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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

BRUCE POWE
York University; author, Outage, A Canada of Light

I've been asked to talk about the Electric City effects, the effects of electricity on us.

I would prefer to start off by making some observations and comments about some of the things I've seen going on here today. For example, even in the title of the Couchiching Conference this year: the Electronic Village, or Global Village. I would prefer to substitute Electric City, because the effects of the global communications network is really more like a city than it is a village. I realize where the phrase comes from; [it comes] from Marshall McLuhan's Global Village. But it does not resemble a village. It resembles a city of bits, which is really the title of an interesting new book, where the author regards us as flaneurs, nineteenth century walkers through this new environment that is like a city, rather than like a village.

What I'd like to do today, too, is observe and comment, describe and probe a little bit of some of the effects of these things — the Electric City effects — on our minds, our mindsets, our moods and our myths.

In my novel, Outage, I explore and describe the moment of darkness when the fuses blow. This is a very personal thing that happens in the book. The character blows up, literally, all the fuses go in his system and he can no longer perceive, can't understand where he is; the moment of confusion.

Yesterday, the group talked with great eloquence about the chaos of our times. This is also a time of great confusion and Outage describes that confusion; describes the circuit overload, the time when suddenly you find yourself in the darkness and you have to listen or feel your way.

This can lead, paradoxically, to illumination. But it is an inner insight, not necessarily something that comes directly from what you experience.

This time of confusion also comes from competing views of reality. We're accustomed to hearing the phrase paradigms changed, paradigm shift, collapse. This is also what's going on. So many competing views of reality. Things colliding, collapsing no longer seeming to hold coherence. We're not quite sure how to think our way through this, how to see our way, how to feel our way.

Another book that I wrote almost at the same time as Outage was called, A Tremendous Canada of Light. It was actually a book that was a chapter in Outage (I took it out because it didn't belong) in which I investigated the idea that Canada is a light state. What I mean by that is that we are a pioneer in communications, we are a society that has been evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, we weren't formed in revolutions or civil wars. We have used our trust in debate and dialogue to perpetuate our state and I suggested that this made us a light, flexible society which is highly adaptable to the electronic age.

The other thing I wanted to mention, too, is the subtitle of this conference: smartening up or dumbing down. I was struck by two things in the title.

First of all was the "either/or" in the discussions. Many of the dialogues, debates that we've had going on here have this "either/ or" built into it.

And what I would like to suggest to follow up on some remarks that were made yesterday is that the electronic society, the Electric City, makes us experience a condition that is both and that we have to be able to adapt and understand paradox.

I also don't think that there is a dumbing down going on. I think the more appropriate phrase is a numbing down and that what is truly happening is that sensory overload due to battering from so much information going on puts us on tilt and the result is closure, intolerance, too muchness, I don't want to hear any more, stop this, shut it off, shut down. That's numbing down, not dumbing down.

So, then we move from "either/or" to paradox and the title of my talk is the E Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This comes from William Blake, the great romantic poet.

In that poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he talks about how contraries are fused by imaginative fire. In our age the fire is electricity; it is the element of our time. Earth, air, fire, water — the four elements, according to the ancients of our lives.

In our age, fire is electricity and electricity is welding, melding and changing things at such a rapid pace that few can keep up with it. I suggest that the poem that Blake wrote can serve us. I will use it through this talk as a kind of model of the fusing of contraries, of opposites, this necessary paradox we have to have; paradoxical states of mind we have to have to understand things.

So, the three major points I'm going to try and make:

First, the electric city effects: what are they, what are the primary questions, what are the vital questions, what happens when you begin to grasp our paradoxical condition, the effects of electricity on personality, identity and democracy as well.

I'm going to also suggest that Canada as a light state, a communication state serves us well as a model for the future; serves us well, in fact, in the kind of collisions and changes that are going on in the electric society, because Canada is a society where dialogue, debate, referenda, grumbling and complaint are built into the system. But our lack of definite identity, our looseness, in fact, our love of solitude and inwardness, our mediation are all qualities in the E-world. They allow us, in fact, the flexibility that other societies may not have.

Then, I want to conclude with proposing that each of us — all of us today — are bathed in a kind of visionary state automatically because of the enhancement of the electronic eyes and ears we have through electronic technology. And this makes us all visionaries, simultaneously. But it also makes us prone to both exhilaration and terror.

The old Canada is ending. Nothing clear, fully-voiced or formed, has emerged in the raw, agitated state. Blurred lives, overwhelmed minds. So we start, moving out in all directions at once, thinking we have decades to make choices, instead of years, or merely months, even days, or moments.

In this rampage of what seems to be terminal disagreements and divisions, we can be certain only of this: our time and place have been electrified. Electricity sparks, clings, looking for conductors and situations to illuminate, to jolt. Wherever energy cords criss-cross they bring new chords and discords — harmonies and alliances, turmoil and noise.

Our amplifiers, which we call electronic technology, heighten the perpetual shifting which is life, making rampant change itself our exhilarating and harrowing circumstance.

Electricity alters our relationship with every social contract.

Here are the questions that are constantly bursting upon us: what is citizenship now? how do we remain individuals who can make choices and influence systems and institutions in a mass technological milieu? who rules here? where are our borderlines? what are our responsibilities? how do we stay responsible? (And the root of that word is response) how do we respond to things? In order to be responsible one must be capable of response.

What kind of state will we prefer when commerce and computers combine to launch and support a borderless economic world order? And a question pivotal to me: must politics now be divorced from questions of the humane spirit and of justice in our lives?

It's probably easier to do a quick inventory of the effects of Hell in the electronic experience. I'm going to give you a quick list of some of these things.

Certainly we can witness, experience and gauge some of these things.

Collapse of consensus, community, implosions of identity, nation states at an end in the rise of ethnic definition, which is a resistance to perceived global homogenization — certainly with the experiences of Quebec, Bosnia, the Basques in Spain. There is also a crisis of literacy: literature, that is the book, no longer occupies the central part of our culture. There is a cult of sound and image, movement and dance. The central communications experience of our lives is no longer the printed word or the page; it is the screen.

Here are some of the characteristics of the wired world that we live in.

Hype. Addiction to hype, which makes a kind of hypo or adrenaline of excitement.

Overload. Too muchness, as I call it. The loss of quiet time, contemplative time — space to consider what's going on. I was talking to some people at breakfast this morning and we were all commenting on how difficult it is to find time to read a book, find time to slow down, because speed is the ground of our culture; if one can even call it ground.

Battered senses. Intolerance due to overload. A prone of vulnerability or a tendency people may have to consider there is conspiracy going on everywhere, because if it's this out of control maybe someone else really knows what's going on.

The decline in politics of discourse, and the collapse of critique. Neil Postman has written eloquently about this. And the rise, of course, of the image and gesture where elections become virtual circuses.

The presence of the transnationals in the global marketplace, where words like "downsizing" have become part of the language. Or to put it another way: main street has moved to mean street.

Corporate mergers, mass industries, NBC-Microsoft, CNN- Time-Warner, ABC-Disney. Think of the battles going on between Rogers and City TV and Atlanta. One could argue there are no longer nation states, but city states in which the argument is now between Moses Znaimer and Ted Turner and not any of the Prime Ministers that we've had and the Presidents of the United States.

One could argue that concentration of power into a few hands is greater than it ever was.

We now are accustomed to phrases like permanent job loss. IBM, AT&T, Kodak and Xerox have all laid off thousands of employees. Fewer people and fewer people running a more and more complex organization.

This is also the age of noise. Raw data. Louder, faster and cruder than at any other time.

As I said, the Hell is easy to describe. Now for the Heaven. I believe this also is the age of acute consciousness. Never before has so much been known about ourselves. Never have we been so aware of ourselves. This is a time of heightened human awareness, where a stirring is going on of human senses and connections. This is a time when imagination, structure — the need for all these things — are more imperative than ever.

There's a Zen adage: where do you go when you find yourself stuck on top of a 30-foot pole? Inward.

And, indeed, the electronic age seems to suggest that we are moving to a time where we are moving more inward to reflect and ponder on what is going on.

Multinationals, on the positive side, assure a level of peace that the Western world has never known before. That is because wired people have less reason to go to war. Interdependence and commercial trade blocks generate connections obviously in which we actually begin to see one another and must deal with one another.

And contra Neil Postman: image and sound, dance and movement carry wisdom that comes from intuition.

You'll recall Walter Pater's remark, "all art aspires to the condition of music." And one can see that our age is a great age of music, of sound, of rhythm.

If literature is being driven to the margins, margins are not such a bad place to be, because a small audience can be a good one. Indeed, small audiences like this where groups of people get together and talk to one another, hand manuscripts to each other, have returned things to virtually the Renaissance period where there was a Samizdat culture — a period when people would hand manuscripts around, talk, do things.

I think, in fact, oddly enough though book sales are almost catastrophic in Canada, there is a great Renaissance of literature going on. There are more writers and more good writers probably than at any other time.

There is a greater need for art now than ever, because art trains us in complexity, ambivalence, paradox and the riddle of our imaginations and connection. And without those things we flounder.

There are fields of energy surrounding us. We are in a flow of chaos dynamics and out of the cacophony and noise may come polyphony, or music.

We have to think beyond the "either/or" distinctions, the black and white, beyond divisions to recognize that the E-world is all these states at once: it is Heaven and Hell, simultaneously. It is a process where the dark and the light mix and merge and they meet each other — feed off each other.

Cubism and pluralism are no longer merely an art movement, or an exemplary theory advanced by the illustrious Isaiah Berlin. They are fact. They are what we engage daily, and how we must operate and perceive.

An example of this paradoxical condition? The Internet is both a spider's web, as the phrase suggests, of delusion and illusion where one can be caught. But it also is a safety net — a web of human expression, complexity and consciousness and comfort. It is both at the same time.

Let me come back to Canada and how Canada functions in all of this.

As I've already said, magnetism generates fields and electricity enhances flow. Electromagnetism together melds field and flow in startling arrangements of attraction and repulsion.

One of these arrangements I call a tremendous Canada of light. This light state is where history and time dance lightly. What I mean is the dancer's lightness of step; lightness opposed to weight or heaviness, or tragedy and gloom.

According to physicists, in quantum physics and relativity, we are ourselves made of light and energy and we share in the particles and events of the planets and stars.

The light state in Canada is where the wired planet is now playing out one possible story in a myth I find exemplary for our wrangling world.

The philosopher Pascal said, "nothing stands still for us." This was said in the 1600s. Absolutes are delusions because we float on waves of possibly unknown extent and depth. Every fixed point will and must move. Yet, we burn with the desire to find lasting footing, lasting ground. We have added today to this old recognition that life is eternal turmoil.

What we have added to the mix is the global mayhem that comes from the electronic culture. Our amplifiers — the electronic media — are intensifying and enhancing consciousness and experience. Mass technologies hook us into the fundamental fields and currents of the universe, but we have also created a machine state that mirrors us, replicates us, renews us, and yet, paradoxically, can separate us from the world.

In a terminal flash, electricity jumps up contraries.

Ovid's Metamorphoses is now the stuff of Saturday night television. We are hurtled through Dante's Divine Comedy at night on our screens, but without a Virgil to guide us, and without the promise of Beatrice's blessing at the end.

The implicit contradictions in our minds and souls are rendered explicit at every turn. So we plug into currents and fields without first tuning ourselves, providing our psyches and sensibilities with insulation, with the refinements of learning and self-knowledge. We rise and fall on these waves, crashing and cresting.

Out of tune we spin, but in tune we could dance.

Here is the etymology of the word, "electric". It comes from the Latin electrum, meaning amber, a fossil resin that exhibits electrical power when rubbed; and from a Greek word, which means a gleaming.

Electricity occurs when energy poles between two objects of friction and that friction leads to sparks of light and to the paradox that light can be both a wave and a field. And we need light to make our way.

This, then for me, is Canada: the flash-points of friction appear between Quebec and the rest of the country; between history and the always hazy present, between the old nation state with its fixed borderlines and the new open state process; between the aboriginals' spiritual rootedness and their demand for land and the settlers' materialism and their demand for closure, between evolutionary Canada and what I call revolutionary America.

Quebec needs Canada because Quebec provides sparks of challenge, currents of passion, while Canada itself continues to provide the larger field, the larger context for that passion. One without the other would enfeeble the whole, leaving in pieces the traces of a grander latent scheme, the light state, fixed and yet unfixed, a new kind of collage country, made of Aboriginal dream songs and fierce polemics, private visions, solitary visions, and media publicity. The first country to peacefully absorb the swing and shock that accompanies electric infusion.

If we could see in the chaos and hear in the noise that new structures of communication and consciousness are emerging, then we may say that our communication state we both inhabit and create, could become the Canadian identity — our offering to the world.

If we could see that our light state may in fact be a condition of receptivity, of openness, of living without borderlines, of trust and the willingness to continue talking and arguing, then we may say that breakdown is a part of the process, and we may step back from consumption and greed.

We may acknowledge that the nation state is finished, but the new model is decentralized, metamorphic, mythic, planetary and complex.

If we could see that we can't stop the flow of electricity and that our technologies amplify the effects of electromagnetism on us, then we could see that we are moving into global closeness, into a deeper and quicker witnessing of lives and events, of the full range of complex human consciousness and behaviour.

If we could see the through the multimedia convergence that we are recognizing ourselves on a scale we never have before, that we are engaging the human conundrum, existence itself, in ways we could not have conceived before at any other time in history, then we may see that our lives are now inherently visionary.

If we could see that many people share the hunger for justice, for the human mind and sensitivity to bond, ponder and grasp the whole issue of what it means to have a life of quality and the fear that accompanies accelerando, technological change could be transformed into an influx of intuitions and resources and needs.

And to rewrite something Johnson once said: if our dreams could last, we could turn our time and place to gold.

I'm drawn to this country's paradoxes and promises, the

quiet passion and anomalies, the inward verb and subtle pulse of the magnetic North.

Here discontinuities and frictions appear to be necessary for our growth. And here I find this fascinating enigma, a conundrum of great beauty. Canada is a country that works well in practice, but just doesn't work out in theory.

We falter forward on obscure paths. We struggle and make guesses. We come to the question of ruling and states. We envision a place where everything that is humane has not yet disappeared. We continue our search because we sense we know a high form of civilization, of civility is at stake.

"Hurry slowly," the ancients said. And so it must be with us, now.