Couchiching Online
nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button
History Table of Contents
1996 Summer Conference
 
Summer Conference 1996
Citizens of the Electronic Village: smartening up or dumbing down?

Looming Chaos or a New Birth of Freedom?

Questions

Mr. Tipson, you've offered us a profound lesson, and to learn more I've prepared a question. You seem to feel the state is still able to create, a better world than the sort in which the market is the only port. But what tools can government use in practice, exactly what in this anarchic Internet world can we ask it, what can be done by the nation to lead us to a virtuous and safe destination?

Tipson: I guess the main point I'm trying to get across is [at] the level of civic participation by citizens, which is what this conference is all about, we have tended to renege on our responsibilities to be participants in the political process; thus, undercutting governments' abilities to perform their job.

I think the answer is more personal involvement by citizens like you and I. I don't think the answer is to dispense with government. I hope that isn't what came across.

In fact, the whole point is governments are basically what we have to work with, but governments need to operate according to a set of standards that is much more sensitive to the rights and values of populations outside of their own borders, since their behaviours are now affecting, in significant ways, the values and rights of people outside of their own borders.

It's not a popular suggestion, particularly in the United States in an election year, to suggest that the United States shouldn't be able to operate with any degree of independence it wants to. But I think that's a naive and archaic view and I think over time — it's the lobster point. You can argue as long as you want that you're a lobster, but if you're sitting there on the plate about to be eaten — you may still be a lobster, but it is different than when you were swimming around the ocean years ago.

It's both the government's need to do something different, but more importantly it's that citizens need to become more involved in focusing on the issues of importance to them — particularly with respect to issues like the Internet and new technology and reinforcing what governments need to do.

The two issues I'm grappling with are one of leadership and the other one of direct democracy. I think when we talk about new forms of leadership we talk about vision, commitment, speaking in verse. The other side of it is direct democracy. Maybe five years we're going to have terminals in everyone's homes, so whenever there's a question that a government has they send it out on the Internet and people just vote in a very specific way. My sense, although this is only sort of anecdotal, is that generally people resist change and, if it's direct democracy, are people really going to push anything forward? So, can you co-exist with new forms of leadership and direct democracy the Electronic Village?

Ellis: Part of the issue involved here is getting a balance between what we see as the leadership role for government. Fred touched on this in several of the issues that he raised. Getting a balance between that and this new way that people have of communicating and getting information and so on. I guess that goes to the heart of your question.

While we here talk about the wired world, the Electronic Village, as though it's ubiquitous and universal and effects everybody, it still only affects a fairly small minority of Canadians in any immediate and daily way.

I think we should be legitimately concerned about just how many people are being enfranchised and how many are not. At the same time, I think we have to be realistic and recognize that the kind of dilemma that you pose is not something that is going to be grappled with in any kind of direct way by most people, no matter what happens.

My last comment on this would be a note of optimism, which is that up till this point being connected to the rest of the world through digital networks like the Internet has been pretty much confined to upscale end users who have the education and the disposable income to be in that game.?There's a great deal happening in the technology now to suggest that this is going to be democratized to a much greater degree than we have seen so far. And I'm thinking particularly of access to devices that don't cost $3,000, but cost $500 and that kind of thing and that are much simpler to use so that this really does become an access tool and not a multi-media platform for people with lots of money and leisure time.

Dasko: I don't think we're actually headed to the direct democracy that you describe, where people will be voting on every issues.

Of course, we have moved in some ways in Canada. We've had a referendum and we have had some events where there has been greater participation, but I don't think we're headed to that scenario. And I don't think Canadians want that. I don't think that's what a democracy is. I don't think it's what Canadians are expecting and that's not what they're going to get.

I think people want politicians to be accountable to them. I think they want them to do their job as best that they can, but we are still going to live in a representative democracy and the idea of direct democracy is not something people want. They do want others to participate in decision-making, they want to participate themselves in a lot of different ways. But that's not what we're going to see.

We're going to continue along the lines that we have toward greater egalitarianism and maybe more of those kinds of things. It will happen more, but that's not what people want and they're not actually headed to a system where we're going to vote every second.

Tipson: I think there's a great danger in any discussion of democracy — democratic culture — to put too much weight on voting as such. Democracy involves the whole culture of participation and reinforcement of institutions in which elections play an important — but the not sole, and perhaps not even the primary role.

My experience working in government really brought across strongly how little the election effects what the U.S. government does. But far more important is the degree of involvement of citizens and interest groups and frankly the effective use of information in addressing problems. That is where the health of democracy is best demonstrated. Although, obviously, if people don't vote in elections, or if you're talking about a society that has never been able to throw anybody out of office, then elections obviously are critical.

But the other component, I think, is what's increasingly lacking. I won't try to speak about Canada, but I think it's increasingly lacking in the United States and people judge governments, pronounce about governments, criticize government behaviour, but frankly very few of us these days participate the way we need to in shaping issues.

David Ellis has provided one perspective on this, but I wonder, Donna, if maybe you could comment more detail about the demographics of computer and Internet use in Canada and what the implications are for public policy, especially around issues like access and universality and participation?

Dasko: Fourteen per cent of Canadians in the most recent study we did said they use the Internet and the figure is about double that among highly-educated Canadians, it's about double that among high income Canadians and it's also high among young people who are in households where there is high income and high education levels.

It's a very extreme inequality. You see inequality in a lot of areas, but this is really an area where you see a great difference among groups within the country.

What to do about that? Do we have the resources as a society to spend in our education system, or elsewhere, to make the access greater. I don't know whether we do. Or do we have the will? The resources are probably there, but do we have the will to do that? Do we want to shift from spending on other things to spending on this? Do we think this is an important thing?

I guess that's another question; how important is it? David thinks it important for us to do that. But his view is probably not shared by enough people who have the same opinion and given all the competing priorities and competing demands within society and within governments, I'm sort of sceptical we're going to go a long way along those lines.

But, I think it is going to become much more important as this becomes a greater tool of education and a greater resource base for people. I think the inequalities are going to become an issue and maybe at that point we might start to see some more serious thinking about how do we distribute these resources more equally.

We have made a lot of efforts in this country to distribute others resources a more equal way, so it follows that at some point we're going to have to decide that this is important. But I don't think we're there yet.

Donna, I'd like to ask you why you feel that direct democracy is incompatible with representative democracy and, secondly, why it seems to the preponderant case that people who are in the business of analyzing public opinion in our country so often add their voices to the chorus of anti- democratic thought that opposes a greater role for direct participation, whether through electronic or other means of voting?

Dasko: Actually, I don't think they are incompatible. I think you have got the wrong impression from my comments.?They are compatible, but I don't see us moving to a complete system of democracy. I like Fred's answer to that question. Living in a democratic society means different things. It means being active in civic society. It means being active as a citizen in participating in decision-making in various ways, not just in voting behaviour.

So, I don't think there's an incompatibility at all, but I just don't think we're going to be moving to the point where people are going to vote on everything. I don't think Canadian citizens want that. In some cases, we'll do that; we will have national referenda, there may be local situations where people might vote in that way, there might be a number of situations where we will be voting in that kind of a way.?But I don't think that's going to become the norm. I think we're going to continue to develop along those lines, but we're not ever going to become a totally direct democracy. Look at the fact that only a third of homes have a home computer right now. We've got a long way to go to get to the point where people have access to all the technologies to [make it] possible for them to participate that way. It's not incompatible, but I don't think it's going to happen quite that way.

Ellis: I just wanted to add something to what Donna and Fred have said on this point. I feel we're restricting this discussion about a democratic culture and the democratizing effects of the Internet a little too much. We're putting this into a kind of framework which is exclusively political.?It strikes me that the tenor of the discussion in the last few minutes has not just dwelt a great deal on voting and direct democracy, but also on the political process, rather than on other forms of social and cultural expression that I take to be just as important in a liberal democracy.

I was struck how optimistic the three of you all were. It struck me in listening to you and the comments that really the climate for dictatorship is pretty negative and that we can actually be fairly optimistic, not only in our own society — not just because of voting patterns, but because of all the power of electronics to give power to individuals, not in their own societies but in societies in other parts of the world which are still suffering under autocratic states. Could you comment?

Dasko: I don't know whether we're headed to a better future or a worse future. Sometimes I'm an optimist, sometimes I'm a pessimist. I know one thing that I am sure of, I really don't believe there was some kind of Golden Age in the past and that somehow we're regressing and that things were better 1967 or 1955.

Name any year that anyone in this room thinks was better and I'll say no, but what about the inequality of women 1955? What about the choices that were available to ethnic and racial minorities in 1955 in this country? Think about the stereotyping in 1955; think about the conformity.

I'm not somebody who believes we've regressed into chaos. I think we have an educated citizenry and we have a democracy in Canada that is an operating democracy. In fact, we're probably the most democratic nation in the world in terms of our values, in particular. In that sense, we can't control everything, of course, but we want to control things and we have the will to do things. We're not going to lay down and die. And that's what I see as being positive as we look to the future.

Ellis: I think I would put the emphasis a little differently. I think a discussion of this kind, we have to be careful not to let the debate get carried away by dwelling on the social problems that haven't yet been solved the Electronic Village, or by the Internet; it's current implementation.

There is a tendency for people who get alarmed about pornography on the Internet and that kind of thing; to throw out the baby with the bath water.

And I think by the same token we have to realize, as well, that although only something like one-third of Canadian homes have a computer and only half of them, or less, have access to the Internet and even fewer use it regularly, this is a huge change from the way people communicated only three or four or five years ago. It's a huge change in the way we get information. It's a huge change in the way we look at authority, look at corporations, look at education and it's going to start small and it's getting bigger.

But I don't think we should say it's not such a great thing because only a certain proportion of us have access at this date.

Tipson: I think we'd be having this conference even if the Internet, as such, had not been created, because I think what's going on is a phenomenon that arises from a whole range of different technologies and developments.

Let me put a plug in here for a book which has some relation to Patrick's work, but it's by a fellow named Benjamin Barber, called Jihad vs. McWorld. What he's trying to describe is what he takes to be a kind of a globalization of culture at a certain superficial level, but the American commercialized version of MTV/Disney, etc. which is provoking in many parts of the world a very tribalistic reaction against it.

His point is not that one's going to win, or the other is going to win, but that the dialectic of the clash between those two is impoverishing societies in various ways in various places.

I wouldn't call myself an optimist. I'm very concerned about what's going on, but I see that there are great capabilities being created if we as people choose to use some of those capabilities to reinvigorate our own societies, then I can be very optimistic.

But I'm by no means convinced that we are, in part, because I think there's been a kind of pacification of people by some of this media and technology.

At bottom it's values; it's a question of what's important to us or whether we assert what's important to us or whether we become more and more spectators as to what's going on in the world.

Of Canada's 16,000 schools, 6,000 of them are now plugged into the Internet through a program of the federal government called SchoolNet. By the end of next year all 16,000 schools Canada are going to be on the Internet, which puts well ahead of the Americans, who are also attempting the same thing. Is this a really significant event and doesn't it advance more the David Ellis thesis of free access. If it's not the network computer at least it's a way of speeding up the process because you're going to have a whole generation of kids who will know something about it?

Tipson: I think the point about access to schools is fundamental. One of the thing's AT&T's [foundation has] committed itself to is exactly that: wiring up schools for Internet access nation-wide.

But, even that creates a question mark as to what you do with that Internet access. We've had computer education, theoretically, in American public schools now for 10 years. If you look at what a lot of kids are doing, they're chasing little turtles around the screen on 10-year-old Apples.

Whether that enhances their ability to deal with the future I have to question. And I question what we're going to do with the Internet access also. You've got to decide what you're going to put the technology to use for and what educational value you are going to make sure becomes part of that curriculum. Otherwise, it's just glitz and glamour and doesn't mean a lot.

Ellis: I think that point is well taken. Having a computer every classroom, in and of itself, may be necessary, but it's a far from sufficient condition for getting anything done.

I think that means on the one hand, since it is a necessary condition, you have to do something about moving ahead with a program that accomplishes this kind of thing. I think your point also illustrates something else that's very crucial.

As you've heard in the way we've talked about this, researchers like Donna and I, tend to be pre-occupied by how many PCs there are in Canadian homes. That seems to be my preoccupation and I think it's a very salutary reminder that there are other institutions out there, especially public institutions, where you can overcome some of the "have" and "have not" problems that you've got in homes where there isn't a PC.

I would like to address a comment that David Ellis made about some people thinking that technology is responsible for the ills of society. It occurred to me that some people who embrace technology, specifically the Internet, are doing themselves in by becoming somewhat socially inept spending three hours or more a day and not interacting with other human beings.

Ellis: My first question would be whether or not we count interacting with other human beings on the Internet as not interacting with other human beings the way we are in face- to-face real interaction here.

There are obviously two different ways of interacting with other people, but I don't think we can completely discount interaction that is electronically mediated. The telephone is not condemned because it electronically mediates conversation between people. It's been regarded for many years, quite rightfully, as having had a tremendously liberating effect on humanity.

I think we have to put this in some kind of perspective, as well, in terms of what it is that people would be doing if they weren't in front of their computer for three hours.

The assumption is always that if you just took the damn computer away from that kid, he'd be out having healthy relationships with members of the opposite sex and doing way better in school. Not necessarily.

Maybe the kid would be out selling drugs to school kids for all we know. We have to be careful about what the alternatives are. But having said all that, I'm not sure that anybody who becomes hopelessly addicted to Internet relay chat and ends up wasting their life is a person who is going to be a shining example of humanity anyway.

Dasko: A lot of this discussion we're having reminds me of the kinds of discussions that people were having when television was just emerging as a medium.

There was a whole body of literature the '50s — in fact there still is a body of literature — saying that television is the worst possible thing for kids and for human beings; it just takes us in a whole bunch of terrible directions, and if we were just to get rid of this, then things would be great.

I don't accept it. I have no problem with your friend or yourself sitting in front of the computer working on the Internet. Obviously if they're doing bad things there, if they're looking at bad things, that would concern me, but I would rather have them doing that than 10 or 20 other things I can think of.

Even of its own, we're talking about a technology. What is it they're doing with it? What is in there that they're doing? That's what is important, not just the fact that they're there.

It's the same with television. There's nothing wrong with television if you're learning something from it. There are all sorts of positive effects of television and I see it [the Internet] the same kind of way. It's not just a technology that's leading us nowhere, it's leading us to oblivion or to the chaos or to stupidity or conformity or whatever. I think there are definitely positive ways to look at this.

Ellis: Just in case I haven't given enough offence this evening in my comments about broadcasting, let me just add a comment about sitting in front the television for three hours a day, as opposed to sitting in front of the computer.

It goes back to something I touched on in my remarks. We make the assumption in Canada that if we can only get Canadians sitting in front of the TV set for three hours watching Canadian programming, we'll be good Canadians. Why, I ask you, why? Where is the proof? Who says that because I watch costume drama on television I'm a better Canadian? If I'm watching costume drama that came from where he lives [the United States], I'm a bad Canadian. And if I'm watching anything on a computer for three hours, my God, I'm a hopeless social pariah. It doesn't add up!

I'd like to reflect on the possibility of the effect of the Internet or the development of networks on indirect democracy. As we all know over the last few years, there has been a very growing dependency or influence of systematic polling used by governments before making decisions, both major and sometimes even minor decisions.

As we know, the Internet is growing very quickly, so it is not at all unthinkable — let's say 10 years from now — maybe not all Canadians, but the majority, 50, 60, 70 per cent of Canadians will be on the Internet and there will be both direct ways and indirect ways of polling them almost constantly on a systematic basis.

An example of indirect polling would be just to monitor the sites and the links that are being checked by the people, depending on the development of the news of the day or the week.

An example of direct polling would be just an organization using the Internet in a very efficient manner to reach, not 500 or 1,000 Canadians, but tens of thousands of Canadians that are interested in giving their opinion because people like to give their opinion if it's just to click here or there, or the site, or send an e-mail. They could express their opinion in a very systematic manner.

This is not like voting, but it's like being polled extensively. And the result could be the ability to take the pulse of the nation on an ongoing constant manner and then to expose the political process or the politicians to an awareness of really what the nation is thinking in an ongoing basis in a snapshot way.

The danger would then be to take political decisions the distance that we have to some extent today and had to a much greater extent two or three years ago.

Would people [have] decided to enter a Second World War if there had been really systematical polling, or micro- polling available? Is there some kind of safeguards or reflection on safeguards that would be useful today before we get into that kind of irreversible situation where people are being polled and micro-polled on an ongoing basis and this has an impact on the ability to exercise leadership from the political process?

Dasko: I don't think we're going to take that exact route to direct democracy. You've raised mind the issues of privacy, which we haven't discussed at all. There's a huge area of concern when it comes to an individual's privacy and their ability to do things and to make decisions without others knowing about it. That's an important part of our electoral system now.?We have a secret ballot so you cast your vote and nobody knows how you're voting. I don't know what the answer is; I don't know what the safeguards are, but we certainly know that people are becoming more and more concerned about those issues, about their ability to keep their information private and, in this case, perhaps, their ability to keep their opinions private.

Your comment raised something else in my mind, too. A lot of the polling that is done is not actually done for purposes of making a direct policy decision. It's not as if you do a poll on free trade and then suddenly you have free trade or something like that. It just doesn't work that way. A lot of the polling that is done is an input into a communications strategy that government might be developing.

So, it's not as if there's an absolutely direct relationship between what you see in a poll and what actually comes out in the end. It doesn't work that way. Taking it into the future, I don't think we're going to see the system you described. I think we're going to continue to develop some of these methods, but I think the development of our civic society and the development of education are the factors are going to keep our democracy healthy.

Ellis: Just to show I'm not a hopeless optimist about the Internet, I want to bring something to everyone's attention that I think speaks directly to what you're raising in your question.?If you use the Netscape Web browser, you may have a little software file on your hard drive known as Magic Cookie, if it's a Macintosh, or Cookies.txt, if it's a PC.

This little software file sits on your hard drive and you don't know this unless you go home and look for it. Nobody tells you it's there. And if you go and visit certain Web sites, and I won't name any of them here, because some of them are well known and are Canadian, this little file keeps track of which Web sites you go to visit, when you go to visit them, what you download and this can be accessed remotely by some of the Web sites that you visit.

Now this is something that some people find hard to believe. But I can show the printout of the Magic Cookie file I found some time ago on my Macintosh and it's got the names of some prominent Canadian Web sites, some of them funded directly, or subsidized directly or indirectly by Canadian tax dollars.

While I wouldn't want to be too alarmist about, it indicates on one hand that our privacy has already been breached. On the other hand, I guess the good news is, if there is any good news, that there some very talented serious-minded people trying to solve this in a number of ways we can talk about in our discussion group.

Tipson: I'm going to sound elitist here, but I don't think everybody's opinion is worth anything. Your opinion is only worth something if it's an informed opinion. And the obligation of a citizen before he votes on something is to gain some information, whether it's on a candidate or an issue, to learn something about the issue, to have an opinion that's worth listening to.

If all we had was a button on our TV set where we could register our views all the time, I'm sure that people are smart enough in both of our countries to realize that's not the kind of democracy they want to have.

In fact, neither one of us has a system that resembles that direct democracy because our founding fathers, either by design or by evolution, have created systems that recognize you've got to have checks and you've got to have representation and you've got to have other things that involve information feeding into the resolution of problems.

[This] gets us back to how we have to better utilize this information to educate a citizenry to participate and not to just express an opinion as to whether they like Joe or Frank without any consideration as to what Joe or Frank represent and where they're likely to take the country.

So, I'm very much against the idea. Although we have polls in the United States on virtually everything...we would all blanch at the idea that our politicians should follow the polls exclusively in deciding what to do.

It's already in practice, following the polls to a large extent.

Tipson It's a factor that any responsible politician must and should take into consideration, but if he makes his decision on that basis [alone] he should be thrown out in the next election.