Spheres of influence:
a model of organisational interactivity in a globalised context
[then] PhD student
Faculty of Communication
University of Canberra
Spheres of influence:
a model of organisational interactivity in a globalised context
Convergence is more than technological, and affects values and patterns at different scales. A fractal metaphor is proposed to describe convergence in a context of globalisation and democratic governance. These concepts are explored at an organisational level through a case study of interactive systems in Australia’s Department of Finance.
Spheres of influence: a model of organisational interactivity in a globalised context
‘Democracy doesn’t scale.’ Vint Cerf, in response to a question from one of the founders of the Minnesota e-democracy project. (Internet Society Conference, Montreal, June 1996)
This conference is an inquiry into the long term effects of the convergence that we are all caught up in. Coming from many fields and perspectives, we are here to learn more about where we are going, as digitisation drives the blending of once separate industries. We understand, from the volumes of information speeding past us, that telecommunications, computers, and increasingly, the mass media are becoming technically entwined. The economists here also can describe how these areas are merging in their financial and ownership structures. We might say globalisation is driving the pace of convergence, with no sign that these processes are likely to slow down.
In this essay the technical and economic features of convergence are taken as given. The topic here is a closely related but less visible blending. Structures and patterns of interactivity are also merging, and with them the values that underpin everyday exchanges, be they social or commercial. Certainly, much has been written about the convergence of cultures which a globalised mass media encourages. (Herman and McChesney 1997) This too is an important aspect of the picture I hope to paint, but only part of it.
The very scale of the changes around us blurs our vision. Swimming in the seas of change, as we all are, it can be hard to detect the ‘rings on the water’ which the invitation for this conference gracefully evokes. But it is these ripples that concern us here, which we may think of as transmitting the values emanating from the very heartbeat of a globalised and neatly convergent system.
The system itself and its interconnections merit analysis. Not the size of the global systems, and how they grow bigger, but how they permeate smaller scales and affect ‘almost every aspect of modern life’, to quote again from the brochure. My interest here is democratic governance and how it is influenced by activities which transmit across scales. Are similar patterns transforming structures at transnational, national and organisational levels?
The effects of globalisation and convergence on specific organisational cultures has been less explored than broader social impacts. They are also less visible. Governance, particularly democratic governance, is problematic enough at the international level, and considered irrelevant within organisations. Business is business, and increasingly, government is also business, as these structures steadily merge to a point off screen and to the right.
Convergence is intimately involved with communication and computerisation, both of which are critical components in modern organisations. Thus, it is reasonable to inquire whether the uses of interactive, networked technologies in organisations reflect broader patterns. Similarities on different levels can then be compared to discover wider systemic factors and relationships.
Clearly convergence is more than technological, as it can imply a merging of practices. Between the national and the individual lies the organisational, with the government organisation as a special case. The importance of the emerging meta-technology of telecommunications computers and media cannot be overstated. This infrastructure is becoming our global and collective nervous system. Increasingly it carries the messages that are essential to our physical survival. The specifications of that system, from a bio-engineering perspective, are critical to our future. Those deciding its planning, regulation and underlying economic assumptions are engaged in a design exercise whose boundaries are those of the human mind. We are the transistors, the fibres, the switches and the flows.
While the extensive literature on computer mediated communication deals with the impacts of new technologies on organisations, it does not generally place this in a context of globalisation and convergence. Further, government policy agencies are rarely examined in relation to values embedded in their use of interactive technology. Yet it may be argued that the forms of communication and computerisation in government agencies are especially important for social outcomes. Through their approach to issues of access, transparency, and electronic consultation, patterns of government technology use embed the values and determine the actors whose voices affect policy choices.
This social impact may be considered rhetorically: To what extent are the cost efficiencies which drive electronic commerce and globalisation being applied to policy processes? At the agency level, are the applications of interactive technology in government or elsewhere being used to support democratic values?
An essential element for this analysis is a normative perspective. This assumes the desirability of democratic values and processes of governance, in order to compare them across scales. It is argued that values themselves are a key component of convergence, and that the convergence of values helps drive globalisation. The values reflected in the globalisation of information affect the use and structure of interactive technologies within organisations. These patterns are evident at the international level, within national governments, and within agencies.
System analysis and non linear perspectives have become popular theories for those who seek to integrate a fragmented post-modern and post-positivist world view. We fear treading past the edge of chaos, into the abyss, but we can’t keep ourselves from the continual motion which we assume is forward. It is unavoidable that in a globalised system, any bifurcations or collapse of the system will also be global. We are seeing hints of that now in Asia, and another example can be drawn from another source of dire forebodings, the Y2K problem, dramatically known as the Millennium Bug.
In a recent anecdotal posting to an electronic newsletter, a corporate computer expert outlines the Y2K problem to senior management: the company’s total dependence on its computing and software systems, the interdependence and ad hoc nature of the systems and sub-systems, and the unfortunate loss of documentation and personnel needed to understand and assess the relative risks should the various components fail, coupled with a similar situation with the many links to external agencies and their software. One valid but uncommon scenario of this common situation is that the computer expert is fired on the spot, for having allowed the problem to reach this proportion without taking preventative action. The total system had gotten out of control, and had proliferated without central direction to a point of potential self destruction. The CEO wanted someone to take the fall. But isn’t the CEO, by definition, part of the system and the problem?
The Asian monetary crisis, although its meaning is much more than those words imply, may well be another example of a system which has grown beyond the understanding of those subject to it. There have been earlier indications that our regulatory systems are not yet immune to rapid global shocks. Each contributing action can now happen at the speed of light, thanks to our convergent technologies. But our responses still occur in real time, with decisions aided where possible by technology but ultimately limited by the institutional and psychological pace of human behaviour. So little prediction, and so much commentary after the fact! Who within the system perceived the vulnerability of that system? We in Australia, a small population in Asia’s back yard, feel those ripples quite strongly, and many of us wonder what might lie in store if that turmoil exceeds its current system boundaries. Our computers offer us little comfort on this matter.
A final example, before reaching theoretical bedrock, is climate change and the much-debated Greenhouse Effect. This is an issue where the precautionary principle advocated by environmentalists may well be a life or death matter, especially for those who live near the sea. Are we like frogs in a pot of water, heating up and missing the chance to leap out because we are paying more attention to corporate assurances that warm water is good for us? Australia has embraced dollar democracy by allowing an important government report on this matter to be funded by the fossil fuel industry. One conclusion is clear: the limits of this system, the one we depend on for our essential life sustenance, is global, but no more. It behoves us to comprehend it, along with our role in that system.
This essay attempts to make sense of the systems which appear to be converging upon us. In the first section, the various theoretical threads which lead to the current perspective are outlined. Then a fractal metaphor is proposed as an explanatory tool for convergence in the context of globalisation. The values and structures governing the uses of our convergent technologies are revealed as systemically anti-democratic. This is related to evidence from a key Australian government coordinating department, the Department of Finance and Administration, which was the site of a two year case study of change and innovation in information technology systems. A complex set of factors relating a neo-liberal transformation to the evolution of the departmental desk top system is described, along with the value linkages to patterns on wider scales. The intention is to offer a new way of looking at the connections between globalisation and managerial practice.
Finally, the implications of these findings are considered. Possible conclusions about systems analysis in a globalised, convergent system are explored. Options will be presented for a reconciliation between globalisation and democracy. The perspective throughout is one of system design and interconnection between levels. This always encompasses more than their overt functions. The difference is between instrumental use for immediate purpose and developmental use, in which actions help to shape their environment.(Held 1996, Considine 1994) This distinction may also be thought of in terms of short and long term impacts.
A key hypothesis here is that the values and assumptions of globalised technology flow through to shape government reforms and telecommunications policy, and that these in turn contribute to patterns at the organisational level. These flow on effects may, in fact, be part of the defining characteristics of globalisation.
Theories from several disciplines inform the research: Considine sees policy as a form of communication, in which actors and their networks use resources and decisions to promote their value systems. Thus all policy is an expression and affirmation of values, with participation as the primary structure for its development and implementation. Participation ‘facilitates rational deliberation, creates and communicates moral principles, and expresses personal and group affects and needs.’ (Considine 1994:130)
A second theoretical foundation is Dahl’s definition of democracy as a unique process of collective decision-making. The criteria for democratic process are effective participation, voting equality at the decisive stage, enlightened understanding, and control of the agenda. (Dahl 1989:108) This definition emphasises widespread access to information and participation in decision making at all critical points. Another theoretical foundation examines the link between technology and democracy. Sclove (1995) offers a set of democratic design criteria, based on his synthesis of the literatures on social impacts of technology and democratic theory. His analysis reveals the realm of technology choice as itself value-laden, and seldom challenged set of policies.
Each of these theoretical perspectives transcends scale: they apply at many levels, and for many systems. Taken together, they can be used as a democratic litmus test for the policy processes and technological uses of many structures and organisations. They are equally applicable to a firm, a department, a community, or a nation. Furthermore, if accepted in principle, these concepts support and legitimate the democratic process.
Telecommunications is nowhere a local industry. It comes close to being a symbol of globalisation and convergence, particularly as the media industries become digital. Because computer technologies are part of a wider context, a broad systems approach is necessary to uncover its underlying patterns.
The ‘system’ which spawned telecommunications was, like all technological breeding grounds, a socio-economic and political context. Many writers (Lyon 1988 and Haywood, 1995, Hauben and Hauben 1997) have shown how computers and telecommunications grew out of and were funded by public research, which was eventually released for private development and benefit. The policy on the use of these technologies is fundamentally social policy, as it affects relationships between citizens and governments, business and other citizens (Calabrese and Borchert 1996, Reinecke 1989).
Globalisation adds another dimension in relation to computerisation and its convergence with telecommunications. It is often considered primarily in economic terms, as internationalisation of markets and a worldwide spread of capitalist economic relations which interlinks resource ownership, production, distribution, etc. (Bell 1997)
Equally important however is the globalisation of culture, as a by-product of the internationalisation of the media and the convergence of its ownership (Herman and McChesney 1997). This convergence is not value free, but is entwined with a neo-liberal concentration of both wealth and information, often to the detriment of public information. The cross ownership of media and other industries such as chemicals and energy leads to deliberate disinformation of citizens and a narrowing of the policy agenda to topics non-threatening to corporate interests (Carey 1995, Stauber and Rampton 1995, Beder 1997). A recent well publicised example of this was the cancellation of a Chris Patton’s book contract with a Murdoch-owned publishing house, allegedly for fear of jeopardising News Corporation’s media interests in China. An understanding of the ownership pattern of globalised information is important for the argument which follows, as is recognition of government as a major stakeholder, and under pressure to commodify its information holdings. (Branscomb 1994)
A FRACTAL METAPHOR
The introduction to this essay hinted that systems analysis is bigger than we think. If we reject a reductionist, linear and Newtonian model of both science and society, we must then accept that a Kuhnian paradigm shift has occurred, and that complexity and chaos theory has more in common with modern life than orthodox economic theory would acknowledge. We now know that non-linear models are probably the norm in the real world, and apply to topics as diverse as organisations, financial markets, and digital compression techniques.
Fractal patterns abound in complexity theory. They are simple equations which reproduce patterns on every scale. Fractals have been used to simulate the structure of plants and shells and other natural forms. Nature’s wondrous complexity masks an underlying mathematical simplicity.
All human activity is arguably part of Nature, and displays similar predilections for simplicity. Convergence, for all its complexity, may well be governed by simple rules emerging from the socio-technical context which created it. Biologically, we are social creatures, and may have no choice but to self organise.
The systems which are most convergent: telecommunications, economic patterns and governance, are fundamentally fractal. That is, they recreate similar structures at every scale. A few examples may clarify.
The Multilateral Agreement on Investment has been negotiated in secret, and only in recent months has been covered in the mass media. The OECD maintains that it was never secret, but the reality is that debate and discussion was not promoted, and media coverage was avoided. Internet activism has been credited with the postponement of a decision on the MAI. This treaty and the process of its development offer a template for future global governance, albeit an anti-democratic one.
At the national level, a similar process has been adopted for the development of a Goods and Services Tax in Australia, with social welfare lobby groups claiming that there has been no consultation. The media context has been: what kind of a GST would you like? Consideration of declining corporate tax contributions has been absent from the agenda.
This pattern of unilateral policy development, disinformation and lip service to democratic process has been repeated at the organisational scale, in the development of a new industrial relations agreement in the Department of Finance and Administration. Essentially the management offer was the one that was voted on, and accepted, despite union protests of non-negotiation.
Another example can be seen in patterns of service delivery. In the developed world, governments are backing away from direct provision to maintaining quality control. This is evident at the international level, where the OECD sees a new kind of state emerging, with government as less of a producer and more of an enabler, providing a flexible framework within which economic activity can take place, and increasingly overseeing the provision of services produced by others.
This pattern is repeated within government agencies, which adopt a similar role with their sub contractors. In the Australian Department of Finance and Administration this is the position being adopted for estimates of expenditure by other departments. Internally, this approach is echoed with newly corporatised agencies, such as Publishing Australia, previously part of the department, who in turn set in place similar arrangements with their employees. The adoption of risk minimisation, user pays, client orientation, and so forth is now common on all scales. The process of corporatisation is itself repeated at many levels.
A similar scalability is observable in areas of regulation or governance, economic accountability, and use of technology. The values which underpin these changes are everywhere the same, and occur independent of the nominal political orientation of governments. (Peters 1996, Zifcak 1994) They are non-participatory, individualistic and consumerist, rational rather than holistic, short term and instrumental, and assume homo economicus is the full embodiment of the human spirit.
COMPLEXITY IN ORGANISATIONS
The application of complexity and chaos to management has become a popular topic in recent years, although perhaps the fractal nature of the global system has not been previously articulated. More importantly, the underlying driving force of values in this self organisation has generally been discussed in relation to the parts, rather than the whole.
Thus, we are familiar with the analysis of modern organisations as systems which require feedback to learn from and adapt to their environments. (Senge 1992, Agyris 1973) The perils awaiting organisations which are trapped by self image (Schwartz 1990) or unable to innovate flexibly by assimilating new data (Moss Kanter 1989) have also been widely discussed.
Mobbing in the workplace, as documented primarily in the European literature, may be considered a form of self organisation. The term derives from studies of animal behaviour, and refers to the deliberate and collective isolation and demeaning of an individual perceived to be weak, or different, or threatening. Suicides have resulted from workers who have been bullied in this way. Is this associated with more competitive work environments? Has it increased with along with pressures to conform, and with the insecurity of downsizing? Are certain personality types more vulnerable, and others more likely to victimise without guilt?
These phenomena are unpleasant for organisations to consider, and are therefore often ignored. Rarely are human resource factors adequately assessed in relation to organisational success or survival. (Boudreau and Ramstad 1997) Even data on the strategic and measurable use of information systems (Caudle 1997) is seldom linked to the wider systems and outcomes which are increasingly relevant. Thus, while researchers have shown that email is a political tool, they missed the obvious: all technology is political. This recognition requires a different kind of systems thinking, which acknowledges the links between scales and systems.
We turn now to the organisational evidence from a case study of a key policy agency in the Australian government. Considerations of industrial democracy as applied within the agency offer an important area of comparison with generic concepts of policy and democracy. Other factors influencing electronic democracy in the public service have been discussed elsewhere. (Geiselhart 1996)
INTERACTIVITY IN A NON LEARNING ORGANISATION
The case study spanned approximately two years, encompassing more than 70 informants, scores of documents and several hundred hours of on site observations to provide a broad base for data collection. Qualitative study is the most appropriate way to understand a complex, diverse and rapidly changing environment, including its interactive computer systems. Yin (1989)
This approach, which looks at the impacts of public sector reforms on the organisation as a workplace, rather than examining the outputs, contrasts with much of the literature on public sector reform. Explicit consideration of industrial democracy is also unfashionable in current studies of the Australian public sector.
A surprising number of major changes affected all aspects of the organisation. This intense rate of change is one of the features that makes this case study fairly typical of public sector agencies in the 1990s. Pressures on the department included a change of government and secretary, a new industrial relations framework, mandatory outsourcing of information technology, a new desk top system, and significant downsizing with at least one major restructure.
Given this number of change factors, it would be surprising if the internal development of information technology systems proceeded in an uninterrupted path with a clear vision. In fact, the primary finding of the case study was confirmation of the interdependence of the interactive technology with wider organisational change. (Boddy and Gunson 1996) The technical advisers on the desk top technology were just one set of actors in this area of internal policy, and not generally very powerful ones. The implementation of outsourcing of computer operations towards the end of the study period also decreased the influence of computer staff.
Use of interactive systems in internal processes was found to be strongly dependent on managerial intent. This confirms studies of computer mediated communication in organisations which have found that the uses of the technology tend to echo existing social and cultural norms in an organisation. (Mantovani 1994)
By extension, changes in the uses of the technology might be predicted to reflect changes in the internal culture and social landscape. In the case study, democratic process in internal policy issues eroded markedly over the period of observation, with a few notable exceptions. An emphasis on individual performance, greater managerial control over rewards, a less open atmosphere characterised by ‘fear and favour’, and an exodus of experienced staff all influenced the development of interactive systems in the organisation. Transparency of managerial decisions and participation in key issues decreased. Some informants became more reluctant to discuss matters, another spoke of a ‘psychological holocaust’ on the human resources level. There was a trend away from textualising personal opinions on the internal email system. A strong neo-liberal management sought to move the organisation ‘from learning to earning.’
These patterns of management and behaviour repeated those seen in transnational companies. ‘That’ll be their problem. It’s part of our risk minimisation.’ was the answer when an informant was asked about the human resource implications of outsourcing information technology. Likewise the emphasis on individual performance and reward, rather than group behaviour, was adopted without question, and without regard for an increasingly centralised decision making process.
Some areas within the organisation continued to apply team work principles and encourage participation. These were, however, not formally evaluated or put forward as models for other areas. Information management remained at an instrumental level, and an experiment to develop a discussion data base was not maintained. Internal social capital and participation decreased. At the same time the federal government created an agency to look after information economy. Information equity and community input and development are not being discussed. On a local level, the electricity utility plans a broadband experiment for Canberra, offering European television stations. There are no funds available to explore or inform about the possibilities for developing local content or community interactivity.
Clearly, we are no longer facing binary decisions: it is not a matter of rejecting convergence or globalisation outright. This would not automatically ensure a reinvigoration of democracy or any other desirable goal. There is nothing intrinsically evil about sitting down at a computer anywhere in the world and being able to use it. Quite the contrary, globalised technology can be beneficial if subject to global democratic governance. What is inherently destabilising is a convergence based on endless and unexamined growth, when that brings growth in poverty and inequality. We have smart cards and smart buildings, but are yet to become a smart species.
If convergence means ‘the end of ideology’, where all roads require us to drive to the mall and hail the triumph of the free market as we work longer hours in less secure jobs, then we have a problem. So we need to place a high priority on separating embedded ideology from value judgements about events in the real world. There is reason to question the values of enormously profitable telecommunications corporations which sadly inform us that costs will have to go up, when we know the critical resource is literally as cheap and abundant as sand.
To break through this entrenched thinking will require a new mathematics of communication and information, to move us beyond the Weaver transmission model that has served to reinforce centralised control. (Spurgeon 1997) A system more appropriate for the challenging decades which lie ahead of us in the next millennium might be based on simulations using integrated models of complex and non linear social, economic and environmental outcomes. The underlying assumptions of such models are always value-laden, a responsibility which needs to be accepted by the modellers. Its assumptions and norms would be ethical, rather than fiscal. This sort of thinking, operating at every scale, would influence and direct the forms of self organisation which will ultimately choose our global future.
Feedback and self organisation are essential elements in complex systems, and these can be articulated for many different spheres of action: government, technology, organisations. An initially subtle shift (the criticality of the starting position in chaos theory becomes an empowering concept) in values, again towards the ethical and social, rather than the financial, would help to redirect systems towards learning and sustainability.
Democratic accountability could be designed into all systems, through deliberate mechanisms to provide diversity of information, participation, transparency, feedback and evaluation. This would generate the ground swell which might make democratic process meaningful at every level, as a consensus on practical ethics emerged from the chaos. The riots in Jakarta were an example of self organisation in pursuit of democratic outcomes.
This is relatively straightforward for designers of organisational software networks. Accepting the unavoidably political nature of technology, and the need to shape it for systemic survival, allows us to focus on the values which influence its design. My microwave can be used to neglect or educate my children, but the fact that it derives power from a central, coal-fired source is still part of its political context. Some technologies might serve us better as public trusts. (Zimmerman 1995)
An organisational system with no feedback loops, whether verbal or electronic, has less chance of adapting flexibly to a changing environment. Systems designers are powerful people, leading us like a pied piper down the path of technological progression. An explicit redirection towards more sustainable human scales of assimilation could even lead to a slowing of the exponential developments in computers. This is unthinkable heresy to many, but it is also well known that most systems have features well beyond the understanding of most users. That’s why most rocket scientists cannot program their video recorders. The pace of change inhibits reflection on its direction, yet this is the reckless path we seem to be travelling.
More technology is not necessarily better, and can work against optimal communication. The general overload of useless information that fills the global ether is echoed within organisations and homes. An audit of information sources in my case study revealed that email is used excessively, and inappropriately, when face to face contact would be preferable. This is an area where individuals still have choices.
For researchers, a reexamination of methodologies is overdue. Public policy conferences which deliberate all morning on the role and meaning of interdisciplinary study, without seriously developing consensus on the real world problems which public policy should address are like medievalists counting angels dancing on the head of a pin. Likewise, a ‘communications economist’, proudly presenting data on how much people are willing to pay for Australian media content, without having asked about or established the cost for overseas content, is misguided. So is the scholar testing the ‘client orientation’ of new hospital services without interviewing patients or nurses. This cannot be justified as ‘taking the macro view’, as was said in defence. Such methodologies are self serving, as are the public servants who slide easily into lucrative private sector jobs where they proceed to undermine the very social policies they once defended. Correctly, Mintzberg (1996) calls this practice corrupt.
Foucault still has much to offer us in the analysis of power and governmentality. Anyone who has sat in executive meetings where intelligent people passively sit and nod, understands the Faustian side of self-censorship. There is no room for two-loop learning in such contexts, as any challenge to underlying assumptions is dismissed. A public servant suggested an electronic list as a cost effective consultation mechanism. ‘You mean we couldn’t control who we communicate with?’ was the instant response. All executives should be subject to 360 degree assessment, and wise executives will promote this for their own edification.
The mantra of ‘client service’ is now so widespread that it is difficult to enumerate the areas to which it applies. Nearly all services that interface with the public experience some of these pressures, which are usually a mask for their opposite. Choice is more often a limiting of options, but greater with greater efficiency for the provider. At interactive kiosks, or at teller machines, we can carry out an increasing number of instrumental functions. What you cannot do is talk to your government, bank, or fellow citizen about the policies which drive these innovations. That would be qualitative, costly, and difficult to digitise. Besides, people might indicate a preference for something other than what they are being given, probably at the expense of profits. Profit levels are quantifiable, and therefore a potential area for consensus development. We have general agreement on what levels of inflation are bearable, and at what point it becomes destabilising. We should be able to apply similar limits to profits, for similar reasons. How can there be wisdom (not a sexy term) without restraint?
If real client service and better government become the goals, all of these systems will have feedback loops, or external systems for citizen-to-citizen and citizen to government communication, all of it transparent, accessible, and accountable. Yet too many instances of online ‘consultation’ fall into the black hole, ‘your views have been noted’ category.
Regulators and lawmakers in telecommunications can be aware of the need to maintain and encourage diversity of supply, input, content, etc. The growth of mega-Intranets which exclude local content and steer users down the path of consumerist, disinformed options is yet another sign that we have not learned from the history of other media.(McChesney 1996, Klein 1996) We, the elite, are shaping the world for the hundreds of millions who are not yet connected. Such privilege comes at a price.
For the business and economic community, it becomes important to identify all the links in the value chain of modern telecommunications, from sand to synapse. Are each of the elements sustainable? The process of value adding should also add value to each contributor along the way. Current practice favours free riding and off loading, both aspects of the classic prisoner’s dilemma (Birrer 1997). It is easier, in the short term, to subcontract without asking about the implications external to the immediate system of benefits, such as environmental or work conditions, as the example of risk minimisation given earlier shows. But the exits for today’s open system might be clogged shut tomorrow. No matter how carefully controlled, information seepage can create problems for companies with bad reputations, as many have found to their cost.
Successful examples of eliminating market distortions and encouraging diversity can be shared and copied. Likewise with models of regulation. Institutional models which deliver integrated outcomes and offer alternatives to rigid corporatist structures should be evaluated and promoted. One such example, which could probably never come into existence in today’s climate, is the public library. Non-profit, free to all, a source of information, education and community spirit, libraries are a linchpin of democracy. Yet, like public broadcasters, they are now underfunded and under threat.
It is important to encourage and invest in initiatives that help develop small business and local content. There is no real conflict between this direction and the pursuit of profits, if we allow ourselves just a glimpse at a slightly longer term view. The Canberra trial of broadband mentioned earlier is a example of allowing the preoccupation with bigness to obscure the potential for local interactivity. Yet that is what could set the trial apart from mere technical wizardry, and make it marketable for other regions.
The model of a market which we could aim for is not one of oligopolies rapidly setting prices and conditions to eliminate all competitors, but more like real estate in a small city. While it might still be subject to global vicissitudes, there are enough players and buyers to sort out the good properties and owners and tenants. Government regulation should help maintain this balance. A market like that is accountable, visible, understandable, and offers all players an opportunity to make money, but not fortunes, and to display integrity and common sense. The early days in the commercialisation of the Internet presented a similar situation, with many small service providers competing openly.
Simple ethical guidelines for development of our global infrastructure exist (Cameron and Geiselhart 1997), as do useful templates for the consideration of technologies in a social context. (Sclove 1995, Zimmerman 1995)
For many of us, this involves personal choice and greater levels of awareness of our roles in the systems we use and are part of. Although much of this essay has been about recognising social impacts of technological decision making, the importance of individuals is perhaps the most critical implication of the fractal metaphor. It is a homely and trivial observation that we are all partly responsible for systemic outcomes, but we also help to direct it. For those who are reasonably secure, a choice made with democratic process and equity as guiding values, or one made on the basis of immediate personal gain are both value judgements. They are not always incompatible, but the balance point is moving towards unsustainability and chaos. Will we, as Martin and Schumann (1997:11) ask, look back on the 1990s as a golden period ‘when the world still seemed orderly and a change of course still seemed possible’?
The work of those who create and disseminate information for public consumption is critical. Attacks on public broadcasting, as in Australia, are attempts to inhibit public information and debate. The limiting of the agenda for discussion about the role of new technologies is now seriously institutionalised due to increasing corporate domination of the media. (Herman and McChesney 1997) The continuation of an alternative source of information via the Internet is dependent on pricing mechanisms. The lively LINK list on telecommunications in Australia, where top computer journalists, business people and policy makers exchange information and commentary, would smother if list-servers became subject to pay-per-email charges, a possibility some alarmists have raised.
For organisations, real life working models of successful bottom-up organisation exist, and can be adapted. One remarkable example is Semler (1994) and his democratic restructure of a company in Brazil, amid challenging circumstances. The limited interest in this win-win scenario speaks more about our global CEOs than about their workers. This pattern, too, was echoed in thecase study, where similar, if smaller scale initiatives were neither evaluated nor copied.
Metaphor can generate insights and affect our mental patterns. (Morgan 1986) Here I am suggesting that a complex view of systems can be clarified by recognising that the patterns in our global systems are echoed on other scales. If these are dysfunctional, the fractal metaphor also indicates that we are able to influence the outcomes through our individual roles in the systems we interact with. This brings a new dimension to the homily ‘think globally, act locally.’ It also offers a new and hopeful perspective on the structure and function of modern organisations in a globalised context.
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