Category Archives: News

The IT Revolution Reassessed – Part Two

Part two of this series summarises suggestions for ‘reform and renewal’ offered by Astra Taylor, a New York based writer, filmmaker and activist. It’s a ‘middle-of-the-road’ approach that’s well worth taking seriously (and augmenting with other accounts). We then draw on Misha Glenny’s analysis of the ‘dark market’ to show how the Internet has created vast new opportunities for criminal activity at every level. 

Reform and renewal

Taylor’s The People’s Platform (Taylor, 2014) is a true breath of fresh air in a difficult and often demanding debate – one that you could argue is often obscured by the overwhelming self-interest of some of the most powerful entities in the world. With the subtitle ‘taking back power and culture in the digital age’ the reader knows at the outset that this will not be another banal enumeration of the purported ‘wonders of IT.’ For her, the mantra of ‘open markets’ is far from an unalloyed ‘good’ because ‘the more open people’s lives are, the more easily they can be tracked and exploited by private interests’ (P. 23). At the outset I welcomed the author’s clear acknowledgement of the way conventional discourse about IT is framed. It ‘tends to make technology too central, granting agency to tools while sidestepping the thorny issue of the larger social structures in which we and our technologies are embedded’ (p. 6). She adds ‘first and foremost, we need to rethink how power operates in the post-broadcast era’ and ‘technology alone cannot deliver the cultural transformation we have been waiting for; instead we need to first understand and then address the underlying social and economic forces that shape it’ (p. 9 & 10). The issues could not be put more plainly than that. The language and intent here also echo those of the STS discourse mentioned above. Grounded approaches of this kind are essential for ‘clearing the fog’ and making sense of what is happening around us.

Later she points out how, far from promoting competition, monopolies prosper online bringing about a new kind of ‘vertical integration’ and power over people. A major contradiction, in her view is that ‘the more customised and user friendly our computers and mobile devices are, the more connected we are to an extensive and opaque circuit of machines that coordinate and keep tabs on our activities’ (p. 32). There are, of course, many other aspects of this informed and detailed critique. One of the most striking conclusions is simply that the future currently being fashioned, far from being innovative and ‘new,’ is in fact deeply conservative, even regressive. That is, it ‘perpetuates and expands upon the defects of the earlier system instead of forging a new path’ (p. 34). This is particularly the case with advertising. During earlier times it was little more than a kind of visual adjunct to shopping that simply drew attention to what was for sale. A century or so later it has become a vastly inflated, turbo-charged public nuisance – a true curse on civilisation. It not only embodies crass and indefensible conceptions of human existence (‘shop ‘til you drop’) but also imposes incalculable costs on individuals, societies and cultures in part through misdirecting them wholesale and undermining useful (i.e. less self-focused) values. It constructs a glitzy screen of lies and enticements that distract and disorient entire populations to the point where perceiving even the basics of the human and civilisational predicament are pushed ever further out of reach.

As suggested above new technologies don’t emerge in a cultural vacuum without social, political and economic influences. It follows that, ‘if we want to see the fruits of technological innovation widely shared, it will require conscious effort and political struggle’ p. 54). What is also refreshing here is that the author is under no illusion that the main beneficiaries of IT innovations have indeed been American corporations. Given the worldview that these share it is obvious that something needs to give. For example, it becomes increasingly vital to contest the power of what Taylor calls ‘the overlords of monopoly journalism’ and the ways that they’ve become ‘disconnected from the communities they were supposed to serve’ p. 78).

A great deal has been written and said about the rise and rise of ‘social networks’. But few examine the ways that they quietly ‘shuffle hierarchies’ and produce ‘new mechanisms of exclusion’ (p. 108). Such media, it turns out, are by no means immune to what has been called the ‘iron law of oligarchy.’ Thus ‘the web is not actually unstructured, despite the fact that it is open. (It) has a surprising degree of inequality built into its very architecture’ (p. 121). Thus ‘the topology of our cultural landscape has long been twisted by an ever-shrinking number of corporations’ (p. 129). She adds that ‘powerful hierarchies have come to define the medium.’ Moreover ‘online spaces are … contrived with specific outcomes in mind: they are designed to serve Silicon Valley venture capitalists who want a return on investment, and advertisers who want to sell us things’ (p. 139). The smoothness and ease of use of the technology belies an appalling ‘structural greed’ such that ‘the cultural commons have become little more than a radically discounted shopping mall (p. 166).

Some of the solutions – or at least necessities for creating positive change – that emerge from Taylor’s well-founded critique include the following.

  • The need for new social protocols that include ‘ethical guidelines for engagement and exchange, restrictions on privatising and freeloading, fair compensation and the fostering of an ethos of stewardship.
  • An explicit recognition of the need to acknowledge the people and resources of all kinds upon which IT systems rest. These include, rare minerals, mines, data centres, toxic waste, low paid factory workers and the growing mountains of e-waste that turn up in poor countries.
  • A serious attempt to define just how IT systems could be re-designed to better serve the public and also ensure that they are sustainable.
  • A strategy to withdraw from the current practice of commodifying and monetising the attention of IT users and expropriating their personal information for profit. That is ending ‘a new form of discrimination … led by companies you can’t see, using data you didn’t give them permission to access, dictating what you are exposed to and on what terms’ (p. 191).
  • Defining and enacting new national policies to rein in the worst excesses of the IT industry and, at the same time, protect people and cultural spaces where creativity, art and innovation occur for non-instrumental purposes.
  • Reducing the colossal amount of resources expended on advertising (over US$700 billion a year in the US alone) which is ‘something that has virtually no social value and that most people despise.’

As a way of bringing these ideas together, Taylor proposes a ‘manifesto for a sustainable culture’; one in which ‘ new and old media are not separate provinces but part of a hybrid cultural ecosystem that includes the tradition and digital composites of the two’ (p. 215). In her view such a culture will possibly include the following features.

  • It will balance a preoccupation with ‘nowness’ with encouragements to think long term. As such it will include building archives ‘to allow people to explore their cultural heritage for years to come.’
  • It will ‘harness new communications tools to shift the conversation from ‘free’ culture to ‘fair’ culture.
  • It will re-draw the boundaries for subsidies that currently go to the powerful and make them more widely available for genuine useful civic purposes.
  • Current Internet oligarchs will give way to new civic organisations such as a ‘digital public library.’ The former would, at the same time, be required to pay their fair share of tax.
  • Service providers and popular IT platforms will be regulated as public utilities. As part of this new ‘firewalls’ would be created to separate those entities that create information from those that transport In other words, the ‘vertical integration’ of the oligarchs would be reduced and eliminated over time.
  • Similarly, meaningful government oversight of digital media will be re-established.
  • New investment in non-commercial enterprises will be evaluated and encouraged.
  • Overall, art, culture and commerce will be freed from being monetised, commodified and relentlessly exploited.

These are clearly the kinds of suggestions that will in some places generate familiar accusations of ‘Socialism’ and the like. Yet without taking such proposals seriously it is difficult to imagine how the present invasive, wasteful and destructive trajectory of global civilisation can be turned around.

The dark side

Thus far we’ve considered sources dealing with some of the social and commercial uses or misuses of advanced IT. But there’s an even darker and yet more challenging side to this story – the military and criminal uses of IT that have emerged over the last couple of decades. The questions they pose are of the utmost significance to humanity and its possible futures but, again, too few appear currently willing or able to grapple with the issues, let alone provide satisfying answers. Given the secrecy and obscurity that characterises the area, reliable sources are few and far between. An exception is Misha Glenny’s 2009 book McMafia (Glenny, 2009) which provides a detailed overview of organised crime around the world. In that book he made the point very clearly that the Internet had been a boon for criminals since it made their activities easier and that of governments and other civil authorities much harder. This is because the Internet provides an ever-growing number of ways to hide, launder money and pursue a vast range of criminal activities in ways that are difficult to detect or deter.

Fortunately Glenny did not stop there but spent the next two years researching and writing a book on cybercrime called Dark Market (Glenny, 2011). Here he concentrates on the emergence of individuals and groups who were all-too-ready to capitalise on the new opportunities to steal from unsuspecting organisations and individuals. For example he describes how the emergence of ‘carding’ began when hackers discovered how to access personal information and use it to withdraw funds from unsuspecting banks. This rapidly morphed into the development and online sale of card skimming devices, the duplication of credit cards and so on. An online presence called CarderPlanet facilitated this underground trade for some time by operating out of the ‘Dark Net’ of hidden sites that require special software for access. Nowadays its successors facilitate a vast range of illegal transactions that appear to cover the entire gamut of criminal activity around the world. Glenny follows some of the individuals who developed and pursued this parasitic underground trade and found that many of them came from Ukraine and other parts of the Russian Federation. But, of course, it did not stop there.

As all Internet uses know to their cost the rise of spam quickly began to infest email communications. It was spewed out in vast quantities that required very few hits to make the exercise worthwhile. The Nigerian 419 up-front or money transfer scam was one of many that began to separate the naïve and vulnerable from their hard-earned cash. This, unfortunately, is a game that continues to grow and for which there are no simple or easy solutions. The rise of ‘phishing’ and the exploitation of human weaknesses continue to degrade the web and take it ever further away from the idealism expressed by many of its early promoters. It is also the case that certain well-meaning groups (sometimes referred to as ‘white hat hackers’) trawl the Internet continuously to detect ISPs (Internet Service Providers) that support such illegal activities. But, as Glenny notes, it is an unequal struggle since ‘there are tens of thousands of active cyber criminals out in the ether, and only a tiny fraction of them are every likely to get caught’ (p. 151). At the same time, nasty as these criminal operations undoubtedly are, they are still relatively minor when compared to the growing use of the Internet for industrial espionage and military-style action. Often cited here is the well-known case of the Stuxnet virus that was specifically designed to destroy centrifuges used by Iran for uranium enrichment. The virus is widely thought to have been a collaborative project carried out by the USA and Israel. The immediate end of disrupting the enrichment process for a period of time was apparently achieved. But informed observers also point out that this dangerous piece of military software has many other uses and potentially unlimited targets. Here the two-edged sword aspect of new technology is once again clearly revealed. What was originally touted as a ‘solution’ to a particular ‘problem’ becomes a vastly magnified ‘problem’ (if that is the appropriate word) in its own right with consequences that are, to a considerable degree, unknowable.

Glenny’s book was written out of a concern that ‘in humanity’s relentless drive for convenience and economic growth, we have developed a dangerous level of dependency on networked systems in a very short space of time’ (p. 1). Yet none of the above appears to be deterring the corporates and Internet oligarchs from pressing onward and promoting new digital capabilities – including what is now being called the ‘Internet of Things’. In essence, this is a vision of a world in which everything from cars to refrigerators is interconnected in a vast world wide web. This is supposed to achieve new levels of convenience and control. But two things should be noted. First, no one I know is actually asking to be drawn into this ever-tighter embrace with an ever-expanding range of technological devices. The push factors from business and commerce are vastly more powerful and dominant than any detectable pull factors. Second, the risks from criminality and cyber warfare are already well known. So the question arises why would anyone choose to go further along this already compromised path?

At the end of his book Glenny refrains from suggesting solutions because, frankly, he does not see many emerging. He notes, for example, that the resources being poured into ‘cyber security’ are, by and large, being invested in technology. Here is another reflection of the structural bias outlined above. By contrast, ‘there is virtually no investment in trying to ascertain who is hacking and why.’ He adds that ‘nobody differentiates between the hackers from Wikileaks, from the American or Chinese military, from criminal syndicates and from the simply curious’ (p.268). It’s important, in his view to develop a much more detailed and sophisticated understanding of the hackers themselves. A thumbnail sketch suggests that most of them are male, bright (often in possession of advanced degrees), socially withdrawn and have had problems with family, especially parents. These attributes bring to mind those attributed by Joel Bakan and others to the corporation itself some years ago. That work concluded that the behaviour of some corporations could legitimately be considered psychotic (Bakan, 2003).

Glenny’s works provide a valuable source of knowledge and understanding about the widespread criminality of our times and also the extent to which it is supported and facilitated by IT in general and the Internet in particular. These are positive gains. But he is relatively silent on the larger problem that we face. It is an issue that I described in The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History, namely the fact that, as currently constituted, our global civilisation is heading directly into what the model builders have ‘overshoot and collapse’ territory (Slaughter, 2010; Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 2013). It is past due that our instrumentally powerful, but myopic and over-extended species wakes up to the metaphorical ‘cracks’ or systemic defects in the world it has created and also to the vastly diminished futures that lie in store for our descendants. So in part three of this review I will turn to an author who, I suggest, has seen more deeply and clearly into the IT revolution than anyone else – Evgeny Morozov.


Bakan, J. (2003), The Corporation, Random House, London.

Ehrlich, P. & A. (2013), Can a collapse of global civilisation be avoided? Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biol Sciences, 280, 20122845, 9 January.

Glenny, M. (2009), McMafia, Vintage, London.

Glenny, M. (2011), Dark Market, Bodley Head, London.

Slaughter, R. (2010) The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History, Foresight International, Brisbane.

Taylor, A. (2014), The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, Fourth Estate, London.

The IT Revolution Reassessed – Part One

Mass surveillance is fundamental threat to human rights says European report (Harding, 2015).

Millions stolen as hackers hit banks (Yadron & Glazer, 2015).

Spyware and smartphones: how abusive men track their partners (Williams, 2015).


This short essay began as a series of reviews for the UK journal Futures. By the time I’d finished, however, it was too long for a reviews section and too uneven to qualify as an essay. So I’ve decided to publish a re-worked version here in three parts. The first takes the view that there’s more to ‘technology’ than a focus on mere ‘stuff.’ Equally, technical innovations are being actively ‘pushed’ and marketed to us, with little evidence of any ‘pull’ or real demand factors. It then considers two books that, for very different reasons, failed to impress: Big Data, and Who Owns the Future? These act as a prologue to sections two and three that explore more interesting and productive territory.

Headlines such as those given above suggest that all is not well in the exploding digital realm. In fact the idealistic hopes of early pioneers and freedom loving ‘netizens’ have largely dissipated along with anodyne visions such as the majestic ‘information superhighway.’ In place of these over-optimistic projections there’s a growing sense of uncertainty and even of disillusion. The reasons are not hard to find – but then neither are they particularly obvious. The digital realm is not easily grasped or understood. For most people it is a powerful but obscure realm – a kind of ‘nowhere’ or ‘shadow place’ – that lies somewhere beyond direct human sense or control. Yet those with privileged access appear to have almost unlimited influence both for good and ill. Unknown, intangible entities can reach out and destroy centrifuges in a distant country, disrupt civil infrastructure, threaten a Hollywood studio with bankruptcy and empty anyone’s bank account apparently at will. Women have been harmed by ex-partners who’ve tracked their movements, their conversations, via smart phones. And this leaves aside a host of phishing attempts, scams, identity theft and other on-line abuses.

From an everyday point of view the complex of technical arrangements called ‘the Internet’ now seems to offer both dangers and opportunities in equal measure. So what responses can or should be undertaken? Quite obviously there is huge and growing literature. So any such overview can only sample this vast, complex and evolving area of concern. Yet that’s surely better than not making the attempt at all since it’s clear that society has become enmeshed in a challenging situation that requires focused attention and a range of carefully crafted responses.

Technology – not merely ‘stuff’

One place to begin is with a key insight that emerged several decades ago from an STS (Science, Technology & Society) perspective – namely that is that it’s not helpful to think, speak or write about ‘technology’ as it were merely comprised of physical objects. It is, of course, the material existence of a technology that presents itself to our most obvious and external senses. But taken alone such a view reifies what ‘technology’ actually is – the product of long-term social, cultural and economic processes. Hence, many of the most significant characteristics of any particular technology are effectively invisible – both to the naked eye and the unprepared mind. They are not found by examining the ‘things’ that stand before us but by teasing out the patterns inherent in the causative relationships that brought them into being and maintain them over time. Thus to say anything of value about ‘the IT revolution’ or ‘the Internet’ suggests that we consider particular items, or suites of technology, in relation the wider contexts that produced them. That’s where the fun begins because as soon as you look ‘beneath the surface’ of social reality you find powerfully contested dynamics just about everywhere.

It’s no accident that the dozen or so powerful IT-based mega-corporations, whose economic power and reach exceeds that of many nations, all sprang from a very specific cultural milieu now known as Silicon Valley. As such they are emergent from a particular worldview and express the values contained within it. It’s here that a critique of technology can begin. It soon becomes clear that the present forms of neoliberal techno-capitalism embody certain inherent features that need to be acknowledged. They are essential to its operation despite being widely obscured, denied or minimised by promoters and beneficiaries. Nevertheless, such characteristics actively shape and condition everything that’s designed, marketed and sold. These hidden ‘drivers’ include the need to ‘free’ markets from effective oversight and government regulation, the pursuit of growth as an unquestioned goal, viewing the natural world as merely an set of resources for human use, promoting diminished views of human beings (as mere consumers or unthinking pawns) and, finally, the concentration of wealth into the hands of ever fewer individuals and groups. This constellation of values and beliefs helps to sustain an economic system fraught with danger and dysfunction that makes less sense with each passing year (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 2013; Klein, 2014).

The crucial thing to note is that this particular worldview flourished over the very years when it became crystal clear that humanity needed to strike out in a completely different direction. We know this because the evidence is finally in that the present system is on a no-win collision course with humanity and, indeed, the planet itself (Higgs, 2014). It’s no longer possible to deny that the direction we should be collectively pursuing is one that moves decisively away from the diminished rationality of ‘the market’ and its impossible addiction to endless growth as defined during the industrial period. This is not to deny that genuinely innovative, useful and worthwhile uses of IT have emerged. Rather, the view here is that the ‘IT revolution’ has to a large extent been undermined and misdirected by corporatist ideology such that, instead of leading to a ‘better world’ it further inscribes our collective slide toward civilisational collapse and the Dystopian futures they imply (Floyd & Slaughter, 2014).

‘Push’ (not ‘pull’) with ambiguous results

Two other aspects of technical change need to be briefly mentioned. One is that new technologies are, on the whole, seldom sought by anyone representing the general public. Rather, ‘demand’ is created and imposed by these powerful organisations through pervasive and relentless marketing along with their sheer financial and economic power. One is reminded here of the aphorism credited to Donella Meadows who suggested that ‘you don’t have to spend millions of dollars advertising something unless its worth is in doubt.’ Few stand back to question the fact that corporate interests assume that they know what’s best for everyone. They are, for example, currently working to persuade us that an ‘Internet of things’ is a ‘really good idea.’ Yet, in the conditions outlined above, any new technology, or suite of them, cannot but be fundamentally ambiguous. So while they are introduced with positive – even showy – fanfares and the repeated enumeration of benefits there are always hidden dangers and unexpected costs. The latter tend to appear, however, through the social experience of using and applying the new means over time. Most parents of teenage children know very well what this means, as do the ‘lonely hearts’ who look for love on the Internet and end up losing their reputation, their savings or even their life. The Achilles Heel of the ‘internet of things’ is simply that it’s one thing to connect millions of devices together but another entirely to secure them.

In a sane and genuinely open world all new technologies would be subjected to rigorous questioning and testing before they were widely applied. Indeed, that was a central purpose of the US Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) that, in its brief lifetime, was established to advise Congress on exactly these matters (Blair, 2013). Nowadays the all-powerful ‘private sector’ in the US has comprehensively seen off this kind of initiative. Yet this has not occurred without cost. We can imagine, for example, what might have occurred if, instead of repealing the Glass-Steagal Act (to abolish the separation of high street backing and high-risk speculative gaming) the US government had put in place a high-powered group to investigate the implications of high-risk speculative credit-default swops and the like. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) would certainly have been less serious or possibly averted altogether. But no such attempt was made. Warnings were ignored and taxpayers around the world ended up footing an outrageously expensive bill. While other attempts to institutionalise technology assessment have occurred in a few places, such arrangements unfortunately still remain uncommon (Schlove, 2010).

The upshot is that societies continue to be reinvented wholesale as waves of change (including those generated by new technologies) continue to impact upon them. The right questions about what this means and what needs to be done are neither being asked widely enough nor taken seriously by decision makers at any level. Consequently the resulting distortions and dangers of this ever more risky trajectory remain opaque and poorly appreciated by most people. The following review of recent sources in this and the following sections addresses the IT revolution considers how some thoughtful people have responded to these issues.

Big data, small vision

Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier’s book Big Data (Mayer-Schonberger & Cukier, 2013), is sub-titled ‘A revolution that will transform have we live, work and think.’ But the irony – to say nothing of the threat – in this escapes them entirely. The bulk of the book is devoted to arguing how ‘big data’ provides new insights into many otherwise elusive phenomena and in so doing creating new sources of value. The authors demolish some fantasies (for example that the emergence of IT can be equated with the ‘end of theory’) but concentrate on positive uses of big data. These include the ability to predict the emergence of epidemics and the prevention of aircraft breakdowns due to real time engine monitoring. But they consistently fail to separate what they consider to be ‘good for business’ from what may or may not be good for everyone else. Hence, the underlying theme, perhaps, can be summarised as ‘jump aboard or be left behind.’

While some limited acknowledgements are given of ways that previous long-standing occupations and professions have been undermined, the wider social and economic costs are overlooked. There’s a brief section on risks and strategies to minimise them. Yet no attention whatsoever is given to evaluating the culture and worldview from which these changes spring. Nor is there any attempt to consider or evaluate their future implications. Rather these powerful background factors are taken as given and hence remain invisible throughout. As such the book demonstrates a familiar preoccupation with how ‘technology’ will help us to ‘create the future’ along with a strong sense of blinkered optimism.

Missed opportunity?

Lanier’s Who Owns The Future? (Lanier, 2012), is a very different matter. It is a sometimes brilliant, often idiosyncratic but finally a disappointing work, which I currently regard as a missed opportunity. As a long time inhabitant of Silicon Valley Lanier was involved in some the early stages of the IT revolution. Yet over time he became uncomfortable with the growing power of a few powerful actors and growing social inequality. He coined the resonant term ‘siren servers’ to draw attention to a humiliating new reality. That is, the process whereby everyone using the new systems is forced to yield personal information of inherent value in a one-way flow to those who own and operate them. So far; so good.

His solution, in part, was to establish what he calls the principle of ‘provenance.’ That is, to monetise flows of micro-value that would enable individuals to share in the new wealth. Yet this notion is put forward without carefully examining some serious drawbacks – such as the perverse incentives (e.g. ‘badging’, ‘nudging’ and ‘gamification’ – see Morozov 2013, in part three) that are already evident in this fast moving domain. Then, while there’s a good deal of knowledge and passion driving the book, the pro-technology bias vitiates what might have been a more penetrating analysis. The author’s close association with Silicon Valley is clearly evident, as is his inability to tease out some of the ideological ramifications. Such oversights made the book less helpful than it might otherwise have been and I had to put it aside several times. This was less due to inherent difficulty than to the fact that it was so idiosyncratic – brilliant one page, obscure the next. In the end, I was unable to finish it. It didn’t help that I was reading it as an eBook on a tablet. Despite considerable effort I found it impossible to sustain a ‘conversation’ with a book that I could not touch, inscribe or question as I went. Thus one of the costs of eBooks is the distance they create between the reader and the work. So this might be an item to re-visit in future by way of a hard copy edition!


Part two of this series looks at ‘reform and renewal’ and ‘the dark side’ (criminal uses of the Internet) and will appear in a couple of week’s time. Part three is called ‘interrogating net delusions.’ It focuses on Yvgeny Morozov and his masterly work To Save Everything Click here. Comments via email are welcome.


Blair, P, D. (2013), Congress’s Own Think Tank: Learning from the Legacy of the Office of Technology Assessment (1972-1995), New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ehrlich, P. & A. (2013), Can a collapse of global civilisation be avoided? Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biol Sciences, 280, 20122845, 9 January.

Floyd, J. & Slaughter, R. Eds’, (2014) Descent Pathways, Guest Editorial, Foresight, 16, 6, pp. 485-495.

Harding, L. (2015), Mass surveillance is fundamental threat to human rights, says European report, Guardian, 27th January.

Higgs, K. (2014), Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., USA.

Lanier, J. (2012), Who Owns the Future? Simon & Schuster, New York.

Mayer-Schonberger, V. & Cukier, K. (2013), Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think, John Murray, London.

Morozov, E. (2013), To Save Everything Click Here, Penguin, London.

Sclove, R. (2010), Reinventing Technology Assessment: A 21st Century Model Washington, DC: Science and Technology Innovation Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Williams, R. (2015), Spyware and smartphones: how abusive men track their partners, Guardian, 26th January.

Yadron, D. & Glazer, E. (2015), Millions stolen as hackers hit banks, The Australian, 17th February.



The Poisoned Chalice – Another Casino for Brisbane

When the state government under Campbell Newman announced that there would be a ‘competition’ to select a design for a new casino it neglected to enquire if the people of Brisbane actually wanted one – especially on a prime riverside site in the heart of the CBD. Then, when a ‘winner’ emerged, the community was faced with a ‘done deal.’ Since then the in-coming Labor regime has been preoccupied with the need to create a working government with a new and inexperienced team. A slick multi-media campaign on behalf of the successful bidder ensued and mainstream commercial interests predictably gave their enthusiastic support. According to the current Lord Mayor, Brisbane is on track to become a new ‘world city’ and growth is very much regarded as a ‘good thing.’ Apart from some muted dissenting voices little more has been heard about the proposed new casino and its associated mega-resort. So it’s worth taking a closer look.

What strikes one immediately is that the project is not about Brisbane’s present, its future nor indeed those of its citizens. The primary drivers are corporate interests in Australia and overseas driven by all-too-familiar motives. The Chinese partners, for example, are not involved because they care about the city but because Chinese capital desperately needs to flee the mainland turbulence (including a crackdown on corruption) for safer overseas havens. Brisbane and Sydney are basically two prime sites of convenience where ‘colonisation by capital’ can occur through over-scale projects that include new and enlarged casinos. In a standard past-to-future view the business-related advantages of these locations are obvious. But since the promoters can’t afford to reveal their real motives they disseminate compelling fantasies. Thus far, it must be said, local authorities seem to have swallowed the bait. There have been no organised protests and few or no expression of outrage. Brisbane needs to wake up and take stock of what is being planned while there’s still time to do so.

What casino operators crave – but which is forever out of their reach – is an impression of respectability. Since the normal operation of any casino is little more than disguised theft and single-minded exploitation of human weakness, they try to claim a range of purported social and economic benefits. Chief among these is the promise of jobs – which, of course, is music to the ears of governments and mainstream economists. Yet few appear to be asking questions such as: what kind of jobs, how valuable or secure are they and how appropriate will this kind of infrastructure be in Queensland over time? Equally, what are the opportunity costs of low-level service employment at this particular time and what other options are being overlooked? This is where casino operators never tread and also where they are vulnerable.

Much effort has also gone into portraying this huge and disfiguring development as in some way ‘desirable.’ An expensively produced video depicting a mock fly-over of the completed project made it onto the Channel Nine News. Six pages of the Courier Mail’s weekend magazine were devoted to similarly idealised ‘artist’s impressions.’ Not quite everyone, however, was persuaded. In October 2015 Journalist Katherine Noonan wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece in the same local tabloid drawing attention to the way that Paul Keating had somewhat ruthlessly ‘stared down the developers’ in Sydney a while back and asked ‘Where’s our bastard?’ A ‘visionary bastard’ able to pose the hard questions would not come from the local state government which was ‘terrified of the business community calling them ‘anti-growth.’ Noonan nailed the core of what she called ‘mystifying nonsense’ as demonstrated by the proposed architecture itself: ‘oversized shiny buildings with potted palms on top, infinity pools and indoor atriums are a dime a dozen. Check out the artist’s impression of the development of Brisbane. Looks like something I saw in Hong Kong 10 years ago.’ She added, ‘every casino looks the same. Sky decks are so 2005. You visit cities, stay in these resorts and are bored by them, hungry for a bit of history, soul, grit, texture, authenticity.’

Since the developer’s aims obviously don’t encompass any of these qualities a narrative littered with positives simply cannot ring true. The new casino is not seen as an outrageous and costly deception; rather it is portrayed as a social and economic asset. It will not only benefit the locals but also attract large numbers of Chinese tourists to the area. (The fact that they are already flooding in being conveniently ignored.) Then there are the ‘high rollers’ – wealthy punters whose activities have become increasingly constrained in Macao courtesy of the Chinese government. Perhaps they will come to Brisbane and, then again, perhaps not. What can be stated with confidence, however, is that regardless of what the operators of casinos may wish us to believe they all have a dark secret – the enduring bond between casinos and organised crime.

When people bet and lose they may well become disenchanted so one can appreciate that a certain proportion will try to avoid paying up. That’s unfortunate for the casinos because in order to maintain their façade they must try to avoid dirtying their hands in public. Which is where criminals who specialise in stand-over tactics and other forms of illegal persuasion and money laundering come in. An ABC Four Corners program in 2014 called High Rollers, High Risk explored this issue in relation to Australia and concluded that while Australia is not Macao there are serious unresolved issues about regulation and crime. A more recent documentary aired on the ABC in 2015 called Ka-Ching: Pokie Nation looked at the social impacts of problem gambling at the lower end of the scale. Suffice it to say here that they are sufficiently serious for a well-known legal firm in Australia to begin work on an initiative to ban poker machines. Or, at the very least, to de-legitimise the various ways that they cajole and deceive those who can least afford them. The social costs of gambling are well understood and are known to have pervasive effects throughout society.

The unavoidable truth about casinos is that they are social ‘black holes.’ They sustain forms of ‘rough trading’ that drain health, wealth and well being from any individual or society foolish enough to tolerate them. But there is one further issue that has thus far received remarkably little attention. It emerges from the fact that casino-type developments arise from a worldview whose systemic errors and oversights have become ever more obvious. They include the notion that the earth is merely a set of resources for human use, that economic growth is the main goal of society, that well-being can be measured through GNP, that the human economy takes precedence over the primary earth economy and, finally, that humans are the owners and masters of the world. The hubris, narcissism, greed and short-term thinking that support such commitments are seldom acknowledged but very common and influential. Projected upon the emerging future they become ever more toxic and dangerous.

The worldview commitments that have helped to drive our civilisation to the edge of collapse are, generally speaking, still not widely seen for what they are. Indeed they continue to be pursued by a minority of very rich people and associated corporate interests. Yet what they offer is a poisoned chalice. Rather than offering viable ways forward they further inscribe our collective fall toward diminished Dystopian futures. How can we be so sure? You only have only to take a clear-eyed look at the accumulating evidence of human impacts on the global system to appreciate the emerging dilemmas before us. It is not ‘merely’ a question of coming to grips with global warming – serious as that is – as of acknowledging that humanity is walking into a self-created trap. Solutions will not emerge from denial, evasion or by repeating the mistakes that brought us to this point.

It follows that social, political and economic responses to developments of the kind outlined here must include an emphatic ‘No.’ Australia does not need redundant high-end fantasies that degrade the common good. We don’t need insecure third-rate jobs when time, money and human energy are all needed elsewhere for vastly more constructive purposes. We don’t need ‘high-rollers’ (or their equivalents) in Brisbane, money laundering made ‘respectable’ through retail agencies or sanitised versions of the Asian triads. Australia is so much more than an investment opportunity for the hyper-rich, a retail colony, a casino and a beach. It’s time to renew viable future visions, to get serious about designing and implementing strategies to address the challenging overshoot-and-collapse period before us. It’s time to begin work on the foundations of a more sane and sustainable world. The name of this game is ‘transition’ and the sooner this becomes a broad, multi-threaded social, cultural and economic project, the better. The nature and quality of the changes required have, perhaps, best been summarised by Naomi Klein who suggests that:

Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis – embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy. … In the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilisation and barbarism. (Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, 2014, p. 462.)

Global Integrity Summit

Day One: The Big Picture, Griffith University, Brisbane, 13th October 2015

It’s rare to attend an event such as this one that ticks nearly all the boxes. When my wife and I decided to register it was simply on the basis that it offered three consecutive sessions on issues of major significance. They were:

  • Free speech, freedom of the press and integrity in journalism
  • Big data, privacy and surveillance, and
  • Climate change and climate justice.

The event was held at the impressive Brisbane Conservatorium on South Bank. The auditorium was full, in part due to the welcome presence of a large contingent of senior school students. Prior to the event an essay competition had been held with the winner receiving a cheque for $1,000 on the day. The organisation was impeccable. That’s to say, the staff and volunteers all carried out their roles effectively with a minimum of fuss. The sessions kept to time and the catering was well handled. There was a healthy ‘buzz’ of conversation between sessions and it was obvious that interest levels were high.

Madonna King chaired two of the sessions and Steve Cannane one. Their mastery of content and process added a great deal to the whole process. Moreover questions from the audience were welcomed. This time, however, the use of clunky mikes was discontinued. The audience was provided with a Twitter ‘handle’ for the event, allowing moderators to receive questions in real time and to pass them on to their guests. A large on-stage screen meant that speakers were clearly visible throughout the auditorium.

The quality of the speakers and panel members was, with one exception, very high. The otherwise brilliant Michael Leunig was clearly nervous, tentative and ill-at-ease. He delighted the audience with a shaky cartoon sketch but then woodenly read the rest of his address from a prepared text. I am not going to attempt to outline the rest of the proceedings as this would require a much longer piece. Instead I am going to hope that Griffith will make the videos of each session available for wider viewing. If and when that happens I will post the link(s) here. In the meantime the general link to the event page can be found below.

Integrity Summit: Day One

Governance for the Future

There’s no doubt that the new-look government announced today by Malcolm Turnbull will transform what had become a moribund and unpopular government under Tony Abbot. A younger cabinet, more women and a fresh agenda all signal a fundamental shift in focus and perspective. This, we are being told, is a 21st Century government and, indeed, one for ‘the future.’ If that is indeed the case then the country may discover new possibilities for informed optimism. Read more…

Centre for the Future (Summary) Read more…

Overshoot Day 2015 – The Biggest Story of the Year?

In Australia, as in most other places, Thursday August 13th 2015 came and went without any particular fanfare or comment. Yet on that day the Global Footprint Network (GFN) issued a press release that was picked up and commented upon mainly, it seems, by certain on-line ‘niche’ media. It turns out that August 13th was the day that humanity crossed a threshold that went far beyond the merely symbolic. It was the day in 2015 when the collective demands of humanity upon natural systems exceeded what can be regenerated within a year.

The costs are evident in a number of ways that include deforestation, drought, fresh-water scarcity, soil erosion, biodiversity loss and the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Interestingly enough, what the GFN calls Earth Overshoot Day fell last year in early October – which means that our demands on an increasingly constrained world have grown much more rapidly, perhaps, then even the environmentally aware among us may have suspected. Even more interesting is that these challenging facts achieved virtually zero exposure in terms of conventional column inches or airtime. Humanity carried on oblivious to the implications of its spiraling demands. The fact that these are undermining its present and future is evidently a truth that cannot be spoken. It therefore continues to be avoided and overlooked.

The GFN calculates the date of Earth Overshoot Day in the following way. It:

calculates the number of days of that year that Earth’s biocapacity suffices to provide for humanity’s Ecological Footprint. The remainder of the year corresponds to global overshoot. Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet’s biocapacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity’s Ecological Footprint (humanity’s demand for that year), and multiplying by 365, the number of days in 2015: (Planet’s Biocapacity / Humanity’s Ecological Footprint) x 365 = Earth Overshoot Day).

No doubt many people would be willing to contest the methodology and its conclusions – and so they should. After all the implications are profound. But the sad fact is that the conversation is simply not taking place out in the open where it can gain traction and inform any meaningful public discourse. There’s a precedent for this elision of uncomfortable reality that refers us all the way back to 1972 and the publication of the first Limits to Growth (LTG) study. As Karen Higgs (Collision Course, 2014) and others have pointed out, it has become increasingly clear that the conclusions of the LTG constituted a rare and valuable gift to humanity that humanity was unprepared or unwilling to receive. The study and its authors were subjected to severe abuse because they challenged the primacy of economic growth – one of the fundamental assumptions of the social and economic order. Now, however, the results of failing to heed and understand the LTG over several decades means that we are currently facing extreme versions of the problems that had earlier been foreseen.

The GFN can, therefore, in some ways be regarded as a successor to the LTG team. But the methodology has changed and, I would argue, improved. Looked at as a date that moves forward each year ‘overshoot day’ provides another clear signal about what is happening. Moreover, the GFN team draws a surprisingly positive implication in its press release. It suggested that: ‘the global agreement to phase out fossil fuels that is being discussed around the world ahead of the Climate Summit in Paris would significantly help curb the Ecological Footprint’s consistent growth and eventually shrink the Footprint.’ Similarly:

The climate agreement expected at the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP) 21 this December will focus on maintaining global warming within the 2-degrees-Celsius range over pre-Industrial Revolution levels. This shared goal will require nations to implement policies to completely phase out fossil fuels by 2070, per the recommendations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), directly impacting the Ecological Footprints of nations. Assuming global carbon emissions are reduced by at least 30 percent below today’s levels by 2030, in keeping with the IPCC’s suggested scenario, Earth Overshoot Day could be moved back on the calendar to September 16, 2030 (assuming the rest of the Footprint would continue to expand at the current rate).

The press statement goes on to assert that ‘this is not impossible.’ Yet these hopeful suggestions adhere to a highly improbable trajectory. Given the current state of social upheaval and geopolitical conflict in the world – to say nothing of dissonant values and uneven development – the chances of contending nations and over-powerful corporations agreeing to rein in humanity’s demands on the Earth appear negligible.

The truth that seldom gets reported anywhere in mainstream media is that the human enterprise is running a long way beyond any reasonable prospect of moderation or control. It follows that the forces most likely to engender changes of course are those that are emerging from the global system itself. That is to say, the planet is adjusting to our collective impacts with glacial but unstoppable momentum. As a result we are, as James Lovelock puts it, in for a very ‘rough ride into the future.’ It’s hardly surprising that currently affluent populations would rather avert their gaze than admit to themselves that the world is running out of options.

Review of Higgs, K. Collision Course:

About Earth Overshoot Day:

Global Footprint Network:

Kerryn Higgs and Collision Course

At the end of May I gave the opening address to the annual conference of the Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) in Melbourne. In the audience was a local councillor from Redlands, Brisbane, by the name of Paul Bishop. The title of my address was Responding to the Biggest Wake-Up Call in History (taken from the title of my 2010 book). When I met Paul afterwards I discovered why he’d seemed rather animated during the address. One of the sources I used to illustrate my theme was a book by Kerryn Higgs called Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet. It turns out that Paul had just bought the book and was very interested in reading it. He’d heard the author on Radio National and had, in fact, already made contact. Which is how I found out that she was due to visit Brisbane in the near future.

Laurie and I caught up with Kerryn at the State Library of Queensland (SLQ) during the afternoon of her visit and spent a couple of hours getting to know each other. We were fascinated to learn that Kerryn had spent fully eight years researching and writing the book. The spark for her was the same as it was for myself. That is, she read the original Limits to Growth (LtG) book back in 1972 and was subsequently perplexed and concerned at the way that powerful groups in the USA, Europe and Australia worked hard – and successfully – to marginalise it. Quite obviously the notion that ‘growth cannot continue forever on a finite planet’ was one that had to be put down at all costs. Unfortunately for the rest of us this misguided and ill-conceived campaign succeeded. The whole LtG story and the vital messages it had for humanity were brushed aside and forgotten by most people.

Kerryn, however, was one of the people who refused to forget. In fact, as researchers began to compare some of the LtG projections with the way that the world actually tracked over subsequent years (in relation to energy, raw materials, food production, economic activity, ‘sinks’ for waste and so on), it became increasingly clear that the early work had been surprisingly accurate. As Kerryn points out in the book, the collective refusal to contemplate the issues raised over 40 years ago meant that we were now dealing with extreme versions of the problems and dilemmas that could then be seen on the horizon. She began to get angry but instead of turning that anger inward, as so many appear to do – and then becoming depressed – she decided that she had to act. She registered for a PhD at the University of Tasmania and started those years of painstaking research.

To my mind this suggests a rare quality of moral courage and determination. It’s one that’s greatly lacking in the post-modern world when few peoples’ thoughts or concerns ever seem to involve considering the roots of our contemporary malaise in an honest and sustained way. The research finished, however, Kerryn still had to face the rejection of a major London publisher that kept her manuscript for months and eventually claimed that appropriate reviewers could not be found! Following the disappointment she researched publishers that dealt with broad environmental and cultural issues and attracted the interest of MIT. This proved a very suitable match since the original research for the LtG project was carried out there. It took two years further work to transform the PhD into the book that we now have.

When we reached Avid Reader – the bookshop due to host Kerryn that evening – she’d expected only half-a-dozen people. Instead, the floor of the shop was cleared and packed full of chairs for nearly 60. We went for a quick drink at the pub over the road and then left her to gather her thoughts. Paul Bishop turned up at the conversation with a camera and ABC Radio National producer, Paul Barclay from Big Ideas, had arranged a sound engineer. A link to the audio and video will be provided once it goes to air on ABC radio.

Meanwhile you can read my review of Collision Course in the Reviews By section of this site.

Reconciling Development and Disruption (Gold Coast Forum, June 18, 2015)

Last week I gave a short presentation with the title above at the end of the Gold Coast City Council ‘Senior Executive Forum’ at the Royal Pines Resort. The hotel had been recently refurbished and provides an attractive venue. I had the pleasure of meeting the mayor, Tom Tate, and a number of his colleagues. The whole event was something of an eye-opener for me.

It is perhaps regrettable that many people, including myself, tend to have a kind of default scepticism about those working in and for local authorities. We often see them as ‘faceless bureaucrats’. But the two presentations that preceded mine contradicted that stereotype completely. The CEO of the council provided a clear, appreciative and highly competent overview of the last year’s activities as well as an overview of up-coming events and issues. He also introduced a number of people new to their positions. Next came the head of the ‘water’ division who proceeded to entertain the audience even as he informed them. He vacated the lectern and the stage to address the group from the back and sides of the room. I learned a lot about the challenges of servicing a mainly flat and low-lying area near the sea that sometimes had more water than it could ever use. Overall I came away with a sense that the Gold Coast was being very competently run.

That, however, was ‘now’ so to speak. My role was to draw attention to possible or likely future challenges that need to be considered well in advance of any of them becoming full-blown crises. I drew on contrasting sources (including the World Economic Forum, the Post-Carbon Institute and the Transition Network) to consider sources of likely disruption that needed to be considered. Not all related to changing climate issues and global warming. Some had social and economic origins. Nor did I dismiss the growing concern on the part of many that the ‘digital revolution’ was being undermined by the simple fact that, as one person put it, ‘it’s easier to attack and defend.’ The point, of course, was not to portray the future as gloomy and threatening but, rather, as requiring a good deal more explicit attention than it tends to get when the short-termism of ‘now’ tends to dominate. I suggested that the emerging ‘knowledge precinct’ within the Gold Coast might well be the locus of such developments. I also drew attention the Risk Assessment and Horizon Scanning (RAHS) program in Singapore that, in stark contrast to Australia, happens to be situated right next to the Prime Minister’s office. Perhaps Singapore knows something that is yet to be acknowledged in resource-rich Australia?

I’ve placed a 2pp summary of the address along with several of the key resources I refereed to on my weblog at:

Contesting Silicon Valley’s Default View(s) of the Future

In recent work I raised a number of questions about the views of prominent Silicon Valley figures and, in particular, their rather idiosyncratic framing of the ‘Digital revolution’. (See ‘Beyond the global emergency: Integral futures and the search for clarity’ on the new Work page of my weblog.) I did so for a couple of reasons. One is that within US culture generally, but also in within what might be called the broad ‘futures community’ there, it’s common to take the view that ‘technology’ is the dominant force in ‘creating the future.’ With a background in STS (Science, Technology & Society) studies that view has always seemed naïve. Technologies are outgrowths of social processes without which they would not exist. They are never value-free or autonomous. The specific forms that they take and the functions they perform are ever and always outgrowths of social, cultural and economic processes. These, of course, get overlooked, along with the very specific interests embedded within them and driving change in very specific, mostly self-interested, ways.

The other reason for renewed concern is that some of the richest high-tech companies in the world (including the all-too-powerful ‘Internet oligarchs’) appear intent on believing that they have some sort of God-given right to ‘invent the future’ in their own delusional self-image. So it was good to recently find an article with the following heading: In an age of machines, it’s humans that matter. The author, Kentaro Toyama, who is based at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, clearly knows of that which he speaks. He quotes Google CEO Larry Page as declaring that: ‘I think we should be training more people on how to change the world. Obviously, technologies are the way to do that…that’s what drives all the change.’ Tim Cook of Apple also contributes the view of Steve Jobs to the effect that the latter ‘convinced me that if we made great products we could change the world.’ Finally, Toyama quotes Facebook’s founder Zuckerberg’s view that ‘the richest 500 million [people in the world] have way more money than the next 6 billion compared.’ He adds that ‘You solve that by getting everyone on line.’

In my own ‘global emergency’ piece I also quoted Zuckerberg and drew on evidence that questions Google chief scientist Ray Kurzweil’s preoccupation with what he calls the ‘singularity’ (the moment when humanity is overwhelmed by artificial intelligence machines, departs this world and ‘goes virtual’). As someone who has read a great deal of science fiction for a many years I think it’s vital to recognise the difference between fact and fiction. So it concerns me that what one might call the ‘default future’ advanced by these people and their cash-laden organisations looks more and more like the early dystopias that I read decades ago. In other words I question the worldview, values, priorities, goals, social interests etc. of these currently powerful players.

So it was good to read Toyama’s contrasting view that ‘technology doesn’t add a fixed benefit. Instead it amplifies underlying human forces.’ He continues: ‘amplification explains a broad range of man-machine interactions. It explains why the Internet boosts free speech in America but stifles dissent in China and spreads misinformation in Russia. And, it explains why a technological golden age in the world’s richest country isn’t enough to end poverty – Americans don’t seem to care enough about it.’ He says a lot more in the short space afforded by an Op Ed piece in the Guardian Weekly (vol. 193, no. 2. p. 20). But his overall point is simply that ‘amplification reaffirms human agency in an age of machines, as well as the power of non-technologists to cause meaningful change. The technology industry will keep building faster engines, but it’s up to us as human beings to decide where we go.’

I’m now wondering how long it will take for this more hopeful view of the future to emerge and, equally, how long it will take for the millionaires of Silicon Valley to take a more modest view of their achievements.

Who is Inventing the Future? Is Anyone Paying Attention?

For about a year now I’ve been taking a fresh look at the ‘digital revolution.’ We hear a great deal about ‘the next big thing’ such as driverless cars, robots, artificial intelligence (AI) and the so-called ‘Internet of things’ – the list is literally endless. My working conclusion, however, is that the much-hyped high-tech future has major drawbacks. It is being vastly oversold and therefore we should be far, far more careful before we agree to any of it. I use the term ‘oversold’ advisedly. For example, a recently renovated shopping centre near where I live recently erected a huge 3 x 7 metre full colour digital screen displaying pop culture factoids and ads in an endless and repetitive loop. When I looked around the whole building I found over 90 smaller – but equally hard to miss – screens each of which is devoted to exactly the same kind of high-impact visual assault. While thoughtful people have known for some time that consumerism rests on shaky moral grounds (let alone perverse assumptions about human beings and their world) the owners of ‘marketing central’ are one of a number of powerful and well-resourced groups selling that redundant view more ferociously than ever. But they are part of a world, and worldview, that should have been abandoned long ago.

It’s been clear for some time that ‘the future’ was being invented elsewhere. One of most influential places is Silicon Valley in California. It is here that the IT behemoths cluster in close embrace with the Internet Oligarchs (not that they are entirely separate). I’ve considered what some of the leaders and opinion makers from these organisations actually say about what they think they are doing and the justifications they unreflectively offer. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I found levels of self-belief and self-confidence that set a new low point for institutional arrogance. An ABC program on Google and the World Brain added further evidence. For example, a couple of young Google execs flew to Paris in an attempt to obtain the support of the Director of a leading French library for their bid to digitise the world’s books. But they misread the situation completely. Their idea of a suitable gift for this sophisticated European was a small portable Thermos designed to keep drinks warm on train journeys. They were way out of their depth at a cultural level and were no doubt surprised that their ‘gift’ and proposals were declined. Google’s self-reinforcing view of the world provides it with few or no concerns about being a prime source of disruptive innovations, the consequences of which may well reverberate around the world. Those working there seem not only believe that they are building the future, they also think they have a right to do so. Moreover there’s no end in sight.

On the other hand, Australia, like so many other countries, has little or no capacity to either take part in designing such technologies, or greatly influence their use. Rather, it has a worldwide reputation for being among the first and fastest to adopt them regardless of consequences. I then discovered that Google Australia itself has some 500 engineers working here on various projects. If anyone can be charged with ‘inventing the future’ it surely has to include these high end engineers. Yet there is virtually no one in the nation, no organised capability at all, to facilitate the kind of high quality foresight that world-changing innovations clearly require. That is, the ability to think far enough ahead, think widely or deeply enough, to even begin to evaluate the technological wonders that are expected to emerge from this apparently endless pipeline. Yet that is not the case everywhere.

During mid-2015 the Australian government made much of forming a new and closer relationship with Singapore, a nearby northern neighbour. Around the same time an Op Ed article by Singapore’s High Commissioner in Canberra made much of the ‘special relationship’ between the two countries and, indeed, they have a lot in common. Sadly, however, what they don’t share is the ability to engage in high quality risk assessment and horizon scanning. Known simply as RAHS, the program exists not as a poorly funded marginal unit buried in the depths of some remote bureaucracy but as an essential component of the Singapore Government. In fact the office where it resides was deliberately positioned right next to the Prime Minister’s office. Which tells us a lot about that government’s view of the centrality of high quality, purposeful, foresight. By contrast in Australia we have a right-wing government that retains an irrational and Pollyanna-ish belief in the power of markets to resolve a great many issues and problems. This is despite the fact that market-led ‘solutions’ have proved disastrous in so many different contexts.

It is long past due that the civil administration of this country re-engages with and learns from earlier foresight-related work (including that of our own much maligned Commission for the Future) and from contemporary Institutions of Foresight around the world. Viable futures do not arise autonomously – they require sustained work over time and wide public involvement. They have to be discerned, negotiated, worked toward and eventually achieved. There are no quick fixes – especially in light of two significant shifts have occurred over recent decades. First, and for good reason, the shared image of the future has become progressively darker and more Dystopian. Second, given the magnitude and nature of global forces that are clearly at work in the world, the near-term future looks increasingly turbulent and unstable. It’s simply not credible to deny either of these facts. Yet that’s what happens each day in government and in commerce. The passivity of government and the unjustified self-belief of engineers, marketers and IT gurus reinforces the view that we can somehow buy, consume or innovate our way forward. This view permeates contemporary culture. The error is compounded by the withdrawal, or cocooning, of whole populations from the dynamic and demanding reality that surrounds them.

Our collective failure to re-engage in the multi-faceted tasks of cultural and generational renewal suggests to me that viable, sustainable and humanly compelling futures will not be easily achieved. We are certainly kidding ourselves if we think that Australia can secure any sort of future worth having by sticking with the familiar refrain of ‘lifestyle in – tonnage out’. The penny has not really dropped anywhere that the high-tech consumerist future we are being groomed to accept actually undermines any real prospect of liveable futures. But this kind of in-depth interrogation of choices and options is largely absent from our national conversation, discourse and life. We can do better than this.

(C) Richard Slaughter. July 2015.