Kim Williams on cultural disruption

James Riley
Editorial Director

Business leader and Australian icon Kim Williams has turned his attention to the powerful forces of digital disruption and its significant impact on business and consumption and the challenges posed to our great cultural institutions.

Speaking at an Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce luncheon in Sydney recently, Mr Williams said Australian business was particularly unprepared and vulnerable to new digital players across myriad sectors.

He says our governments and policy makers have not yet come to grips with the turbulence around them in any serious way. And that this is a genuine problem. The obvious impacts on business models and changed consumer behaviors will apply equally to our political system and public service.

Mr Williams talks about a new era he calls The Great Levelling, or the New Now.

It turns out the Great Levelling is not necessarily a good thing. It’s not just about the power-shift to consumers in the sense of somehow democratising information, but rather includes a description of the downside where the powerful, connected smartphone in everyone’s hand means that everyone has an opinion.

This is the fascinating paradox of information-rich age, in what he describes as “the unwavering march of the general ignorance.” This is the challenge for our great cultural institutions, which includes of course our parliaments, universities, libraries, and scientific research agencies.

This is “a levelling where opinions reign and ignorance and dogmatic assertion enjoy false equivalence with knowledge, analysis and deep thinking,” Mr Williams said.

“The levelling has many nihilistic elements, but with a difference – it is now technology fuelled and facilitated; so that it is often accorded an equal status with knowledge and expertise.”

Kim Williams is a giant in the Australian cultural, media and sporting context. He has packed a lot into a lengthy career, including stints running the Australian Film Commission, Foxtel, News Ltd, and the Sydney Opera House Trust. He has been an ABC director, and is a current member of the AFL Commission. He studied music at the University of Sydney and is an accomplished composer.

The AICC speech is quite fascinating and covers a lot of ground. You can read the full text here.

“We have witnessed the largest power transfer in human history,” Mr Williams said. “I refer to the unprecedented power on the one hand from producers and authorities to consumers – or as I prefer to call them – citizens.”

“On the other [hand], we have seen the rise of myriad, for want of a better term ‘dark forces’, accountable to hidden controllers or operating as an almost autonomous autarchy in a way which is empowered uniquely by digital communications systems,” he said.

“These shifts are difficult to exaggerate [and] impossible to stop.” There impact on public and private sectors is equally massive. Governments and political eco-systems are not immune.

“All strands of endeavour are seeing unprecedented turbulence,” Mr Williams said. “The effect on politics and direction of governments is presently unclear, although on all available evidence it is often deeply troubling and, in many instances, results in diminished strength, purpose and confidence in traditional political methodologies.

“Dramatic change is everywhere, reflected in wholly different commercial and social operating models and in people’s behavioural responses.  The game has changed,” he said.

Mr Williams says matter-of-factly that Big Tech – the global software platforms – will to build wider range of products and services with worldwide distribution in which geographic boundaries, and therefore cultural and nation-state boundaries, become less and relevant.

“Nations and their legal frameworks over time, will be substantially bypassed by this process. The impact of this huge disintermediation has not yet been examined or really understood by governments. With political parties it is almost entirely ignored.”

What cant be ignored on which there can be no argument is that mobile technology and its allied cloud software will continue to “rise and rule, ensuring ubiquitous software as the dominant change force.”

Australia is structurally vulnerable having placed too much virtue on the benefit of incumbency, with many large players across different industries that have the wrong cultural setting to respond quickly to the new and shifting rules.

Mr Williams says industry development policy-makers should take note here. In the new connected world, connected countries that are not consistently successful in innovation and productivity improvement are in for a hard landing, with harsh declines in living standards.

Again, the impact on political and social systems will equal the massive impact on business and economic systems, he said.

“Arguments from government have been arcane and grossly defective in acknowledging and acting on these massive power shifts.

“The landscape has been bereft of relevant, informed policy responses. Quite shockingly reckless – sadly a key component of the great levelling.

“We all must recognise that digital technology has changed forever the nature of information access, exchange and the direction of society through politics, commerce, creativity, education and communication in life as we know it.”

“If we do not redirect our approaches then social stagnation, declining education standards and a marked talent drain will inevitably result. We will have a poorer society and it will become in a digitally driven era, ever harder to rebound,” Mr Williams said.

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