Telecommunications engineer and Fabian
by Dr John Tons
Survived by his wife Pam and daughter Louise, Reg Coutts will be widely remembered for trying to make the world a better place through his work in telecommunications and information technology (ICT), a field where his commitment to Fabian ideals became manifest. Some will remember his influential role in the creation of the NBN. Still others will remember him for his work in telecommunications. Then there are those who will remember Reg as a committed Fabian and a staunch Labor man. All will remember his passion, enthusiasm, and uncompromising commitment to social justice.
Reg Coutts was a professor, something most of us are not and never will be. Despite that, Reg was — like most of us — a ‘nobody’ or, more accurately, an ‘everybody.’ An everybody who believed passionately in equality and social justice — an everybody who was a Fabian.
As with all Fabians, Reg recognized that a successful social democratic society requires a fair system and cooperation from one generation to the next. He knew that fairness and intergenerational cooperation can only be achieved through the collective efforts of all the nobodies.
Reg was a telecommunications engineer, a profession that can easily send its brightest stars down scientific rabbit holes; practicing innovation for innovation’s sake. But Reg was also a Labor man and a Fabian: he never lost sight of the role that information communication technology can and should play in creating a better society.
Reg recognized that our world is being exponentially transformed. In both the developed and developing world, more and more individuals move between digital domains and offline reality. The fourth industrial revolution increasingly enables and manages human life. Little wonder that governments are urgently developing Information Communication Technologies (ICT). ICT is the beating heart of the fourth industrial revolution.
At the time of his death, Reg Coutts was working on a book which explored ways in which we can ride this tiger while building a society that is inclusive and sustainable. A society which values equality and full community participation. Reg’s untimely death means that this vital project is unfinished.
Announcing the Reg Coutts Memorial Prize
In 2024 The Australian Fabians will formally launch The Reg Coutts Memorial Prize, a prize for creative thinking that tackles the relationship between Information Technology and questions of social justice and sustainability. Entrants will be asked to respond to a question in 3,000 words, with the winner receiving $50,000 to write a short book expanding on their ideas. The aim of the Prize is to promote, encourage and engage innovative thinking about ways information technology may be applied to create a democratic, resilient and sustainable Australia. In carrying on the work of Reg Coutts, the Prize acknowledges the important role everyone plays in achieving equality and social justice.
The aim of the Reg Coutts memorial prize will be to identify ways in which ICT can be used as a tool to create an inclusive, sustainable, and fair society. The Prize will promote, encourage and engage innovative thinking about how information technology can be applied to create an Australia of which we can all be proud.
This is more urgent than ever with the rise and rise of AI and increasing levels of robotic development. What is the role of work in a world where 80 per cent of jobs are capable of being automated, either fully or in part? A world where more than a fifth of the global labour force, some 800 million plus workers, could lose their jobs?(Harari 2017)
Reg Coutts was unique. At the same time, he was everybody. The Prize bearing his name will ensure his genius for technology goes on helping us re-imagine our world for the better.
Final conversations with Reg Coutts
The following is based on the conversations that Reg and I had about our collaborative research into creating a fairer society through what some call the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Töns 2022). The idea had been that we would collaborate on a book that would focus on the way ICT is a critical tool in creating a society capable of addressing the complex problems we face. We were especially concerned to develop a book that was accessible to the wider public. We were both critical of the ill-informed comments that politicians made about the way technology could save the planet. Unfortunately, Reg’s death meant that we could not complete that project — instead the idea is now embodied in the Reg Coutts Memorial Prize.
Conversations with Reg roamed across history and into the near future of communications. We noted how communications supported governance in times of stability or else had the power to instigate revolutionary change. In ancient Greece it was the agora; a meeting place where citizens would discuss and debate political decisions. By contrast, during the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Imperial Guard was dispatched to the Winter Palace to protect the royal family while revolutionaries occupied the centres of communication.
Communication has always been the beating heart of democratic governance and reform. Communication was the means whereby citizens are empowered to make informed choices. It is, however, a double-edged sword. In the cases of Russia, pre-war Germany, and Italy it became the means whereby the state was empowered to assert totalitarian control. In the 21st century ICT are our centres of communication. The key difference is that ICT is a tool that is universally accessible. Today, we see ICT being used by both government and non-government agencies as a tool to spread misinformation.
Over the last 50 years Reg and I witnessed a communications revolution — paperless offices, universal access to information, Wikileaks and open-source coding. In hindsight what is staggering about the last fifty years is how rapidly technology has evolved. But as Blackman observed ‘understanding of the economic, technical, legal and social forces driving this transformational change was still rather limited, as was understanding of the policy and regulation that might be needed in response’ (Blackman 2017).
Blackman’s comment applies not just to the role that ICT may play in good governance but is applies to all aspects of government policy. The growing awareness that we are facing an ecological crisis has prompted some researchers to make the case that ‘if our species does not survive the ecological crisis, it will probably be due to our failure … to work out new ways to live with the earth, to rework ourselves … We will go onwards in a different mode of humanity, or not at all’ (Gibson-Graham and Roelvink 2009 p322).
Strielkowski argues that Modern technologies (represented by the information and communication technologies, or so-called ICTs) are slowly but gradually taking over the public governance and are more frequently used in state and municipal management. They constitute one of the pathways towards building a smart city, a concept that embeds the efforts of many municipal governments across the world. ICTs can facilitate the way governmental services are provided for the citizens: from job search portals to the websites and apps that help to collect citizens’ opinions of the way municipalities are managing their districts the most interesting and impressive application of the ICTs might be for the identification of citizens and enabling them to participate in the public life online through the Internet. The ubiquitous use of smartphones and other hand-held devices anyone would hardly imagine his or her life nowadays makes this task even more appealing and important (Strielkowski 2017).
The penetration of ICT in every aspect of our lives represents both an opportunity and a threat. Just as widespread literacy in the 19th century liberated the working classes so in the 21st century widespread understanding of ICT can likewise be a liberating force. The possibility that we can use ICT as a means for citizens to take an active part in the shaping of public policy represents a major threat to the status quo. On the one hand we need ICT to manage our smart cities but on the other can we afford to live in a world where public policy is designed by some form of global deliberative democracy? Would that not dilute the control that the wealthy elites have over politics?
A not inconsiderable part of the problem is that inequality may be regarded as normal. Piketty argues that ‘every human society must justify its inequalities: unless reasons for them are found, the whole political and social edifice stands in danger of collapse’(Piketty 2020 p 1). Piketty’s justifies this proposition by referring to the long term history of the ways in which regimes in different polities established what he refers to as the ‘inequality regime’ which comprises ‘A set of discourses and institutional arrangements intended to justify and structure the economic, social, and political inequality of a given society’ (p 2).
The justifications for inequality are not open ended. ‘What determines the level of inequality is above all society’s ideological, political, and institutional capacity to justify and structure inequality’ (p 267). The levels of inequality generated by neo-liberal policies have thus far been justified on the grounds by John F Kennedy’s aphorism ‘that a rising tide raises all boats’ however, that claim is sounding increasingly hollow. It is also what has prompted economists to look at alternative narratives. Thus we find that Raworth has developed an alternative economic model: so-called ‘doughnut economics’ — her argument is to show that there is an ecological ceiling that we cannot afford to overshoot (Raworth 2017). In a similar vein Trebeck and Williams make a compelling case that the unrelenting pursuit of growth poses a great risk both to our own well-being and that of the planet. They propose an alternative economic narrative: that of arrival — the idea is that the benefits of continued growth are experienced by fewer and fewer people; a fair distribution will enable us to all live well (Trebeck and Williams 2019). Furthermore, in central Europe a group of thinkers have established what they refer to as Common Good Economics as a departure from the neo-classical paradigm (Dolderer, Felber et al. 2021). Nobel prize-winning economist Stiglitz tackled another aspect to the dominant economic narrative. He argues that the economy is our creation, that there is no ‘invisible’ hand that guides the free market; economic systems are our creation and hence we can change them at will (Stiglitz 2010).
The global growth in tertiary education means that in most countries around the world there is an educated elite capable of challenging the ideology of inequality (Marginson 2016). This made itself manifest in the so-called Arab Spring. One of the factors contributing to the Arab Spring was the perceived lack of fairness of existing regimes. The regimes had encouraged education to enable polity to modernize but when employment did not materialise they found themselves with a well-educated youth critical of their regimes (QadirMushtaq and Afzal 2017).
The experience of Estonia in this regard is illuminating. Estonia’s independence is due to its geographic location, extremely vulnerable. However, by switching to digital governance it has all but eliminated that vulnerability (Gat 2018). It has been one of the first polities to switch to voting online (Mpekoa and van Greunen 2017). Estonia also highlights that developing a high level of ICT competence is not straightforward. Dropout levels among Estonia’s tertiary ICT students is high (Kori, Pedaste et al. 2016).
The ubiquitous penetration of ICT will continue to shape our political and social worlds. It is for that reason that it is important that Australians are informed about the opportunities and threats presented by ICT. It is merely a tool but the more we know about how to use that tool the better it will be for our society. This was the main concern of Reg Coutts and this will be his legacy. Through the establishment of the Reg Coutts Memorial Prize we hope his lifelong efforts, his insights and his knowledge will help shape a better society through more informed understanding of both the history and potential of ICT.
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About the author
Dr John Tons is a researcher with the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University