Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck reportedly borrowed this title from a verse authored by Robert Burns: « The best laid schemes o’mice an’ men often go awry ». Arguably, times of crisis hold out as many opportunities as risks: in order to be fleet-footed enough to catch the former and ensure that they prevail over the latter, we need to jettison the part of our legacy that has turned into a burden and to set ourselves free to have a fresh look at the next challenges. Men are reportedly better at that than path dependent mice.

In November 2010, “Foreign Affairs” published a seminal article by Google’s Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen under the heading: “The Digital Disruption”. Most comments saw in this unusual step a tribute to the increasing role of industry and civil society in world affairs. One sentence encapsulates this shift with laser-sharp precision: “The hardware and software created by private companies in free markets are proving more useful to citizens abroad than state-sponsored assistance or diplomacy”. In the spirit of the above assumption that men are better than mice at shaping their own future, I would like to thus paraphrase Messrs Schmidt and Cohen: “The hardware and software created by private companies in free markets are proving more useful to people to create and innovate than state-sponsored assistance” and to elaborate on how this proposition might apply to education and culture.

There is no denying that we are going through a period of thorough disruption. Revolutions indeed predate the digital era and are generally seen with hindsight as positive developments. Beyond ascertaining how much of a contributory factor digital technology is to the rise of civil society, the central issue – or at least the purpose of this comment – is to evaluate how much we are going to gain from leading the rebalancing of government-industry-civil society relations instead of resisting it. Facing a crisis that has so far eluded all medicines of the past together with a paradigm shift in the way people appropriate knowledge and interact, can governments afford shunning this rebalancing? Can they at the same time deny it and remain true to their remit of catering for the wellbeing of their people and their whole nation?

Take education and training. While our continent is hit by growing unemployment – isn’t a 50% jobless ratio among the 16-24 year olds in some countries downright outrageous? – a 700,000 gap in e-competences is forecast by 2015. Indeed, the ICT sector, bucking the trend to gloom and doom, is doing so well that it is seriously considering tapping quality immigration as a preferred if not single tool to bridge this gap. Not that Europe taking advantage of superior skills in Egypt or India is evil per se, but can’t we find an alternative to conceding the failure of our education systems to match healthy demand with adequate supply?

Yes we can, Vice President Neelie Kroes said on launching her Grand Coalition for a job-rich recovery. Yes we can and we will thus defuse the ominous specter of a lost generation of unemployed in Europe. Together with other key members of the European Commission, the Vice President is busy rallying the support of those stakeholders that have skin in this most serious of all games. However, her call to join forces will have to be meaningful to involve the active cooperation of public institutions, industry and civil society at EU level but, more critically yet, at national level: failing appropriate action there to correct the course, the Grand Coalition will remain another pipe-dream and Europe will keep losing ground to the rest of the world.

Turning to culture – arguably both a feeder and a natural offshoot of education – Europe swarms with convoluted schemes aimed to tell what belongs to national culture from what does not in order to assist the former and crowd the latter out of a nation’s hearts and minds. The fly in the ointment is that, in contrast to the brain, the mind knows no physical border. Likewise, the internet brought to us by the digital and optical wonders produced by the same borderless minds knows no border either. By the way, the fact that the internet feels so close at times to a much more convenient extension of our mind than libraries and bookstores may explain its truly amazing uptake, and that’s only the dawn of the digital era. Confronted with a global reach which is no longer an aspiration but today’s reality, government support will pay only lip service to universal culture and apply criteria that fit better the way country-specific markets operate than the way our hearts and minds do. Some would argue that most people do relish grazing the cultural pastures they are granted access to behind fences, thus vindicating strict adherence to boundary-delineated criteria. If this is true, these criteria will inform consumers’ choice and the market will decide.

Actually, the crowd-sourced breed of cultural diversity made possible by digital technology is more lively and authentic than its other strand crafted by the arbitrary decision of obscure bureaucrats. It is also more in tune with the values and skills to be found in each and every individual. Incidentally it happens to be much less expensive as it does not result from convoluted systems of redistribution of money taken out of popular content and funneled into works aimed to please their authors mainly.

To be fair, more elitist forms of culture – meant by definition for the happy few – will always be worth assistance. But let mainstream culture blossom out in the hands of ubiquitous creators empowered by digital technology. Direct exposure to their intended public will take them more safely than red tape to possible fame.

Assuming that, confronted with the many disruptions of our times, born trail-blazers such as Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais or Jules Ferry would embrace the cause of conservatism, takes a bold breach of Cartesian logic, a twist of their brilliant legacy and an insult to what they stand for. Indeed, on realizing that their time-honoured prescriptions to nurture creativity or to secure education for all turn out to actually stun growth and stifle the mind, the inventor of “droit d’auteur” and the promoter of denomination-free and universal education, would both support another disruption – Beaumarchais armed the US insurgents – meant to help Europe regain leadership among nations. Nobody can speak for them, but at least this would be true to their faith in men being better than mice…


This blogpost was penned by Patrice Chazerand, Director Public Policy, DIGITALEUROPE

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