Some companies have grown large and prosperous on single technologies. They have become major multinational corporations, represent a large proportion of GDP and wield significant political influence. Advances in technology provide the opportunity to do the same, or more, (voice calls for the world) with significantly less resources. Going forward, some will struggle with relevance to justify their existing proportion of economic activity. Companies may become redundant as a result of technological change. The majority of the Fortune 500 change every fifty years. They may adapt and find new futures or merge with others. They are likely to fight for their existance.
Although not all change is good, some change should be allowed to proceed unencumbered. Some advances allow a society to achieve the same outcome (voice calls for their community) with significantly less resources. Skype has built a global telephone company within a few years. VOIP (or Voice over IP) renders many home phones redundant. Third world countries have avoided the unaffordable cost of laying physical copper networks and have simply installed cheaper mobile telephone networks. The copper and precious third world dollars can be used elsewhere.
Improvements in technology are providing the opportunity for change at rapid rates. Such change is now likely to accelerate. After decades of improvements, technology may now be positioned to change industries and empower the individual. Collective knowledge networks may be the foundation for fundamental industrial, economic and political change. The first to change may be industries reliant on closed systems that will not survive the transparency of the internet.
Some industries rely on ensuring that information is captured and transmitted through closed and private distribution systems. The more dependent a company is on closed systems, the more likely it will be changed by th transparency of the internet. If a company is looking at redundancy, it is likely to fight for a period, but will ultimately merge or die.
Government has the power to delay the benefit of emerging technology. We have a collective interest in the decisions they make. The wealth in a capitalist system is split between companies, people and the government. There are laws which determine the proportions of this split. Industry is actively Lobbying government to protect the status quo. Government could, unfortunately, choose to delay the inevitable for decades. It may be tempted to delay change to prevent a short term impact on employment. Some countries with restrictive labour laws may not see the displaced worker re-employed.
Industry may lobby government to preserve the status quo. Some governments will be tempted to provide this protection.
Examples include corporate initiatives to introduce:-
- Two tiered internet
- Software patents
- Free wi-fi
Technology is empowering individuals and making some industries redundant. It is also responding to demands from industry to protect the status quo. Traditionally, people have paid for their connection to the internet and could do anything with it. It has become a commodity, just like water. Technology has been developed to sense what you do with your internet. If you just surf the internet, you pay one fee for access. If you use the internet for voice calls, you will pay another fee to the organisation that provides you with the access. Many commentators have voiced significant concerns about this, mostly negative. However, no one party monopolises the internet (although AT&T in the US comes close) and consumers will simply switch to new providers. The greatest threat is likely to be consumer apathy and accepting the status quo.
The US patent system has allowed patents over many everyday ideas. This includes operation of the mouse, a hyperlink which links one page to another. The patent system is intended to foster innovation by granting an exclusivity period within which the cost of developing the innovation may be recouped. I am not sure if it is a valid objective of a patent system to allow everyday activites like using the mouse or internet hyperlinks to be owned.
The drive for software patents was, in whole or in part, driven by a desire of corporations to own software (particularly open source). If a group of people get together, design a free operating system to replace Windows and office software, then people should be able to choose to use this software. There are significant benefits from open source software. The free Linux operating system forms part of $100 laptops for the third world. Similarly, money saved on software licensing fees could be saved for retirement, traded in for less working hours, or spent.
Europeans have been strong participants in open source software projects. The global software industry has lobbied the EU for software patents. Software patents have been initially rejected in the European Union. An internet campaign called No software patents may have influenced the European Union in its recent rejection of software patents. This group believes that “the issue software patents is critical to our future”. The site is very informative and I encourage you to read their arguments. There may be further efforts in the European Union to introduce software patents through regulation. The issue of software patents will remain.
SCO, the owner of Unix, has argued that some of its proprietary software now forms part of Linux. They also refused to inform the community which parts, so that they may be replaced. There is also some speculation that Microsoft financed the challenge against Linux by investing US$100m in SCO via a friendly venture capitalist. Microsoft may yet utilise its extensive patent portfolio to challen Linux. Could Microsoft shut down Linux and the Open Source movement by claiming royalties for allowing Linux to use the mouse?
Another community initiative that has become contentious has been free wi-fi (or internet access). Large wireless internet networks could be very cheap and universally available. Some local councils and private hobbyists have endeavoured to set up free networks. This has met with sigificant resistance by major corporations arguing for regulation to preserve the status quo. It would be even cheaper if every home user simply allowed anyone to use their home network. Of course, home users could be sued for sharing their internet connection.
How will government respond to industry lobbying?
Industry lobbying is not new:
Although now an absurdity, these statements were once vigorously debated. Will the argument of today’s industry too become an absurdity? Moral and safety arguments should be debated rigorously. Government should ensure the safety of passenger on public transport. However, if it is simply a case that there is a better way to do something, then the debate should be quick and dismissed. Our world should be allowed to evolve.
What will we do?
Will we replace our desktop with open source? Will we join protests against software patents, or seek to protect the right of communities to provide free software or wi-fi to others? Many community lobby groups will form. They will have increasing influence on a global stage. The world will evolve. It is likely that other collective networks will form to battle against the influence of industry lobbying.
And if we do battle to save money on voice calls, free-wifi and software, will we save for our retirement, take more leisure time or buy that second Ipod? Will we choose to look after ourselves or buy more “stuff”? What will industry sell us tomorrow?