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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

Osgoode Hall Law School;
Faculty Environmental Studies, York University

Bruce asked, what is citizenship now? So what I want to talk about is something I'm going to call citizen space. That's my phrase and I don't care if no one ever quotes it, but I want to make a point. The point I want to make is to be citizens we have to do something. We have to be engaged with the political and social life of our communities.

Then, I want to make a point that in order to be engaged with that life in our community we need to have the space, the place to be engaged. So, I want to talk about citizen space.

We know about citizen space. A polling booth is citizen space. It's pretty small and cramped and you're pretty isolated in a polling booth and it only comes along every four years or so, but it's okay as citizen space. This conference is citizen space. It's a good example, but again it's a once a year event and it's only some of us involved in citizen space. Some of us don't go to any meetings and some of us go to far too many meetings and they are citizen space.

But, perhaps the most important citizen space that we have, the one we probably don't treasure anywhere enough is public broadcasting.

What do I mean by public broadcasting? I include the CBC, but certainly not everything the CBC does. Only the CBC when it actively engages us in the political and public life of our own community. Unfortunately, that's the CBC less and less.

Public broadcasting also includes access broadcasting. It's worth pausing — not just because Shaw [Cable] is here. I remember when we were setting up community radio stations across the North and we used to refer with disdain to the CBC. We used to call it opera and hog prices. So the CBC is not public broadcasting exclusively. It has no monopoly here.

Access TV, community radio, that's part of public broadcasting. Aboriginal radio is public space, is citizen space, but only when Aboriginal radio is not replaying the same country and western hits that are on any station in any urban area. Ethnic broadcasting is citizen space, but only when ethnic broadcasting is not commercial radio in Chinese.

So, when and to the extent that broadcasting engages us in ideas, in actions that have to do with the life of our community, [is] it citizen space?

I don't think I have to make the case here today that public broadcasting is, if not already, then certainly on the candidate list of an endangered species. It's not just the CBC and all of it's troubles; though those are very serious.

Those of us who work in the community broadcasting sector know that the advent of digital radio is not necessarily good news because, whereas they're willing to reserve some space for digital radio in the new transmission facilities, they are not willing to pay the cost of putting community radio on to those new facilities. And community radio doesn't have money to get there itself.

The community channel: we've grown to love and to hate it and to ignore it and to need it when we want. I've heard rumours that there are questions about the viability — the future course — of the community channel.

There are several reasons why we are in this situation we are with public broadcasting. And three are worth a brief mention here.

The first one has to do with our seduction by the notion of competition. Whatever else competition does — and it does many good things, I'm not disputing that — it shrinks the profit margins and public broadcasting only grows when there is space at the margins for it to grow in. You need that space order to have the resources, the energy, the time, the commitment for public broadcasting.

Deregulation. We're seduced by deregulation. And again we're not all together wrong. There is something really good in dismantling all sorts of intricate rules that nobody cares beans about except the people who put the benefits in their pocket.

But, public broadcasting is a creature of regulation. Arts View that Phil Lind was talking about yesterday will not exist if there are not regulatory pressures to create it. Let no one question whether there would be a community channel. Would there be even much of what the CBC does, were it not for the dreaded CRTTC keeping the pressure on the system for something called public broadcasting.

And last of all government support, because every form of public broadcasting — even that undertaken by the private broadcasters — depends directly or indirectly on support from government. And when that disappears, for good reasons as well as for bad, public broadcasting is in trouble.

So, endangered species, public broadcasting. Citizen space shrinking.

We fought very hard to create a CBC. We fought really hard to get community broadcasting on the community channel. And now it's disappearing and it's endangered right before our very eyes and we're silent. Nobody's saying hardly anything. We're even joining the chorus to complain about, you know, who watches Cable 10, anyway, or CBC, well it was this or that or the other thing.

We are silent. And that perplexes me, because public broadcasting is one of our few venues — our few citizens' spaces — in this country and [it] has been a really important one.

So, why are we silent? I think we're silent for two reasons. One can be dismissed. It's just blind foolishness. But somehow we believe in the era of the new technology with the 500 television channels that somewhere in that 500 channels there will public broadcasting. After all, we've always had it in the mix so why wouldn't we expect it when the mix gets bigger and the mix gets richer.

And all I want to say is you believe that, I have a Brooklyn bridge for you, too.

These are market-driven technologies. These are market- driven channels. There's nothing wrong with them. We want them. It's not a question of whether or not we'll get them. They don't create citizen space.

But the other reason I think we're silent is that we believe, and we have said it 30 times in the last two days, that somehow the Internet and the developments connected with the Internet will provide a replacement for the citizen space that we're losing in public broadcasting. And this is a much more complicated issue; much, much more complicated issue. And that's the one I want to finish talking about here.

Can the Internet function for us as citizen space?

Of course, in theory, it can. But, then it depends what we really mean by citizen space.

Let's take it apart, piece by piece. Well, what makes for citizen space? The first thing that has to be there, if there's going to be citizen space, is the potential for exchange; for two- way communication — not catalogues, not libraries; they're wonderful, they're valuable, but two-way exchange of information.

Now, all too often the Internet is a place for something we used to call [dumping] when we were citizen intervenors [and] Ontario Hydro would back up its truck of documents into the inquiry and dump the whole pile onto the desk and say, see, we've given you information.

But, the Internet has the potential to be more than a dump site for information. So let's not cross off the Internet as a potential for citizen space simply on the basis that it doesn't foster exchange, because some parts of the Internet sometimes do foster citizen space.

The criteria for citizen space is that ideas have to have a capacity to change. We just not have to hear other people's opinions, but we have to be influenced by them, we have to be in a position where we can change our point of view on the basis of what we've heard.

I've heard the Internet called the dialogue of the deaf. And I think anyone of here could produce any amount of evidence that that's a lot of what goes on the Internet.

But there's no reason, in theory at least, why one couldn't engage in a conversation through the Internet where people gave not just their points of view, but were influenced or changed by the points of view that they heard.

So, okay, Internet: citizen space.

Three. There must be — if it's going to be real citizen space — very limited barriers to participation; maybe no barriers to participation. That's not quite true, either, but it's not not true about the Internet. It will cost a lot of money to download anything from the Internet that we really want to spend a lot of time with; that we want to ponder and read again, and dissect and analyze.

Even if everybody had access to the Internet and it's not an uncostly proposition and if the Internet becomes as commercialized as I predict, it's likely to become even more costly than we know and acknowledge yet.

But the other point is something somebody raised yesterday and it's just worth repeating here: that access to the Internet is very limited. It's very much a European and North American phenomena yet and the libraries we're counting on to get the Internet into the poorer communities are feeling the same budget crunch as public broadcasting. We cannot depend on them to do for us — to make the Internet be for us what public broadcasting has been.

The fourth thing you need to have for citizen space is maybe the most important. There needs to be enough information there of enough complexity and richness detail that it can sustain an informed debate. A dialogue between the grossly uninformed is tabloid communication. And the Internet is easily tabloid communication.

So, what do we need that we do not yet have with the Internet, but we could have with the Internet?

We need production values. We need artists, we need producers, we need journalists and until we have that — until we have a way of shaping and making sense of a fine-tuned pictures of the world, the Internet is not citizen space.

The fifth criteria of citizen space is that our public engagement must matter to somebody. A chat group is fun. But a chat group doesn't matter. So what's got to happen if the Internet is to be for us citizen space is that what happens on the Internet has to have resonance outside the Internet the world that we talk about.

Somebody raised a point that was laughed at yesterday, but it shouldn't have been laughed at because there are instances now where the Internet does have political resonance and those instances are when a net-isolated individual connects to other isolated individuals, writs large his alienation from the world, learns about how to make bombs and goes out to proceed. Well, I guess that's political influence of a sort.

And last, but not least, what citizen space requires is that people share a common experience; that they learn to ride over, to speak across their differences, to reach out from beyond their like-mindedness to people who are not like themselves and to have that kind of interchange — not with people of like mind — but people of unlike mind. And, so far, there's very little evidence that the Internet does that.

In fact, there's every evidence that what the Internet does is create little communities; ever more inward-looking communities of ever more like-minded people all in some kind of juxtaposition, but not in communication with each other.

Well, the Internet hasn't failed us, not even as citizen space. It's too young. It's too unformed. It's too uncertain to have failed anyone yet. It really doesn't have the shape that's it's going to have and anybody who suggests they know where it's going is wrong. But, we do ourselves no favour if we blindly romanticize the new world of communications and, doing so we don't see the citizen space, the public broadcasting that's being eroded as we're talking.

Public broadcasting is a sorry state. And there is not yet any real clamour. We are, all of us, blinded by the light. We have our work to do.