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A man reads documents inside the Congress Hall of the World Economic Forum (WEF) at the Swiss Alpine resort of Davos January 22, 2013. (PASCAL LAUENER/REUTERS)
A man reads documents inside the Congress Hall of the World Economic Forum (WEF) at the Swiss Alpine resort of Davos January 22, 2013. (PASCAL LAUENER/REUTERS)

World Economic Forum

Technology promises a better informed society, but information must flow freely Add to ...

Yesterday, I wrote about the World Economic Forum’s 88 Global Agenda Councils and the valuable work they are doing.

I am a member of a council addressing the tricky issue of how we inform ourselves as societies when the traditional media and tools of doing that are unravelling. We had our first informal get together Wednesday morning.

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An informed society is one where citizens have the resources, education and skills to access and participate in the free flow of reliable and pertinent information. They do this through a diverse range of platforms and media organizations that empower them to make considered decisions about their economic, social and political lives. And we take it as a given that in a knowledge economy and an age of networked intelligence, better-informed societies are more successful.

But this is a time of information turmoil. Many traditional media organizations are struggling. Scores of newspapers have gone out of business in the United States alone in the last decade. Magazines, radio, non-fiction book publishing and even television are all in various stages of upheaval. The media of the industrial age is changing.

Allowed to flourish, new media technologies offer the promise for societies to be better informed, more open and more successful than their industrial age counterparts. People in many parts of the world have unprecedented access to data, information and knowledge. They can inform themselves through collaboration like never before. People by the millions can contribute useful knowledge for everyone to share (as in the case of Wikipedia). Observers of street violence can document it and inform the world as citizens did during the 2007 post-election riots in Kenya.

This creates many challenges. How do we survive information overload? How do we sort through all the misinformation spewed when a billion people essentially have printing presses at their fingertips? How do we ensure quality news, investigative reporting and good journalism? How do we pay journalists? How do we avoid a balkanization of news where we each simply follow our own point of view, placing each of us in a self-reinforcing echo chamber where the purpose of information is not to inform us but to give us comfort? What will happen to the media industries? How can school and universities take advantage of the new tools and media to transform pedagogy and themselves?

Digital technologies offer unprecedented access to data and information. Some governments are threatened by the free flow of information, but by attempting to control and censor the Internet, they jeopardize their society’s development.

Our council will be encouraging governments to adopt a code of conduct to ensure their societies are informed. We’re also developing an Informed Societies Index that will rank countries around the world. In doing so we hope to stimulate governments and business leaders everywhere to take action to ensure their citizens have full, open access to the information they need to be productive, prosperous, free and participate fully in the digital age.

This code includes:

  • Access: Government should take all steps possible to ensure that their citizens have access to both old and new media. Governments should enact policies that protect media freedom and the openness of the Internet.
  • Education: Education is a right and requirement for every citizen. In a world of growing resources and tools it is a disgrace that the quality of education is declining in many parts of the world.
  • Media literacy: Governments should ensure that citizens have access to complete, reliable and pertinent information, and know how to use it. Governments should not censor, but instead create an environment in which ideas can be exchanged freely both on and off the 
Internet.
  • Transparency: Governments should embrace transparency and freedom of information. This may include legislation, 
regulation, education and partnering with public and private sector organizations to encourage 
openness. Media organizations should act in a manner that is responsible, transparent and accountable. 

  • Privacy: It is inevitable that the data available about each of us will continue to grow. Governments and business should understand that the need for security and profit must be tempered by the need for freedom, rooted in individual privacy. Governments should help educate citizens about the right to privacy.

Don Tapscott is reporting from Davos, Switzerland, daily for The Globe and Mail. He is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management and the author of 14 books. He just released a TED book (with Anthony D. Williams) called Radical Openness: Four Unexpected Principles for Success. You can follow him on Twitter @dtapscott.

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