How technology drives nations apart

November 03, 1995|By TRB

WASHINGTON -- This is a trick question. Three days before Quebec's sovereignty referendum, when anti-sovereigntists rallied in Montreal, how large was the turnout, as reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation?

Answer: Depends on what you mean by ''Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.'' According to Newsworld, the CBC's English-language all-news channel, the turnout was 150,000. According to RDI, the CBC's French-language all-news channel, the turnout was 35,000.

Of all the reasons to believe that sovereignty for Quebec is still in the cards, the biggest may be the force this anecdote crystallizes: the balkanizing tendency of some modern communications technologies.

Farewell, Hollywood

Quebec's nationalism was galvanized in 1952 by the advent of French-language TV. Indigenous programming brought a sense of collective identity to a people whose video entertainment had previously come from Hollywood. Since then, the number of Francophone TV outlets has only grown.

The last 20 years have brought the above-mentioned RDI; the public-affairs TV network Radio Quebec, run by the provincial government and carrying a strong nationalist flavor; and lots of -- French-language cable channels, including MusiquePlus, the rock video station whose hip public-affairs show, Politiquement Direct, was used adroitly by sovereigntist leader Lucien Bouchard.

Canada's French-language channels aren't nearly as insular as the subterranean networks that help sustain, say, the American militia movement -- the mail-order videotapes about the Waco siege, the newsletters and e-mails about black helicopters. Still, in both cases there is the tendency of information networks catering to distinct communities to reinforce pre-existing beliefs. And in both cases there is the same economic impetus. The ever-dropping cost of sending data -- print, video, audio -- means that distinct communities, however small, have more and more data conduits devoted to them, and thus find it easier and easier to ignore outside sources.

But what about all those trans-border technologies, like direct-broadcast satellite and the Internet? Aren't they homogenizing culture globally, breaking down barriers left and right?

Not as much as advertised. Canadian cable TV companies have demonized the coming direct-broadcast satellites as cultural ''death stars,'' and they may indeed bring lots of Hollywood junk; but they're unlikely to corrupt Quebec's linguistic purity. They'll offer packages of French-language channels and packages of English-language channels, and few families will buy both. And the more French channels there are, the less time French-speaking children in Montreal will spend watching American broadcasts that seep across the border -- traditionally the way Montreal's young Francophones have become bilingual.

As for the Internet: though ''global,'' it is the ultimate in balkanizing technologies. It reduces the cost of reaching a group, whatever the size and geographic distribution, to near zero. During Quebec's sovereignty debate, the Internet's role was mainly to host: a) the ''oui'' worldwide-web site, where sovereigntists went to have their beliefs reinforced; and b) the ''no'' worldwide-web site, where federalists went to have their beliefs reinforced.

Yes, there was interchange on the discussion group ''soc.culture.quebec,'' but it often had the polarizing tendency for which net discourse is noted; lacking the visual cues that keep face-to-face conversation civil, people tend to fly off the handle.

MA The distinction between TV and the Internet will slowly disap

pear. As the net consists more of capacious optical fibers, and less of archaic copper wires, it will become a major video conduit. Some day there will be an effectively infinite number of TV networks, all with rock-bottom distribution costs. Narrowcasting will grow radically narrower.

Of course, there are globalizing technological forces of great consequence. First and foremost are the microcomputers and fiber optics that energize financial markets, foster trade, and hold multinational corporations together. It is the resulting flow of goods, services and currency that has brought to life such supranational bodies as NAFTA and the World Trade Organization.

From pluribus to unum

But, oddly, these overarching structures may actually further some forms of fragmentation. Quebec sovereigntists have vowed to join NAFTA and the WTO once liberated from Canada. This is partly politics, a way of quelling fears that a post-secession Quebec will be isolated. Still, it's no vacuous reassurance; a Quebec anchored in NAFTA and the WTO will indeed be more viable than a Quebec flying solo, and less of a threat to regional stability; this option makes secession more practical.

One big difference between the U.S. and Canada is that American ethnic minorities, though somewhat segregated, don't dominate the vast swaths of land conducive to secession. So America's technologically abetted social divisions won't be handled, as Canada's may yet be, by relying on the supranational bodies also fostered by technology; we can't just slice off a chunk of the country and glue it to NAFTA. That's why we need to do a better job of tending to divisions than Canada has done.

TRB is a column of The New Republic, written this week by Robert Wright.

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