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Notes for Remarks by Gaylen Duncan
President and CEO, Information Technology Association of Canada
To Queen's University
January 31, 2003
The task that I've been assigned in these proceedings is to provide a forward looking perspective on the future of information and communications technology.
But I have to assert from the outset that I am not very good at predicting the ebbs and flows of IT. If I were, my stock portfolio would be in much better shape than it is. I wish I had a dollar for every time I've been asked – over the last eighteen months – 'When will the IT industry return to prosperity?' It turns out that every forecast I've put on the record since early 2001 has proven to be, depending upon how charitable you are, either pitifully optimistic or dead wrong.
So I'm not going to do any high risk crystal ball-gazing today. Instead, I'd like to talk to you today about a sure thing. The 'sure thing' in the ICT world is something I like to call 'the networking instinct'.
A couple of years ago, while the industry was fixated upon Y2K, it was fashionable to reflect back on the last 2000 years of history and develop 'best of' lists.
One of the most thoughtful examples of this trend was a book called "The Greatest Inventions of the Past 2000 Years," by John Brockman. Brockman is an author and literary agent who operates an invitation-only Website called Edge. Edge is designed to give leading scientists and thinkers a place to communicate their ideas in a lively, challenging forum. Brockman likes to get the discussion rolling by posing deliberately ingenious questions like "Where did the human mind come from?" and "Where did the universe originate?"
In 1999 he posted the question "What is the single most important invention in the past two thousand years?" Responses ranged from the predictable – the printing press, the electric motor and the pill – to the obscure.
Some contributors went out of their way to champion the banal – mirrors, chairs and the axe. Others favoured the arcane – the universal Turing machine and von Guericke's static electricity machine.
Like any academic discourse, the whole process quickly became a game of one-upmanship. Contributors were deliberately provocative. The artist Henry Warwick, stealing a page from Seinfeld, proposed "nothing". And like good intellectuals, the participants cheated like crazy. They insisted that an idea could be an invention. So fully half the suggestions in the book are not classic inventions at all, but notions like free will, quantum theory and even "the idea of an idea."
They also completely ignored the parameters of the question. Many suggestions like the alphabet, geometry and the numbering system pre-dated anno domino. But the preponderance of suggestions clearly favour late entries like the computer, robotics and the Internet.
It's his book, so Brockman gets to place a bet, too. He proposes that the most important invention of the past two thousand years is something he calls DNI or distributed networked intelligence. This is "the externalized mind – the mind we all share, the infinite oscillation of our collective consciousness interacting with itself, becoming aware of itself, adding a fuller, richer dimension to what it means to be human".
Maybe it shouldn't surprise us that the guy who asks the question comes up with the best answer. I like Brockman's contribution for a number of reasons. . . it's what I would have said. But the poetry and power in the suggestion comes from its place in time. The struggle to create DNI has taken millennia. Its impact was barely recognized until the late twentieth century. Unlike geometry or the alphabet, which have manifested themselves throughout our past, the full implications of DNI await the future. It is a superb bridge between all that went before and all that lies ahead.
It's a very calculated suggestion. The "I", for intelligence, in one fell swoop incorporates every other invention and idea in the book. And the words "distributed" and "network" internalize all the advances in computing and network-building from the calculus to the Internet. In fact, the sneaky part of Brockman's proposal is that it's a showstopper. DNI represents the full flowering of human achievement so far. Tag, no touchbacks.
In fact, the only objection I can offer is that DNI isn't actually fully invented yet. It is a work still in progress. The network which unites and distributes our collective intelligence is only half built. It currently embraces less than half of humanity, leaving the other half unable to access and unable to contribute to this collective intelligence.
And that brings me to the thesis of my remarks to you today. Like Brockman, I fervently believe that what he calls distributed networked intelligence is the greatest monument to our species' experiment with civilization-building so far. It is perfectly reasonable to call it the greatest invention not just of the past two thousand years, but of all our history. But I will argue that it will take a significant amount of inventiveness to complete the task of extending the benefits and responsibilities of DNI to everyone on earth. A huge task still lies ahead.
What I'd like to do with the time you've permitted me is to chart a bit of history of how we got DNI to its present state, particularly in Canada. Then I'd like to examine the implications of leaving the job unfinished. And then I'd like to tell you about some of the things that governments, corporations and individuals are doing to expand the network.
I've titled this presentation "The Networking Instinct" and I would argue that, along with hunger, fear and sexuality, networking, too, is a primal instinct. When you stop and think about it, the first devices for distributed networked intelligence were campfires. Around the campfire, pre-verbal hunters and gatherers learned to share information about good locations for hunting and new techniques for bringing home food. Before we had formal symbols for communications we had an instinct for sharing intelligence. And the preponderance of mankind's technological advancement ever since has been focused on finding new ways to facilitate this instinct.
We invented numbers and letters to encode intelligence and make it easier to transmit. We invented universities, printing presses and moveable type to concentrate this transmission. Some of our most unlikely advances are instruments of the distribution of intelligence. For example, Alun Anderson, editor of New Scientist, argued in Brockman's book that the fifteenth century Portuguese caravel was the greatest invention.
He wrote a lively essay on its history and sang the praises of its precociously sophisticated design. But in the end, what use is a caravel lying at anchor in the shipyard? It derives its power from its capacity to brave the stormy seas to link old world intelligence with the new.
Maybe this tendency to boil everything down to communications technology reflects a Canadian world view. The British and the Dutch, close- quartered in teeming European cities, may have seen sailing ships and canoes as instruments of commerce. But we, isolated in geographically dispersed outposts, saw them as more than that – they were the medium for news, intelligence and innovation. They provided the vital links to wider humanity that made life in the wilderness bearable and made settlement possible.
As settlement expanded and we dreamed of nationhood, our technological advances to create community became more sophisticated. We built roads and canals. For Canadians, the networking instinct was an imperative. And we built a railroad, a railroad that became a symbol of our collective desires and aspirations. A simple transportation system could never seize the imagination of a nation. For Canadians the railroad wasn't about locomotion, it was about a dream of a network of communities from sea to sea. Canadian history reflects this understanding of the importance of railroads as devices for distributed network intelligence.
With this deep-rooted appreciation for community-building technology, for its capacity to bridge distance and vanquish loneliness, it's not surprising that Canada today aspires to be the most connected country on earth. The simple truth is that we're good at building networks. And, fortunately, this inate talent positions us well for leadership in a world increasingly focused on connectivity.
We are already one of the most wired nations on earth. More than 98 per cent of Canadian homes have both a telephone and a television. Nearly ninety percent of Canadians have access to cable TV. And 96 percent are linked to a digital switch. We are avid users of paging and cellular service. One in every six Canadians now has a wireless phone or device. We are world leaders in our use of the Internet and we are making significant strides in the area of high speed, broadband access. There are approximately 700,000 users of cable modems in Canada, only five years after their market introduction. We boast a world class telecommunications infrastructure and the world's longest fiber optic network. We have the platform for distributed network intelligence in Canada. We've built it with private capital and public will.
We also have a community of policy makers who understand how important networks are to our national identity.
They have, for example, ensured that Canada shall maintain unregulated access to the Internet. They have been quick to grasp the new realities of electronic communications and have implemented timely policies to ensure the protection of personal privacy. They have also ensured a tax regime that encourages, rather than hinders, on-line commerce. These progressive policies can be found in all levels of government throughout our country.
But the network instinct isn't restricted to Canadian elites. Our culture enshrines connectedness. Some of the greatest Canadian intellects have made profound contributions towards broadening our understanding of it. We are proud of the contributions of Innes, McLuhan, and Grant*, and follow with interest those who maintain this intellectual tradition - people like Derek de Kerkhove, Arthur Croaker** and my friend Don Tapscott. Canadians are not only avid users of the tools of connectivity. They are also becoming increasingly aware of the transformational powers that these tools possess.
The strongest manifestation of all is the way this instinct finds expression in Canadian behavior. From Alexander Graham Bell's first long distance call between Brantford and Paris, Ontario, to CaNet III, it's in our nature to connect. We have long been ranked among the world's most prodigious telephone talkers. And we're quickly showing a comparable affinity for the Internet. We have the highest rate of home computer penetration in the OECD. And, as of March, 1999, all Canadian schools that chose to be were connected to the Internet.
Our connectivity focus has now switched to broadband. Between the Federal Government's initiatives to bring broadband to rural areas, and the private sectors broadband deployment programs, high speed service is increasingly available throughout the country. But it's not coming quickly enough for some Canadians.
Howard Griffith, for example, is the educational technology consultant for the Fort LaBosse School Division which sits just inside the Saskatchewan border in southern Manitoba. Some of the schools in his district – particularly those in Virden – have access to high speed Internet service provided by the telephone company. But others in outlying communities had to still rely on dial-up service. In Howard's estimation, this service made it impossible for more than one student at a time to use the Internet. Students, instead of finding the Internet an exciting resource for learning, were abandoning it in sheer frustration.
So Howard resolved to remedy the situation with a homegrown solution that honours the resourcefulness of generations of Prairie people. With a software developer friend, he worked out a broadband delivery system based on wireless radio. Then he persuaded his school board to enter into a partnership with three other private sector firms to get the solution implemented. The school board bought some radio equipment, erected three radio towers and took over a decommissioned RCMP radio tower.
Meanwhile, the private sector firms began selling high speed service to commercial clients. And potential clients who occupied tall buildings, a feed mill, for example, got a price break in exchange for locating radio antennae on their roofs. The broadband network came to this part of rural Manitoba, through ingenuity, prairie cooperation and determination. It's an excellent example to prove that the networking instinct is alive and well in Canada.
The folks who live in St. Lewis on the Labrador coast provide another. St. Lewis is a Metis community of 400 people. One of them is a lady named Eva Luther. Eva got her first computer in 1983. She taught herself everything there was to know about her Commodore 64 and many upgrades later formed the St. Lewis Computer Action Committee. The committee objective was to bring the Internet to St. Lewis.
But, because St. Lewis is so remote, long distance charges proved to be a major obstacle to the community's Internet use. Again, relying on old community methods of getting tough jobs done, the committee organized fundraisers like bingo games, raffles and bake sales to bring the Internet to town.
With the support of Industry Canada, St. Lewis became one of the first Community Access Program sites in Labrador. The CAP site, with Eva's leadership, helped to introduce computers and computer skills throughout the community. Today at least half of the citizens of St. Lewis have home computers of their own. So Eva's now working on securing a high speed satellite connection to make on-line life better for her neighbours. The fundraising and network building goes on and on.
Canada doesn't have a corner on connectedness. The same networking instinct exists all around the world. And it overcomes obstacles even more challenging than ones that we face.
At one of the earliest meetings of the G7 to discuss the information highway, Thabo Mbeki, then deputy president of South Africa, delivered a keynote address that stopped the discourse in its tracks. He did this, in a room full of the world's most powerful men by simply stating two facts. First he pointed out that there are more telephone lines in Manhattan than in the whole of sub-Sahara Africa. Then he reminded the audience that half the world's population has never even made a single telephone call. In two strokes Mr. Mbeki defined what has since been called the 'digital divide'.
The digital divide has been charted in a variety of ways. One measure is an ITU tool called teledensity which charts the number of telephone main lines per 100 people. The 1998 teledensity figures showed countries like ours, Sweden and the United States at the top of the pole with 63-67 lines per 100 people. The world average teledensity is 15.
Countries like Saudi Arabia and China chart much lower. But the really troubling part of this indicator is the large number of countries with less than one line per 100 people. These include Haiti, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Bangladesh, Tanzania and Uganda.
When we measure Internet use, a similar picture emerges. IDC (International Data Corporation) places developed countries like Iceland, Sweden and Singapore at the top of the list along with Canada and the U.S. Others like Qatar, Malaysia and the African countries scrape in at less than 5 per cent of the total population. Infrastructure and availability are key obstacles, but so is cost. The average South African Internet user has an income seven times the national average. Ninety per cent of users in Latin America come from upper income groups.
In practice, the digital divide reflects the mirror opposite of the benefits I talked about earlier. South Africa is the best connected African country, but even today many hospitals and 75 per cent of schools have no telephone line. AIDS is a huge problem that threatens to disrupt the stability of the whole African continent. The front line of the battle against AIDS are places like Mkuki, which is a community resource centre at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro in northern Tanzania. Unlike hospitals in Toronto, it cannot boast remote diagnostics and consultations, it has no tele-radiology . . . it has no telephone connectivity – wireless or land line. The nearest public phone booth is in the next major town, 27 kilometers away.
It's an equally bleak picture in education. The Nairobi University Medical School Library is considered one of the best in the region. It receives 20 medical journals compared with the 5,000 that can be found in an average North American med school.
In Brazzaville, Congo, the University has only 40 medical books, and a dozen journals, none of them more current than 1993. In Harare, Zimbabwe, the one public library has stock from the 60s and 70s and not a single computer screen in the two-storey building. Simple, basic access to the Internet would make an exponential difference in cases like these.
This is what Kofi Anan means when he talks about 'the digital opportunity'. He recently said 'The digital revolution has unleashed an unprecedented wave of opportunity. Used responsibly, it can greatly improve our chances of defeating poverty.'
Canadians long immersed in the digital revolution, understand intuitively how this can happen.
At a State of the World Forum held in New York several years ago, Huguette Labelle, the former head of CIDA noted 'I have seen cotton pluckers in Africa getting one- fifth of the prevalent price because they didn't have access to price information on the Internet and thus were solely dependaent on middle-mmen. The opportunities are there to de-isolate the isolated, to de-exclude the excluded'.
For many of us, the digital divide just doesn't make any sense. In my industry, we follow a principle called Metcalfe's Law. Metcalfe's Law, simply stated, suggests the value of a network increases exponentially as the cost of the network increases linearly. Each node on the network mathematically delivers more value than the last. This is certainly demonstrated in terms of network investment. But it is also true in terms of distributed networked intelligence.
This is an important point frequently overlooked in all the discourse around digital divide. We talk about the need to connect the unwired world based on a presumption that the South will benefit from the knowledge of the North. But the South has a tremendous wealth of knowledge to share as well.
Nairobi University is a case in point. It sits in one of the most disease-ridden environments in the world. People in the region have been treating these illnesses for millennia. Maybe they know something about immunology that we don't. Even if they can't cure the diseases, they can probably describe the symptoms more accurately than researchers in Boston or London.
The South has knowledge the North needs. We can get as smug and self-congratulatory as we like about our tremendous digital networked intelligence. But, as long as it only embraces half the world's population, it isn't the achievement that it must be.
As I said earlier, it will take great inventiveness to complete the job. But we simply must do it.
Fortunately, the importance of this task has seized the imaginations of many resourceful, smart people. In the time remaining, I want to share a few of the strategies that drive their networking instincts.
Exploring the digital opportunity has become core business for many international aid agencies. The UN Development Program, for example, has launched three technology access community centres in Egypt. Each centre is equipped with computers and Internet access and is located in a public building accessible to all citizens. The centres offer access, of course, but also training in computer literacy, desk top publishing and technical support. These skills in turn can be deployed for tele-medicine and electronic commerce applications. By offering these tools free to anyone in the community, the skill base for more sophisticated applications and programs will expand.
Governments, of course, are key players in the drive to bridge the digital divide. A number have made this a national policy priority. The Prime Minister of India for example has declared, "We are determined to remove all the hurdles of policy and implementation in the path of rapid expansion of telecom and the Internet in India. It is our endeavor to create a proper harmony between the traditional economy and the IT-driven New Economy." To this end, and recognizing its distinct advantage as the largest source of programming professionals in the world, India has launched an aggressive program of tax incentives and other measures to lure investment in software development and to expand connectivity.
Sometimes governments need help and I'm pleased to say that they can frequently find it from my industry. Cisco Systems for example, commits significant resources to the Cisco Networking Academy Program. This is a global training program that teaches students throughout the world to design, build and maintain the networks that will distribute our intelligence in the future.
There are over 3800 Networking Academies in 70 countries worldwide. If you've ever had the good fortune to meet some of their students, you'll understand how strong the networking instinct is among young people.
Another example is how Lucent Technologies, the world's biggest telecommunications equipment supplier, demonstrates their commitment through programs such as Lucent Links and their Youth Development Program in India.
The Lucent Links program brings together young people around the world who ordinarily would not communicate with one another, either face-to-face or through technology. The $50 million program uses technology to engage young people around issues of inclusion, diversity and technology and is designed to help them develop leadership skills and the cultural competencies necessary to live and work in a multicultural community.
The Youth Development Program funds vocational training and the education of homeless youth in India. These young people learn and develop skills which enable them to self-help, and grow into engaged and productive citizens.
If there's one thing that has characterized the networking instinct, it's tenacious determination to overcome obstacles. The solutions I've outlined illustrate the wide array of approaches to this. They illustrate that there is no one correct way to finish this job. It calls for a variety of approaches. It will take all our ingenuity and all our commitment to do it.
This is particularly true for those of you about to launch your careers in the field of information technology. Whether you are designing microchips, writing code or building network architectures, this challenge lies before you. You have the capacity through your knowledge and dedication to determine how quickly the task of completing "distributed networked intelligence" will be completed.
We can bridge the digital divide. We must. This unwavering human instinct for networking is an unstoppable force. It has brought us tremendous benefit. But only when the network embraces all of humanity, will we have an achievement truly worth celebrating. Let's get on with it.
Contributions and Submissions Welcome
Contact John Duncan 1-306-789-3063