Lost in Cyberspace?: Canada and the Information Revolution

Robert Chodos

Rae Murphy

Eric Hamovitch

This book should be read as a timely introduction to a variety of issues surrounding the development of cyberspace and the information highway in Canada. The strengths of the book are that it covers the significant policy, economic, and cultural issues with an eye to both historical events and social concerns which have shaped and are shaping current thinking on these issues. As well, the authors are good at questioning the status quo, what we really know, and where we want to go. Explicit in many of the discussions is a concern with policy and social issues in the face of our fascination with the technologies which enable cyberspace and support corporate endeavours.

The weakness of the book lies, as the authors admit, in trying to capture the transient and complex nature of the changes taking place. This is not a major limitation of the text because there is a need to expand the public debate beyond what goes on in corporate boardrooms and behind closed policy meetings, or appears in different media outlets. The authors suggest that it is always time to seriously question information policy in Canada. The one frustration in reading the book was that so much could have been written about a number of issues raised in the book. For example, in a section on gender and identity, the authors missed citing the important work of Turkle (1995). In other sections, obvious Canadian-based authors were omitted (Dorland, 1996; Mosco, 1996). While this is clearly not an academic textbook, a more extensive bibliography would have been useful. As well, the organization of the ideas was not always clear. Many times the authors came back to the same issue after what had seemed like a clear statement of it. For example, the distinction is made between the metaphors of an information highway versus an information railway. Given the complexity of identifying, let alone discussing, the characteristics and main policy and social issues of the information society, the overlapping and repetition of ideas is probably unavoidable.

The authors begin by examining the critical differences between the metaphors used to describe cyberspace. Is it a highway, railway, or goat track? The emphasis is on corporate activities in conjunction with computer networks. This leads to a concern with competition, choice of content, and a preference for a highway metaphor over a railway one.

Chapter 2 presents the interplay between the state, corporations, and the military's development and use of communication technologies. The abbreviated history of the connection between the organizations who developed the different technologies and controlled their implementation is fascinating and deserving of book-length treatment in its own right. I do not mean the often-repeated history of Arpanet and the U.S. military's involvement in promoting computer networks. What is less known is the Canadian military's role in the North with the DEW Line stations, in developing radar technology, and in collaborating with the U.S. military. Canada does have its own, albeit small, military-industrial complex with its own history. It is a shame that less is known about this than is known about the U.S. situation.

The next chapter moves to a central concern of the authors. The growth of corporate multimedia empires, such as Rogers, and the many attempts to ensure vertical integration in the marketplace are understood as genuine threats to the development of cyberspace. It is suggested that there needs to be a separation between service and content. Since the authors were focused on policy concerns, it is somewhat surprising that they neglected to identify the policy research and pro-business concerns of Industry Canada. Of course it is hardly the authors' fault that events at the WTO, OECD, and the maligned proposal for the MAI treaty have only recently raised important question about cultural sovereignty in light of increasing globalization.

At this point it is easier to itemize some of the issues that the authors considered important rather than trying to summarize each chapter. Some of the issues are: Internet vs. cable distribution models, commercial vs. non-commercial models, copyright, censorship and privacy, encryption, electronic-cash, gender and identity, community and the Internet, access, state involvement vs. corporate control, new technologies and social upheaval (unemployment, worker dislocation, downsizing), and computer networks and capital flows. The reader gets a strong sense of the complex interplay between these issues, and the rhetorical tug-of-war between positions favouring either strong state regulation or a free market approach. While the authors do lean towards certain positions, such as the continued benefits of a private /public broadcasting system, they are not so dogmatic as to suggest that any of these debates are over.

Most of these issues are found in the Information Highway Advisory Council's (IHAC) final report, Preparing Canada for a Digital World (1997). Despite the obvious duplication of themes, this is a minor complaint compared to the value of having a book which questions some key underlying assumptions, such as the inevitability of the Internet and its development. There is not really a balanced public debate about the information society. Thus, although unintended, the book serves as a balance to the IHAC report. For that reason the book could be used as an easy-to-read introduction to literature which deals with cyberspace, communication policy issues, new communication technologies, and political economy in Canada and internationally.

References

Canada. (1997). Preparing Canada for a digital world: Final report of the Information Highway Advisory Council. Ottawa: Industry Canada.

Dorland, Michael (Ed.). (1996). The cultural industries in Canada: Problems, policies and prospects. Toronto: James Lorimer.

Mosco, Vincent. (1996). The political economy of communication: Rethinking and renewal. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Turkle, Sherry. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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