; and in the case of regulatory agencies, that's the role that Parliament has created them for.

Schumacher argued many years ago that 'small' is beautiful, desirable, and possible. Information technology is making 'small' at least probable, and maybe inevitable. Outsourcing is the currently most popular catchcry which reflects that trend, but the advantages of small, agile, imaginative and adaptive organisational units over large ones, is manifesting itself in many other ways as well. Small-and-medium-enterprises (SMEs), and even unincorporated enterprises, sole practitioners, and part-time businesspeople, represents threats to the interests of existing major corporations and agencies.

Several discussion fora have been established to assess needs, and recommend paths to the future. The first was the Australian Science and Technology Council's Working Group on Research Data Networks (ASTEC 1994), whose Report was tabled in the Federal Parliament in late September. The second is the Broadband Services Expert Group, which is a task force operating within the Commonwealth Department of Communications and the Arts, and whose interim report was published in August (BSEG 1994), and whose final report is anticipated at the end of the year. These Groups comprise individuals who have considerable, relevant background, energy and vision. And their employment is very largely by large and very interested corporations and government agencies.

In this climate of (understandable) nervousness on the part of visionaries within large organisations, it is particularly problematical that the primary people who are invited onto government agencies to deliberate on the development of the information infrastructure are representatives of large organisations, and the majority of the organisations acting to shape the architecture are among the 'big battalions'.


The theme developed in this address has been that the information age embodies threats to powerful corporations and government agencies. They may be expected to seek to mitigate those threats, in particular by ensuring that the architecture of the emergent national and global information infrastructure is biased in their favour. In doing so, they create threats to the interests of the public.

During the next few years, the shape of the infrastructure, and the biases inherent in it, will be determined. There is a serious risk that the free interplay among large stakeholders will result in a shape that is not in the best interests of Australia and Australians. Action by citizens, their public interest lobby groups, and their elected representatives, is likely to be essential, to ensure balance.


ASTEC (1994) 'The Networked Nation', Australian Science & Technology Council, Canberra, September 1994

BSEG (1994) 'Networking Australia's Future' Interim Report of the Broadband Services Expert Group, Dept of Communications and the Arts, July 1994

BTEC (1994) 'New Forms and New Media: Commercial and Cultural Policy Implications' Communication Futures Project, Bureau of Transport & Communication Economics, Canberra, August 1994

Clarke R. & Worthington T. (1994) 'Vision for a Networked Nation: The Public Interest in Network Services' Proc. Conf. International Telecomms Soc., Sydney, July 1994, at

Cutler (1994) 'Commerce in Content: Australia and the Interactive Multi-Media Market' Cutler & Co., Canberra, September 1994

Roger Clarke is Reader in Information Systems in the Department of Commerce at the Australian National University. Since 1988, he has been conducting a Research Programme in 'Supra-Organisational Systems', with particular reference to electronic commerce and, during the last three years, the information infrastructure. He is also a senior office-bearer of the Australian Computer Society.


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