Whose Brave New World?: The Information Highway and the New Economy

Heather Menzies

Heather Menzies began writing Whose Brave New World?: The Information Highway and the New Economy with the intention simply of updating Fastforward and Out of Control (1989), her previous exposé of the information economy. Fastforward and Out of Control, unfortunately, was put out-of-print just six months after publication, despite its presence on the Globe and Mail's bestseller list. The latest work, certainly much more than an update and if anything more hard-hitting, provides a clue to that precipitate and lamentable disappearance.

It is Heather Menzies' contention that we live in a media-orchestrated unreality. Twenty percent of adults currently are either unemployed or underemployed, and many more are fearful of job loss. In every sector machines are replacing people. Protracted high levels of unemployment coexist with record-breaking profits. Good full-time jobs are being turned into part-time, shift, and temporary ones, at a fraction of the pay. Workers increasingly are treated as "the human equivalents of post-it notes" (p. 10), used briefly, then discarded without sound or trace. Society, she believes, is unraveling at the seams due to strain caused by free trade agreements, corporate and governmental down-sizings, and, most fundamentally, restructurings induced by new information technologies. Yet we often feel as if none of this is happening!

The cause of our blithe indifference or unawareness, she claims, is an undue reliance on the corporate-controlled mass media to provide our window on the world. It is well known, of course, that the means of distributing information are continually being concentrated into fewer hands: Conrad Black, for instance, now controls some 60% of Canadian English-language daily newspapers. But as well, according to Menzies, news is premised on opinions of "experts" and reported by columnists and larger-than-life anchor persons who seldom provide more than a decontextualized summary of government spending cuts and deficit-cutting targets, plus a "droning litany" (p. 5) of adjustments of globalization and the new economy.

For Menzies, discourse is all important: She writes, "Resistance starts at the level of perception" (p. 137). Indeed, for her, "the struggle to control the technologies of the new economy [is] a struggle to control perception" (p. 14). She therefore contrasts the official, "almost Orwellian" (p. 14), objectifying, professional, and "expert" discussion of new communication technologies with her own more humane, critical discourse. The former is premised on the logic of competition and machines, the latter on community and of people trying to make a life for themselves and to participate meaningfully in society. Like McLuhan, she endeavours to become a "living probe"--by assuming the roles of "writer" and of "artist," rather than of "expert," so that she may place people at the centre of her discussion. Her aims are to aid people to gain control of their workplaces and to help them develop a more participatory vision regarding the information highway and the new postindustrial economy. She believes that through a new critical discourse of action, we can turn things around and "reassert meaningful public control" (p. 134). But, to be effective, she continues, there must also be "networking," since just a few oppositional voices in isolation "are simply cranks," whereas a network, knitting these voices together, "can offer an alternative to public cynicism and despair" (p. 142).

Despair arises, Menzies contends, because over the past decade information and communication technologies have caused the collapse of the Fordist social contract. No longer are decent incomes distributed widely to a population more or less fully employed in mass production and mass consumption. Today, rather, we have entered a "cybernetic brave new world," a "digital retread of feudalism," complete with "electronic moats" separating haves and have-nots (p. xiv). (She notes in one telling example how the Ontario Conservative Party was able to raise $900,000 from a single fund-raising dinner in April 1995, whereas a Toronto-based food bank was simultaneously struggling to feed 150,000 people a month, including 60,000 children.)

The emerging information highway, Menzies believes, is becoming the axis of the new economy. It is increasingly the place where work is dispatched to new global and local labour markets, where work is done and supervised, and where "value" is added. The information highway is transforming indigenous institutions into mere extensions of remote information systems and service suppliers. For her such transformations are more severe than those of the Industrial Revolution, since they are being spread over only a few decades, not centuries.

Whose Brave New World? is a book that can be read at several levels. For those interested in Canadian communication thought, citations from and applications of the writings of Harold Innis, Marshall McLuhan, George Grant, Ursula Franklin, and others will be appreciated. For those interested in the future of work, this book is essential reading. For anyone caught up in the rhetoric of the Information Revolution and the Information Highway, the book will be a provocative eye-opener, a much-needed "anti-environment" (to cite McLuhan once more) to technological group-think. And for readers concerned about questions of culture, democracy, and social cohesion, Menzies' warnings--that we are being caught up in a closure of human communities within the technological extensions of corporations, affecting thereby our very thought processes and modes of perception--need to be considered seriously.

One can only hope that Whose Brave New World? enjoys a kinder and more just fate than did her previous work on the information society.