It’s all about recovery – tech disruption and government

My post yesterday on Has Gov 2.0 in Australia got too boring too fast? (thanks @sandihlogan for the title correction) attracted some good debate on Twitter and in comments, including from @chieftech who said:

Disruption, or the ‘throwing into confusion’, is a common occurrence in times of major social or technological change.

The discovery of agriculture disrupted man’s nomadic lifestyle around 22,000 years ago – dramatically changing the shape of human society, how we lived, worshipped and organised ourselves.

When humans learnt to smelt iron, roughly 3,500 years ago society was again disrupted, with more advanced civilisations able to outfight and outproduce their bronze-dependent neighbours, causing larger cities and states to form and leading to greater productivity and more time for creative thought.

Gunpowder and then handguns changed society again in fundamental ways, ushering in the end of castle fortresses, making warfare far more bloody and deadly. Incidentally Genghis Khan, known for his horse archers, may have used gunpowder bombs fired from Chinese catapults in his wars.

Further disruptions occurred with the printing press, oil drilling, tanks, computers, television, nuclear weapons, satellites, and the internet – amongst thousands of other technologies. Each time societies had to adapt how they operated, governments rose and fell, the balance of power between states shifted.

In other words disruption is normal. Society is constantly adapting to new technologies, rejecting some, embracing some and tolerating the others.

Governments have never been immune to this disruption. They also have had to constantly adapt their approach as technologies changed. We’ve seen time and time again how more technologically advanced civilisations have colonised, absorbed or destroyed less technologically advanced ones – and, on a few occasions, have seen civilisations falter when they advanced their technology too far too fast and it became out-of-step with social values, or caused unintentional harmful side-effects.

So has the Australian government been disrupted by technology – yes, many times even in our short 113 years as a nation.

Is there anything special about how technology is disrupting government right now? Anything that makes it different to how major technologies disrupted our government in the past?

Well yes and no. Certainly the speed of technological change has increased, which means that government has less time to understand the impacts and consequences of new technologies before deciding how and when to adopt them.

Also ‘now’ is the time when we are alive. Watching change occur is very different to reading about how changed occurred in the past. It’s always more visceral to live through change then to observe it remotely through another person’s eyes.

But also no – disruption is disruption. While the type of disruption may change or the speed increase, the potential range of responses remains limited.

In my view societies and governments only have four options when facing disruptive change – embrace, accept, absorb or oppose.

They can embrace the change, adopting it enthusiastically and quickly, throwing out old ways for the new.

They can accept it, adopting it in a more piecemeal ‘as needed’ way, without any resistance or dissent.

They can ignore the changes, passively rejecting them by clinging to ‘traditional’ ways, but gradually absorbing them over time into their traditions and making subtle adjustments to maintain the semblance of the status quo.

Or they can actively oppose the changes, actively seeking to suppress them through laws and actions – successfully or otherwise.

This leads to what I feel is a far more interesting question. How will our governments cope with, or recover, from the present round of disruptive change?

Answering this question will also answer the question of which nations will dominate the 21st Century. Governments that embrace new media and Gov 2.0, adapting themselves into the new forms necessary to thrive within empowered societies, will have a strategic advantage over governments who lag or refuse to use them.

We’re already seeing this in the adopting of broadband around the world. Nations with faster broadband will have a significant economic edge over their slower and less connected neighbours. Similarly governments that are more connected and able to tap more brains for ideas, more citizens to undertake small civic acts, will be far more economically and socially acceptable than nations that restrict use of these channels to small elite, or stifle discussion through laws and censorship.

Of course there are risks with embracing disruptive changes – moving too far too fast can uncover new issues that societies don’t yet have the experience to solve. However in many cases the governments that uncover these issues first may also resolve them first, sometimes putting them even further ahead of other nations.

So the really interesting question for me is how are Australia’s governments doing at coping with the disruptiveness of Government 2.0, the impact of social media on public debate, of open data on accountability and economics, of citizen activism on state leadership?

Which of our governments are embracing these changes, which are accepting them and which are resisting, or actively legislating against them?

The answer to this question will tell Australians which states will be the most successful in the next twenty years and whether Australia as a nation will remain one of the wealthiest, safest and most successful in the world, or be overtaken by more nimble peers.

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