Education NOTES

Education NOTES

October 12 1998
Education NOTES

Education NOTES

October 12 1998


Essays on the 2000 MILLENNIUM


The author of Getting Canada Online: Understanding the Information Highway poses the question, “How do we move from data to wisdom?”

We live in a remarkable time in history. Two four-letter words beginning with C best capture this truth: chip and code. The chip is the silicon semiconductor circuit, which has triggered the information revolution. The code is that of the human genome: thanks to advances in microbiology, built on powerful microscopes and computers, we are

about to decipher the entire blueprint for human beings. Both these c-words have profound implications for the human condition: they open a galaxy of questions about change, choice and challenge. In terms of change, the information revolution is creating deep and broad disruptive breaches in our society, disruptions equal to those of the agricultural or industrial revolutions. But the pace of change is faster than before: it comes in weeks and months rather than decades and generations. And the choices before us are unrivalled. This revolution gives us a new set of tools. With such an abundance, how do we move from data to information to knowledge to wisdom? How do we acquire and exercise the critical thinking to choose the right questions to elicit the information we need to improve our lives? Finally, the question of challenge: can our society establish a balance, using these tools to increase wealth, strengthen social and civic cohesiveness and enhance political liberty?

Look back in history to the discovery of fire, the Stone Age, next the Bronze Age and then the Iron Age. Consider the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers, from human power to animal power, the introduction of water power, steam power, electricity, the telephone, automobile and airplane. Each of these had substantial transforming effects over several generations. Moore’s Law—attributed to Gordon Moore, the former CEO of chip-maker Intel— prophesied that computer capacity would double every two years, thanks to the increasing ability to concentrate more information on a silicon chip. And for more than two decades, it has powered the information revolution. Fundamental “subatomic” research to discover how to store information on the inside surfaces of an atom—rather than on its external circumfer-

ence—may allow further capacity breakthroughs.

In long-distance communication, distance is dead, thanks to this science and consequential telephone rate wars. Internet communication from one corner of the globe to the other is almost instant, and virtually cost free. The irony in this transformation—a classic swords-to-plowshares story—is particularly striking. The Internet began three decades ago as the highly secret, tightly controlled communication network of the U.S. defense department. Anticipating a Third World War, the generals designed a fail-safe spider web of computer communication links which, in the event of a nuclear bombing, would still allow the commander-in-chief to deploy U.S. nuclear weapons. Clever minds began to use the system for confidential communications between the defence department and research scientists doing classified research across the country. Gradually, the scientists began to use it for communication among themselves. Then, came the deluge: their graduate students discovered their Internet. There was no turning back. From that point on, it evolved into an

extremely cheap, largely ungoverned, ubiquitous interactive communication network of free spirits. Only recently has it been discovered by business, which hopes to turn the plowshares into instruments of harvest.

This brings us to the issue of choice: should we use these tools and how? Again, one must return to history for lessons. An appropriate place to stop is 500 years ago when Gutenberg’s technological revolution was followed by Martin Luther’s social and cultural revolution. Johannes Gutenberg, a German jeweller, went bankrupt in his attempt to commercialize his printing press or movable type. It was not until several generations after his death in 1468 that Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door. Gutenberg’s technological breakthrough grew social and cultural legs. Why? Because Luther translated the Bible into vernacular German, as John Wycliffe did into English. In the Middle Ages, the most important relationship was that between the individual and God. By making the language which informed that relationship accessible, the individual and God were no longer separated by priests, bishops, cardinals or popes. People could become informed on their own and begin to think critically. This spurred the Protestant Reformation, followed then by the Age of Reason, the Industrial Revolution and modern liberal democracy.

In Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame, written in 1831, the

King of France visits the archdeacon of Paris in his cloister in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. The cleric points to the printed Bible with one hand and to Notre Dame with the other and says: “This will destroy that.” “This” represented the printing press, and lay understanding of the Bible. “That” was the Church as it then stood. It is an ironic indictment of our sense of history that today’s popular abridged version of Hugo’s classic edits out this scene, suggesting that the popular reader’s interest is confined to the beauty-andbeast soap opera themes of love and death.

Compare the civilization of western Europe with that of Islam and China in 1500. In terms of technology, Islam and China were ahead of western Europe. China was using movable type at least 600 years before western Europe, paper long before that, and gunpowder when Marco Polo arrived several hundred years earlier. In 1492, Islam was superior in military engineering, architecture and agriculture and its forces had reached the ramparts of Madrid and the gates of Jerusalem.

But then the tables turned. Western Europe began a trajectory, dramatically outpacing China and the world of Islam at least in wealth creation and in political liberty. Why? Flexible institutions of governance conquered feudalism; new cities provided cradles for creative capacity. Newly liberated individ-

uals began to question, to reason, to revise, to rebuild and create.

Europe was better at managing the triangle of success: wealth creation, social cohesiveness and political liberty. Today, we are faced with a parallel challenge: can we use the new tools of information technology to enhance and strengthen the synergy across the three corners of the same triangle? Modern China has chosen the first corner, wealth creation, but has diminished the third—political liberty. Through its breakup, the Soviet Union may have increased political liberty, but has diminished both wealth creation and social cohesiveness. Modern Islam may represent social cohesiveness, but also destruction of wealth creation and the denial of political liberty. And is it too risky or premature to speculate that the United States, with the largest potential through its superiority in communication and the global thirst for

American culture, will advance wealth creation to the detriment of both social cohesiveness and political liberty?

How does a society find the appropriate balance of wealth creation, social cohesiveness and political liberty?

How do we use the tools of information technology to strengthen all three corners of our triangle so that the triangle as a whole is more robust?


The information highway should be as affordable and relevant to Canadians as the telephone and television are today, with almost 99-per-cent penetration rates. While private enterprise and the marketplace will do a large part of the job, inequities or barriers to access will necessitate collaboration between the public and private sectors, or government intervention.


In the need to embrace learning as a lifetime process, and to see lifetime learning as a key design element in building the information highway, we have taken several key first steps in Canada. SchoolNet, a federal government initiative, will connect every one of Canada’s 16,500 schools and 3,400 public libraries to the Internet by mid-1999—distinguishing our country with the world’s highest level of connectedness. A Community Access Program is providing public Internet access in

10.000 rural villages and concentrated urban areas in Canada. And a Smart Communities program will provide benchmarks on the best practices for community connectedness, using information technology to increase the local economic, social and cultural potential.

Of course, connection to the Net is just one step. The next is to increase the student-to-computer ratio in classrooms so they can be used as regular tools. Again, a federal computer-recycling program has put

75.000 usable computers into schools, with a goal of 250,000 by 2000. But the crucial next step is to help teachers evolve from their role as content providers to coaches or facilitators—the crucial agents in teaching critical thinking, and to put content on the carriage way that stimulates critical thinking.


Innovation is key to wealth creation. We need to establish an environment where innovators can thrive, where change is not feared. Deregulation in the traditionally monopolistic and regulated telecommunications industry marks a beginning, as does the importation of ideas from the more dynamic computer hardware and software industries. Governments are being challenged to reinvent themselves, to become model users of the information highway and connect themselves to serve citizens more responsively and efficiently. They also need to understand how jobs are created and lost through innova-

Technology can pave the way for social change-think of Gutenberg’s press, and Luther’s Bible

tion. Studies show that industries with a more intensive use of information technology have been substantial job creators.


With the greater intrusiveness of computers in modern communication comes new concerns about privacy and trust in electronic commerce. Civil law jurisdictions have long viewed individual privacy as a fundamental right. That has not been traditionally true in common law jurisdictions. In the past decade, legislation regulating the relationship between the individual and the state—providing a privacy protection with respect to government data—has emerged. Only now are we beginning to see a movement for new legislation protecting the individual against the corporation—privacy protection in the private sphere. While volun-

tary codes and good business practice have established sensible guidelines and protection mechanisms, there are plenty of businesses that are not prepared to play by these voluntary rules—or who exploit their gaps. Trust is at the base of law reform dealing with electronic commerce, and dismantling many barriers to it. Trust is built with new tools to deal with consumer fraud, reliable payment or royalty collecting systems, authentic digital signatures, acceptable computerized records in government transactions or private dealings. All require careful attention to ensure that the form of law follows the function of modern electronic commerce, and the system inspires confidence.


The Canadian Information Highway Advisory Council was set up in April, 1994, to advise on a national strategy. It had three objectives: jobs, Canadian cultural content and accessibility. We considered several alternative titles before labelling our first report: Connection, Community, Content. First, was The Next Spike, with apologies to Pierre Berton’s The Last Spike, signifying the importance of a transcontinental ribbon to connect Canadians. Another suggestion was, “It’s the content,

eh?”—with the Canadian expression “eh” standing for electronic highway. Both components are necessary to give life and soul to the information highway.

There are unique challenges for Canadians to ensure a place for their stories, news and music, and a recognition of the French and other components of Canadian culture. This is a challenge we have lived with throughout our history. The penetration of the information highway gives it new urgency.


With the Canadian health information networks, we recognize that how we use information about what makes people well, and how to provide better and faster information on illness and its cure helps and heals all Canadians. We think back to Luther’s social and cultural revolution of accessibility, one which dramatically transformed the organization of the church and the understanding of the word of God. Will humankind’s desire for a better understanding of the condition of healthy living transform the role of doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals, and hospitals and clinics? And will ministries of health in Canada’s public system realize that their most important responsibility is managing information and putting it into the hands of individuals?

Change, choice, challenge. Their application to the information revolution confronts us squarely with that observation of a statesman of our time: “Some people see things as they are, and wonder why. I dream of things that ought to be and ask, why not.” In making this application we take heart from the words of a great student of the human condition in the face of change, anthropologist Margaret Mead, who said: “Never doubt the capacity of a small group of committed citizens to change the world. And it is the only thing that can.” □