Issues

Laurier LaPierre (The Senate of Canada)

Before I begin I would like to mention two things that are of real importance I think to the concerns of this conference. The first is the Historica Heritage Foundation - I'm on its Advisory Committee, where I learned that I would be your keynote speaker. The reason I suspect is that the person who was supposed to do it could not come - or that they attempted to get a child to do it, but his mother would not let him come, or that the organizers felt that a Senator should do something important, or at least intelligent, for the society in which he lives. Whatever the reason for my invitation, I am here, and I bring you the greetings of the Minister of Canadian Heritage, the Honourable Sheila Copps; Mr. Alex Himmelfarb, the Deputy Minister; and all the people who work at Heritage Canada, particularly Peter Homulos and his multimedia shop, who have been very successful in helping to organize this conference. The second is to discuss with you this most revealing report on the state of the nation in terms of our collective use of and access to the Internet.

We are all here to take an almost forensic examination of the Internet today. Now it's quite conceivable that the Internet is overrated, that it's a new toy and that the benefits are highly exaggerated. I still labour under the assumption that it's better to get your information out of a book that you can hold in your hand than by looking at a screen that you can barely see. I find that it is also very important to be able to communicate verbally. Even though I get charming e-mails from my small grandchildren when I'm away, I find that talking to them is a greater pleasure. But I felt the same way when television was created. Very shortly thereafter, as I came to see its potential, I felt that it would change the world, I really did. I felt that there would be no more ignorance. Ignorance, after all, was a condition of life in the generation from which I come. Now there would be no reason for ignorance unless you chose to be ignorant. I thought there would be no more war and no more peace accords - there would be lasting peace. Somehow the rich would no longer attempt to annihilate the poor and the poor would be able to reach a level of society where they could be dignified and live independent lives, women would not be beaten, and children would not be abused. The world would be a much safer and better place to be. The Messiah had arrived in the form of a television screen.

Here I am at 71 years old, some 40-odd years later, and I still believe in TV, in spite of everything. I believe that these are instruments given to us to better our lives; I believe the Internet can bring about a kind of peaceful revolution of ideas. I think it is undisciplined, but I don't care too much about discipline. I was thrown out of the seminary because I could not accept regimentation, otherwise I would be Pope today. The Internet is also, I am told, somewhat anarchistic. So what? Anarchy may be the condition out of which order grows, I do not know.

And so here we are, attempting to pull together our collective efforts in a desire to improve the situation on the Internet with respect to the information deficit. And it is about that, of course, that we need to talk. You have been given a document of astonishing range - it is called Surveying the Information Deficit: A Background Report (2001), which has been prepared by the InterNet Consulting Group, headed by David Crowley. I invite you to read it, because in it are all the things we need to talk about. The report surveys the current research and concludes "that the 'information deficit' manifests itself in several ways: as deficits of access or exclusion, as deficits that threaten to undermine social cohesion (over confidence in on-line safety, security and privacy), deficits that impinge on cultural content, affecting for instance the visibility of Canadian content on-line and the stability of on-line content, and finally deficits of knowledge." The report's executive summary points out where these deficits are. I would like to briefly discuss these elements and add some of my own.

First of all the authors say there is a parent trap - a situation in which parents strongly support the adoption of the Internet but are falling behind the curve of Internet know-how. Too many parents (as they do also insofar as television is concerned) argue that they know what their children are watching and interacting with. And the children say that the parents know absolutely nothing, or practically little, of what it is that they do with the Internet. The Media Awareness Network, one of the great institutions of this country, issued a study on June 21, 2001, to support this finding - that Canadian parents are not fully aware of how their children are using the Internet. Not surprisingly, many young people are well ahead of their parents in their knowledge and exploitation of the Internet. One-half of them say they think they know more about the Internet than their parents do. Young people also say they are often on their own when they go on-line: 84% say they are by themselves when they go on-line at least some of the time, and 70% say their parents talk to them very little or not at all about what they do on-line. When in the '80s I worked on a special commission for the Ontario government called "To Herald a Child," two significant problems came to light. One was that very few parents were reading to their children, and the majority who did were those who had the least time to do it. The other was that many children were latch-key children - children returning home alone after school while their parents worked. Significant numbers of children were really free agents in their homes and could watch the television that they really wanted to watch. It would appear that this pattern continues. Consequently, one divide is the parent-child divide.

The on-line population is also somewhat skewed in favour of the wealthiest segment of society. In addition, education, workplace, access to information technology, and age may also be factors as important as household income in pulling people on-line, and all these factors are too large to be tractable. So we have really a wealth deficit. The poor have no content at all in Canada. The marginalized have no content at all in Canada. It's all very well to talk about the learning society, but when almost a third of your people, your children, are not adequately nourished or decently clothed in order to go to school the next day, this is the first problem to address: the problem of the divide. If the Internet is to be an instrument of democratic value, it has got to reach every segment of the society and every individual of the society. Consequently we will have to address that entitlement and participation before spending too much more time on technology. Our deliberation on how society both collectively and individually is affected by this instrument may very well revolutionize the lives of the less fortunate in Canada, their culture, their access to information, and the democratic life they must inherit.

A third element of the divide, the report suggests, is skills effects; in other words, many Canadians - you or I - may not have the skills to fully exploit this new medium. I have no skills at all: I sit in awe, I think it's all magic, and then I generally push the wrong button. Non-users continue to struggle with access issues and costs, but addressing the barriers associated with age is one of the keys to greater inclusion on-line. Age and location may figure in all the patterns of exclusion from the Internet: the less skilled, the less educated, those in poverty; those in remote or rural areas; those lacking workforce experience - and these things our researchers, Crowley et al., believe will be difficult to overcome.

In the divide there is also the dimension of our cultural and linguistic diversity, which is after all the cornerstone of our country and the essential ingredient in the definition of what Canadians are. It is very, very important that that divide be narrowed or altered significantly. This is of vast importance to the world in which we live.

There is also a slight gender divide: women use the Internet somewhat less than men do. Presuming this is still the case - why is this? If we hope to create an equal society in the presence of this new instrument of knowledge, it will become imperative to cross each of these divides.

The first step is to acknowledge, as this report illustrates, that there is a digital divide, determined in large part by age, education, income, language and culture, gender and place. Rural people use the Internet far less than urban people. Why? Is it because they do not have the instruments to get it? Or is it because in their culture it does not exist, or remains a luxury? I do not know these things. I know if we are going to create equality in the face of this powerful medium, it will be crucial that we span all of the gaps and address all of the inequalities. Before we worry about anything else with regard to the Internet, let's ensure its equal accessibility.

In the Heritage Fairs we have each summer in Canada, nearly 250,000 young people between grade four and grade nine participate in a historical storytelling symposium. So far this represents over two and a half million people, who make it abundantly clear, Jack Granatstein be damned, that Canadian history is not dead. A Heritage Fair on the Web will continue to ensure that children have access to knowledge about their history and the chance to exchange their stories and histories - who their great-grandfathers and -grandmothers were, how they lived and what they contributed - with other people across Canada. It is a marvellous experience, one we should all try to participate in.

When we talk about the Internet in this country, we are always concerned about Canadian content disappearing into the vortex of information that is currently available on-line. Those who prepared this report tell me that the number of all Web sites that attract at least 1% of Canadian visitors monthly is 558. Web sites with Canadian content that attract at least 1% of Canadian visitors monthly: 147. Their estimate for the number of Web sites with Canadian content that attract less than 1% of Canadian visitors in an average month is 2,300; they estimate Canadian Web sites' share of Internet traffic in Canada at 16%. Other categories where Canadian-oriented Web sites attract a majority of visitors are local and community sites, government, education sites, business, news and financial sites, and travel sites. These are the categories that we are talking about.

Consequently, we ask our question: is there an information deficit insofar as content, Canadian content, is concerned? I am a Canadian content-oriented person. I think I have battled all my adult life to increase Canadian content on Canadian television. I have fought for assistance for our programmers, our artists, and our actors in order that they would have the wherewithal to compete in this sphere, since private enterprise did not favour them for the longest period of time, and since Canadian stories were considered dull and insipid by the vast majority of Canadians who preferred to watch the dull and vapid programs of Americans. And we have affected considerably the content of our culture in the process. Our children do not know Canadian history because the adults don't know it. Our children don't know our Canadian stories because adults don't tell them. Our children don't have Canadian stories or the Canadian experience reflected on television because we are so distracted by the clamour of American networks. Is this also going to be the destiny of the Internet? If so you can keep it, you can keep it.

This is an important culture in the twenty-first century - an astonishingly human experience in the history of the world, this country Canada. It has a lot of things to say to us as its residents and to the world's citizens. It is crucial, therefore, that we find a way to chart and navigate the territory of the Internet to tell of our experience and in the process, illuminate the world. Very few countries in the world make it a condition of citizenship to respect the diversity of the cultures represented among them. And out of that diversity of the land comes respect for it. Clearly, we should have content on the Internet that reflects this and enables us to disseminate this regard for diversity. We are told that Canadians are among the most connected people in the world yet when we are clicking, looking for the best content, the most relevant, the most arresting - sadly, by and large it is not Canadian content we find but American. I deplore that, I deplore it. We must arrive at some process whereby through ingenuity, through our entrepreneurs, through our scholars we shall be able to develop the know-how and the capacity to sustain and produce the best Internet content in the world in order to engage our people.

We are also talking, when we talk about the Internet, about gadgets. Now, I am very fond of gadgets. But like my brain, I only use 10% of them. I have a Palm Pilot I don't even know how to access. And yet every day somebody from my office co-ordinates it with the computerized schedule that I have. But then I turn it on and the batteries are dead. I mention this to you in passing, because I may not be the only one on the planet who does that, or in this country. So I'm not speaking today as an expert, and certainly not as a media guru. All I am is just a little man attempting to understand what this revolution brings about, what this instrument brings about in this society at the beginning or at the end of his dotage, as my children are bound to say.

I know a lot, though, about the old media. I know that in the old media you had to catch the conscience of the king. And to do that you had to be relevant, to do that you had to consult, and to do that you had to reach out. When we started Seven Days, the CBC had determined that it should not be a network program because it could only hope to reach the 40,000-odd intellectuals in Canada who could understand public affairs - a very severe judgment for an agency entrusted with the keeping of the culture, the sense, the heart of a country. It didn't take long for them to find out that the Canadian people as a whole were interested in what was going on about them in their country and in the world. Today, young people are discovering in reruns some of the Canadian productions of that era - a source not of wisdom, perhaps, but at least a source of connection between what was created some 35 years ago and what exists now in the world. And they ask why it is that programs like this do not exist - why it is that so much of what they see is safe, is shallow, is bland by comparison. It seems to me, therefore, that we shall have to take risks on the Internet. And the people who will have to take the greater risk on the Internet will be those agencies of the federal, provincial, and municipal governments who must relinquish control to the creators of content and tellers of stories.

We must be prepared also to take a few risks ourselves, and above all not to make assumptions about those we are trying to serve. I myself am not perhaps the best example for a certain age group. It took me three months to find out where it was that I could access Internet banking. People kept telling me, "We have already told you, Senator, to do this like this." And then a 10-year-old boy, a child of my extended family, came and said, "Laurier, it's under 'chequing,' for God's sake, all you have to do is put your little card and then the hand is going to come up, click twice and you're all set." I must tell you that when the banking machines came out, you know where they tried them first? In rural Saskatchewan. And the greatest users of the Internet, of the banking machines were elderly people. Here we were all assuming that the elderly people really want to go in person and see a banker because the bank is a social instrument. Instead they loved it because they did not have to speak to stupid people they didn't want to talk to.

There is a fascinating statistic that you might like to look at: it is expected that the average age of first-time users of the Internet will soon be below 10 years of age; it may be as low as eight. And although not all teenagers have computers, the age group reports more than 90% usage for the Internet. For those who are 25 to 30 years of age, it is 70%. As we survey older people, however, the use of the Internet goes down, so that by the time you get to my age group, people who are 65 and older, only 13% use the Internet. Now, it is no secret that Canada has an aging population, so this is a ratio that can only increase - and is likely to exceed all expectations when it does. I would suggest to you then, that as you discuss the information deficit, you give some precedence to supporting what I would call the "Grey Net." I think very little is done to promote the Internet among the more chronologically advanced among us. There is a need for the design and promotion of content that would appeal to a mature generation. More importantly, I think that we are at one of the turning points in social history where one generation will be influenced by an invention which was not taken advantage of by the older generation. And if you remember Henry Ford and horseless carriages, you will understand what I am trying to say.

And perhaps there is a lesson in the history of the old media, especially the use of radio that was made in this country by R.B. Bennett and the Conservative government at one time. Canadian radio and broadcasting and the CBC was born out of that, in order to bring the country together. But now we have another problem, not regional propaganda but something called concentration or convergence. Convergence is becoming as stupid a word as paradigm - a term like so many others bandied about by the Californian New Age revolution. People talked all over the country, but particularly on the West Coast where I was living, about paradigm. Nobody understood what in the hell it was, let alone what it meant, and certainly not what the content was. But they all talked about paradigm. Now today everybody who makes a speech on new media talks about convergence, the bringing together, the multimedia activity that takes place in hundreds and hundreds of sectors across the land to be brought together. And the lamentable thing that has happened is that convergence is now the fashionable word for the concentration of ownership and the increase of shareholders' benefits. The concentration of ownership of information media is not convergence. In fact there is astonishingly great danger with convergence, in putting all your eggs in one basket. That Mother Bell owns CTV and a great chunk of the globe is to me in a very dangerous situation, and convergence is not going to explain it away. If the Internet is an instrument for diverse sources of information to exist or be accessible in their own right, is the concentration of ownership of the instruments that dispense information a good thing? Can we not see, especially in this country, that diversity of ownership might be a better instrument through which to do that?

In concluding, I must tell you several things. I must first of all remind you what I told you at the beginning. For those Canadians who have no access to computers, there is no content. We have, first of all, to bridge the various divides because we are who we are as a people and as a nation. We have, secondly, to eliminate them because our society is being transformed from a learned society to a learning society, or at least one where it becomes more and more important to be continually learning. Thirdly, because our democratic culture is changing rapidly, and because the delivery of our democracy is in a state of flux, interdependence is now the instrument of governance, not dependence. Exclusivity of powers, whether they be federal, provincial, or municipal, no longer exist in the new reality of this changing democracy. We are developing a highly portable network, and our democracy, which tends now to be hierarchical, will cease to exist in time. Provinces are already obsolete. Great chunks of the federal government may soon become also obsolete. We are going to see the creation of networks, networks of concerned people, who will move from one network to the other and through dialogue, and consensus building, arrive at policymaking to elect or influence the people who will bring about their agenda.

The right to access knowledge and information is a fundamental and inalienable right of the citizen, of a human being, and consequently the Charter of Rights and Freedoms should be amended for the digital age to state that very, very clearly. That this is a fundamental right makes it the responsibility of government and citizens to make it possible.

In some sense we are becoming both local and international, a world of millions of private actors. This means, as we saw on September 11th, that we live in a world of virtually unlimited vulnerability. That is a universal deficit. And we need to address that in an extraordinarily creative way in order that our children will not inherit the chaos that we have so far been assisting in creating.

Reference

Surveying the Information Deficit: A Background Report for Information Deficit: Canadian Solutions, commissioned by Information Deficit: Canadian Solutions Steering Committee (URL: http://www.ucalgary.da/idcs-disc), InterNet Consulting Group (2001, October).



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