Saturday, January 10, 2009

Mobile Musing


By Craig Warren Smith 

Founder of the international movement to close the Digital Divide and a former Harvard University professor, Prof Craig Warren Smith is now in residence at Chulalongkorn University's Center for Ethics of Science and Technology. His column Mobile Musings is a regular feature of Datebase. 

Obama Shows How Broadband Could Stimulate the Thai Economy 

After using the internet to install himself as US president,  Obama's  next step is to show how the internet can empower the rest of us.  The Kingdom of Thailand should take notice.  

Soon,  ASEAN nations will announce regional economic revival plans under His Majesty's shadow in Huahin.  As host, Thailand could bring the  transformational exuberance of Obama's First Hundred Days to Southeast Asia.  After eight disasterous year of declining US influence, it is ok to learn from America again. 

As soon as Obama was elected,  the hordes of rowdy, grassrootsy, internet-savvy Americans who were responsible for Obama's election,  immediately went to work formulating a "New New Deal"  The term refers to a revival of President Roosevelt New Deal work relief progam of the 1930s. Just as the old New Deal built highways,  the new approach put the 21st century superhighway (broadband) into a starring role in the US stimulus package.  

Of course,  the Obama broadband promoters have a lot of competition.  They must compete with fear mongers.  Like Arnold Schartzenegger,  who in movies is a bold action star but in real life he is a wimp who says California will sink into oblivion unless the feds bail them out with big bucks.  He and 19 other USA state governors ask for a $1 trillion from the feds. The US steel industry's moguls are also holding out a tin cup, requesting another $1 trillion.  Since the too-big-to-fail argument worked so well for the auto industry,  all the other pooped-out industries are standing in line.  

In contrast to the fear mongers,  the broadband-promoters rely on hope. See   They fit directly into the inspiring "yes we can" optimism that Obama'a  expressed in his presidential campaign,  and my guess is that they will be the voices that will be heard by US Congress who actually must approve the budget. 

How Broadband Fits into American Revival 

As the bailout crowd seeks to avoid the bad karma that resulted from bad policies of the past,  the broadband advocates are trying to create good karma that will ripen in the future.   

They say that broadband is the precondition for a massive plan for retraining displaced workers,  re-establishing a competitive national work force, creating a new wave of entrepreneurship and milions of new jobs -- reversing those wiped out by George W's disasterous polices.  At least a dozen plans for broadband-promotion have been advanced.  Some of them involve direct subsidies to the telecommunications industry itself,  such as $40 bilion for Internet Service Providers.  Others are clearly anti-industry and seek to fund nonprofit community networks,  support plans for shifting to less carbon intensive workforce,  or simply try to get more broadband-enabled services beamed into schools, hospitals and rural health clinics.   

The most persuasive and expensive plan has been put forward in a report by a group called EDUCAUSE.   It argues for putting about $100 billion into "fat" broadband infrastructures that will beam 24/7 distanced learning into every household.  "The total cost of broadband-enabled economic renewal could be paid for just 19 days of what we spend on the Iraqi war," says the author of the report, John Windhausen. 

The Thai government should take note of four aspects of the way broadband has been integrated into economic revival in the US: 

DEMOCRACY 2.0: Prime minister Abhisit should not just concentrate on communicating with the Thai public through one-way SMS messaging,  but turn himself into an expression of Democracy 2.0, a term that refers to the way in which the internet era can foster citizen participation. Just as Obama is turning his campaign web site into a web constituency for formulating and implementing of his policies,  so should the new PM.  His party may not have been elected with the majority, but now that he is their leader he can engage Thai citizens in the solutions for low-income Thais and, in that way, steal the thunder from Thaksin and, perhaps, win the heart of the people. 

HR COULD DRIVE ECONOMIC REVIVAL:  In fact, the clear focus of the broadband approach to revival is educational.  Note that the US approach does not  assume that investments in human resources development is a luxury that will pay off in the next generation.  Rather,  the American broadband advocates "crunch the numbers" to show that investments made now in broadband-assisted education and job-creation would be the least expensive and quickest path to US economic renewal.  The same would be true for Thailand. This is the can-do approach that, so far, is missing from Prime Minister Abhisit's stimulus package which does not get to the heart of how to generate a competitive workforce.  

TAPPING THE PRIVATE SECTOR:  In the US, the private sector is a full partner in the stimulus package.  All the broadband proposals involve giving the private sector the incentives to devote its talents and resources to economic revival, including the creation of jobs that lighten the earth's carbon footprint.   In a similar way, the Thai government could bargain with the private sector.  For example, rather than concentrate on excluding offensive web sites, the new Thai ICT ministry could create a sophisticated mix of incentives, subsidies and tax credits that encourage web applications that positively support His Majesty the King's ethical principles of sufficiency economy and gross national happiness.  In fact,  rather than pour finds into a black hole of educational subsidies, the new government could get a "bigger bang for the baht" by challenging Thai ICT industries to work through their own commercial channels to generate the skills need for low-income Thais to create millions of new jobs. 

GOING GLOBAL:  The next factor has to do with the spillover from domestic into international perspectives.  Obama had to bow to protectionist sentiments during his election campaign, but as US Senator last year he authored a bill that increases the impact of US international development assistance via public private partnerships,  entrepreneurships and small business development.  This is the approach to international affairs that the Thai government itself should advance.   As an open society surrounded by more authoritarian Asian governments (including some well-represented as ASEAN),  the Kingdom of Thailand could promote HR-driven bottoms-up economic development in its foreign policy,  and turn Thailand itself into a showcase for this approach. 

Craig Warren Smith, PhD Senior Advisor Human Interface Technology Laboratory USA mobile phone: 206 245 9970