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

Let a Million Flowers Bloom

Questions

Bruce, you were mentioning that your E world is filled with electronic eyes and ears and that brought to mind the privacy issue; how, in this world, electronic communications and data linkage facilitates the potential for surveillance in ways that [George] Orwell couldn't possibly envision. There are new terms referred to as dataveillance, which replaces the eyes from the outside with the data that is monitoring our behaviour from the inside. I want to ask you for your views about this possible dark side in terms of the potential to be able to monitor our activities and behaviour and our viewing habits and the full gamut of information that gets accessed through electronic communications.

Powe: There's another phrase for it too, which is shadow data, where they shadow you and they find out your profile which is a silhouette of information, as it were. It's a wonderful phrase.

The question of surveillance is unquestionably more sophisticated than it ever was. One thing that I find comforting is the eminent stupidity of bureaucracies. I find it very hard, as much as I'm a fan of Oliver Stone's movies, to believe in the coherence of the conspiracies.

I've been involved in politics all my life and it's very hard to imagine people organizing themselves out of a paper bag in many cases, let alone conspiring to have some kind of vast conspiracy that will rule and invade everything.

However, the effects on the sensorium are very real in the electronic world. That is really the world of the electronic rush, as it were; the effect on sensibility, sensory. I find, personally, that it does intrude on a sense of privacy. That is one of the reasons why I have a relatively austere environment to try and shake that as much as I can. I still like what the call snail mail. I write a lot of letters by hand.

I teach at York University and there's been no end of trouble that I'm not on e mail. They look at me like I've got three heads. How do you write? How do you get anything done, if you don't have all this stuff? On the other hand, what I stress always is personal contact; talking to the students, talking to others, writing letters. It does take more time, but the connection is deeper it seems to me.

However, that may be open to discussion.

Also, the final thing about privacy, is that I think there need to be balances and checks on this sort of thing because there is an enormous amount of information about each of us floating around. And whether you want to have that out there is a really big question. However, if you send for a credit card or anything else you pay the price; you're in the system and that's that.

You both talked about Canada and about nationhood, particularly you, Bruce. I'd like to explore that. The new images coming across the electric city that were getting have an interesting impact on me. For example, when Donovan Bailey took the Canadian flag and draped himself in it and ran around the track, I actually had a tear my eye. Or when I read about Saskatoon sending money and food to the flood victims in Quebec, I found that extremely moving. There seems to be almost a new patriotism, if I dare use that word, that is coming about through these images we're getting in the electric city. Is it possible since our near-death experience last fall we are becoming appreciative of this country and using the images of the electric city to do so?

Powe: I don't think that was a near-death experience in October; it was 50-50 — of course, that's the only Canadian possibility. It showed very much the health of our system, yet again we were on the edge.

Also, there a few incidents of bottles being thrown and things like that. But considering the amount of violence that in every other society has followed this sort of thing; again the remarkable example of the civility of the society.

There are positive sides to all of this.

As for the mythology that is emerging through these things, I find that, too. I don't think one has to apologize for their emotions; they're authentic.?As I suggested, whether we are given an electronic enhancement — a kind of visionary condition — we x-ray things.

TV itself is a low quality x-ray. That's how the image works, it actually x-rays — the shape is formed as the cathode gun scans the screen. I think what we do is look for things that are true. We have experience so many things that are false in the electronic world that we become tuned to things that have true emotion.

The Donovan Bailey moment was, I think, a great true moment. Again, you remember, was it Johnson who said patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. But there are other kinds of love for place.

I think what I am suggesting in my talk and in this book that's coming [out] in a revised version in December is that there is something different here; there's an alternative current, as it were. There's a path that we are on that is different and has been from other democracies and I love that difference. And I think that that is a difference worth protecting and promoting and working with.

I love the subtle ironies of Canadian patriotism, where we are all a little embarrassed by the flag. There are all this sort of — the Americans want to put a Constitutional amendment that burning it is against the law. I think if anyone burned it here it would upset us, but we wouldn't put in a law against it. I think that's a healthy thing. There's a kind of interesting, faithful scepticism, if I can put the two together. As Jean Paul Sartre once said, I'm far too sceptical to be an atheist.

Do you think there may be a causal relationship between the electronic stuff we are talking about and the right-wing governments we are all suffering from throughout Europe and North America?

Salter: Just for the record, in British Columbia and Saskatchewan there isn't a right-wing government. British Columbia elected the NDP, for better or for worse, twice, not once.

I think one wants to be very careful in painting — yes, there are these enormous currents pushing right in the world, but there are also some cross currents and they get lost and it's tragedy when they get lost and they get ignored.

My last comment was that simply we want to be very careful that we don't ascribe too much power to the media, to the Electronic Village and to all of this stuff.

We go home, we eat our supper, we have fun with our families, we talk to our friends, we fight with our enemies, we get about our business. And a lot of what we're talking about this weekend has nothing to do with that, including how we conceptualize the issues in our lives. Let's not overplay the card because then we will feel powerless in the face of it.

What's interesting about what you are saying and Bruce's talk is the blurring of the difference between our private and our public lives. Surely, the internal consumption of the electronic stuff must have an effect, must have a connection?

Powe: I'm going to respond to this a bit indirectly, something I was going to say in my talk and ran out of time.?I think there are four keynotes of civilized life and they are liberty, self-worth, which has to do with employment and service; universal health care and equality of opportunity. Those seem to me to be the four cornerstones of any civilized society. If they start to be undone, then the society starts to lose its stability, regardless of whether it's the right that does it, or the left.

In case that sounds like fire-breathing socialism, the four points are from the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, how one is to honour the soul. [And] these are the four ways to honour the soul in life, to take it seriously. So, any society that does not honour those four things from right or left it seems to me is on the wrong path.

My question is directed to Bruce. I would like to hear a development of your comment regarding the acceptance, or adaptability that's necessary in a very unstable world. I would like it, though, to bethought of from the point of view that if we only go back history as far as the Victorian era, where stability was the ideal. [And where] to some degree we have all been growing up that need for stability. You have indicated that we are, in fact, and have, in fact, been living an unstable world and all that is happening, it seems to me, with the electric city is that it accentuates that which already was. But in order to do that, how do we then come to terms with Mr. Duggan's comments regarding the need to go back to values. To be able to tie values with a world of instability, I think is a challenge and I'd like to hear your comments.

Powe: You're referring to Pascal's remark that nothing stays still for us, which was a remark he made in his thoughts 400 or 500 years ago, recognizing that instability, uncertainty, chaos are very much the grounds of everyone's life and always have been.

Change is the essence of our lives. You can guarantee change. There is an old religious remark, a spiritual remark that says, through change consume change. An interesting riddle. I'm not entirely sure what it means, but what it suggests is that one must engage the fact that life is changed, that people pass away, things move on, things do not always stay the same — cannot stay the same — and that there is great liberty and great knowledge in being able to accept that.

I think that's what's called wisdom. One hopes that one can move towards achieving that, but I think it's now in the electronic world, as I suggested, that the change that is the core of all our lives is now enhanced, amplified, accelerated and that the great difference between our society and other societies first of all is our observation of ourselves going through this. This is new, on such a scale.

And the other side of it is the speed and the amount of it, which is also new. But I think what it does is it steps up these very old philosophical questions and makes them all the more urgent because every society is gripped, possessed by them and we're all living them daily, as it were, whereas at one time I suppose Pascal's age there would have been gaps — periods of time — when you didn't argue this. We're seeing it every day, going out, can see it every day. The other point to make, too, would be that — suggested right at the beginning of my talk — were an age of competing world models.

I think in Pascal's time he could have at least confirmed that there was a religious order of some kind; there was something that was there. Hermann Hesse in the novel, Steppenwolf says that a medieval person put our age would have gone instantly mad because there's no faith; there's no stability of life, even though from our terms looking on that age it seems terribly barbaric.

There are barbarisms in every age. In ours it may very well be the psychic barbarism in which there is all this new stuff to deal with and all these things to challenge ourselves with. How does one think it through? For me, again a very personal response. What I would say is that one has to learn that wisdom of dealing with paradox and dealing with enhanced paradox in the electric city.

But, it seems to me that if our politicians, our cultural leaders, government people, institutions, teachers are not dealing with that, then they're going to be trouble. And that we're going to see a lot of the problems and confusions exacerbated, irritations and frictions exacerbated.

And that if somewhere there isn't some philosophical recognition that this is indeed an age of chaos, out of that chaos some form may emerge if there's the patience to do so.?I give an example, the perfect example is our difficulties with Quebec, which may not be difficulties. This may just be our history. This is just what we're going to do. We'll have referenda forever on this. It maybe destabilizing some ways. On the other hand, it may be the way we learn the most about ourselves. We've done this without civil war, without revolution; we've done this without insurrections and it may be the way that we learn about ourselves. That requires a shift of mindset; to say this may not be settled, may not be possible to settle this in a way that satisfy everyone or anyone. But what it may be able to do is continue with the friction and the discontinuity and allow that to be more of a creative or imaginative solution, rather than a finality.

One of the things that happens these debates, of course, is that we hear these Armageddon scenarios, if we don't do this it will all end. I'm very hostile to this because I believe that one has to step back and say, nothing ends, there is always something that starts again. And we have to look and see what that process is.

Salter: Bruce talked a little bit about the philosophy of his life. One of the philosophies of my life is beware of seductive mythology. And one of the seductive mythologies of our age is that we are in an age of total change and that is unique and that there are these broad sweeping forces. Yes, it's true.

I used to tell my students — I used to ask them, all right envision yourself living 1840. Now envision yourself living in 1870. Can you now also talk about that era as totally destabilizing, as chaos, as a rewriting of all of the social and economic relations.

Take 1870-1910, the age of Imperialism, while the world outside of Europe becomes that which is to be conquered and used and made part of the European feeder to the European experience. And is this also not an age of chaos and instability and remaking economic and social relations?

If you think like that, if you unpack the mythology, you can see how to respond. That's why it's important to do it.

My question is for Liora. On your citizen space and its relationship to public broadcasting. Certainly the flag you raised was one of the need to be aware of the potential for this appearance of citizen space as it exists within the context of public broadcasting. But, clearly the point you just raised was, this is not the first change or the most rapid change that we've ever encountered. I'd like to probe a little bit into how citizen space existed before the era of private broadcasting. You raised the issue of the polling booth. Certainly the transition from public broadcasting to whatever is about to come down the pipe at us isn't the first transition in the world of citizen space.

Salter: No, it certainly isn't, though I think I would take the view that something very significant was gained in the '30s and '40s and so forth up through the relatively recent period in putting into place as tangible and useable as the various forms of public broadcasting that I [have] described.

Notwithstanding what was before and not withstanding what's after it, it will be a tragedy if we lose it — no matter how flawed it may be. It will be a tragedy if we lose it because we have absolutely no guarantees that there will be an equivalent kind of citizen space in the world that is currently blinding us now to not pay attention to what we're losing. So, yes, it's not the only the form of citizen space, but it would be a tragedy to lose it.

A tragedy in what sense? It's existed within a reasonably defined period of time — 30 to 40 years. It was accessible to a significant percentage of the population, but clearly before that a lot of the criteria you establish for citizen space could have been said to exist in print journalism. That was the focal point around which the issues of the day were debated, ideas were exchanged, where citizens could write in , where the editors responded, temporal, it was on paper, but it was accessible, it was inexpensive, it was posted on walls. That was one of the examples of citizen space before public broadcasting and public broadcasting may have expanded it, but — I'm still trying to find out what the tragedy is?

Salter: I say about public broadcasting, of course there was a time when we didn't have it. And, of course, there may be a time in which we don't have it again. Before we leap into that downsizing with great joy as to this future, I think we ought to look behind us to see what we are giving up, which we might not have to give up even to move forward into the future.

I thought I heard you say, Liora, that the Internet would be a more valuable citizen space if there were some editors and producers to perhaps improve the quality and the flow of information on the Internet, because it's such a battle right now.

The way I understand the job of producer, it's a diverse job, but one of things we decide is who gets heard and who doesn't get heard. And if we go and interview someone with a tape recorder we later cut them up into tiny pieces and leave half of them on the floor. We decide what gets said, what doesn't. We take off the rough edges. We often drop things that are nasty, or outrageous and have kind of a homogenizing effect on the information that passes through our hands, to a greater or lesser extent.

One of things that fascinates me about the Internet — although I haven't spent much time on it and to me it just seems like a bunch of pamphlets on a screen at the moment — is that it is this collective babble that is fairly unregulated and that once we start introducing gatekeepers, in the traditional sense — editors and producers who filter the information and decide to some extent who has access, I'm not sure I understand how that would make the Internet a more valuable citizen space?

Salter: I didn't say anything about gatekeepers and I don't mean gatekeepers. That said, I absolutely agree with you that production shapes information. Of course it does. And in shaping information it dispenses with what isn't in the program. Fair enough.

What I'm concerned about is that in that babble, which has its own intrinsic value, we have a capacity to create some programming — for lack of a better word — that has shape and form and picks out and discriminates among the information to shape it into a way that it says something.

I'm not saying all the Internet has to be like that. But at the moment there's relatively little that is done from a public citizen space perspective — there's some — on the Internet which performs that function. My concern is that that's in the mix, not that it be the whole Internet, but that be in the mix because until that's in the mix we will not have what I've defined as citizen space whatever other benefits are there by virtue of whatever else is there.

Powe: Since I'm not on the Internet myself, I haven't got first hand experience. As one should never go beyond first hand experience, it seems to me highly unlikely that there's going to be a lot of production on the Internet. I don't know how it would work from what I see of it. That would be my only response to it at this point. it's still too new to see what's emerging.

Salter: Have you ever walked into the Library of Congress, any library? And it's beautiful and you spend a lot of time kind of being awed by it all. But it's something else to use that library. What the Internet makes possible is that a whole bunch of people who've never walked into the Library of Congress walk into the Library of Congress and they can be awed. My concern is they do something else, as well.

I want to ask a question about this brave new world of participatory democracy that we've been discussing over the course of the weekend. You brought up the concept of citizen space and it occurred to me that these are the tools by which we gain access to the leaders of our democracy and particularly the way we talk to our government. It's something that we have to choose to use. And also it's something that somebody else has to choose to listen to us and to react to us and to respond.

I'm not totally convinced that people are going to use it, or that they're going to be listened to. I think there's more of a socio-cultural aspect to this that perhaps we haven't discussed.?Citizens have to understand that government isn't the monolith, that, fact, it may even be more useful to talk to your government, than watch Hockey Night Canada and that governments also have to be able to listen and say, well, this may be an ill-informed opinion, but this is also a citizen of this country and I have to respond to that some fashion. I'm wondering about either end. How do we fix those up?

Salter: You're right.

Powe: I'm in essential agreement with what you're saying. I share with some of the opinions that were expressed last night, this dismay that all government is in the way. I certainly wasn't raised to believe that and I don't believe it now. Government is human expression, too, and will express many of the confusions and difficulties and frequently the intolerance and tyrannies that all human expression will have. But to say as an absolute that government is the enemy is an absurdity.

I'm not saying the government is the enemy...

Powe: I know you're not. I'm just amplifying some of what you're saying, that citizenship is involved with engagement if it can come through the computer world or the TV world and genuinely influence policy for the better, then wonderful. But, as I said, we still have to see how all this is going to play out.

I'm fascinated by the idea of citizen space as it relates to education. I was talking with a teacher and she was saying how, in one of her classes, some of the new Canadians didn't know that you could talk to a politician you didn't vote for.?But that's a form of learning about citizen space. Yet, as we look at Canada right now you see — as you go into the younger generation — a group that's very disconnected and alienated from Canadian society and, therefore, citizen space. They also tend to reject a lot of traditional institutions, possibly CBC and some of the other institutions, government, voting. They also aren't participating as much in volunteer activities as we'd probably like to see.

The other side of it though is that the Internet is made up of 62 per cent of people under 30. So, they seem to be fairly easy to connect with. There's no barriers to entry. there's a lot of opportunity there that isn't sort of traditional in some ways.

My question is how can you create sort of a new style of citizen space within this electronic city, or do we have to recreate traditional institutions — or are they simply going to work eventually?

Salter: I would take your question as a challenge. And I think it's a good challenge. Those of us who come out of broadcasting, which a number of us do, or journalism or whatever, and education have to figure how to create — the Internet won't create it for us. And those who currently control the Internet — and it is controlled — will not create it for us. And those who use the Internet as a kind of mishmash won't necessarily create it and those who dump information into the Internet won't create what we're talking about for us.?But no one created CBC for us, either. It's what we have to do...to figure out how to use this stuff to create citizen space and the first step is realizing that we have to do it. That it isn't just there.

Powe: I consider a major part of what I do to be teaching, as well as writing. I would also say that all my books, since I became a teacher — the last three books — have been responses to my students.

I always operate from the idea that when I go into a classroom I'm asking and they're asking the questions. I don't have answers and we're working this through.

It seems to me there's been a profound generational change. I have noted that in the last 10 years I've been teaching. The cynicism of the so-called Generation X, or Generation Y, as I prefer to call it, is superficial.

fact, there is a great need for credulity and faith and recognition and engagement. That's what they want to know. They want to know how they can change things, because the natural passion of youth is to change. And what they see practically is be thwarted and to be blocked and so I suppose the appeal of the Internet is that it is borderless, the walls are down.

I think one of the things I have to learn how to do again is how to re-understand or start to re-comprehend how citizenship is going to change for them. I think the seeds are there. The alienation has not gone so far that people want to opt out, don't want anything to do with it. I don't see that at all. I see quite the opposite.

And I actually believe political leaders are losing an extraordinary opportunity not to speak to that generation, who want to be involved, who want ways to be involved.

I don't quite know how that would be, but I was a child of the late '60s, early '70s when people like Trudeau, David Lewis and Rene Levesque and others were here and it was a great time of engagement and encouragement.

This is one thing I certainly remember about that time. We were encouraged to be involved. I don't see quite the same thing right now. But that's some of the crisis of leadership that is at work right now.

I agree with Liora, it's a challenge. As long as you go asking questions, too, then the students will teach you things and that is also the beginning of citizenship, too.

This question is to both of you. Liora, you talked about citizen space. Bruce, you made many references to the great literature of the past. If I look back at Western culture, we see that citizen space was inspired by great and sublime art, music, in architecture, in painting and sculpture and literature. If we live in a electronic city, the city implies the dynamic culture and, indeed, great art. So, where in this electronic city can we expect to find the sublime art?

Salter: The short answer is nowhere. But that's not good enough. There are artists who are working in the new media. And great ones. It just can't be assumed that it will happen. People have to take it on to do it. But, I think the important thing you said is not about the new media at all. It's that citizen space demands not just information, which is what we are so glib about here; not just opportunities for information to be out there — all very important; not just good journalism, which is what I put on the table this morning, but also great art.

Powe: As someone who writes, I obviously believe that great art is possible or I wouldn't try. Whether one achieves that as not something you can determine; that's always determined by others.

I think this is a very great age of writing. Any age that can produce Thomas Pynchon, Cormack McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, all kinds of people at one time is a very vital age and even though books do not necessarily occupy the central means of communication, that doesn't mean are null, void or helpless. The Renaissance was a period when there wasn't wide circulation of books, either. And they produced Shakespeare and all sorts of great artists. Great visual art — I think the collision or the merging of computer with imagination may yet create great art.

I'm actually very inspired by the CD rom, having done some work in it. I was hired by some technologists because they figured being a complete techno-peasant I would ask the right questions.

In fact, that ended up happening because I did not see it as a straight information centre, but as an art centre where you could create a kind of synsthesia; the only thing you couldn't do was add smell, but rom [sic] wasn't built in a day, so it will take time to do it.

But it strikes me that we are waiting for our Glenn Goulds in the synaesthetic world of the CD roms. It could be a great art form. It has that capability, because for the first time we can have in a private station we can have music, have visual, have text, have all kinds of things. It just simply hasn't worked that way, so far.

I don't think that the corporations were investigating it or using it for anything other than teaching tools and to retrieve old art forms; that is to have The Magic Flute or something on a CD rom, which is useful and interesting, but not really using the technology.

But it took time for people to figure out what the grand piano was for, too, and for the Beethoven's to come along and for the Wagners and Berlioz's to enlarge the orchestras and symphonies and push and push and push. It will come, I have that faith.

I think it is also a great age of art music. Supposedly classical music is dying out. That is not so. {For instance, take] Arvo Part, the great Estonian composer, 10 minutes of listening to him and you know you're in the presence of an authentic master. You know this is someone who is using the technology as well — the recording techniques to advance the kind of austere, medieval music in a way that I've never heard before. And a great Canadian, Murray Shafer, has investigated all kinds of things.

As long as there is human ingenuity and expressiveness there will be great art. I think one of the questions you raise does interest me a great deal. In the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century there were great political pamphleteering and manifestos and legal statements and arguments about what the constitutions were about and that sort of thing.

The danger of retreat from the public sphere into a kind of image, sound-bite culture is that we retreat from those great statements of what liberty is about, what the declaration of rights are and the right issue it seems to me the central one now is to be able to define what rights are and these arguments were going on in the eighteenth century and nineteenth century vigorously and eloquently.

One of the disturbing things I find politics today is that we seem to have to forgotten to a certain extent the tradition of verbal eloquence. There aren't many politicians that you would want to spend a long time listening to for a number of reasons.

I would say that's an important thing that politicians should not forget; that the public sphere is still one in which eloquence can persuade, in which people will listen. Bouchard used it with extraordinary effectiveness. And we shouldn't be caught again without someone speaking eloquently for the other side.

Alvin Toffler made the observation on a late night TV program — I don't know the context — that the problem with most North Americans is that they believe there's a solution to every problem. He said Italians know better. They know there are some problems for which there are no solutions. That is close enough to something that you were saying, that you might want to comment a little on.

Powe: There is a bias in favour of rational solutions in our society and culture that all problems have answers. There are many things that simply cannot be answered and just have to be lived with.

Gore Vidal once said about the Italians (he'd lived there all his life) that they have an extraordinary ability to bounce from failure, coupled with a complete inability to handle success. I rather like that for Canada. Salinas, someone who one probably shouldn't quote, said that Canada is an answer looking for a question. I thought was a profound remark because the society works extraordinarily well and to try and fix it — there are always problems — but in a larger sense may be the wrong thing to do. Let it evolve, let it emerge, which may be the answer to it.