For the first time in Australia’s history, we no longer own or control all of our critical infrastructure. And to that list we can add any country which isn’t the USA or China. Welcome to the age of digital colonialism.
Show me a rich country and I will show you a rich infrastructure. For anyone who has travelled to a less developed economy, we see it right in front of our eyes. Electrical wires scrambled like spaghetti linking up houses. Water only the locals will dare to drink. Roads that scare the most adventurous driver. Hospitals that make you want a helicopter lift out after an accident and education which isn’t a right, but a bonus for the fortunate few. The simple and clear difference between wealthy and poor countries is their infrastructure. It’s the platform which invents the economic possibilities of its people.
It’s easy to forget that wealthy countries didn’t just click their fingers and get their wonderful infrastructure. They had to invest billions of dollars over decades and centuries. When new technology arrived they had to embrace it, and very often build out the projects using government funds in large capital works, and at times, even take over private firms who got too powerful (antitrust). This is only ever possible in a moderate democracy. A country governed by people with its constituents’ best long-term interests at heart. It’s very difficult indeed to build the physical structure required for a wealthy economy in a corrupt state.
The infrastructure we so often take for granted is what businesses and the populace have danced on top of for the past 200 years. And in this time we’ve also had the greatest ascendancy in living standards in human history.
But now in this digital age we are building a new form of infrastructure. I like to call it the metastructure.
Metastructure: The data and algorithms which now preside over how we organise people, infrastructure and physical assets in the post-industrial era.
Some ‘non-exhaustive’ inclusions would be:
China and the USA are the only countries that we know of on the globe who are building these pieces of metastructure at a Nation State Scale. In fact, they are going well beyond their own boundaries and are now deeply ensconced in a period of digital colonialism. Every other country it would seem is now renting their metastructure from the new overlords.
The funny thing is that we can’t really blame anyone or any Government for being complacent. This happened a lot faster than anyone expected, and unlike other infrastructure – it doesn’t reside in the country in physical form. The nature of data is that it doesn’t need a passport to enter a country and can colonise a market by stealth – a little like a virus would.
Its easy to say here – how is this any different to Coca-Cola becoming a global corporation or General Motors selling their cars around in every market the world over? The difference is simple. These things can’t swing an election, lead to ethnic cleansing or influence how your population thinks, feels or acts 200 times a day – but the metastructure can.
I think the smartest country in the world right now is China. They had the presence of mind to remove Google, Facebook (and their digital business units) from operating in their country so they could build out their own versions of them. They also understand that the new arms race is in Artificial Intelligence – rather than explosive fire power which defined the 20th century military industrial complex.
Any country that wants to maintain its sovereignty in the coming decades needs to invest heavily in the structural digital tools, which will define the next 50 years. Not owning or controlling your own infrastructure can only mean you’ll be subservient to those who provide it.
A version of this article first appeared here.
Australia’s leading Futurist and International keynote speaker, Steve has a deep understanding of disruptive technology and the wider economy. He is the author of 2 best-selling tech strategy books: The Great Fragmentation and The Lessons School Forgot. As a media commentator he is a regular on National TV, Radio and Print providing expert commentary on all things future. Last year he spoke to over 100,000 people, in 14 countries. He is invited around the world to deliver inspiring keynote speeches which excite and motivate the people about the future. As a technology entrepreneur, and hacker he has an intimate knowledge of the tools re-shaping our world and the way we do business. He has done many experimental projects with emerging technology (3D printing, drones, IoT, Autonomous transport and Blockchain to name a few). He consults at a C-Suite executive level for large corporations and selected startups. He is currently working with the Australian Government on designing future proof transport and education infrastructure. As a speaker he has delivered to audiences in stadiums in excess of 10,000, as well as intimate board room settings for the Fortune 500. He is primarily focused on the hard economics of the future, exploring changes in business systems, capital flows and consumer behaviour. Steve likes to work with companies who require an unbiased view of impending technological shifts, startups reinventing industries and Government bodies. He is consistently rated as the best speaker of every conference he attended. His work has been featured in internationally reputed media including; The New York Times, Wired, the BBC, The Smithsonian Institute, The Discovery Channel, Mashable, Tech Crunch and has also been featured in major documentary films. His Youtube channel has over 10 million views and he has a number of viral videos to his name. As a technology strategist he has provided direction, which has transformed organisations in the throes of disruption to future proof their position.