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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?

GAIL VALASKAKIS
Dean, Faculty of Arts and Science, Concordia University

To pick up on what John just said, someone once described Canada to me as a country with too little much geography and too little history.

I don't know now that we have Quebec referenda, whether that is still an applicable description of Canada. And I'm not sure it's an applicable description of the Global Village, because I think we may have at this point too many histories and too little geography the Global Village.

But it certainly is a part of Canada's continuing interest in the communications, identity, national unity and all the areas of communications technology.

We have, since the transcontinental railroad to now with the Anik satellite system — which was the first domestic satellite system in the world — been interested in those issues.

And today if we have a new media environment that has been described many times at this conference, it is a world worth describing one more time — a world that is full of camcorders, as well as the 500 specialty channels that impact upon public broadcasting the ways that Liora Salter talked about earlier today; a world in which both community and our Global Village are part of the Internet.

But the Internet itself, we must remember, has about 40 million users, of which over one half are in the United States alone. And most of the rest of them are in six of the world's richest countries.

It involves steep costs, weak markets and poor telephone connections in the Third World that make it very difficult for Internet to spread. There is some e mail in Africa. There is very little else.

I was discussing with a colleague from Cuba last week, who said you can send me a fax if you like, but please don't expect me to send one back it would cost one-half of my week's salary.

So what is the meaning of electronic community, both ours and those who have been excluded from developments in the present community? And what do we know about communications, community and hope in regard to those meanings?

We know that top-down media is not a hypodermic needle for development and democracy and that innovations don't necessarily trickle down.

As the President of Brazil once said, Brazil is doing fine, but the people aren't.

We also know that media is a factor in cultural, political and economic development. And as a factor in bottom up communications and bottom, bottom, communications.

And among all we don't know about the Internet, we do know a little bit about three central pieces of the social puzzle: about communications, community and control. I'd like to just sketch over some of those issues tonight. And then speak a bit about what that might mean for public policies in Canada.

I think as James Carey has said there's always been a shift of meaning terms of the word communications. We have basically two different models of communications.

One we call the transportation or transmission model of communications, which really has to do with passing information from one place to another or from one person to another.

And we have the ritual model of communications; a model that is much closer to the geographic model that John was talking about earlier. It has to do with interaction; it has to do with shared association among people and it has to do with participation among people.

And I think that those two models of communications are related to the way Innis and McLuhan have talked about communications, because the first — the transportation model — is much closer in a sense to the space-binding kind of communications qualities that we find our culture.

Space-binding culture, which results in Innis and McLuhan's terms from the use of modes of communication that make it easy and fast and inexpensive to communicate over space are very different from time-binding modes of communication, which are much more apt to conserve history and tradition and relationships over time and are much more closely akin to ritual communications.

I think there's an assumption today that electronic media, especially the Internet, dissolve the differences between time- binding and space-binding interaction; between ritual and transportation models of communications and at the same time there's an equally impressive amount of evidence that media may have actually increased our sense of place and difference by linking us to the rest of the world.

And there is a more dangerous assumption, I think, and that is that media — if it is the message — is something we all have access to.

If the technology itself of Internet is something new to us, if the technology of telecommunications which combines computers, telephones and video is new to us, I think the positions that are rather opposing on social impacts are not new.

Edmund Carpenter tells a book called, Oh, What a Blow that Phantom Gave Me, about going to Papua, New Guinea, and introducing visual media to a very remote tribe. He brought in photographs and film equipment and tape recorders and he brought in video and he was surprised that they allowed him to tape and film the puberty rites for male members of the tribe.

And he was even more amazed to find that when he returned to the village two years later people announced to him that they no longer held the puberty rights. From now on they showed the film.

We don't know yet what kind of impact in terms of our perception, which of course has been the interest of McLuhan, perception and world view, or in terms of social organization, which has been the interest of Innis.

What we don't know really is what kind of impact that will have. But we know that social formations and what John has described as geographic community involves an affective dimension. I think most of the interaction he was talking about has to do with that affective dimension.

Something that Raymond Williams called structure of feeling. Something akin to what Larry Grossberg calls mattering maps.

Can this affectivity be built into communities' constructive in individual nomadic moorings and a network of dispersed signposts, which is what post-modernists describe as our Internet community?

We've all heard stories of marriages that occurred because of virtual communities and Internet contact. And we've also heard stories of murders that occurred because someone saw an image on television. We've also heard, maybe, the story about the seven members of the instant relay chat who decided to meet over lunch and all seven of them were represented by three members who actually appeared.

It's a medium that allows transposition of race, sex, and location, gender and class and it involves a great deal of misinformation, of repetition and of trivia.

Mattering map constructs the places and events at which people anchor themselves in the world. The locations of things that matter and that shape their identity and locate them in various circuits of power. They emerge in webs of significance and meaning that we spin for ourselves in our lived experience.

We can do that over distance. We know that. We know there are connections between our religious communities, our national communities, between our families that connects over distance.

But if chat rooms and television programs and bulletin boards are to become our mattering map, the reason is because the stories we tell in visual and verbal images are more than a window on who we are and how we annex ourselves and others. We actually construct who we are in discourse, in discursive action and events; in the words and images that dominate our ways of seeing and representing the world.

Like the stories we tell the context of social struggle and in which they're told all our identities are continually contested and reconstructed in the discursive negotiation of the very complex alliances and ideologies and relations that form our community.

This basically means four things to me.

  • One, we construct multiple identities and communities. We don't construct consensus. We don't construct one form of unity within communities. We construct many different identities, parts of ourselves that draw upon different ideologies and different ideas.
     
  • Secondly, we cannot expect our communities then to be unified, or to be consensual. We must understand them as multiple and different, as contentious and often contradictory.
     
  • Third, if you or I are excluded from the electronic media, from the Internet today; if we have no voice, if we are unable to tell our story, our narrative, then we cannot express our identity and then we are participating a reality that we reject.
     
  • Fourth, I think this means that communication is not the cultural glue that holds us all together, which is the thing we're so fond of saying. It actually is the dynamic ground in which individuals and communities are formed. We construct ourselves and others the stories that we tell. And they become central sites of cultural struggle.

As George Gerbner has said, "if you write a nation's story, you don't have to worry about who makes its laws."

The struggle over stories is a struggle that Innis would put in terms of a struggle over monopolies of knowledge and authority.

It's a struggle between those at the centre of our space- binding culture, which confers power and authority on the state, on the technical order and on civil law, and those at the periphery who resist and compete for control, both locally and globally, who compete to have access, to have voice, to express their reality from the point of view of their stories.

And these ideas might seem abstract. They might seem removed from our daily lives, but we're all absorbed as individuals and citizens in struggles over difference.

And we are absorbed in those in our daily lives now. From purple-haired, punk rockers to heavy metal music to Canada's modern Indian war and the Inuit struggle to establish and maintain Inuit broadcasting.

And it is the experience of citizenship that is Canada's struggle. It is the experience of Canada that is multicultural and bilingual. The Global Village is much more complex than that.

If I could put this in the context of First Nations' struggle, I might tell you that natives and non-natives are engaged in a struggle over land and resources; Aboriginal and treaty rights; over-representation and appropriation; authenticity and access to information.

And there are conflicts, as well, from physical to words, expressed in a range of media from barricades to electronic "flame wars" — which extend to members of First Nations communities themselves — over nation leadership and band membership and economic development of everything from casinos to smuggling.

This struggle over different articulations of ideology and identity is located in the intersection of time-binding and space-binding communication modes. It is constructed in the cultural narratives that circulate in the images and stories of ancient Indian warriors and modern Indian media warriors — like 'Lasagna' the 1990 Oka crisis and their sometimes contradictory expressions of common history, common practice and political purpose.

This is a dispute over citizenship; over cultural diversity, social sovereignty and economic disparity, and the conflicting monopolies of knowledge and authority that control the definitions and economies of nationhood within our nation-state.

If the conflict of the First Nations' struggle seems uncommon in intensity, their struggle is also a common experience Canada of media and citizenship in, again, a multicultural, bilingual society and a much more complex Global Village.

What does all this mean for the future of electronic media and community in Canada? If the terrain is tentative, I think there are some points to be made.

The first has already been made very eloquently today by Liora Salter. We need to support and extend Canadian public broadcasting and the cultural industries of Canada.

We know that mass media is a misnomer. Audiences are individuals and they make meaning from narratives that they express and experience; and access doesn't create consensus, participation or 'bottom-up' — but it is vital.

Secondly, we must expand arenas for public and free access to the Internet. Without common avenues of access, cyberspace will evolve in a manner that accents on the one hand, the private, trivial, corrupt, the commercial and the exclusive, and on the other, a monopoly of knowledge and authority that is entrepreneurial.

If there is a connection of the webs of significance that we spin for ourselves and the webs that are dynamic within our communities and the World Wide Web we must do everything we can to nurture those connections.

Thirdly, as difficult and distasteful as the prospect is, we must locate the Information Highway in the framework of Canadian and global media regulation.

There is no 'V-chip' for the Internet, and in the long run that may be an advantage.

But, the promises of mutual understanding and co- operation in an electronic world are intertwined with policy and regulation that supports a balance between time-binding and space-binding media that reinforces affectivity and the social control of the ritual communications.

We have the opportunity to understand each other's histories and inter-relate our geographies in a more equitable and a more peaceful Global Village.

To paraphrase an old Chinese curse, we are blessed to live in interesting times — and what could be more important than that?