Where do I plug this in? And what do I do then?

Scene One. 2 p.m. in the Mong Kok district of Hong Kong. People are crowding around a table set up on the street, next to the vendors selling chicken feet and imitation Gucci wallets. The attraction is a goodie bag including free T-shirts if you sign up with a certain Internet service provider. A lot of people look wistfully at the loot but say they already have an ISP.

Scene Two. 9 a.m. at the front desk of the Fort Garry Hotel in Winnipeg. “I’d like to use your business centre,” I say hopefully.

“Oh, you want to make photocopies?”

“Actually, I need to use the Internet.”

“Er, we don’t have that, sir”

A series of calls to other hotels plus a visit to a so-called “Internet Cafe” that went belly up for lack of business produces no results. In desperation I sent my son to the public library and he manages to trick their public-access terminals into delivering my urgent e-mail.

Scene Three. 10 p.m. at the Calgary Airport. An imposing looking box with a couple of touch screen terminals offers me the ability to get tourist information and send out e-mail. There’s some fine print about what’s free and what costs money, but when I try to use it for e-mail, it says “Put in your credit card now” with no indication of what it’s about to do to my card.

Sorry, buddy, but I don’t give machines blank cheques on my plastic. Nice gesture, but somebody wasn’t thinking about human nature…we want to know exactly what this is all going to cost. Also, the design and location of the thing means the 400 bored people waiting for their luggage can look over my shoulder as I use it.

Canada is falling behind in the all-important job of creating a “culture of use” for technology. This is a shame because being connected can fundamentally change the way we think. It can free us from the mental clutter of a lot of mundane facts, and allow us to think about what’s really important.

I had the good fortune to discuss this with a lot of people at the 8th World Conference on Thinking, held recently in Edmonton. Gurus such as “Lateral Thinking” author Edward de Bono told us that we need to pay more attention to the process of thinking, not just to the subject matter.

“Thinking is a skill,” he told the 850 or so delegates, “and it can be taught explicitly.” He told me he sees a lot of scope for improving the quality of thought and design in the computer industry if only people would take the time to analyse how they reach decisions.

One of the most interesting questions kicking around is, “Has the Internet really changed the way we think?” It’s clear that we can access a lot more information, on a very convenient basis. I often used to find myself bargaining with librarians to let me stay “just five minutes more” around closing time. Now, my favourite reference tool is available 24/7 from the comfort of my bedroom. It’s also largely free, though there are certainly indications that the really good information is moving to a “for pay” basis, as information providers figure out how to charge us.

It’s a lot more challenging to determine if we are making any better use of this great new information. Some of my audience members said they felt as if they were “drowning in data” with little hope they would ever read all that accumulated e-mail and those interesting newsgroup postings. Filters and search engines can be helpful, but I think we all realize search engine companies are businesses. You can rent a word for a period of time, so every time somebody asks about golf they get an ad for your golf balls. There are ways to buy better placement on some search engines, and obviously you want your stuff on page one, not page 355.

Another real issue is the fact that, as far as the Internet is concerned, the known universe was created around 1985 or so. There are thousands of pages that mention Industry Minister John Manley, but you can search the Internet until you’re blue in the face and I doubt you’ll find much information on Beryl Plumptre, a significant personage in Canadian politics who happened to serve before the on-line revolution.

Those who rely solely on the Internet can easily form the wrong conclusions. Sometimes, even the best sources of information have accuracy problems. I noticed once that the production of cookies in Canada for certain years was considered “restricted data” by Statistics Canada. I just had to know why. It turns out the data collection for those years wasn’t up to their standards, and they didn’t want whole Ph.D. theses being built on shaky data. They practiced a high standard of data ethics, but it’s more common to see people dumping anything they want into cyberspace, just to have a “Web presence.”

What’s the prescription for a country to make appropriate and sophisticated use of its information resources? It starts with being wired, and through its “Connecting Canadians” agenda Industry Canada has said they will address big pieces of that, such as helping the volunteer sector of the economy to use the latest tools. Once we have the connectivity we need, as Dr. de Bono urged, we can study our thinking and decision-making processes. We need to know where we’re going, not just how.

There’s a rich body of literature on this. For example, The Reflective Practitioner (Basic Books, 1983) by Donald Schon, introduces the concept of “double loop learning.” If you consider a thermostat, it’s good at turning the furnace on and off to maintain a particular temperature, but it doesn’t really worry about what that temperature should be. Thinking about that question forms another loop and may alter the goals of the first one. (For example, after receiving a $450 heating bill, the family may decide to wear more sweaters.) Dr. Jack Treuhaft of Algonquin College has done a nice job of summarizing this very example in a Web page (www.algonquinc.on.ca/edtech/gened/reflecti.html) and Dr. de Bono’s site (www.edwdebono.com) is full of good examples too.

We may never get to the stage where Internet service vendors jockey for position with chicken feet sellers on the streets of Canada. But there’s no reason we can’t harvest the benefits of being connected in a way that’s appropriate for us. That’s the purpose behind the smart communities movement, and Industry Canada has backed it with substantial funding for demonstration projects (see their official site at smartcommunities.ic.gc.ca/) . We have the tools to do the “first loop” so our job now is to work on the “double loop” – deciding what kind of a society we want to become when all this technology lands on our doorstep.

Dr. Keenan, I.S.P, is an adjunct professor at the University of Calgary’s computer science department and dean of the school’s Faculty of Continuing Education. His research is sponsored in part by the Calgary-based Van Horne Institute.