Hysteria and overstatement always accompany new communications technologies: like semaphore (1790s), the telegraph (1850s), cinema (fin-de-siècle) or TV. All were hailed for bringing peace, harmony and democracy. This never happened with techs like refrigeration or electricity. Why? They didn’t directly reflect our essence, which seems connected to our kind of verbal communication.
The 1990s Internet ecstaticism of MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte or John Perry Barlow, who compared it to the “capture of fire,” meant it was bound to fall from grace. Too close to the sun perhaps. You could see it happen at the “grand committee” hearings in Ottawa this week. Parliamentarians from Canada plus the U.K., Estonia, Ireland, Germany met in a now regular cycle to take on villains aptly called the FAANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google).
The NDP’s Charlie Angus eloquently epitomized the shift. He said when he came to Ottawa in 2004 it was to fight for the magnificent freedoms available on the Internet. Now he’s a “recovering digital utopian” who’s determined to stop its base incarnations like those embodied by Trump’s election, Brexit, Cambridge Analytica or Toronto’s Sidewalk Labs. He said even the committee’s Tory chair supports Internet regulation because “that’s the world we’re in now.”
(This was the moment when I wondered if Liberal committee members might start silently thanking the Lord that in next fall’s election they won’t be facing rumpled Charlie — passionate, literate, furious — as NDP leader rather than Jagmeet Singh, who beat Angus for the role because he’s a shiny new thing.)
The centrepiece was a grilling of reps from Facebook, Google and Twitter. Big Facebook bosses Zuckerberg and Sandberg had been invited but didn’t bother replying. The flunkies who came in lieu, looking annoyed as if they’d had to interrupt their morning soy lattes, chirped idiocies like, “We welcome engagement with governments and legislators around the world … to tell us where they think we should be drawing the lines.”
It was pretty close to “screw you and please note I’m trying to say it in a nice way.” In turn the legislators didn’t even call them by name; just: “Facebook, whaddaya say about…”
If all this doesn’t convince Justin Trudeau and his posse to be less gaga over tech like Sidewalk Labs, then nothing will. In fact probably nothing will.
The scorching they got was what those underlings (and their bosses) richly deserved. Chair Bob Zimmer said his kids were getting “more and more addicted to their phones” though kids always give cause for panic: over rock ‘n’ roll, comic books, drugs. In fact, the rage oddly mirrored the old Internet utopianism.
Witness Shoshana Zuboff, a U.S. prof who writes about “surveillance capitalism,” called it a “virus” infecting every economic sector. A new kind of product that can be applied to “anything and everything,” assaulting democracy, human autonomy, and individual sovereignty. It recreates the world before the rise of the printing press, where “they know everything and we know nothing.”
I don’t like glamorizing the threat this way. Even Noam Chomsky, in his critiques of mass media of the past, never said they actually made people stupid; he said they tried, precisely because people aren’t. Nor did people vote for Trump or Brexit because of the Internet; or rather: some might’ve but others had their reasons. The vile overlords of media always overestimate their power and it’s a shame when critics reinforce that arrogance. You can take them on without implying that any resistance to them is probably futile.
I recently rewatched the classic 1936 British documentary Night Mail, about the train carrying letters from London to Scotland overnight. It transforms the gloom of the “dark Satanic mills” of the 1800s, into a technology happily helping people connect. It ends with W.H. Auden reading his poem about the train, mimicking its rhythms.
That may have been an easier technology to identify with. You could see the levers work as brakemen switched tracks to let “the Postal” through, or men in suits sorting letters on board. And it was based on public ownership with democratic oversight — the General Post Office.
In fact, you could picture Charlie Angus as the engineer on that train, leaning out of the cab and looking optimistically up the track.
Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Globe and Mail.
Image: Thought Catalog via Stock Catalog/Flickr
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