Tuesday, August 12, 2014

No Information Power Crisis

Nik Gowing, Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxford Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and
a former presenter for the BBC, talked on "Skyful of Lies and Black Swans: Who Controls Shifting Information Power in Crises?" at the Australian National University in Canberra. He argues that IT and the Internet are disruptive game changers. This was a very frustrating presentation, as Mr. Gowing did not explain his thesis, assuming that the audience had read his previous work. He seemed to be saying that senior people in government and industry were not sufficiently familiar with the Internet and it was changing decision making. That would have been new and interesting, if the presentation was being made twenty years ago, but is not news in 2014.

Unfortunately, Mr. Gowing spent the first five minutes warning of "disruption" but did not make clear what this disruption is. He referred to a "digital bullet train of disruptions (quipping the Sydney to Canberra train is not a bullet train). This was delivered in strident tones, but still did not make clear as to what he is warning of. Mr. Gowing, warned there are many "flat earthers" in government who do not understand, but again he did not say what it was they did not understand. He asked how much public policy understood this "new nervous system for the planet", but still without explaining what it was. He said that the evening news is not what it is about, again not saying what "it" is.

Mr. Gowing stated that the were now many billions of mobile phones in operation, creating a whole new public information environment. At this point, more than 15 minutes into the presentation, he started to provide some useful information, but not much. The basic theme seemed to be that there had been a sudden change in the way news cycles operate and organisations need to change they way they work in response. But these changes have been happening, with the development of the Internet and mobile devices, over the last twenty years. Mr. Gowing did not make it clear what has changed recently which is different to the last two decades of development.

Obviously, not all in government have become fully conversant with the implications of the Internet (the Australian Attorney General being a prime example of someone unable, or unwilling, to understand the basics of the Internet). However, I don't agree with Mr. Gowings' view, which appears to be that there is a general lack of understanding of the Internet in government and organisations throughout the world. There are many who are aware of the implications and the everyday usefulness of the technology in organisations world wide. In the Australian Parliament, for example, the Communications Minister Mr. Malcolm_Turnbull MP, and Senator Kate Lundy are examples of leaders comfortable with the Internet.

Mr. Gowing argues that existing organisational structures need to be changed to accommodate the Internet. It is not clear what changes he has in mind, or if he has any specific proposals. In my work on incorporating the Internet into the process of government, professional organisations and educational institutions, I have taken an evolutionary approach, where the new technology is incorporated into existing processes and structures. It may well be that a more revolutionary approach is needed, but if so Mr. Gowing needs to present evidence for why (rather than just anecdotes from news items) and proposals as to how.

Mr. Gowing showed video from a Canberra prison and Tasmanian bushfires. He seemed to be saying that these videos had great impact when used in the media. If so, this is hardly a new idea. Also that these videos appeared in the conventional media and so seemed to contradict Mr. Gowing's thesis that the Internet had eclipsed the old media. He then showed a video "live" from a helicopter in Antarctica, citing this as a revolutionary development. However, live reports have been available for decades. On small scale, Senator Lundy and myself sent a "live" report from a hot air balloon over Canberra, using a mobile phone in 1996. In 1995 I prepared online reports from a military exercise for the Australian Department of Defence, which used satellite and mobile technology (later looking at how to incorporate the technology into military command and control).

Mr. Gowing's asserted that governments had not learned to cope with the Internet and it threatened state control. However, in 2003 I visited the web staff of the People's Daily newspaper in Beijing (while there to help with the web site for the 2008 Olympics). The staff, and the senior academics who advised them, had a very sophisticated view of the web and how to make use of it on behalf of the government. The ANU recently hosted a symposium on current use of the Internet in China, which showed that  China has developed ways to accommodate the Internet within their form of government.

In the last two decades, companies and government agencies have learned to deal with the Internet. Organisations have trained teams of specialists and systems to address online information. Organisation spokespersons receive training in how to deal with the Internet. The Australian Government Chief Technology Officer (AGCTO) and his staff have considerable expertise in this area. The ANU trains staff to work with the Internet (and IT professionals to design specialist software to help them).

It may well be that those who research and teach governance and politics are not familiar with the work carried out on the use of the Internet elsewhere in academia. At the ANU the part of the university which is comfortable with the internet (Computer Science and Information Systems), perhaps needs to collaborate more with the governance and strategic policy areas. Similarly, it may be that senior governance levels in organisations and government are not communicating well with the levels in their organisations who have the expertise to deal with the Internet.

At question time I suggested to Mr. Gowing that perhaps he needs to "get out more" and talk to people in organisations who are conversant with the Internet, rather than with senior leaders who are not. My own experience is that senior people (cabinet ministers, generals and their civilian equivalents) may not be familiar with the Internet, but can learn what they need to know quickly.

Mr. Gowing appears to be developing the theme of his similarly named 2009 work published by Oxford University: "Skyful of lies and black swans: the new tyranny of shifting information power in crises".  After his presentation I read the work and it has much to say which is of value. The central argument is that the Internet and mobile devices have resulted in formation becoming more widely available more quickly and outside the control of governments and other formal organisations. He argued that this was catching organisations unawares. However, that might have been the case twenty years ago, but seems unlikely in 2009 and certainly not the case in 2014. Organisations and governments have adapted to the Internet and mobile based information (I know this as I have helped the process in the Australian government and some other organisations). There is an ongoing challenge for formal organisations and particularly those which have exercised power, or made profits, from control and dissemination of information. Some organisations have prospered in the Internet environment, some just coped and some failed.

There is continuing work going on to adapt organisations to the Internet and the Internet to organisations. Much of this work is commercial-in-confidence or state classified secrets, but some is public. One example is the DARPA Social Media in Strategic Communication (SMISC) research, which seeks to counter Internet based propaganda by terrorist groups and governments hostile to the interests of the USA. For Australia I have proposed a CyberWarfare Battalion (ACWB).


Gowing, N. (2009). "Skyful of lies" and black swans: the new tyranny of shifting information power in crises. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford.

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