Digital Economy Strategy: Why we risk asking the wrong question

Far better an approximate answer to the right question, than the exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise….

John Tukey

I’ve always admired Paul Erdos, the wandering mathematician who I first learned about by reading his obituary in the Economist back in 1996 (and later learned was a friend and frequent house guest of my grandfather’s). What I remember best about that economist obituary was how one of his students talking about his genius not lying in his capacity to produce mathematical proofs, but in his ability to ask the right question, which set events in motion so that the proof could be found at all.

It is with that idea in mind that I turn to the Canada 3.0 conference here in Stratford Ontario where I’ve been invited to take part in a meeting with industry types and policy leaders to talk about what Canada must do to become a leading digital nation by 2017. The intent is to build on last year’s Stratford Declaration and develop an action plan.

So what do I think we need to do? First, I think we need to ask the right question.

I think we need to stop talking about a digital as the future.

This whole conversation isn’t about being a digital country. It isn’t about a future where everything is going to be digitized. That isn’t the challenge. It is already happening. It’s done. It’s over. Canada is already well on its way to becoming digital. Anyone who uses MS Word to write a document is digital. I’ve been submitting papers using a word processor since high school (this comes from a place of privilege, something I’ll loop back to). Worse, talking about digital means talking about technology like servers or standards or business models like Bell, or Google or Music Producers and all the other things that don’t matter.

The dirty truth is that Canada’s digital future isn’t about digital. What is special isn’t that everything is being digitized. It’s that everything is being connected. The web isn’t interesting because you can read it on a computer screen. It is special because of hyperlinks – that information is connected to other information (again, something the newspaper have yet to figure out). So this is a conversation about connectivity. It is about the policy and legal structure needed when me, you, information, and places, when everything, everywhere is connected to everything else, everywhere persistently. That’s the big change.

So if a digital economy strategy is really about a networked economy strategy, and what makes a networked economy work better is stronger and more effective connectivity, then the challenge isn’t about what happens when something shifts from physical to digital. It is about how we promote the connectivity of everything to everything in a fair manner. How do we make ourselves the most networked country, in the physical, legally and policy terms. This is the challenge.

Viewed in this frame. We do indeed have some serious challenges and are already far behind many others when it comes to connectivity if we want to be a global leader by 2017. So what are the key issues limiting or preventing connectivity and what are the consequences of a networked economy we need to be worried about? How about:

  • Expensive and poor broadband and mobile access in (in both remote and urban communities)
  • Throttling and threats to Net Neutrality
  • Using copyright as a vehicle to limit the connectivity of information (ACTA) or threaten peoples right to connect
  • Using copyright as a vehicle to protect business models built on limiting peoples capacity to connect to innovations and ideas
  • Government’s that don’t connect their employees to one another and the public
  • It’s also about connective rights. Individual rights to limit connectivity to privacy, and right to freely associate and disassociate

So what are the three things we need to start thinking about immediately?

If connectivity is the source of innovation, wealth and prosperity then how do we ensure that Canadians are the most connected citizens in the world?

1)    a net neutral broadband and mobile market place where the costs of access are the lowest in the world.

That is would be a source of enormous competitive advantage and a critical stepping stone to ensuring access to education and an innovation fueled economy. Sadly, we have work to do. Take for example, the fact that we have the worst cell phone penetration rates in the developed world. This at a time when cellphone internet access is overtaking desktop internet access.

But more importantly, I was lucky to be able to use a word processor 20 years ago. Today, not having access to the internet is tantamount to preventing a child from being able to go to the library, or worse, preventing them from learning to read. Affordable access is not a rural or urban issue. It’s a rights and basic education issue.

Equally important is that the network remain a neutral platform upon which anyone can innovate. The country that allows its networks to grant (or sell) certain companies or individuals special privileges is one that one that will quickly fall behind the innovation curve. New companies and business models inevitable displace established players. If those established players are allowed to snuff out new ideas before they mature, then there will be no new players. No innovation. No new jobs. No competitive advantage.

2)    A copyright regime that enables the distribution of ideas and the creation of new culture.

Here I am in Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, one of the biggest open source festivals in the country. Every year the city celebrates plays that, because they are in the public domain, can be remixed, re-interpreted, and used without anyone’s permission to create new derivative cultural works (as well as bring joy and economic prosperity to untold people). A copyright regime that overly impedes the connectivity of works to one another (no fair use!) or the connectivity of people to ideas is one that will limit innovation in Canada.

A networked economy is not just one that connects people to a network. That is a broadcast economy. A networked economy is one that allows people to connect works together to create new works. Copyright should protect creators of content, but it should do so to benefit the creators, not support vast industries that market, sell, and repackage these works long after the original creator is dead. As Lawrence Lessig so eloquently put it:

  • Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.
  • The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.
  • Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past.
  • Ours is less and less a free society.

A networked economy limits the past to enable the future.

3)    A government that uses a networked approach to creating a strategy for a connected economy.

An agrarian economy was managed using papyrus, an industrial economy was managed via printing press, typewriters and carbon copy paper. A digital economy strategy and managing policies were created on Microsoft Word and with email. A Network Economy can and only will be successfully managed and regulated when those trying to regulate it stop using siloed, industrial modes of production, and instead start thinking and organizing like a network. Not to ring an old bell, but today, that means drafting the policy, from beginning to end, on GCPEDIA, the only platform where federal public servants can actually organize in a network.

Managing an industrial economy would have been impossible using hand written papyrus, not just because the tools could not have handled the volume and complexity of the work but because the underlying forms of thinking and organizing that are shaped by that tool are so different from how an industrial economy works.

I’m going to predict it right now. Until a digital economy strategy is drafted using online but internally-connected tools like wikis, it will fail. I say this not because the people working on it will not be intelligent, but because they won’t be thinking in a connected way. It will be like horse and buggy users trying to devise what a policy framework for cars should look like. It will suck and terrible, terrible decisions will be made.

In summary, these are the three things I think the federal government needs to be focused on if we are going to create a digital economy strategy that positions us to be leaders by 2017. This is the infrastructure that needs to be in place to ensure that we maximize our capacity to connect each other and our work and reap the benefits of that network.

12 thoughts on “Digital Economy Strategy: Why we risk asking the wrong question

  1. jesgood

    “Affordable access is not a rural or urban issue. It's a rights and basic education issue.”I am glad that you've recognized this dimension of the issue. Frequently we hear of the digital divide but invariably it is framed as an urban/rural dichotomy. This is part of the issue but affordability, in particular the affordability of broadband connections (as opposed to computer hardware or software), is the real barrier to meaningful social and digital inclusion for low-income families and individuals.

  2. Luke

    On your first point about low access costs for mobility. The thing to realize about our current system is that billing is by far the largest cost of our mobile infrastructure. The lengths we go to charge per byte, per minute, per second is what creates the cost of the system. Could you imagine if we paid for water per litre? Every drinking fountain would need coin slots or credit card swipers, BellWater would need to install meters in each home, we'd need support centers to manage billing, and then sales departments to get enough customers to make it all worth while.We really need people (through government) to start owning the infrastructure and eliminate (or greatly reduce) billing from the costs. Once infrastructure has been purchased, it largely “just works” and only has a small maintenance cost.Consider caller ID, which is a sufficient pain in the ass to live without that I just signed up to pay $7/month for. There is no tangible cost for my mobility company to provide this to me. But there is cost created to support turning it on or off – you need to build that feature, you need to build billing systems, to create marketing for it, to create support people to turn it off and on.Eliminate billing and we eliminate 95% of the cost of running mobile networks.OK, call me a communist now.

  3. semantic_html_rules

    One amazing aspect in this Stratford gathering even happening again is how poorly the first event fit into the ecology of the web to begin with. Comatose forums, proprietary technologies, it is insult to Web 1.0 to suggest that the Stratford Institute even deserves a number on any progressive web scale. I kid you not, there was even a link called “3.0 Forum Speakers – Please feel free to upload your Presentations to the Speakers PPT Folder.”, and this is the brain trust charting Canada's future?

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  5. Jeremy Vernon

    I'd like to challenge this comment outright since it's basically just false. I've worked for both Rogers and Telus and am quite familiar with what percentage of their revenue is spent on billing and bill-collection and it's nowhere near 95%. If Rogers was returning 5% profits on its mobile business it would be out of business, period. These are publicly traded companies you're talking about here.There is not a country I'm aware of that has cost-free cell-phone or internet access nationwide. Even Estonia, France, Finland and Greece, which recently ruled internet access as a human right (which makes me nervous about the their prison systems) don't give it out for free.The source of the costs of cell-phone don't stem from anything other than simple greed and the liberty of the big-three to exercise it. All three were underwritten with public dollars and continue to squeeze money from government to cover their business costs – all the while raking in disgusting profits. As far as the 'net divide, the greatest threat to access isn't apathy within government to its citizens, it's ambivalence to the extortionist practices of three colluding monopolist corporations.

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  8. Web Strategy

    Interesting comments.I agree with rethinking the question, it's been striking me all week that the whole “a ha” moment of .. Gee, this her interweb thing looks promissing .. .seemed a little … tired?The copyright issue is something of interest for sure, I don't see it getting any better under the current political regime however.

  9. John Jantunen

    You are asking the wrong questions and the ones your are asking are as irrelevant as the ones your seek to criticize. Connectivity? How does whisps of smoke talking to each other serve to engage us with the world in which we live? This is the only thing we need to be talking about right now in regards to digital communications lest our children start thinking air comes from a box and sunlight has a blue tinge.

  10. John Jantunen

    You are asking the wrong questions and the ones your are asking are as irrelevant as the ones your seek to criticize. Connectivity? How does whisps of smoke talking to each other serve to engage us with the world in which we live? This is the only thing we need to be talking about right now in regards to digital communications lest our children start thinking air comes from a box and sunlight has a blue tinge.

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