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

Chaos and Freedom as Happy Bedfellows

Communications consultant, author, Split Screen

What I'm going to say this evening is based on three general assumptions.

  • First, that chaos and freedom are not enemies but allies, proving that I am, after all, a good Canadian.
  • Second, that we have more to fear from the conventional pillars of society than we do from new communications technologies.
  • And third, that unless we embrace the looming chaos, we risk losing the potential benefits of citizenship in the Electronic Village.

We seem to be starting our discussion with the assumption that the Electronic Village is a threat. A threat not just to irrelevant control structures and a repressive heritage, but to things we value, like democracy and nationhood and culture.

Now, it's certainly true that there's a widespread fear Canada of the new communications technologies; not surprising perhaps in a land whose political culture is based on peace, order and good government.

As anyone familiar with the Internet is aware, these values are entirely at odds with the values of the Electronic Village, whose most significant and unsettling feature is that it has no top and no centre. Bad news for the control freaks.

Fear of the Electronic Village is closely related to another common phobia — Fear of Computers.

When people who don't like computers hear other people suggesting that computer networks might actually have social and cultural benefits, the usual rejoinder is, "computers are bad for you because they make you waste time, stay indoors, spend money foolishly, hunt for pornography, stop seeing the neighbours, stop reading books."

Take your pick.

I would argue that computers don't make you dumb, or isolated, or anti-social, or more prone to publish material that's in bad taste. And that you shouldn't be blaming your personality disorders on Bill Gates.

I also believe that what's dumbing us down isn't computers or the Electronic Village. If we're looking for social problems, we need look no further than our traditional control structures.

The American control structures were certainly hard at work last February, when Bill Clinton gave his blessing to the Communications Decency Act; that sorry attempt by Congress and the White House to restrict free speech on the Internet for the sake of family values.

To the delight of everyone with a stake in the Electronic Village, the Communications Decency Act was subsequently found unconstitutional by the Philadelphia District Court.

Consider that the Philadelphia decision was written by three jurists who describe themselves as, "a generation of judges not far removed from the attacks on James Joyce's Ulysses as obscene."

What particularly delighted observers about the Philadelphia judges was the remarkable care with which they studied and came to understand the Internet before rendering their decision.

In one passage, they speak directly to the issues that concern us here. [They wrote] "The Internet has achieved, and continues to achieve, the most participatory marketplace of free speech that this country — and indeed the world — has yet seen. The plaintiffs in these actions (there were over 40 of them by the way) correctly describe the "democratizing" effects of Internet communication: individual citizens of limited means can speak to a worldwide audience on issues of concern to them."

One of the problems that we encounter in talking about the new communications technologies is terminology, of course.

You'll notice, for example, that I've been using Electronic Village more or less interchangeably with both the Internet, as I will with the Information Highway. At this point it may be helpful to highlight a few differences and similarities.

Complain we may about the much-abused and overworked term Information Highway, I think we're now stuck with it. The Info Highway comprises the worldwide communications networks based on telephony, broadcasting, satellites and computing that are becoming more and more interconnected and more and more digital.

The emphasis is on "becoming" because the Info Highway is very much a work progress.

The coinage "Electronic Village," on the other hand, is clearly intended to capture not only the technical infrastructure of the Info Highway, but an emerging social infrastructure as well. In that respect, it encompasses an even more amorphous and unpredictable set of changes.

But the Internet is a real creature, alive and functioning and well past adolescence. Whatever else it may be, the Internet is now the single most important publicly accessible network platform for computer communications.

It is the Electronic Village, or Info Highway, as far as we've been able to take it.

When the engineers say the Internet is a global network of networks, they aren't kidding. At last count it comprised over 97,000 distinct networks. This is a salutary reminder that the Internet is no monolith — even though its great strength is the set of software protocols that allow millions of completely different computers to talk to each other. fact, that's what the Internet is — a set of software protocols.

Unfortunately, the Internet is getting a little over-hyped these days.

For example, I understand that the American book chain Barnes and Noble now stocks something like 1,000 titles on the Internet alone, not counting all the other books on computing and technology they carry.

And we see the stories, day in and day out, all over the popular, business and specialized press.

This obsessive coverage has been a decidedly mixed blessing. The good news is that this coverage has brought this revolutionary communications resource to the attention of millions of people. The bad news is that a combination of media hype and alarmism has created what I feel are completely unreasonable expectations for the Internet.

Commentators of every stripe expect the Internet to have no growing pains; to be available to everybody right away; to be free of porn and hate and fraud and anti-social ideas, and to offer instant revenue models so we don't have to strain our business brains too much.

But in many respects, this debate over the social role of the Internet is symptomatic of the bigger problem we have with all new communications technologies; that unsettling combination of unintended consequences and unfulfilled expectations.

If a new means of communicating promises to change the landscape, it will inevitably be treated by some as a threat to the status quo, because that's exactly what it is!

Some of us, by contrast, tend to see mankind's salvation in a new microchip architecture. And if it doesn't deliver, boy are we disappointed!

As Presidential science advisor, Vannevar Bush, observed many years ago, we tend to overestimate the effects of new technologies in the short term, and greatly underestimate their effects in the long term.

While I think the Internet fits this pattern perfectly, only time will tell. This isn't anything new. Take television as a point of comparison. In the late 1940s, entrepreneurs like Stanley Hubbard couldn't get anybody to take television seriously. "Won't make a dime," they said, just like they're saying about the World Wide Web today of course.

A few years later Hollywood was crying in its beer, because TV spelled the end of the movie business. Guess who's making all the money out of television these days?

Currently, the fashion is to be disappointed in television — 57 channels and nothing on. Have you ever noticed that this cynicism about our residential small screens — TVs and computer monitors — doesn't spill over into packaged, take-home media like books, records and video games? If you can't find a book you like at the book store you don't write a letter to the editor describing this as the end of book publishing as we know it.

If we set a much higher standard for cable television and the Internet, I think it's because these are invasive or wired technologies.

The TV set is in our face all the time — even when it's switched off it's still sitting there in the middle of the living room and, in a majority of Canadian homes, in other rooms as well. We spent good money on that piece of furniture and we want that piece of furniture to perform damn it.

Ditto for the desktop computer — only more so.

Television also makes a fascinating illustration of what happens after a communications technology is so entrenched that it becomes a control structure in its own right.

In Canada, we've taken our expectations for television to a truly lofty plane. The Broadcasting Act stipulates — among many other things — that television is essential to our national identity and cultural sovereignty. It also pays lip service to cultural diversity, the evolving demands of the public, the needs of individual citizens and so on.

Television may be many things, but is it an institution that fosters democratic and civic values? I doubt it.

Television is a top-down, homogeneous and passive medium. It is not participatory, not demand-based and has extremely high entry barriers; financial, regulatory and otherwise. It's the perfect, centralized, tax-supported control structure for supplying state-regulated and state-subsidized content.

I have another idea.

If we want Canadians to get some sense of fulfilment and belonging in the twenty-first century, why don't we take a few hundred million tax dollars out of the broadcasting system and buy everybody a computer and a modem and show them how to use it? I don't think they're going to buy that in Ottawa!

In the meantime, the Internet has come along to challenge many of our most heartfelt assumptions about communications; assumptions that have developed over the decades around mass media just like television.

This, by the way, does not mean the end of entertainment, the end of the star system, or the end of relaxation as we know it. A nation of couch potatoes is not about to give up Seinfeld for high-level programming languages.

What it does mean is that the status quo will never be the same.

Consider the following:

  • First, the Internet is demand-based. It completely reverses the push model of mass media by relying on end-user pull. We've already left the 500-channel universe far behind, because end-users now have millions of destinations to choose from on the World Wide Web.
  • Second, the Internet is two-way. You always get to talk back. I read recently about a Fortune 500 CEO who had an epiphany after his corporate Web site was launched. He discovered that if he screwed up, millions of people could find out in an instant. But, he also discovered that millions of people could let him know in an instant if he screwed up!
  • Third, the Internet is cheap. Compared to any of the conventional media, the barriers to entry are laughably low. Time Warner may have more money to spend on their Web site than you, but you can still be up there with Hollywood for a few hundred dollars. No shelf space problems, no exclusivity problems, no licensing problems.
  • Fourth, the Internet is value-free. In other words, participation is not content-based. I don't get to publish from a Web site because I've satisfied the authorities that I will promote state-sanctioned values like national unity — let alone promise that my content will offend no one and always be of the highest quality. I get to publish from a Web site because I have something to publish that's important to me — and possibly to some audience as well. Whether or not I have an audience is my problem, not the taxpayers'.
  • Fifth, the Internet is an open protocol. That means the technical standards allowing you to hook up and operate on the Internet are not private and proprietary. You don't have to join an exclusive club, whose mission is to keep everybody else out of your business.

Compare that to getting a book published, getting a TV

network licensed, or even getting shelf space a retail store.

So, what are we to make of all this?

Is the Internet chaotic? Absolutely; if we mean by that a marketplace of ideas in which the disciplinary forces of good taste, cultural policy goals, social hierarchy and the old boy network are becoming less relevant. The big question, of course, is: is this chaos good for us or bad for us?

I think that if a diversity of voices and democratic participation are enhanced by what we're describing as "chaos", then this can only be a good thing.

In fact, I'd argue that without a cheap, accessible and non-hierarchical platform for the marketplace of ideas, democracy remains the province of cultural and political elites with a vested interest in protecting the traditional control structures.

The Internet is just such a platform. As the most open, distributed and democratic communications medium ever devised, the Internet has given us the means to extend freedom of expression and self-fulfilment to our citizens on an unprecedented scale.

Like the search for truth, the Internet may make us miserable before it sets us free.

But, my recommendation would still be that we put our anxieties behind us, get out the mouse and start making the Electronic Village look a little more like home.

    Copyright © 1996 by David Ellis