At the time this article was
written David Daubney was the Member of Parliament for Ottawa West
This decade has been touted as the
beginning of the real "information age", the product of a revolution
in technology which would allow us to create, manipulate, store and mass
produce information faster than ever before. These claims are not just
hyperbole. The annual turnover of the information-based industries, those
activities involved with manipulation, storage, production and consumption of
information, will, according to some estimates, reach two thousand billion
dollars by 1990. They constitute the largest group of industries in the world.
Members of Parliament and their
staffs are part of the information industry, using information as a commodity,
as a tool to shape policy, as something to be protected or liberated. The
coming of information automation on Parliament Hill is something which has been
promoted for several years. Until recently, most Members of Parliament in
Ottawa had nothing more sophisticated than a telephone and an electric
typewriter and only one of those to aid them in the manipulation and
distribution of information. Long after other elements of the Canadian
information economy were benefiting from computerised filing and retrieval of
information, MPs and their staffs were wading through a growing pile of paper,
stacked in filing cabinets, on top of them, behind desks and in hallways.
When the provision of word
processors, computerised telephones, a video system permitting MPs to call up
news reports on demand, and machines permitting MPs to gain instant access to
computerised data bases was announced two and one half years ago, there were
great expectations for dramatic improvements in the role private members could
play in Parliament.
Two and one half years ago many MPs
were enthusiastic about the prospects this computerisation held for the
increased independence of MPs. Access to information is, after all, essential
to the definition of political and economic issues, and the development of
policy options. Until recently, only government ministers had easy access to
such information through the bureaucracies and the resources they controlled.
So, giving MPs the new technology seemed to be a hopeful sign for the
decentralisation of influence, if not of direct power, in Parliament. Will
information technologies finally give private Members of Parliament the access
to information they need for an effective role in policymaking? Will this
access contribute to decentralisation of policy development?
Many of us were optimistic, but
then we had telephones which worked; old black telephones, squat and simple,
but functional. These were replaced with panels of buttons on our desks which
were supposed to allow us to make conference calls, computerise our dialling,
and forward business calls to our homes. They work well now, but the first year
of operation was a trial in more ways than one. We would have been happy had
the new devices been as reliable as our old phones, and many MPs had their old
phones reinstalled in their offices for use during the periods when the new
technology failed us.
Implementation of innovations is
always more complicated than proponents of change anticipate. Early problems
abound, substantial adjustments have to be made. We still look forward to the
ability to obtain information directly from government's computerised data
banks, but our acceptance of the early hyperbole is tempered now by an
appreciation of the difficulties the technology will impose on us.
Computerised word processing and record
storage devices were supposed to have ended the paper glut in modern offices.
This might be effective in libraries where some material is stored in
computerised memory banks, but in most of the offices the net result of word
processing and storage technologies has been an increase in the paper produced,
not a reduction.
Nobody really trusts the
reliability of the new technologies sufficiently to eliminate paper filing
systems. The result is that most o us now have duplicate filing systems paper
in our files, backed up by digital memory in our computers.
Rather than reducing the paper
flow, the new technology has increased it. In the past, with more primitive
technology, manual typewriters, carbon paper, perhaps the use of a printing
press, it was uneconomic for individuals to produce or distribute a large
amount of written material. Such material was screened, produced and
distributed by centralised offices in large organisations, to keep costs down.
The net result was a limit on what was printed and distributed, and centralised
control of this material.
Today, word processing machines
make it easy to write and edit anything we want, and our photocopiers are
publishing machines. Control over the distribution of information is therefore
already decentralised. This is the positive side of the technology. The
negative is that with this new freedom has come an avalanche of paper, a deluge
of information. We are in the midst now of an information overload.
There are now more than three
thousand public on-line data bases available in Canada, and more than 400
publicly accessible international data banks. When direct computerised access
to data banks is made available to us, in Parliament or in businesses across
the country, the paper flow will increase, because electronic messages are
ephemeral, and to human beings, untrustworthy. We will be adding printouts of
on-line information to the mass of reports, letters and memoranda filling our
filing cabinets today. There is no doubt that the new technology will give us
access to new information, huge amounts of information. But information alone
is just dead weight. It needs interpretation to make it fly.
Dependency is the real problem. The
more complex the technology we work with, the more dependent we become on others
to service and maintain it. On-line access to data banks may reduce our
dependency on the bureaucracy for information, but will not reduce our
dependency on outside interpretive resources. Ministers, the bureaucracy and
central party research bureaus have the resources, human resources, to sift
through the menu of information offered, to select and reject, and then
interpret the material chosen. Their power is derived not just from their
access to information, but from their access to the interpretive resources
which make meaning of the information, and thus allow them to direct public and
private policy debate. Opposition parties may be able to make use of new
information, using the interpretive resources available to their caucuses, but
the power to direct the use of those resources will be centralised within their
parties. Individual MPs, whether government or opposition, may remain dependent
on their central party research bureaus to interpret the information available,
to help make sense of it all. Government, of course, will continue to dominate
and direct debate, using the vast interpretive human resources of the
bureaucracy to support it.
Unless strengthened committees and
individual MPs are given the budgets to engage more researchers, possibly the
only alternative means of liberating interpretive resources is through a
strengthened and liberalised access to information legislation, giving all MPs
direct access to interpretive documents and memos provided in the course of
policy development within the bureaucracy. Even that would not give the MP
equal access to interpretive data, because only government would have the power
to direct the interpretive activities of the bureaucracies to specific
The fact is that politicians need
intermediaries to help them realise the benefits of access to information.
Right now our only real intermediaries are a group of talented but overworked
researchers in the Library of Parliament. So what does the new technology have
to offer us in this regard? One technological development receiving growing
attention in recent months has been the development of artificial intelligence,
the search for a system permitting computers to organise high-level symbols,
concepts, ideas. The most popular manifestation of the application of primitive
artificial intelligence to human needs has been in the development of
"expert systems", programmes which help human beings interpret
Expert systems have been developed,
and are being developed to perform diagnostic activities in medicine, to aid
chemists, biologists, geologists and engineers in their work. It is tempting to
ask if they can be applied to politics to assist in the interpretation of
complex information for policy purposes. The answer is probably that they cannot.
Political questions are broad and fuzzy. Expert systems require a defined set
of rules for making decisions, and a huge amount of structured information
about a very specific field of knowledge, if they are to work. Although
programmers are working now to devise more flexible expert systems, right now
they are very rigid, and require human experts to verify some of their
judgements. So far, there has not been devised an expert system which can learn
from its mistakes, an indispensable element of political decision-making.
Expert systems are most useful for
structured tasks, usually far down the decision-making structure. They are
least useful, as are other information technologies, for "fuzzy
searches", which are at the heart of policy development. Anyone who has
heard an average political speech will recognise a human being, the politician,
struggling with a "fuzzy" task. Political speeches appear
particularly fuzzy to technical experts used to dealing with hard technical
data, but that is because political decisions involve many more unpredictable
variables than do scientific ones.
Valiant attempts have been made to
quantify political practice, to create a political science, but as any
practising politician knows, quantitative techniques are just tools in the
search for political answers, not the answers themselves.
The people developing expert
systems are now trying to build into them the ability to deal with
probabilities, rather than with certainties. To the extent they succeed in
designing a system which can deal with ambiguity, they will begin to
approximate the reliability of human experts in economic and social affairs,
people who always work with uncertainty. The best of these human experts admit
the uncertainty of their knowledge and the limitations inherent in their
predictions of human behaviour.
Quality control in manufacturing
has come to be associated with an absence of variation from a desired norm.
Computers and automated devices are designed to reduce or eliminate variations,
which we perceive as flaws, and those countries such as Japan which have the
most heavily automated, computerised production systems also have a reputation
for consistent quality. The converse is true in human affairs. Research into
the implementation of innovations affecting human behaviour clearly shows that
variability is the key to successful implementation.
Expert systems depend for their
success on the development of rules which govern the analysis of information,
but creativity is built on the escape from the confines of the rigidities
established by rules. Revolutionary ideas meet initial resistance precisely
because they do not conform to the rules dominant among experts. Darwin, Freud,
Marx and Einstein challenged existing rules, and created new ones. Their insights
affect the way we live today.
There is a real need in dealing
with human affairs to know when the rules do not apply, when personality,
culture, or situational idiosyncrasies make the rules irrelevant. Those who
believe their cultural rules apply to everyone else are the most pathetic
victims of culture shock. Culture shock is a painful but effective learning
process which leads to the appreciation of the variability in the cultural
rules governing human behaviour. An expert system would not have the grace to
develop culture shock, to learn from its initial confusion.
Political decision-making, in any
case, would require a larger number of individual expert systems, because
politicians deal with a wide variety of topics and tasks in their daily work. Right
now, there is only one expert system which can handle the variability and
ambiguity of political analysis, and that is the human being. People do not
vote for computer systems, they vote for other people. There can be no
electronic substitute for the special mixture of logic, emotion and intuition
which human beings bring to policy formulation. There can be no abdication of
responsibility for making the tough decisions politics demand, and information
technology alone will not decentralise decision-making in Ottawa.