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

Community or Solitude?

Questions

The Internet began the late 1980s and since that time has come from being a tool of the research community to a very powerful force in commerce. It has not yet had a whole lot of impact on either our political system — world wide for that matter — or our legal system. I expect there are going to be rather large impact effects when it does. I would appreciate it you'd comment on what you foresee is going to happen when the legal system and political system have to cope with some of the things we have been hearing about where the Internet is going?

Godfrey: terms of the legal system on narrower issues, I would say things like libel, slander and all that sort of thing or control, I suspect, and here I'm tempted to quote last night's speaker, that the decision that you cannot regulate this is going to stay in place. Therefore, how you will prove that somebody actually said something slanderous or libellous about you is an open question and I'm not a lawyer.

What I find about it politically, which is so fascinating and I was trying to allude to it when I talked about some kind of revived Citizens' Forum, is that it will allow people, governments, or anyone else, first of all to do almost instant straw polling across a particular set of people.

While that straw polling may not reflect the full diversity of the country, neither did Gallup polling when it first started in the 1930s, because telephones were not universally distributed.

I suspect there will be a self-correcting mechanism as the $500 computer comes on and all the rest of it.

I think it also offers the additional sense of feedback that you can actually get people to send you comments. You can be far more sophisticated about polling and about soliciting views. Therefore, I'm optimistic that it can be a very powerful, helpful tool for participatory democracy because it removes all kinds of barriers that otherwise exist. Politically, the potential for good is very high.

John, the ideas behind using media in community development have intrigued me for a long time. I've been trying for many years now to try and get ways of getting support to use media effectively in the context of community development. Do you have any ideas or strategies on how to put forward these kinds of ideas and programs and proposals? They tend to fall between the cracks in most levels of every government that I've ever approached before, but I do believe there's power and strength in the ideas you've put forward. Are there any places we can go to get support for that idea?

Godfrey: I think one thing governments can do, even when they don't have any money, is to help link up people. I think that's what the CBC was intended to do; to break down the differences that were the distances. And I think what governments can also — without being controllers, which is always the grave danger — is to be enablers.

Industry Canada now has put out all of the statistical information it gathers from Canadian companies that's not privileged information in a well-organized form on the Net for free. It's called Strategist. It also is has all the U.S., Canadian and, indeed, Canadian world trade data.

This is a very powerful tool and it's organized I think in a user friendly way, as far as I can judge. It's so powerful that the Americans are going to get their own trade data off our system because it's better organized.

I think that that little example I gave at the end about how in a totally different area a body of knowledge about early childhood from zero to six could be shared, both within a community by using electronic means — there are plenty of ways of doing that — but also across the country and, indeed, around the world.

One of the things that's extraordinary about the Internet is how with little effort you make your home page or your site the authoritative source for some body of information.

I know one person who dominates — he lives Toronto — who is the world authority terms of being visited on science innovation, technology policies of countries around the world. He's just amassed all that stuff and hot-linked it and he's it.

But, John these examples and most of what we've been talking about — and Gail made the distinction — is information being handed out. I want to bring it back again to this morning's conversation where the sense of community is when people with very different ideas are talking together in ways where they can influence each other's ideas, perhaps change their minds on issues that matter, on this two-way communication. Is that kind of community, that kind of citizens' space possible?

Valaskakis: Both yes and no. I think we see examples of a community of sorts and we see that in terms of even the military militia. In terms of the ability to express negative kinds of phenomenon. And there are also possibilities in terms of the rather positive phenomenon, but the kind of information that we have is not spread widely enough within both our country and within a global context.

We just don't have the hook-ups around the world to involve people. When people aren't involved in a positive way is when they express themselves in very negative ways. Then we get something that McLuhan said about the Global Village, which is a kind of violence that grows out of people's threatened identities. And he predicted that, as well, not just that there would be a kind of Global Village of understanding and co-operation — but that there would be this kind of trauma that comes from having one's identity threatened because one has one's voice silenced.

Then, one acts out in a way. I think that's what we see in various parts of our Canadian experience, as well as our global experience. It may be oversimplified, but it's surely part of what we see. Surely, part of what we see the First Nations' experience, from my perspective.

Godfrey: The thing I'm trying to grapple with is whether the new media, like the Internet, are more exclusionary than daily newspapers. Do people react violently because they don't own the Toronto Sun or do they feel that somehow the Toronto Sun understands them and speaks for them and therefore they don't have to act out violently, whereas the Internet doesn't?

Valaskakis: In a way that's a red herring. I think the issue is do we have avenues of access for those who are not represented by the Toronto Sun?

One of the issues the Oka crisis was that there was no independent native press. One of the reasons there was no independent native press at that time was because we were just at the time when the native communications program was winding down.

There is a native access program and it's very good, but there was not an independent native press and part of what happened [is] there was no background information from many people... and First Nations' people not being able to express what they saw themselves.

Yes, it's not a problem if the Toronto Sun is a paper. But it is a problem if you and I feel we are excluded from that and don't have another avenue of voice.

And I think that's the problem with the crisis for public broadcasting because if, in fact, we've talked about CBC those of us who just watched a great deal of the Olympics — more than we'd like to probably admit — in the last few weeks.

CBC did an absolutely spectacular job. And if had to look at who we are as Canadians through the eyes of the American coverage and the kind of jingoism that went in through that coverage we would get a very distorted view of who we were as Canadians.

I think that is the real value of public broadcasting and it is really dreadful to see CBC the state it is and to see the National Film Board, which has lost Challenge for Change, lost Studio D, lost the first First Nations' studio, etc. etc. It's transforming one hopes; it may be in tatters.

My questions are about the Internet and large group behaviour. First, for you John. In the academic literature, groups that are widely dispersed and don't communicate with each other are frequently seen as weak and unable to pressure government or other organizations. The classic example is consumers, who often are not able to press their own views because they don't band together; there's no real way to bring them together.

It would seem that the Internet is a perfect way to get around that problem, but they have to be organized. Do you see government playing a role doing that, or do you see a way which government could facilitate that happening?

For you, Gail, I'd like to ask about the tragedy of the common; the idea because there's a common ownership, there is no private property aspect to the Internet — in the sense of its use. There are possible lessons from the tragedy of the commons of overgrazing or a breakdown in the common space. Could you comment on that?

Godfrey: You've raised a point talked about this morning by Liora Salter, which was that chat groups don't have power. How do we not simply have conversations, but make them matter?

I think the answer is the Internet needs its equivalent of public broadcasting, not simply in the sense of vast participation but there is so much room on it for all kinds of activity that — going back to my example of early childhood — it would not be inappropriate for the government to enable that conversation to take place across the country, particularly given that the group it's dealing with would rather spend their hard- earned dollars on day care spaces, than on information services.

But at the same time, by creating a coherent location for the discussions — not with the idea of censoring it or monitoring it, but with the idea of giving it quality, the production values which Liora also spoke about, that we could advance our position in the world.

Let's say on this file we could be the place the world to check in on early childhood, or on a whole bunch of other issues. It needs a public broadcasting approach for a location on the Internet and I think that would be a very good investment. Strategists, for instance, this Industry Canada site, has 22 or 23 people maintaining it. It's more than most other sites would, maybe except for the really big sites the United States.

I think there's an enormous potential to have a world-wide influence in a way we haven't before, except through Radio Canada International.

Valaskakis: One of the things that would concern me is the kind of cultural homogenization, which has been a concern, as well. One of the things Rosemarie Kuptana, who was President of Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, said was that communications in the North when it came from south-north through CBC in 1973 after the Anik Satellite system, was like dropping a neutron bomb on the North, because it was like leaving the buildings standing and no one in them.

So leaving the body standing, but cultural, language, etc. not part of that. And that is a problem and one of the things they are working toward overcoming with both broadcasting and now with Internet access. They are deciding, as we speak, how their public access might be used within the North.

And there we have an extremely important example of the kinds of ways, if one does look at the ways control has over a period of time operated in the North through explorers, whalers, traders, missionaries, police and services, there is a reversal of that to some extent, a great reversal now, politically, of course, with the creation of Nunavut. But that all started with media and so it's a case study of the possibility of unity forming over space.

And they are moving now toward [the] Internet and I think will use that as they have Inuit Broadcasting in very positive ways.