DIGITAL NATION

Since last Saturday’s CAJ conference, I’ve been thinking a lot more (yes, these are the things I do for fun, I’m such a boring nerd) about digital technology and newsgathering. I sit on and stew these things for days on end. Yes, this is what I do in my now-minimal spare time.

Anyway, PBS aired this really interesting documentary series called Digital Nation this week. It’s available online. It’s actually a pretty fresh take on the generational divide that affects people’s perceptions of life on the net. Definitely worth checking out.

And, low and behold, John Gaudi, the Digital Skeptic, informed me of it airing last night. Of course, it was on regular television, so…

WHY TECHNOLOGY MATTERS IN POLITICS

- Salon.com

- Salon.com

In taking a small break from the Olympics on this blog, here’s a post that’s more important to the state of the American electorate.

Question – how important is it for politicians to be wired?

The answer is: very.

Salon has an article on the, um, technological challenges Republican Presidential candidate John McCain has. It’s not a very flattering portrait of the man’s limitations when it comes to the Web; he alleges he’s never had a particular reason to send an email or even Google.

Come again? What year is this? This is a man whom has been part of the U.S. Congress since the 1980’s – how could he possibly be this incompetent with one of the key apparatuses – the Internet – of the American experience?

I’m still baffled how the moribund Republican Party managed to select, quite possibly, the least qualified candidate to be the prospective leader of the Free World. I suspect many folks, under no illusions from the get-go of this marathon to the White House, know that McCain’s got about as many liabilities as a Presidential candidate can have.

Never mind the fact he’s the oldest candidate ever to run – McCain’s got very little talent in using the now-classic Karl Rove-esque formula of divide-and-conquer-America-to-win-a-Presidency. His efforts to woo the Religious Right are, shall we say, a mixed result at best. He’s positively radioactive in almost every major demographic in America with the exception of white, older males (gee, that’s a stretch for McCain). Worse, his personal history and renowned temper does call into question whether he’s in a position to call out Barack Obama over questions of “values” and “morality.” Finally, why does no one seem interested in posting stories over the shady, questionable aspects of McCain’s political career pre-George W. Bush? Why is the American media still trying to paint this man as a “maverick” who suffered at the hands of his Vietnamese torturers for four years, thus automatically turning him into an American hero (if McCain qualifies as a “hero” in this day and age, man is America starved for people to admire). No one doubts he went through those terrible events, but how does any of that qualify him to be President? I was beaten up in school many times throughout my primary grades – does that make me a certified expert on conflict management among children? Hardly.

But I digress. The point of the Salon article is pretty clear: comparing McCain, a technological troglodyte, to Barack Obama is like comparing a Wright Brothers’ plane to a space shuttle. There is no comparison. Obama is profoundly connected with technology; his web site is absolutely incredible (one of the guys from Facebook, Chris Hughes, is in charge of My.BarackObama.com and it is a terrific site) and Obama himself has referenced the importance of digital technology in his platform. His policies on the Web are amazingly progressive and pro-network neutrality. This, in stark contrast to McCain, a man whom has helped out the big telecommunications companies in their efforts to further deregulate (read: raise costs) the industry and thus worsen the web experience for people paying exorbitant rates for capped, slower access no other nation would tolerate (well, except for Canada).

Here in Canada, it’s not an election year (yet) and where the candidates stand on issues of technology haven’t really been made a matter of policy. But the Conservatives do let action, or lack of it, speak louder than their words. The government’s speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil strategy to the abuses companies like Rogers, Bell and Telus heap onto Canadians when it comes to cell phone rates and traffic shaping online are well known. The Conservatives (and the Liberals) have also put forth some exceedingly ill-informed proposed bills on copyright legislation that could have been written back in 1998, considering how out-of-touch the bills are with the average citizen. Or is it just bending over backwards for big multinational conglomerates?

In any case, getting people interested in technological issues as a matter of policy is hard. Most people generally don’t care about government activities unless the affairs of government directly affects them, positively or negatively, or if there’s scandal involved. And considering the vast, vast, vast majority of people interested in issues of technology aren’t exactly known for their overwhelming participation in the democratic process (i.e. youth), it makes sense the Conservatives and Liberals don’t care much about technology or passing informed, well-considered legislation.

I-PATRIOT ACT

In today’s climate of fear and defensive posturing that governments around the world seem locked into, there’s nothing more potentially unnerving than an unpredictable, far-reaching conduit in which ordinary citizens are tapped into. That, my friends, is of course the Internet.

In case anyone remembers the aftermath of 9/11 and all the legal, political and military pivots that effectively turned America into The United States of Paranoia (albeit before Iraq, Katrina, the Recession-Depression that’s starting, extraordinary rendition, CIA-approved torture tactics… does it ever end?), there were two little bills that changed America forever: The now-infamous Patriot Act and Patriot Act II.

Well, consider the nature of government when it comes to encroachment of powers. Governments will sometimes use events (read: 9/11) as catalysts to enact legislation that would be inconceivable under normal conditions. Of course, no one would ever assume a government would conduct a false flag operation to justify certain actions in government, right?

Of course, smart men like Lawrence Lessig know better. Lessig – a man far more capable of formulating reasoned, sensible government policy than government mandarins – spoke at this year’s Brainstorm Tech conference about “an i-9/11 event” that could enable the U.S. government to completely change how the Internet works in America (and really, how the world accesses the Internet too).

We’re talking the whole hog of totalitarianism here, folks: Internet ID cards to govern where, when and who goes online; massive, overarching social tracking technology; blocking and filtering of web sites in public forums like libraries (!) that mysteriously don’t fall in with mainstream-approved readings; vast spy databases – the list goes on and on and on.

Don’t think for a moment this isn’t possible. Nobody saw 9/11 coming and look what happened there. What if a huge cyberterrorist attack – we’re talking a monumental, Denial-of-Service-Attacking, data eliminating, shit hits the fan bad – happens in a major American city or the entire East Coast? It doesn’t even have to be al-Qaeda-led, either. Hell, when you consider all the unsettling, questionable aspects of 9/11, you don’t have to look too far to wonder exactly who benefits from this kind of cyber law.

So let’s say it happens and this “Cyber Act” is brought into law: if you buy into this system of having ISPs reporting back data on your online habits to the government, you get access to the upcoming Internet2 – a sweet, super-fast replacement to the current architecture of the Web currently in development. Sort of like you’re the horse, Internet2 is the carrot.

You refuse to buy in, you’re a target for government surveillance (at least, now it’s U.S. government spying on Americans that’s suddenly legal and lawful, as opposed to the “extra-legal” spying happening now).

Even if you think this is all fear-mongering, just read the note, it’s informative at least.

OLYMPICS: There’s just two days left before the Games of the Chinese Olympiad (hey, not as if the IOC has any control over these Games anymore) commence. The New York Times has a really cool interactive Flash-based graphic that measures medal counts by country since the first Summer Olympics in 1896.

DIGITAL BACKWATER?

Let me ask you something: do you ever feel like Canada’s a bit of a digital backwater?

For all the touting of Canada by successive federal governments as a “world leader” in technological innovation, one wonders exactly how the political mandarins in Ottawa come to that conclusion. Perhaps in aerospace engineering, industrial manufacturing, biotechnology and other commercial development, that might be true. But when it comes to consumer technology, Canada is about as far from world leader as Robert Mugabe is to being a truly democratically elected President.

First off, Exhibit A: our pathetic cell phone culture. For a country that politicians claim has a lot in common with Nordic nations like Finland or Norway in terms of social democracy, we look more like a Banana Republic when it comes to cell phones than Nordic.

Globalize this little fact – over 90 per cent of Swedes use cell phones and has the highest rate in Europe of 3G phone network penetration. Canada? We still have cellular operators using the outdated CDMA frequency over the global standard GSM. We barely have 3G penetration to speak of outside of cities. Our lack of GSM options means we have to put up with Rogers being the only cellular operator able to offer the iPhone, which means no choice, no competition, no benefit to the consumer. We also seemingly lack the mindset of unlimited access, unlike our neighbours to the South – why is Rogers cynically charging consumers for capped data access when Americans can get unlimited data coverage nationwide? It feels like a gigantic middle finger to the consumer. More to the point, why are Canadians paying for things that U.S. cellular companies offer for free? Don’t tell me it’s about comparative market sizes – if we’re as advanced as the federal government claims, shouldn’t the cost of data and voice access be going down, not up?

Exhibit B: our Internet culture. While America experiences the same problems in terms of our capped internet speeds – wow, a whole theoretical five megabytes a second! Boy, that puts Koreans to shame *sarcasm* – we have to deal with Bell and Rogers throttling data speeds and making the web a functional experience at best. Sure, Europe and Asia have far, far more advanced digital infrastructure in place to ensure best speeds, but come on guys – you can’t expect us customers to be happy with download speeds that are positively antiquated in nature compared to French telecoms. Again, why are we paying for such crappy service? Worse, why is the federal government pretending this problem doesn’t exist? I can just see federal Industry Minister Jim Prentice sitting in his office with fingers in his ear, singing “la-la-la-la-la” at this moment.

God I wish we could be more like Europe sometimes.