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Issue № 84

The Web is Like Canada

by Published in Business, Industry, State of the Web

Like Canada, the Web may best be defined by what it is not. Old-timers of the Web can use this fact as a useful addition to our armamentarium when fighting off the forces of convergence.

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Pierre Trudeau died on September 28, 2000. He was prime minister of Canada from 1968 to 1979 and from 1980 to 1984. An immeasurably important influence on twentieth-century Canada, Trudeau altered the course of an entire generation, namely mine: He was prime minister for almost half my life.

Trudeau’s imprint endures even for those of us who can barely articulate it. Trudeau left Canadians with a feeling, with a list of inchoate ideals for living. I remember his swagger and his jetset lifestyle, his nearly superhuman fluency in English and French. The fabled Trudeau magic appeared to be transmissible: His wife Margaret – her own woman and an underappreciated Canadian icon, a trophy wife who puts Marlen Cowpland to shame – exhibited an uncanny ability to give birth on Christmas Day (two sons out of three). It could only have happened with Trudeau as a father, seemingly harnessing the very forces of nature.

The magic rubbed off on millions of young adults. A signal, decades-long influence of Trudeau’s liberal prime-ministerial reign has been the search for identity. Ask English-speaking Canadians the question “What does it mean to be Canadian?” and, more often than not, the response will begin with the words “Well, unlike Americans, we –”

Only Canadians could assert themselves by explaining what they aren’t. Even the West and East Germans; the North and South Koreans; the New Zealanders and the Australians; the Scottish, the Welsh, the Irish, the Northern Irish, and the British; or the Walloons and the Flemish – all identifiable in relation to someone else – don’t take definition by negation to such lengths.

The ethos of being Canadian through not being American is such a cornerstone of Canadian culture that it became a cornerstone of pop culture last year with a high-profile beer commercial (and its many parodies).

A second definition of Canadian identity has joined the popular argot here, though it reads more like a punchline than anything else: “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances.” Canadianism, like the Web, is a work-in-progress.

And as media juggernauts rush headlong toward an unnatural union of television and the Web under the rubric of convergence, the entire Web can learn something from Canada.

Really. Truly. Because the Web, too, defines itself by what it is not. Every time you or one of your with-it friends mutters “the Web is not TV,” you inadvertently invoke the enduring paradox of Canadian identity.

Canada, a media crucible

Convergence is happening faster, and with more dramatic implications for the net, in Canada than anywhere else on earth. We outpace even the United States in this regard, with its richly-financed WebTV and AOLTV experiments.

It’s not altogether surprising. Canada is the media capital of the world, full stop. Due to our enormous landmass, we were early adopters of communications satellites (Anik A1, the first domestic telecom satellite, 1972). Nearly every single Canadian has a phone; three-quarters have cable television. Cable TV brings in American signals (no matter how far north you live: Yellowknife, Northwest Territories receives Detroit and Seattle stations). U.S. signals run alongside dozens of Canadian channels, licensed by the CRTC in large part to counter American influences. (Canadian channels are important by virtue of not being American.)

Without even signing up for pay cable TV, I receive 45 Canadian and 16 U.S. channels. Dozens more will arrive with digital TV, and all these channels serve a population of a mere 30 million. Digital phone services, wireline and wireless, are the norm. And where did McLuhan – the “patron saint” of Wired, name-dropped relentlessly by Web arrivistes grasping for intellectual street cred – do his greatest work?

Like the United States, nearly the entire Canadian telecommunications infrastructure is owned and overseen by an oligopoly of communications giants. But with so few oligopolists and so many media outlets for such a small populace, the oligopolists’ reach is far greater in Canada than in the U.S.

In the last six months, those giants have gone apeshit in “acquiring properties” in “old” or “new” media, depending on where their original power base lies. (To spare sensitive Americans the trauma of learning too much about Canada, you can read a sidebar chock-full of details in a new window.)

As I’ve been documenting on MogulWatch, an adjunct to the NUblog Weblog on online content I write, this frenzy of consolidation, reminiscent of feeding scenes in Jaws, is all in the name of “convergence.” (Mogul megalomania is the undiscussed subtext.)

What is “convergence,” as envisaged by the oligarchs? It has something to do with combining television and the Web, ostensibly over the high-speed lines that 41% of Canadians are supposed to have in-house by 2002.

To whom does convergence make any sense whatsoever? To people who don’t know the net. And in our response to that kind of cluelessness, we must eventually return to Canadian identity.

Top-down or bottom-up?

I am typical of Internet old-timers. I went online in August 1991. I predate the Web. My first address was ontmoh!joeclark@UUCP. I’ve programmed from scratch, written for, and designed my own Web sites since 1995 (including joeclark.org, fawny.org, and contenu.nu). I run eight mailing lists. I write about and for the net (here and for the NUblog and print rags). I’ve got 30,000 E-mails stored in Eudora folders. I am just like many of you in these respects.

But old-timers like me are few in number, have limited real-world influence, and don’t run today’s Web. Marketers and old-media managers do. It would be charitable to call these people ill-informed. I meet senior producers at portal sites who, for example, don’t know what a Weblog is. I’ve met producers, heedless of the failure of Ananova and Miss Boo, who want to transform their online help systems into an analogue of the despised Microsoft Office paper clip. They don’t know how to subscribe to or unsubscribe from mailing lists (a term they don’t understand, until you substitute “Listservs”), or how to quote text properly in E-mails, all of which are composed in HTML, since Web neophytes lack the technical fluency to change the defaults in any of their programs.

These people run the Web, and their Web is different from mine. Neophytes all, the Internet that they understand revolves around (a) Microsoft Outlook, (b) Microsoft Hotmail, and (c) a small bookmark list of the largest of large-scale commercial American Web sites, as viewed through Microsoft Internet Explorer. Neophytes and their deep misunderstanding of the Web are responsible for the hundreds of commercial failures lovingly documented over at FuckedCompany.

Among the crowd that actually runs Web “properties,” there are no alternatives, a lack that masquerades as a “standard.” Their Web is Starbucks; it is the three American broadcast networks before cable TV; it is a single-newspaper town. Their Web is Pleasantville before colourization. It is mainstream in the worst possible sense.

Portals and push: Ominous precedents

In a failed attempt at interdisciplinarianism, these influential hayseeds bring what they know from marketing and old media to the Web. That’s why we’re stuck with banner ads (replicating print advertisements) and, most damagingly, portals, a Web variant whose structure camouflages its TV heritage in a screenful of a hundred underlined links.

Portals, designed by upper-midde-class managers illiterate in so very many ways, ape television by working on the assumption of generality: Managers arrogantly and condescendingly assume “the masses” (codename: consumers) are interested in vague, over-arching categories, like “entertainment” or “sports.” As described elsewhere, the Internet encourages specificity, not generality. Rather than being captivated by entertainment in general, real people are obsessed with Depeche Mode or Jeanette Winterson; quite apart from a passion for sports, fans actually hanker for for Brendan Shanahan or, say, Ian Thorpe.

And remember push technology, another failed televisual analogue, whereby advertising directors and lapsed TV producers aimed to overload your 33.6 Kbps modem by shoving preordained “content” onto your desktop? When faced with a medium that revolves around user choice, old-media types pulled all the stops to kill the upstart by drowning it in watered-down television.

We should have heeded the signs. Don’t you remember feeling an unease during the heydays of portals and push? Thinking back, don’t you remember having reservations about the two Ps? Don’t you also recall having a hard time giving voice those sentiments? There were few outlets, with no Weblogs to speak of and with old media barely covering the net. (Those who bothered to cover it relied on an A-list of favoured spokespeople who themselves mirrored the pre-ordained content of portals and push. That’s if the spokespeople weren’t actual company apologists taking advantage of uninformed journos.)

And, moreover, Internet old-timers like me were busy either missing the boat or signing up for jobs with portals or push sites. For those of us who missed the boat, we shook our heads and told ourselves “This isn’t right,” but we couldn’t quite explain why. For those who sold out, well, we made some good money, I guess.

We saw portals and we saw push. Like Canadians as they behold easy access to guns or a mispronunciation of the name of the last letter of the alphabet (it’s “zed” everywhere but the United States), we looked at the two Ps and thought, “The real Web isn’t like this.”

We couldn’t put it into words at the time. But, thinking back, doesn’t the hallmark paradox of Canadian identity, defining true Web ventures by what they are not, heartily apply in this case?

The survival of the alternative

Gore Vidal was interviewed on a Canadian morning show a great many years ago. “Is it true, Mr. Vidal?” the host jauntily asked. “Will Canada become the 51st state of the union?” “Oh, we’d give you at least five,” Vidal replied instantly.

How can Canada survive in the shadow of the Americans? Pierre Trudeau: “Living next to the United States is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”

But ironically, while Canadians were nattering among themselves struggling to nail down the fine print of Canadian identity, we had built a country. Worldwide, everywhere but the United States, we have a solid reputation. We’ve accomplished a lot, despite our many pressing social problems, like poverty, homelessness, and aboriginal affairs. The nattering hasn’t caught up with the reality. We don’t have a lot to worry about, but worry we do.

Meanwhile, the Internet backbone in the United States was entirely privatized in 1995. Megacorporations, despite repeated failures, continue their project to consume the net, thereby obliterating it. Media cartels’ ongoing efforts to converge television and the Web should ring some alarms, given our experience and our knowledge, borne out of years of real-world use, of what the net should rightly become.

Replicating the failed history of portals and push, we’re being relentlessly propagandized about convergence. (For Canadian parallels, think free trade, deficit reduction, flat taxes, and the brain drain.) We’re told we need television and the Web on the same screen. We’re being told it’s what we want and need.

But old-timers know that the essence of the Web is graphic design – pictures and text. Streaming audio works pretty well, too, even over consumer broadband connections.

When confronted by claims – from publicists, former TV or advertising executives, or arrivistes and charlatans of similar ilk – that the current text-and-graphics Internet just isn’t good enough without video, while TV urgently needs renewal through Internet connectivity, online old-timers feel pangs of unease.

While superannuated TV producers and ad managers natter at us that the net isn’t good enough, we live the reality: It is pretty good already, despite, like Canada itself, its notable lacunæ.

We old-timers wonder why the oligarchs are throwing so much money down the tubes in an effort to overthrow the existing Web. We believe in a certain kind of Internet, one that’s open to new ideas but not open to every cockamamie idea.

What I want to happen is for the wise elders of the Web, those of us who’ve been online forever and really do know better than the neophytes, to use the concepts derived from the perpetual struggle to define Canadian identity as an arrow in our quiver in efforts to shoot bad ideas out of the sky.

Whenever some yokel with a few million bucks to burn tries to sell you a new Web concept, affect a sage, rhetorical tone of voice and ask out loud:

  • Does this feel like a true Web venture or actively unlike one?
  • Is the plan as Internet as possible under the circumstances?

Special note – Readers interested in exploring Trudeaumania and Canadian biculturalism would be well-served by Catherine Anneau’s award-winning documentary Just Watch Me: Trudeau and the ’70s Generation, which counterpoints images of Trudeau with the eloquent, bilingual voices of his era. Even Americans should see the film; the home video is dirt cheap in U.S. dollars.

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