Oil, coal, paper — the dead tree economy lumbers on

Despite desirable outcomes of international online exchange, politicians still keen to single out Kiwis

When its centrepiece, the unbundling of telecommunications, was dropped out of the Budget, all we were left with was road-building and “national identity”. Both seem slightly at odds with what was to have been the Budget’s central message: New Zealand needs more broadband.

Exactly why we might need broadband also came up at last year’s regional networking conference, when communications minister David Cunliffe was challenged to come up with reasons for developing domestic broadband. He cited teleworking.

While this would certainly cut back on the huge cost of building and improving motorways, teleworking never seems to catch on. There are big psychological obstacles to do with management, socialising and office power structures. Working in a solo office, or from my Wellington home, filing stories to Auckland, I find this puzzling, but then I never was much of a water-cooler conversationalist or office politician.

This doubt, about whether many people will actually want to give up the daily grind, seems embedded in our supposedly data-minded government’s collective mind. Although right now some ministers are probably wishing they had a niftier parliamentary network, so they could do away with those quaint document-carrying messengers whose files so easily go astray. What could be better than sending Cabinet papers via a secure network only to those who need to know? Surely it’s not being stymied by MPs and staff having difficulty with the technology?

One could of course preserve a measure of tradition here, by giving messengers diskettes (with encrypted data) in embossed envelopes which could then be sent over parliament’s sneaker-net. If any disks should go astray a command to the “ephemeriser” (see interview with Radia Perlman, Computerworld, May 15) would kill the encryption key, making all copies of the document indecipherable.

However, I’m at a loss as to figure out where “national identity” fits in with the government’s broadband plans. Surely, Maurice Williamson and myself can’t be the only people who recognise that nationalism and better internet access are at odds. The international online exchange of ideas, opinions and different cultural experiences emphasises our common humanity and undercuts nationalism. There’s also the practical difficulty of taxing trans-national purchases.

Obviously, this should all result in more uniform cross-border legal frameworks, suited to an age of high-speed international communications, being installed.

But, despite these desirable outcomes (in my view), politicians are still keen to retain what, supposedly, makes Kiwis different from others. I’m with the late philosopher Arthur Koestler when it comes to national and tribal identities.

Unity and conflict are two sides of the same coin or, as he put it, the two faces of the Roman god, Janus. Group spirit so often reminds us of how much “we” hate “them”.

Yes, there is value in using broadband to build local communities of interest — to give us the power to “tell our own stories”.

But, doing so can so easily turn into navel-gazing and build the myth that New Zealand is “Godzone” and “foreigners” so much closer to the devil than us.

I am rarely accused of being an optimist, but perhaps I have been when it comes to the potential of the internet, even though the patriotic empires built on dead-tree stuff — oil, coal and paper — show little sign crumbling before the electron as yet.

More’s the pity.

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