Politics in Canada are changing. New forms of connecting with voters are transforming how Canadian politicians interact with the public and present their policies to Canadians. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is praised for his tight control of information in an age when information spreads instantaneously. The Conservatives' control of the public “message” about their party and intentions is part of the reason behind their continuing electoral success. However, we think that this will no longer be the case. It's been noted that information is becoming a currency in the digital age. Today we explore some of the history behind that idea and its implications for Canadian politics.
Information has always had value. The rise of “information society” reveals how valuable information has been throughout history. The ability to pass on written knowledge from one generation to the next, as opposed to relying on the experiential wisdom of life or apprenticeship, has defined human progress. The most important feature of information society is not the value placed on information, but rather our evolving ability to transmit information in different ways. Rising literacy rates and new technologies means that greater numbers of people can learn about nearly anything. This may sound completely natural to you, but the communication of information through text, radio, television and now the internet, has “democratized” information. In the West, this progression challenged the Medieval “information monopoly” of the learned and the literate who alone were able to read handwritten manuscripts and the knowledge contained therein. From them, they could learn valuable historical knowledge from Antiquity or current debates over politics and religion – but it was restricted to the rich, literate class. The disintegration of information monopolies shaped power structures of yesterday and today, from the spread of the Gutenberg Press to the Arab Spring, and our society remains at the spearhead of this ongoing process.
In Western Europe, the invention of the Gutenberg Press in 1439 seemed innocuous at the time. Joahannes Gutenberg was a German blacksmith who wanted an easier way to print and invented a movable type printing press. Gutenberg could add and remove different letters from his press to write different messages. Before, printing was a difficult undertaking as a pamphlet would have had to have been carved into a single block of wood for printing. With the Gutenberg Press, large scale pamphlet and book publication was possible. Its spread across Europe influenced the Protestant Reformation, as it was easier for its radical ideas to spread across regions through books or pamphlets. It solidified the Martin Luther's protest movement that challenged the authority of the Catholic Church. The ease of printing increased the spread of information as far more “ordinary people” were exposed to Luther's ninety-five theses. Over the next several centuries, literacy rates across Europe rose in tandem with the an increased quantity of written material to read.
Reform is always linked to the spread of ideas which in turn is tied to society's ability to spread information. As printing became commercialized and widespread, the notion of a “public sphere” where informed citizens could debate the policies of the state emerged. France's Revolutionary Era is a clear example as once more pamphlets and books helped to spread Enlightenment thought and subvert the idea of absolutist monarchy. The Revolutionary government clearly understood the power of information – one of their acts was to re-brand everything as “revolutionary” from the government to the calendar. Similarly, in Great Britain a “pamphlet war” during the 1790s erupted between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine over the meaning of France's revolution and its impact on their country. Reform groups, like the London Corresponding Society, pushed for British reform through published material that they distributed to their fellow citizens. Though France's revolution would fail and Britain did not then undertake the reform pressed by Paine and the London Corresponding Society, their ideas did not disappear. Pamphlets and books extolling their ideas could not be so easily repressed and eventually the once radical reforms of representative government became a normal, accepted understanding of the relationship between the state and its people. The rise of daily printed newspapers during the 19th century pushed information society even further as anyone could read about the what was happening in the world. The public sphere became more clearly defined as newspapers published debates and articles arguing about government policies and, sometimes, necessary reform.
The next “information revolution” occurred in the 20th century. Whereas books once allowed information to spread farther and faster than the single person speaking in the local tavern, the invention of radio globalized information society. Or, perhaps nationalized it. We've previously mentioned the link between radio and nationalism in the 1930s. The solemn words of American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt rallied a nation during the depression while the hate-filled rhetoric of the Nazis turned a nation towards war. Radio's ability to spread information instantaneously (well, as fast as the radio wave) reintroduced the power of the human voice just like villagers learning of news in the local tavern or Church. But the audience for radio was in the millions. The construction of a national identity is easier when you can talk to an entire nation at once. In a Canadian context, Alberta's William Aberhart (also known as Bible Bill) began sending his sermons out over the radio every Sunday in the late 1920s. The program grew in popularity in large part due to Aberhart's charismatic and engaging sermons. In the midst of the Great Depression, Aberhart believed that a system of “social credit” where the government provided increased spending power to the individual through relief-programs was the solution. Aberhart's popular radio personality helped win the provincial election for the Social Credit Party of Alberta and Aberhart himself became Premier from 1935 to 1943. As a testament to the enduring popularity of the party, the Social Credit Party led Alberta won every election in the province until 1971.
After the Second World War, technological innovations in mass production and strong post-war economies nurtured Western consumer society. Radio had reinforced a consumer, corporate side to information society. Advertising to entice citizens to buy a company's product helped fund radio stations and programs across Europe and North America. The rise of a global and visual medium, the television, shaped information society in new ways but was still dependent on income from advertising to maintain its programming. In politics, the elections of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Canada's Lester B. Pearson in 1963 were both heavily dependent on the visual medium and the idea of corporate campaigning. Kennedy's famous televised debate with Richard Nixon, who on camera seemed nervous and out of his depth while Kennedy was calm and collected, demonstrated the power of television in the political arena. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker had defeated the new Liberal leader Lester B. Pearson in 1958 with the largest share of the popular vote in Canadian history, so Pearson knew he needed some help to defeat the populist prairie politician. The Liberals brought on board a polling expert from the Kennedy campaign and refashioned their political brand to one Canadians found far more appealing. Knowing more about public perception and how to present a political message gave Pearson's Liberals a new edge. Diefenbaker scrapped by with a minority government after the election of 1962, but a highly public debate over BOMARC nuclear missiles in 1963 gave Pearson a minority government.
While not quite as stark of an example of Kennedy's victory, the Pearsonian Liberals of the 1960s were quick to tap into an emergent Canadian nationalism. The events of Canada's centennial and the Montreal Expo of 1967 were transmitted to television sets across the country. In the world of television, politics became about the visual image you presented, not necessarily the policies of your party. Pierre Elliot Trudeau was elected in 1968 on a wave of mass adoration. “Trudeaumania” was not obsessing over his ideas or policies though, it was over Trudeau's image in a world becoming increasingly infatuated with the look, the style, and the idea of a politician. Information society was now a visual society as much as it was once a text or radio society.
This brief and truncated historical review brings us to the present day. We've posted before about digital society and the newest way of transmitting information, the internet that combines text, audio, and visual. Corporate influence remains and online advertising continues to drive many of the sites whose services we use. Google and Facebook, for instance, make millions of dollars a year off their advertising. In our current information society, information has been transformed into its a form of currency. We sell information about our browsing habits, who we like, who we spend time with, our purchasing habits, etc. Facebook and Google use this information to sell to advertisers, or at least shape the advertising to which we're exposed. In exchange, they provide us with services that allow us to stay in contact with friends for "free." We just pay them with information. Our society now places a premium on information unlike it has ever before. And, the new generation of Canadians has now matured in a world that has always been like that.
In this new world, the most successful politicians can not be miserly banks, hoarding onto information and releasing it piecemeal to control its spread. Instead, they have to release it generously (though still cautiously) to as many people as possible. The more they give, the more we feel like we've received something. Politicians of the digital age will learn that if you can release a lot of information and control its message, you will win over voters. We want to feel a part of the process and be "paid" in information about what is occurring. This does not speak to increased transparency or accountability (unfortunately), but as with the age of television, will likely result in increased exposure to political messaging.
Already this year, we have seen Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announce his policy on the Senate over Twitter. We've seen the virtual airing of the Liberal Party Convention online, where another American Democratic strategist gave a speech on politics and social media and the new political campaigning. If information is currency, the Liberals are setting themselves up as the wealthy party willing to share. Canada's other political parties will have to follow suit, or like John Diefenbaker, risk being a victim of changing times.