Australia and the secret sauce of western civilisation?

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Historian Niall Ferguson, in his Civilization: The West and the Rest, notes that:

“For 500 years the West patented six killer applications that set it apart. The first to download them was Japan. Over the last century, one Asian country after another has downloaded these killer apps — competition, modern science, the rule of law and private property rights, modern medicine, the consumer society and the work ethic. Those six things are the secret sauce of Western civilization.”

In the light of this it is interesting to consider how Australia fares in relation to these key elements.

1) Competition
The competitive landscape in Australia is challenging. Due to the small market size we tend towards duopolies; but regulated appropriately that can provide sufficient competition. Also it is difficult to get sufficient scale for wholesale competition. While competition at the retail end of the market is much easier to encourage. Issues around cartels and price fixing remain problematic, with our regulators unable to address this effectively through the courts.

Australia is doing better at competition than it used to in the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s but we still have a way to go. The banking industry is probably the poster child for how much more there is to do regarding effective competition.

2) Modern Science
Australia has always ‘punched above its weight’ in science as well as in sport. But with funding cuts and dearth of opportunities for career scientists we are in serious danger of losing this critical advantage.

Also recent research shows that Australian universities are not performing well in relation to international research rankings:

“…few [Australian] universities performed above the international benchmark – only 12 in total which average in the top three ratings at world standard, above world standard or well above world standard.

Behind that is a very long tail, with 29 institutions averaging below or well below world standard.”

Source: Uni research report a blow to big-noters 31 Jan 2011

The other side to modern science is how our society treats science and scientists. Do we still believe in science? Do we still trust what scientists say?

Regarding vaccines – one of the genuine life saving scientific discoveries – we have many well educated people within Australia rejecting them. The anti-vaccine movement seems to be gaining momentum and we are in danger of losing the benefits of herd immunity that earlier vaccination programs gave us.

And then there is the area of climate change. With significant proportions of the Australian population (led by Tony Abbott) believing that nothing has changed and that there is no reason to make any changes to our collective lifestyles or economic choices as a result of climate change.

Also the number of well educated people who are privileging scientifically untested remedies and treatments over scientifically tested ones is increasing. This was discussed well recently by Tanveer Ahmed in Alternative medicine, superstition of our age.

However, I think that, at present, the people who believe in scientific ideas, approaches and solutions still prevail in Australia (for the time being).

3) Rule of Law and Private Property Rights
On this front, thanks to our common law heritage and continued independent judiciary, Australia continues to do well. Our legislative environment is relatively stable and decisions tend to give businesses and private individuals certainty. The rule of law seems safe in Australia for the time being.

I’ve often joked that private property is one of the sacred truths to which we hold dear in Australia. And, apart from the odd geological survey or government resumption of land, private property seems safe here.

Of course Australia does not have any constitutional guarantees of basic human rights nor do we have a nationally legislated Bill of Rights, although some states have legislated independently. But we do have the Australian Human Rights Commission, but even when this body expresses “grave concern” over an issue that does not mean that the Government will necessarily act.

However, there are some concerns regarding the growth in powers sought and granted by government to its agencies to spy on citizens – for example this piece on the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment Act 2010.

4) Modern Medicine
Australia is lucky that a former government introduced universal basic medical care – Medicare – unlike some other countries where many people are unable to afford such care. Due to the availability of good quality food and water together with access to basic medical care (including government funded vaccination programs) our population is healthy. This in spite of increasing obesity and related diseases such as type 2 diabetes.

Medical research continues – with foundations such as the National Health and Medical Research Council and many other private research groups – and Australia remains strong in this area.

With our education of medical professionals Australia remains strong, in spite of some concerns regarding the number of doctors and nurses.

5) The Consumer Society
There are two elements to the consumer society – the consumer mindset and consumer behaviour. Australia seems to be retaining a strong consumer mindset and this is occupying all facets of our relations with retailers and service providers (even in non retail contexts).

However, consumer behaviour seems to have shifted since the GFC with retail sales slipping. And since Christmas we have seen the panic from local retailers led by the venerable and somewhat cranky Gerry Harvey based on worries that consumers are turning to online retail over going to a local store.

Our society has become consumerist in its thinking. This means that the consumer mindset is transferred to areas of life that were once not seen as consumer transactions. For example, we now see ourselves as consumers of health services not as patients. Or we see ourselves as consumers of local government services, not as ratepayers.

This change also flows on to our expectations of those “service providers”, generally increasing our expectations. When one is a mere ratepayer one might take whatever the council deigns to offer, but as a consumer one can and will demand better service.

I’m not sure that we have really come to understand this powerful change in the shift to a consumer mindset across so many areas of modern life. It also means that the notion of service in return is a dying idea. As a consumer I receive services, not give them.

6) The Work Ethic
Adults have bemoaned the decline in the work ethic of subsequent generations since the days of Socrates. Australia is no exception. For example this recent article: Gen Y too lazy and unfocused to hire – bosses.

In the past Australians worked hard at a single job, saved up until they could afford things and waited patiently until middle age to get a housing loan. But now, we children of the ‘me‘ generation who have been brought up as consumers first have a different relationship work and credit.

We have seen an erosion of the ability to stay in a single job, where you show loyalty to the employer and they return that loyalty. The recession of the 1990s saw many of us watch people we know turfed out with nothing after years of loyal service. We watched the wave of downsizing and the lionisation of people like Al “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap by business leaders.

The Gen Xs who came out of university during the late 1980s and early 1990s found it hard to get work and learned to be suspicious of employers and their promises. This generation watched many traditional jobs, such as manufacturing, head offshore and service jobs replace them.

The old stoic Australian world view, the one where we just took whatever came at us without asking why, seems to be dead. We have been brought up to know that we have rights, even if they are simply moral rights. Rights as consumers, rights as taxpayers, rights as citizens, rights as students, rights as employees.

All of this changes our approach to work. We are still capable of hard work, many of us do not shy away from hard work. And for that hard work we expect reward. Yet some amongst us do not think that we have a right to demand that they too work. Some think that immediately upon starting work they deserve the rewards that accrue to long term achievement. And I suspect that this attitude is tied up with our consumer mindset and the way that so much in modern life does not appear to call for mastery or apprenticeship.

What’s it all mean?
As an Australian I tend to think ‘she’ll be right mate‘. We are a good country, and the preponderance of our people are good people. We are governed under a democracy that works. We have a free judiciary and our people are not oppressed. We have a tradition of a ‘fair go’ for all and we have a long history of helping the underdog.

As long as we refuse to buy into the politics of fear I suspect we’ll be alright.

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Filesharing: copyright has always been a bit broken but we never noticed

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I was chatting to someone at a party on Saturday night about copyright. The gentleman I was chatting with was strongly in favour of strict enforcement of copyright. He was advocating fining people who share copyright material online.

It got me thinking. Once you consider the problem in offline terms it seems that many of the problems of copyright content have been with us since the days of Gutenberg. And that problem has always been related to re-distribution (or ‘file sharing’) of copyright material.

Before the advent of modern printing copyright was unnecessary. Even in the early days of the printing press copyright did not really matter since it was so difficult to produce a book and to then distribute that book widely.

The reason for this was technological. In that the constraints in distributing printed matter meant that wide distribution was hard to do. For example, just look how big and heavy this Gutenberg Bible is to move around. You would not like to be down at the local market trying to move a lot of this model.

But with the Protestant Reformation there was a drive to put the bible into the hands of all Christians, and to ensure that they could also read. This led to a focus on improving the technology of the new device (a.k.a. the book). Very quickly with this strong support from Church (and often State as well) the book began to resemble its modern petite dimensions. With this change in technology – i.e. smaller lighter books and better printing machinery – distribution suddenly became much easier and the problem of people sharing copyright content started to rear its ugly head.

And, at the same time, the other problem facing copyright content popped up its head – file sharing (a.k.a. sharing books with other people who had not paid for them). Thus even since the Protestant Reformation file sharing has been a problem.

Once the book became a portable device the issue of file sharing became a problem. The second hand bookshop became the place where file sharing took place. People also did it at home or work – bringing in their books to pass along to another person.

As a society we came to accept this as part of the deal. So what is the big problem when we have the same behaviour in the digital space? I suspect it is a problem of scale. Suddenly I can purchase one copy of some content and then share it with many people around the world, who can in turn share it with many others.

But we are not going to solve this problem by telling people not to do it. It is too easy to do. Also legal alternatives are not as easy as doing the wrong thing. iTunes is probably the easiest of all the mechanisms for acquiring digital content legally. Many others are just too hard. Recently I tried to do the right thing and purchase some digital music only to be told by every supplier that I can’t have it because I live in Australia and it has not been released to us yet.

These kind of distribution problems make it to easy for consumers to do the wrong thing. Until we have ubiquitous solutions that are as low impact and as easy to use as iTunes; with material freely available for purchase in every region it will be hard to stop digital sharing.

And let’s not even get into a discussion about the inequity of the situation where I can buy a book and then give it to a friend but cannot even share my one digital item across all my machines so I can consume it where I want. After all I can consume the content of a book where ever I choose. There are still some technology issues to be solved here too for digital.

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Ownership, new ideas and openness

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We see much discussion of the openness and collaborative nature of the web 2.0 world. However, many of the challenges facing us as a result of this new world relate to ownership of virtual goods.

There are longstanding conventions that enable us to sort out who owns property in the real world and some of the traditional principles of property rights include:

  1. control of the use of the property
  2. the right to any benefit from the property
  3. a right to transfer or sell the property
  4. a right to exclude others from the property.

[Source: Wikipedia]

But as we move further into the digital revolution then issues of ownership regarding digital assets and virtual goods comes to the fore.

However, some of the traditions of the web – such as openness – seem to be at odds with this notion of ownership. Also legal definitions might not be keeping up with the developments of these new digital and virtual goods. For example, what are the rules around a virtual good that I give away? What jurisdiction does it live in? How does title to the virtual good transfer?

These are all the questions facing the modern music industry with the shift to digital music. Locking down access does not seem to be working. Perhaps it is time to think about this from a fresh angle?

Other related issues are copyright and defamation. The old rules often seem very clunky and difficult to apply in this new digital world.

Some interesting questions for us to sort out. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.

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Digital citizens need real world knowledge too

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It was fascinating to be at the inaugural Digital Citizens event in Sydney last week – the topic was: Private Parts: Personality and Disclosure – Finding a Balance in the Digital Space.

There was a great line up on the panel with visiting US lawyer and social media specialist Adrian Dayton (Social Media for Lawyers), Sam North (Ogilvy PR), Damian Damjanovski (BMF), and Renai LeMay (Delimiter), all wrangled expertly by the moderator Bronwen Clune (Strategeist).

It was a very thought provoking session with the panel and audience discussion. And the big takeway for me is that social media and its practitioners need to accept that we live within a particular social and legal context.

No matter how much we ‘social media’ types decry how poorly the law is setup to deal with what we do everyday, that is the situation we must deal with. The law moves much more slowly than changes in technology, and, upon consideration, maybe that’s not such a bad thing?

For example, Damian Damjanovski argued: “A lot of people out there use it as a personal communications method. There are lots of people with no more than 70 followers . When did we get to the point that this is suddenly publishing and should be treated as such?”

The fact is ordinary people are doing something that was once privileged – publishing. We are publishing content in many places now in the same ways that publishers (who have lawyers vetting much of their content) have for years.

Now that everywoman and everyman is a publisher we need to understand the rights and obligations that come with publication. We are no longer having a chat about something over dinner or at the pub with a bunch of mates. We are posting content (pretty much) for perpetuity and complaining when there are legal ramifications associated with that act.

It all made me think that perhaps a good topic for another Digital Citizens session would be about the legal issues associated with the act of publication on the web? Since, while Adrian Dayton was great, it would have been handy to have Australian lawyer on the panel.

A brief write-up of the event is also available on mUmBRELLA

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