Derrick de Kerckhove

According to Marshall McLuhan's successor, government buildings will be replaced by networks, and large administrative sectors will begin to disappear.

by / November 30, 1996
GT: How is electronic computer networking going to change government? What should governments be doing to meet the new challenges of the Information Age?

de Kerckhove: It is very difficult to give you a precise example of how it is going to change government, but number one, it creates new access for the public to have direct information about government services. That is the rock bottom. In pure information terms, a lot of government services could be made available to everybody through networks. But that's very banal. Everyone knows that.

Perhaps more interesting is the question of what kind of lateral government cooperation and collaboration happens between departments as a result of electronic networking. One of the major issues in government is the vertical separation between various groups.

When I have been involved with policy discussions with government ministries in Canada, for instance, one major problem often arises. I would be told "we don't talk to those guys," or "those guys don't talk to us."

So one issue is the way that networks lateralize communication as opposed to verticalize it, the way they erode standard hierarchy systems.

Also, I think any network communication is an accelerator of transactions and an accelerator of people involved in transactions. So that forces people to update themselves. But there is a lot of resistance in the standard "this is my job description and I don't want any more than that. I've already got enough responsibility." That can, of course, create some resistance to acceleration. But I think acceleration eventually has a very good effect.

GT: In "The Skin of Culture," you suggest that sudden acceleration without preparation can also lead to disintegration and to system breakdowns.

de Kerckhove: Yes, it definitely can. What you will probably find in the next five years is that all government organization, accelerated by networking, which they have to do -- they pretty much can't say no to it -- will have a continental shift where large administrative sectors start to disappear. People who have not been fired, or who haven't left already for something to do in spite of their cushy jobs, are actually going to feel completely left out. So in a sense, the trend will be a rejuvenation of government by whiplash. The overall effect is to streamline a lot of government services and to make them less expensive.

I'm talking here about the administrative side of government. The political side involves more the pressure group, the special interest group. Let's be clear when we talk about government, we are really talking about very different cohabiting "corporate cultures" or "government cultures." Basically what I'm talking about here are the nonelected people.

GT: In "The Skin of Culture", you also wrote about electronic communications opening up a new era of public accountability and that, to a much greater extent, we all become our brother's keeper.

de Kerckhove: One of the problems coming up with electronic media generally, and especially with network technology, is that it is impossible to hide anything. Anything that was hidden or secret tends to become open. Take for example the unification of East Germany and West Germany. The records of the Stasi, the East German secret service, are now suddenly becoming available. Not online -- but the world online is influencing the thinking of governors and the people in power.

So what is happening in Germany is that people are finding out that their brother or father or mother was the one informing on them to the Stasi. This is happening all the time.

The German government took the view that people are entitled to know. In my opinion it might have been better just to draw a blank on the past, start afresh. But the main point is that the revelatory power of easily moveable records even influences how we think about access to old paper records. In the old days, paper files were in one place. Today, electronic files are accessible everywhere. That's the difference.

There is a revelatory principle behind this kind of information and I don't think anybody is going to be completely safe from intrusion. So that is another aspect.

GT: Both you and Alvin Toffler have written of what Toffler describes as "prosumer economics," where buyers are no longer content simply with being consumers, but are more and more included in the production process. Is this going to be part of the trend for government as well?

de Kerckhove: That's really mass customizing, which is not something I've invented, and it's almost become a clich
Blake Harris Editor
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