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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?

former editor, The Financial Post;
former President, Concordia University

A few months ago, the noted scientist Ursula Franklin, was giving a talk in Ottawa about the Information Highway. There were several pleasing features about her presentation. The first was that once she had disposed of the title, she never used the words "Information Highway" again.

Furthermore, she never once mentioned the Internet.

But the best was saved for last. During the questions and answers, a very earnest fellow was extolling the virtues of the Internet, in particular praising the sense of community it gave him. He described the case of someone living in a remote Yukon village being able to connect up with people all over the world to talk about some obscure childhood disease in which they were all interested.

And what did Dr. Franklin think of that?

There was a long pause, then she answered: "Well, I don't know anything about that. All I do know is that I am about to move house and there's nobody on the Internet who is going to help me carry the books."

This is the paradox of the new age of the 500-channel universe and the Internet. For all their glories, there is a certain irreducible number of crucial human functions, both lowly and lofty, which simply demand our physical presence.

Tonight, I want to bring together two sets of ideas. One relates to our evolving sense and notion of community; the other to the threat or promise of the new electronic technologies. There has been much talk recently of "virtual" communities unconstrained by time or space, linked by wires or electrons, as if somehow this were a new concept. But such communities have existed since the invention of writing.

The New Testament is essentially the residue of such a virtual community, the early Christian community bound together by the letters of Paul to the Corinthians, the Romans, and the Galatians.

The medieval world of monasteries, the international community of The Enlightenment, the world of nineteenth century science were all, in their way, virtual communities connected by writing, if not by wires.

Clearly, the world of the Internet falls into this grand tradition. Indeed, it represents something of a reversion to these older forms of community linked by writing since, unlike the more recent virtual communities of television audiences and those linked by telephone, the Internet currently expresses itself primarily through its written word.

And here I think I disagree with Bruce Powe on the decline of literacy and the domination of the visual, precisely because the Internet moves in a different direction.

Ironically, the Internet is actually a revival of the ancient art of letter writing and, as such, should prove to be great boon to future historians!

But when we think of the kind of community which might actually be menaced by the new forms of electronic contact, we tend to think more of what the program for this conference describes as, "the densely-textured, geographically-based traditional community, with its thousands of overlapping connections".

We think of our city neighbourhoods, our rural communities, cottage country, Couch. And we feel that these communities are increasingly threatened not only by the solitude of the personal computer, but also by the phenomenon of globalization, which disconnects us from local economies, local culture, and even, Heaven forfend, local politicians.

At the same time, however, our ideas about traditional geographic communities are being challenged and refreshed by the revival of two inter-related ideas. I say revival, because each of these ideas has an ancient and respectable lineage.

The first is the concept of "civil society". The second I shall call, for the moment, "empowering volunteerism".

Let's begin with civil society. I have just returned from South Africa, which is creating all sorts of new consultative mechanisms for involving the population in future policy directions. Built into every consultation was a prominent place for what South Africans simply call "the civils;" those voluntary civic associations and organizations which are now flourishing in the new South Africa.

My official duties currently make me parliamentary secretary to the minister responsible for the Canadian International Development Agency, CIDA.

One way or another, CIDA is involved in 140 countries around the world. And every case, a concern for the support and strengthening of the mechanisms of good governance and civil society is a prominently stated objective. Indeed, civil society is seen as an integral part of good governance; an indispensable component of both mature and emerging democracies.

Civil society, in short, has become like the Internet, one of the buzzwords of the hour. And while it would be unwise and unprovable to ascribe the rising popularity of the phrase to any one person, were there such a person, he might well turn out to be Robert D. Putnam, author of one of the most influential political studies of the decade, Making Democracy Work, published in 1993. For those who have not read the book, the subtitle might, at first glance, seem a little surprising: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy.

In the words of his publisher, "Putnam and his collaborators offer empirical evidence for the importance of "civic community" in developing successful institutions. Their focus is on a unique experiment begun 1970, when Italy created new governments for each of its regions. After spending two decades analyzing the efficacy of these governments in such fields as agriculture, housing, and health services, they reveal patterns of associationism, trust, and co-operation that facilitate good governance and economic prosperity."

Those are the crucial words, associationism, trust, and co- operation.

A crucial part of Putnam's argument is that the enormous differences between various parts of Italy are wholly attributable to history and geography. Hence, the communities of which Putnam speaks are real, tangible, physical places, like the ancient communal republics of Florence, Bologna, and Genoa.

Another central argument in Putnam's thesis is the importance of "social capital".

In his words, social capital typically consists in ties, norms, and trust transferable from one social setting to another. Members of Florentine choral societies participate because they like to sing, not because their participation strengthens the Tuscan social fabric. But it does."

Again, it's hard to have choir practice on the Internet.

In his subsequent work, Putnam has transported his field of study from Italy to the United States, and perhaps the challenge for us as Canadians is to make the further shift to Canada to consider the state of our own civil society.

But before doing that, it is time to introduce the second concept of which I spoke, empowering volunteerism.

Here, the critical figure is the American social activist John McKnight, who was featured in a series of programs called Community and Its Counterfeits, broadcast on the Ideas program of CBC Radio 1994.

As Liora Salter might well say, truly in this particular program citizen space was being honoured by public broadcasting.

The host, David Cayley, describes McKnight as someone who has challenged our traditional notion of welfare, as someone "who claims that beyond a certain intensity the professionalization of care, counsel, and consolation turns citizens into clients, someone who insists that paid services degrade and often destroy abilities which already exist within the community."

John McKnight draws on the work of that great French observer of 19th Century America, Alexis de Tocqueville.

In Democracy in America , says McKnight, de Tocqueville found a society "whose definitions and solutions were not created by nobility, by professionals, by experts or managers, but by what he identified as little groups of people, self-appointed, common men and women who came together and took three powers: the power to decide there was a problem, the power to decide how to solve the problem — that is the expert's power — and then the power to solve the problem.

These little groups of people weren't elected and they weren't appointed and they were every place. And he named these little groups "associations".

Association is the collective for citizens, an association of citizens. And so we think of our community as being the social space in which citizens in association do the work of problem-solving, celebration, consolation, and creation."

David Cayley summarizes McKnight's argument in this fashion: "as communities grow richer social services, they often grow poorer in competence and solidarity."

In these two views of community, there are obvious commonalities. Both Putnam and McKnight see geographic communities as being at the heart of participatory democracy. Both place democracy and citizenship at the heart of their concerns. Both see voluntary associations as the building blocks of civic society.

If these definitions of community remind us of what is at stake if we destroy our city neighbourhoods, our towns and villages, our rural society will the new media, such as the Internet and the advent of the 500-channel universe, enhance or deplete geographic communities?

My basic premise is that communities have undergone far more radical transformations in the past because of new methods of communication, such as the telephone and television, and that the impact of newer forms of media will be marginal at most.

In a recent article entitled The Strange Disappearance of Civic America, Robert Putnam turns his attention to a "mystery".

In his words, "The mystery concerns the strange disappearance of social capital and civic engagement America. By 'social capital', I mean the features of social life — networks, norms, and trust — that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives."

Putnam notes that "since 1965, time spent on informal socializing and visiting is down (perhaps by one-quarter) and time devoted to clubs and organizations is down even more sharply — by roughly half.

Membership records of such diverse organizations as the PTA, the Elks club, the League of Women Voters, the Red Cross, labour unions, and even bowling leagues show that participation in many conventional voluntary associations has declined by roughly 25 to 50 percent over the last two or three decades."

The same is true of political involvement at all levels.

Putnam rounds up the usual suspects: busy-ness, economic hard times; the movement of women into the paid workforce and the stresses of two-career families; disruption of marriage and family ties and growth of the welfare state, among others.

One by one, he systematically rejects each possible culprit. Finally, he is left with just one prime suspect: television.

Television," as he says, "is the "800-pound gorilla of leisure time." Television absorbs 40 per cent of the average American's free time, an increase of about one-third since 1965.

Putnam contrasts newspaper readership, which is associated with high social capital, with TV viewing.

"TV viewing is strongly and negatively related to social trust and group membership, whereas the same correlations with newspaper reading are positive. Within every educational category, heavy readers are avid joiners, whereas heavy viewers are more likely to be loners."

How does TV destroy social capital?

"Time displacement," answers Putnam. "Even though there are only 24 hours in everyone's day, most forms of social and media participation are positively correlated. People who like to listen to lots of classical music are more likely, not less likely, to attend Cubs' games.

Television is the principal exception to this generalization. [It is] the only leisure activity that seems to inhibit participation outside the home. TV watching comes at the expense of nearly every social activity outside the home, especially social gatherings and informal conversations. TV viewers are homebodies."

Community or solitude?

Will the new media simply exacerbate the existing situation by taking up even more leisure time as people cruise the Internet or the 500-channel universe? Will community participation be under even greater threat?

While it is difficult to predict what the long-term impact of Internet use might be on leisure time, we have some clearer sense about the future impact of such developments in television, such as narrow-casting and the advent of the 500-channel universe. Here, I am greatly indebted to Barry Kiefl, corporate director of research of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Kiefl notes that, "In the past 25 years, on average, Canadians have spent roughly the same amount of time watching TV, despite the fact that cable TV has increased its penetration from about 10 per cent to more than 70 per cent of Canadian households.

VCRs have gone from zero to almost 80 per cent penetration. Multi-set TV ownership has grown from about 17 per cent to almost 60 per cent and, finally, the number of programming hours available to the average person has increased from some 200 hours per week to more than 2,000 per week.

So, why have viewing levels remained unchanged? Because television, even its infancy, was so compelling a medium of communications that it came to represent our major leisure time activity and, quite simply, people have only so much leisure time."

Crassly put, Kiefl's argument is that TV has already done about as much damage it can do to leisure time. Furthermore, he notes that roughly the same amount of time is spent with news, public affairs, sports, various categories of drama and entertainment as 10 years ago.

Interestingly, VCR viewing seems to have stabilized at about one hour per viewer per week for the past number of years.

Kiefl concludes that, "new services, such as interactive cable, Direct to Home Satellites, video-on-demand, the Internet, etc., will also probably not affect the time spent with TV, either positively or negatively.

Some of the new services being talked about today are more likely to compete with video stores, the telephone and the library, than with television. New services that do compete with television will further fragment the viewing audience, especially within different genres of programming."

If the new media are not the enemy of community, can they be a force for good?

Here, I wish to present three examples of how, in fact, the new media might actually strengthen the life of a community and be a positive force for participatory citizenship.

The first is an adventure I have been involved with in my own riding of Don Valley West in Toronto called New Media Village. For those who care about such things, it can be found on the World Wide Web at

Within the Borough of East York is the traditional community of Leaside. Designed originally as a live-work community, the residential area is divided from the industrial park by Laird Avenue.

During the Second World War, the Leaside industrial area produced war material such as tanks. After the war, it became a manufacturing centre for electrical equipment, wire and cable, printing, aluminum alloy, and all that sort of thing.

Over time, the traditional manufacturing base has eroded, factories have been closed and levelled, jobs lost, and the tax base reduced.

What to do? A group of us, politicians, landowners, business people, and just plain citizens got together and came up with the idea of creating a cluster of new media activities along the Laird Avenue fringe.

The idea was to create something that would not be incompatible with existing use, something that would build on the activities of a number of new media companies that had already come to the area, that would take advantage of the large data cables that already ran under Laird Avenue, that would use the skills of the folks at the nearby Bell Centre for Creative Communications at Centennial College.

And here is one of the great paradoxes about new media.

Despite being the very industry, the industry of the Internet, which should, by definition, be able to survive as a virtual community, at the end of the day, even these people need to get out of their home offices and bump into real, breathing human beings.

Innovation is a contact sport. Silicone Valley is not simply an abstract expression, it is an actual geographic feature where people live, cycle, form choirs for all I know, and run into each other at coffee bars and shops.

So as we think about creating our New Media Village, we are not only thinking about fibre optic lines, we are also thinking about bicycle paths and all-night coffee shops and cybersuds parties on Thursday night at the local pub. Because, in the end, we are still sociable beings, social animals.

My second example is called Citizens' Forum, Mark Four. There may still some among you, the sort of people that P.G. Wodehouse describes in his golfing stories as The Oldest Member, who may recall the original Citizens' Forum. Created during the Second World War, Citizens' Forum was originally a weekly CBC radio show devoted to a single topic. My parents belonged to a Citizens' Forum group, and they were forever discussing weighty issues such as, "Should We Recognize Red China?"

What made Citizens' Forum special was that there was true citizen debate and involvement. And here I want you to run the format past Liora Salter's criteria for citizen space.

Before each show, members would receive through the mail a pamphlet outlining the pros and cons of the question, providing background information, and then putting forward a series of questions to be answered by each group.

People would meet in someone's living room for dessert and coffee, listen to the program, switch off the radio, discuss among themselves, then send their views into Citizens' Forum headquarters.

The following week, at the top of the show, the results would be tabulated and a collection of views from across the country would be read out.

At its height, Citizens' Forum influenced government policy, as did its country cousin, Farm Forum. Both were dramatic examples of how the electronic media can enhance citizenship.

I won't go through the somewhat noble effort which some tried, called the New Canada Project, a few years ago, but what I would suggest to you is that here is something which could be revived using the combination of existing technology, such as radio, television, newspapers and the Internet to try to provide the updated version of a Citizens' Forum for the 21st century. That's a challenge for the CBC.

Finally, I think these technologies can be used to link real communities. I'm going to give one example of people who are interested in early childhood, as I am.

There are communities which are trying to do a good job of bringing up kids. If they could somehow be connected together to share their best experiences, to understand what the current best thinking on early childhood interventions are, to be encouraged by what goes on across the country.

If we could somehow use the power of the Net to pull those people together we would have both the advantage of things actually happening in physical communities on the ground and ways of comparing best practices across the country.

And what do you know, at the end of the day that might actually wind up to be what Joe Clark really meant to say, when he talked about a community of communities.