The Information Society Forum’s First Annual Report: A critique
a) The Bangemann report, issued in March 1995, on Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Europe, set out to examine the implications for the EU of the development of ICT. Its key recommendation was for an Action Plan based on specific initiatives involving the public and the private sector in partnership. The objective of these initiatives was stated to be "to stimulate markets so that they can rapidly attain critical mass".
b) This was not the stated purpose of the Forum. It was to "create a new and authoritative source of reflection, debate and advice on … the Information Society …"Curiously, in the light of the Bangemann recommendations, nowhere does the Forum attempt to define activities which might "stimulate markets".
c) The Forum therefore makes no contribution to the Bangemann objectives; does it, however, contribute to other, desirable, outcomes? In particular, does it suggest ways in which the EU could respond to 1997’s greatest challenge; the need to reduce unemployment? It seems certain that an informed study of the current impact and future potential of ICT would permit useful conclusions to be drawn about best practice in this respect.A group of experienced representatives from a wide variety of backgrounds should be ideally equipped to develop some of these conclusions. This brief critique explores some of the reasons why the Forum has spectacularly, in the light of the resources, devoted to it, failed to do so.
2. The Forum’s Brief
A. No Definition
The Forum’s activities (approximately 6 man years of meetings alone) and reports all stem from an undefined, and therefore unanalysable,premise – the Information Society. Because there is no attempt at any time to state what is meant by this term, all subsequent comment on the concept concerns only what the commentator believes it to be. The collection of opinions in the report may or may not be helpful in illuminating all or any aspect of the issue to which the opinion relates; because the issue is never defined, the reader cannot determine whether the opinion has any value.
1. The opening paragraph of the brief reads "… (information)technologies must meet the needs of all citizens, as well as business".People are employed by businesses, and are paid by businesses. People provide capital for businesses, and earn a return from the risk they run.People are citizens, and vice versa. The brief implies that in some way or other the citizens who work in and fund business are monopolising information technologies at the expense of citizens who do not.This unsubstantiated, unresearched, inaccurate observation appearing in the first paragraph of the brief accounts for much of the distortions in the report that follows.
2. Moreover this brief implies that the Bangemann report was wrong to lay emphasis on encouraging "market forces to lead the way" while recognising "they cannot do the job alone". It is surely correct to argue that it is the job of market forces to identify new opportunities and mobilise resources to seize them, and the job of other agents of social change to support this task, while offering constructive and intelligent criticism, including advice on the impact on other social partners. The political process can then create the right balance between freedom and licence.
Information has many parts. Knowledge, learning, experience, insights,culture, philosophy, science, literature – all are types of information.Information also takes many forms – written, oral, pictorial, graphic, plastic art etc. Information is not however information until it is transmitted, by whatever means, between at least two people. The creation of information and its transmission always consumes resources. Because resources are used, society must choose between the options available and the demands on these resources;nowhere in the brief is this fundamental point included – nowhere in the report is it addressed. Worse: information is frequently regarded as a free commodity, that, like air, can be breathed as freely and as cheaply.
3. The Forum’s Report
The failure to define its subject has caused the report to concentrate on two aspects of information technology; its possible social (including cultural) and political consequences, and the possible role of the public sector. These are, of course, two areas where opinions can neither be proved or disproved, and where purely political considerations will dominate unless tempered with the reality of finite resources. The Forum’s report may be a suitable manifesto for a European political grouping, but it (presumably) was not intended to be such. It entirely fails to consider, inter alia –
- the work of the entrepreneurial publisher in meeting citizens’ needs for information;
- the convergence of technologies;
- the potential clash between alternative information transmission methods;
- the Internet;
- what should be left to the market to decide, and what should be a public service; and how justifiable is it to allocate tax revenues to the latter as opposed to alternative uses for these revenues?
- the fundamental importance of freedom of expression, which is hardly discussed.
The report is ingenuously revealing when it lists the concerns "which have preoccupied The Forum"; none of the above are listed.
B. The Report’s Social and Political Content
The following themes are apparent:
The report appears to welcome the emergence of a populist democracy,where every issue is put to an electronic referendum. Not only is this alien to every existing democratic system in the EU; it would invite manipulation by well organised and technologically sophisticated pressure groups.
"Information want-nots" are not to be tolerated, apparently. This dirigiste flavour is found throughout the report; other examples are:
- "public policy must facilitate the development of telework" – why?
- "we (must not) succumb to … new demands for material consumption" – why not?
- "new technologies must contribute to sustainable development" – why?
- "people must be made aware of the implications of the information revolution" – why, and by whom? To what extent are they not already aware?
- "attention will have to be given to … rights of access to the home … for regulatory inspectors." Wow!
3. Sustainable development
This fashionable concept has no place in this report. To include it is to show that the author is paying more attention to the politically proper, than to intelligent analysis.
The Forum wishes to "strengthen the meaning of European citizenship".The way in which this will become a reality is through the Commission adopting 13 recommendations, which would require a range of Commission initiatives, from additional research to market manipulation. Taken together they imply an additional transfer of sovereignty not just from member states’ political institutions, but from their academic,educational, and commercial institutions as well. Nowhere, however, is there a definition of "European citizenship", and an explanation of the benefits it will confer; nor how this transfer will enhance benefits.
C. Opinion – not Reason
Because the report springs from an undefined assumption – that there is, or may be, an information society – its content is largely opinion.This would matter less, if the opinion were not presented as if it were incontestable.
Thus "we feel sure that education has to move from teacher centredness to learner centredness". Where is the evidence for this remarkable conclusion? (p.53). If it existed, it would be a serious reflection on the education systems of free countries. There is no evidence; it is merely an opinion,like so many others in the report,completely unsubstantiated and therefore likely to be driven by prejudice. No conclusion from such an opinion should be a basis for action.
D. Public versus Private
1. The report shows no understanding of the role of the private sector.It displays a degree of angst that is completely at variance with reality.It portrays the private sector as primarily concerned with "monitoring…. the activities of citizens … for a wide range of purposes … for which the data were never intended." It demands that "public access to basic electronic services … must be universal and affordable"; and "governments should commit to … assuring the electronic provision of public services". The Forum’s members are as mistrustful of the private sector’s motives as they are ignorant of the resource implications of
their demands for the public sector.
2. This unwillingness to deal with the real world, and to treat public authorities as if their services were free, and as if, like naughty children, they were neglectful of their duties to the report’s authors, is a continuous theme; viz "… the Forum’s attempts to analyse the jobs outlook has been inhibited by the lack of a conceptual framework for understanding the phenomenon. We strongly urge that one is developed".This immediately raises three questions:
- what attempts to analyse? There are none. There is no effort made whatever to research the issue, nor to report on that research. If there had been, a mass of data would rapidly have been uncovered;
- "the lack of a conceptual framework"; does this mean the lack of an explanation for the fall in employment arising from the new technologies? More has probably been written on this subject in recent years than on any other single aspect of employment;
- "we strongly urge that one be developed". By whom? Why did the Forum not put some of its effort behind this task, instead of assuming that it was the responsibility of someone else?
The feeling inevitably arises that the author’s grasp of his subject is as limited as his willingness to research it.
The Forum did not define its purpose. It could not therefore organise itself to achieve it. It brought together a large group of Europeans, with an aimless brief, and gave them a platform to present their opinions. If these opinions addressed the real questions, which are:
- how will the new information technologies benefit people?
- how can we accelerate progress towards these benefits?
- how can legislation, the information industry, educators, and users promote acceleration?
- what are the resource consequences?
then these opinions, collected in the report, might be useful. Amazingly, 128 people over 18 months do not appear to have produced a single answer to any of these questions.
5. A Positive Action Programme
A. Job Losses
We propose that, in conjunction with UNICE, the Commission institute a factual study of the erosion of jobs caused by the introduction of information technology (IT) in manufacturing industry and in commerce. Questions such as:
Loss of industrial production jobs through the introduction of computer controlled processes, for example in the use of machine tools, to replace skilled workers. Has this phase ended, or is it still continuing? If so,can its full extent be estimated?
Job losses in commerce and trade, especially in those branches whose content is wholly or in great part information, that is: government and administration at every level; banking and financial services; insurance;
public and private media; advertising; freight and passenger transport,commodity and currency trading. These losses clearly continue; can theirfull extent be estimated?
B. Job creation
In parallel, the Commission should set up the type of partnerships envisaged by Bangemann in 1995. These could be split as follows:
- content provision (with EPC);
- content transmission (with e.g. telecomms and software companies).
Their key task would be to identify the conditions necessary for the development of ICT (which will happen anyway) to promote job growth.
14 April 1997