Chapter 3: The Australia and Singapore CIT Climate
Any discussion related to the impact of technology on society would be incomplete without addressing the "information society" and communications and information technologies (CITs). This chapter begins with a cursory glance at both these concepts, acknowledging technology's ubiquitous nature and the global shift towards the "information age" that we are witnessing. As a means of contextualising this case study, it then centres on the Australian and Singapore CIT climates, the importance both nations place on maintaining a CIT edge where the two examined online news products are published. By identifying specific examples of companies and their emerging Internet products, the author strives to provide the reader with a sense of the vibrancy and exciting developments sweeping both nations. It presents a macro country-level look at innovation, new technology adoption rate and business environment, demonstrating that both the private and government sectors act as crucial catalysts in stimulating a successful information-based economy.
CITs, convergence and the 'information society'
There is no dearth of scholarship addressing the digitisation of media, its convergence and the global shift towards an information society. In this case, digitisation is intrinsically linked to convergence and the CIT - the coming together of disparate industries such as telecommunications, information technology/computing, broadcasting, film and video, print and publishing (Fidler 1997, p.25 - 27; Cunningham and Flew 1997, p.400 - 404; Lee and Birch 2000, p.10). This shift is clearly demonstrated by Negroponte's/MIT Media Lab's construct of convergence diagram. It envisions the broadcast/motion picture, print/publishing and computer industries as a single converged multi-media or mixed media (refer to Appendix D).
This process of convergence leads to the definition of what is known as the "information society". It is generally recognised that the information society is driven by five change factors namely; technological, economic, occupational, spatial and cultural as defined by
Webster (1995, p.6 - 23) and there is a multiplicity of definitions for this term. For the purposes of this study, information society is defined as:
... new ways of living and working together... It is a revolution based on information, itself the expression of human knowledge. Technological progress now enables us to process, store, retrieve and communicate information in whatever form it may take - oral, written or visual - unconstrained by distance, time and volume. This revolution adds huge capacities to human intelligence and constitutes a resource which changes the way we work together and the way we live together.'
- M. Bangemann (Birchall & Lyons, 1995, p.100)
The global transition from post-industrial to the information age, has resulted in varying government policies with a distinct trend towards developing the "educated worker" who is creative, innovative and equipped with lifelong learning skills. Nations have grappled with this switch by forming policies at different priority levels to adapt to this change. Malaysia, for example is developing a 100km "Multimedia Super Corridor", including government offices, industry and educational institutions, and aims to become a technology hub for the region; and America, Canada and others have designated similar initiatives (Tapsall 1998, p.4 - 5).
3.1 Australia: A framework for the future
Bill Gates in his book, Business @ the speed of thought: Using a Digital Nervous System (1999, p.30) highlighted the main operational difference between post-industrial and information economies when he said, "To function in the digital age, we have developed a new digital infrastructure. It's like the human nervous system. Companies need to have that same kind of nervous system ... the successful companies of the next decade will be the ones that use digital tools to reinvent the way they work."
The setting up of Gates' 'nervous system' requires synergy and support from all levels of society ranging from policy makers at government level, to private industries right down to its citizens who form the bulk of consumers of new technologies. At the Minter Ellison Nation Builders Awards in Melbourne, Senator Richard Alston, Minister of Communications, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) pronounced his support for this 'nervous system' when he said:
Our national resources and talents count for nothing if we don't have leadership, vision and courage on the ground floor. The Federal government as a key nation builder, must show leadership and vision - especially in such a nascent sector as I.T. We are dealing with many issues, technologies, opportunities and challenges that simply didn't exist 10 or even five years ago. Yet, I.T. is now one of the most crucial tools in building a robust economic and social national framework. It is the DNA of Australia's future.
- Alston, (DCITA Online 1999)
In the foreword of 'A Strategic Framework for the Information Economy', Senator Alston reiterated the Federal Government's vision for Australia in the information age stating that the information economy will generate opportunities across all sectors and be a source of employment for regional and city-based Australians. It will provide "opportunities for Australian business, wealth creation through ready access to a global marketplace, and reductions in the cost of information and transactions. An exciting aspect of this information revolution is the potential for enhanced social interaction and community participation" (1999, p.1).
Australia is often referred to as 'the land of great distances' with a total of 19 million people in six states and two territories spanning over 7,692,030 square km (Australian Bureau of Statistics). The Australian Commonwealth Government has identified distance as a possible barrier to Australia's active involvement in trade and commerce with the world's markets. DCITA's framework envisions the country's mission, priorities, and action plan to set a national direction to develop Australia as an information economy. The framework has identified ten priority areas of action:
The document cites participation in the information economy as an opportunity to overcome remote and rural Australia's national isolation from the world's markets and the potential to generate significant economic growth (ibid, p.3). To fund this exercise, the government has established various initiatives under the Information Industries Action Agenda. A total of A$627 million has been set aside for various initiatives including the Innovation Investment Fund (venture capital), Research and Development Start Program and Software Engineering Quality Centres over the next four years
The information economy will play a seminal role in the growth of regional and rural Australia. Online services can build stronger and more viable regional communities, with enhanced investment, employment and skills, by providing better access for businesses to markets and market information .... Online services also enhance the quality and convenience of life in regional and rural Australia by bringing the massive global pool of information and knowledge, including government services, to the homes of all Australians no matter where they live.
(A Strategic Framework for the Information Economy 1999, p.3)
Statistics show Australians are eager adopters of new technology and Australia has witnessed an explosive growth in the use of the Internet however a May 1999 survey shows that there is a disparity in access across Australia. The 12-month survey leading up to May 1999, estimated that just over twenty-two per cent of all households (1.5 million) have Internet access at home. Approximately 40 per cent of the total adult population, an estimated 5.5 million adults accessed the Internet, the figure quadrupling since 1996. Nearly 55 per cent of adults employed full-time (3.4 million) had accessed the Internet and 41 per cent of unemployed people (0.2 million) and 17 per cent of adults not in the labour force (0.7 million) had accessed the Internet.
Australia's per capita consumption of recent innovations and its information industries sophistication is second only to USA, (Department of Industry, Science and Tourism Online 1999). Currently, there are 971,000 households (14 per cent of all households) with home Internet access with approximately 409,000 adults making online purchases (The National Office for the Information Economy Online 1999).
Australia's 'open-arms' approach to developing an information-based economy has seen a rapid IT&T growth, with the number of companies in the information technology sector growing by 87 per cent to 13, 569 between 1992 - 1993 and between 1995 - 1996. Australia's information industries, worth A$47 billion, employ approximately 253, 000 people (A Strategic Framework for the Information Economy 1998, p.3). In the paper: "Australia's comparative advantages in the Information Economy" published by the NOIE (National Office for the Information Economy), Australia was ranked overall 12th in the 1998 Information Society Index. The index measuring 55 countries' progress into the information age ranked Australia 14th in terms of computer infrastructure (PC Usage) and 15th for social infrastructure (The National Office for the Information Economy Online 1999).