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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?

Vice-President Environics Research Group Limited

I have decided to take my cues from the question posed to us as a panel, which is, what does the future hold for the conventional pillars of society — that is, the established institutions and traditional control structures, particularly, as the communications revolution rolls on?

I am going to talk more about social change than I am about technology, and I trust that my colleagues will pick up where I leave off.

I want to talk first of all about how we as Canadians have changed. Why this may have happened. What might have been the role of technology in bringing about change, and what we might expect to see the future.

I look forward to your comments, particularly since I'm a very contrary-minded person and like to argue with people.

I know from being a pollster and following politics, in particular, and the evolution of public policy and also economic change in Canada, that we as Canadians really have changed.

I first began to see this — or think about this — while observing the well-known, so-called volatility of the Canadian voter. It used to be a kind of law in politics in the good old days that any political party that was leading in the polls when an election was called was going to win election day. So that was kind of a law and, in fact, it almost always happened.

But, then in the 1984 election, the political party in the lead changed at least twice before election day. This was kind of unheard of and nobody could quite understand why this had happened.

And then we went into the 1988 federal election campaign. And in that campaign — the free trade election — the leading party in the polls changed four times in the two months before election day. We saw a similar volatility in the 1992 referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, where people seemed to support it, then suddenly down the tubes it went.

We saw a similar kind of volatility in the 1993 federal election, when Kim Campbell was popular. First the Liberals were up, then she was up and then suddenly a majority government for Jean Chretien's Liberals. And no one ever thought they could do it because he was supposedly yesterday's man and all this sort of stuff.

We saw all of that change.

Then we saw Ontario — Ontario of all places — 1990 electing a socialist. And then in 1995 kicking him out and electing the most right-of-centre government we've ever seen.

You see all of the volatility and you start to look at it. When I first started to watch this, I would say to myself, obviously these voters are weak or fickle or something, or there's media manipulation.

But as I followed it more, I came to see it as an indicator of much more profound change that was going on under the surface. It wasn't just the decline of partisan attachments, which I think everyone here is aware of, but it was an indicator of changing values, of conflicting values that people — not conflicting values with groups against other groups, or the poor against the rich and so on — but conflicting values within individual people who had a lot of different identities themselves, a lot of different interests and would think about politics and look at politics.

And it was also an indication of their scepticism about politics and their sort of critical approach to it. I saw it as a sign of their engagement in politics, not their disengagement with politics.

So, that's a little bit of what started to interest me the area of social change.

If we look at the last couple of decades, we can see a number of forces that have sort of taken us in a different direction. [These forces are] the so-called demographic developments; the diversity of our immigration — the fact that the two charter groups are no longer as dominant our society; the huge baby boom generation; the aging of the population; increased levels of education [and] profound economic change.

These are a number of the things that have contributed to the remarkable change in social values.

One important source of this has been the demographics and the values of the baby boom generation; the generation David Foot has talked about recently in his wildly best-selling book — those eight million Canadians born between 1946 and 1966 transformed the marketplace the 1970s and 1980s and began moving into the leadership positions in the 1990s.

This generation was important because of the way they differed from previous generations. They were twice as likely as their parents to have a university degree; they were the first generation to be raised in front of a television set and they were the first generation to have grown up in an era of presumed prosperity.

It wasn't just education that distinguished the boomers from their parents' generation, but it was their set of values. They were more egalitarian. They were heteroarchical, not hierarchical. They felt empowered, and they wanted to be in control of their lives. And they were pragmatic, and not ideological. They were the generation most likely to support new processes for consensus building and decision-making.

Do you remember something called deferred gratification the '50s? You know, if you eat your peas you can have dessert, or if you study hard you can do well. That's out! That was one — just one — of the value changes that we saw as we moved into the '60s and '70s.

Deferred gratification became immediate gratification and we saw what happened the '80s with consumerism; you want to buy, you want to have things, you're not going to wait for this life, let alone the afterlife, which was one of the rewards of the '50s because we did live in a religious society and attendance at church has declined very rapidly.

So it wasn't the afterlife, it wasn't even later in this life — it was now. I want to buy these things, I want to have these things. I want to do things. I want to experience things. I'm hedonistic. I want to travel, I want to learn, I want to check this out and so on. That was another really important part of the change in social values.

By the late 1980s, the values of this generation had moved well beyond that generation to affect Canadian society as a whole. Canada's native peoples, women, ethnic and racial minorities, the disabled, the elderly, gays, lesbians, victims of domestic violence, victims of sexual abuse — these and virtually every other previously powerless group in this society liberated themselves from the silence and the stereotyping of the past to demand social justice, to demand recognition, and respect and inclusion in Canadian society.

This really affected the area of politics and decision-making, and in a sense we moved from the old accommodation of elites — where elites made the decisions and came to compromises among themselves — gave way more and more to the accommodation of diverse sectors in the society.

A number of examples of events captured this, but I think the victory of the "No" forces in the Charlottetown referendum in 1992 was the most remarkable rejection of elite consensus that we have ever seen.

Virtually every elite was on the side of Yes, and yet Canadians said, No; don't like it and we don't want it.

To summarize the value changes in a few words, I would say pragmatism, egalitarianism, empowerment, autonomy. These are some of the values we saw emerge through the decade of the 1980s.

At the more personal level, flexibility of personality and multiple identities; where you see yourself as a woman, a professional, a mother, a parent, a Torontonian — all these different identities all there — and a member of the international community, you see yourself in all these different ways..multiple identities, another part of the evolution of social values.

As we approached and entered the decade of the l990s, an economic recession, along with fiscal constraints, had their own unique impact on this previous set of emerging values.

The economic dislocations had a real impact on the Canadian psyche. Canadians saw and they felt high levels of unemployment, downsizing on the part of the private and public sectors, their own declining real incomes and high levels of personal debt.

These economic constraints led, in turn, to the emergence of another set of values, including things like risk aversion, a more utilitarian consumerism, hyper-rationality; you take the pragmatic mindset and you add on to that some constraints and you get a lot of people being even more pragmatic, hyper- rational in the way they view things and the way they carry out their lives. And also growing social Darwinism, which we can see in a number of segments of the electorate today; a number of segments of Canadian society.

Also the fiscal constraints of the 1990s lowered Canadians' expectation about the ability of the state — of government — to do things for them. Canadians haven't given up on government, but they have reluctantly come to accept — or believe — that government will no longer play the role it used to in this country. So, it's yet another institution whose salience has eroded.

Yet, through all of these developments, we still have the desire for autonomy and the desire for the control of one's life. Although perhaps, with a slightly leaner edge to it.

So, I think the social changes we have experienced have been real. I think the stereotype of Canadians as respectful and reserved has never been less true than it is today. And the authority associated with once-cherished institutions, such as the church, the state and the professions, has gone into steep decline.

Well, why am I telling you all of this in a conference about the new information technologies?

For many reasons. First, because I want to stress that we have already experienced change in the so-called established institutions and traditional control structures.

We've already come along this path to a very great extent, even before the Internet. This is all pre-Internet. This is not because we've got this new, supposedly wonderful technology that's taking us there. We're already at this point.

In fact, since we have already reached this point, the set of social values that are emerging in Canadian society — the rejection of authority and so on — actually make many Canadians, particularly Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, receptive to the new wave of Internet and interactive technology, which are inherently sort of heterarchical in the way they operate, although they are not democratic in terms of who owns them. These technologies are owned by a certain affluent group of Canadians.

Because we're already, we're more receptive to the kind of sort of democratic and heterarchical technologies that are emerging. And it's no accident that Canadians have among the highest rates of ownership of computers the world. It's no accident that the Japanese have been slower to adopt these technologies, because their society is not structured quite the same way.

I just want to conclude with a few comments on the role of technology generally; how information technology played a role in the social changes I've described.

Of course it's played a role; television, the cable technologies, the computer — all of these have facilitated, as well as reflected, the social changes I've talked about.

But, they've never done this on their own. Technology never operates on its own. It's always mediated by the other forces the society and the economy.

In fact, I have a great deal of difficulty with the technological determinants among us, whether they be the utopians — who think there's going to be a great, wonderful future — or whether it be the distopians, people like Jeremy Rifkin, who predicts that three-quarters of all workers are soon going to be displaced. That's his theory; all blue collar workers — all blue collar jobs — are going to be lost. That's what he believes.

Arthur Kroker, who talks about the decline of the body, the virtualization of flesh and virtual class war.

These people are obsessed with the effects of technology. They think technology is the major, or perhaps the only source, of consequence. I find their work to me is a real unreality to read what they have to say because they don't seem to see anything else.

We have to understand that it's not just technology. Technology doesn't make us do things; it doesn't change us. There's so much else we have to understand about social change.

What else do we have to understand? Who owns the technologies? Who controls the technologies? Who does it get to? Who is it distributed to? What about the economic forces at work — the recession and fiscal restraint, globalization, political forces, demographic change and, finally, individual Canadians who have the will to control their own lives.

These are the forces that are going to shape our future.

    As to whether the changes we have already seen are good or bad, I for one, am not one to look back and long for some mythical golden age which never existed. This country has its problems, but I count it as a positive that we have developed into one of the most democratically minded people in the world.