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Silvio Meira: "We are still poorly computerized in Latin America"

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International speaker of TICAL2016, the Brazilian engineer and professor Silvio Meira was one of the most commented names of the sixth edition of the Conference, held from September 13 to 15 in Buenos Aires. His presentation "The hour of performance in times of digital transformation" was praised by the audience and generated discussions about how institutions and academic networks should adapt to new technologies. In this interview, Meira comments on his opinion on ICT in the region, explains the concept of digital performance and the impact of this new technological moment on education.

What does it mean for you to participate in an event like TICAL?

This is not the first time I speak at a specific conference for the Latin American public, but I confess that it is a rare opportunity. For me, participating in TICAL is very important. I was lacking that. Our continent is regionally cohesive, but culturally diffuse. We know each other very little. In Brazil, for example, we known much more about the US than about Colombia, for example.

From your area of expertise, how do you evaluate the development of ICTs in Latin America? What are our main challenges and opportunities?

To give you an idea, Brazil is about 1.5% of the global ICT market. This already gives us a good idea of how behind schedule we are, because we are a half part of Latin America. Brazil, Mexico and Argentina account for almost 70% of the regional market. Another interesting fact is that Brazil's global position is much higher in the economy than as a participant in the ICT market and this shows our problem. It means that we are poorly computerized. We have a few Latin American companies that are ICT providers in the global market. The brazilian Totvs (management software company) is one example, Mercado Libre is another. We have some Argentine and Chilean companies on the New York Stock Exchange, but there are very few companies that have what we call the "global class". Being global is not about having a big bill, but about expanding its playing field. Waze, for example, was made in Israel but is present in many other countries. Even in the domestic market, where there is supposed to be more room, we have no predominance of local companies.

And why do you think is that?

Our region is marked by a high degree of political intervention in the economy. This destabilizes any attempt to build a long-term strategy for global market share. We range between authoritarian and libertarian populist governments. And in this swing, in this oscillation between the extremes, we have exterminated the ability to construct medium-term and long-term strategies. Venezuela, for example, has many good ICT professionals who have been destroyed by the last government. On the other hand, the cases that worked well in our region are projects that already have decades of existence, such as Embraero, in Brazil. It took the company 30 years to make a good airplane. Currently, there are very few ICT projects in Latin America that have three decades of strategy. In Chile maybe there is something, but in other countries there is not.

What do you have to say about Chile?

Chile needed and knew how to make some choices. It is a geographicly long country, with few population, inhospitable areas in the north and in the south and, above all, earthquakes. So they had to develop earthquake-proofing construction ideas and processes, for example. In the last earthquakes, no building collapsed and earthquakes of the same magnitude devastated Haiti. Chile has demonstrated what it means to make choices. You need to be focused. What's more important, the country has quality education. My equation is that when you add fundamentals, correct choices and focus in the long run you always reap good results.

Silicon Valley, for example, is a spinoff of American investment in defense. The internet itself is another one. It is a matter of identifying needs, which is not always easy. But we must bear in mind that nothing is by chance, including changes in the ICT area. Porto Digital (technological park of which Meira is one of the founders), for example, is in its 16th year of existence, but we believe that we will need another 20 years to effectively establish ourselves as an economic vector that will generate development for the country. We are talking about decades, because nothing is resolved within a mandate. Brazil is a prime example of how not to create projects. Each politician wants to solve the problem of education in four years. Nothing gets solved in four years. We have these two problems in Latin America: the political question and the lack of persistence.

You spoke in your talk that we are nearing the end of the era of digital ingenuity and arriving into the age of digital performance. What does that mean in practice? What do these ages consist of?

The age of ingenuity is marked by services of low performance, low quality, low security and low number of users precisely because of these three factors. Google, for example, already has dual security verification, as well as Facebook and Twitter. For the average user, therefore, it becomes unacceptable to lose the email password of his/hers national network and not be able to retrieve it. Whatsapp is another example; if we change the device, when we change our chip, the information isautomatically transferred to the new device, and this is done in the most intelligible possible way.
Now tell me: which public service in a Latin American countries has features like that? Or even university services? In my center, for example, they have changed the policy of email groups, which today comprises approximately five thousand people. Everything was changed and no one was warned. How can this happen, if Facebook has more than a billion users and can notify me? It is not so much that companies are naive, it is that the user is no longer naive.

The performance era has as key characteristics the centrality of the user, the quality of the interface, the focus on results and the use of platforms as bases for technological "ecosystems". Uber is a good example of an application that manages these four qualities, making life easier for the user and the service provider.

Also in your talk, you said that sectors like Media are almost totally digitized, but that the education sector is not. What is missing?

It is necessary to "change phase". Our educational system is programmed to repeat the codification of the past, but it needs to be reprogrammed to invent the future from essential foundations: Pythagoras, fundamental literature of each country, reading and writing ... If we have an illiterate population, everything else is useless. We have a lot of functional illiterates in our countries, people who can not understand a complex paragraph. We need to teach fundamentals of logic and principles of argumentation so that people can participate in a discussion board, for example. If they do not have this capability, they will never be able to run a business. Between two competent engineers, let's choose the one that besides doing correct calculations, know how to read, analyze, synthesize and explain. I say that we need to get out of the "codification of the past for the explanation of the present with the foundations of the past" and move towards "the foundation of the present for the construction of the future with methods of the future." Teachers need to learn and adapt because they have structural knowledge. Teachers who know their subjects are not afraid of digital.

Along the same lines, talking about the networking, there are many NRENs around the world who resist making video content available on Youtube, for example, or even using other Google services because they do not want to give away their content to other media. What is your opinion on this?
About not disclosing certain content, it is purely and simply censorship. The basis of the democratic regime is access to information and denying this implies an unacceptable level of authoritarianism in a network environment. On the other hand, from an organizational point of view, trying to control what is happening is impossible.

So, in your opinion, should academic networks adhere to the use of these new networks and technologies, making their content available there as well?

No doubt. Europe spent billions of euros trying to create its own search platform, called Science, and failed. The discussion about our video repositories, email providers and search engines is already resolved. Apart from four or five governments around the world, there is no national government that has strategies, methods, and human and technological resources to compete with Google. The attempt of certain networks to break some advances is precisely what we call digital and strategic naivety. The user has the email from the network, but prefers to use Gmail because the other one is falling. This naiveté happens in the technological periphery, where are the people who feel able to do certain things, but have not had the opportunity to do. So they want to determine through national policies that things will be the way they want them to.

On the other hand, there is room for innovation. When the market is conceptually or operationally fragmented, we can create new things. In the periphery we do not do because we are afraid of going wrong. We just want to do what someone already did because it worked. RedCLARA, for example, could join networks and begin an open source effort to create an exaservice platform for networked learning. I even have a name: "PARLA", which means "Network Learning Platform for Latin America." (Laughs)