The Canadian House of Commons is considering
wiring its desks so that each Member of Parliament (MP) will
have a computer with Internet access at his or her desk on
the Commons floor. The idea is that MPs must currently sit
through hours of boring debate wasting their time or getting
only a little bit of work done with pens and paper.
While the Canadian government promotes initiatives
to increase Internet access nationwide, MPs must go without
Internet access when they are away from their office desks.
The proposed measure has not caused any public outcry to speak
of. Citizens, long rid of the delusion that MPs actually pay
attention to Parliamentary debates, can be expected to see
the efficiency gains of having Parliamentarians surf the Internet
and respond to emails. Surely, since we are willing to trust
our politicians with the affairs of state, we will also be
able to trust that they will use the computers judiciously--no
need to install Net Nannies on the House of Commons computers.
In Canada, as in most other countries these
days, there has been considerable consternation that people
go without computers. Governments have initiated programs
aimed at bridging the digital divide. At the G-8 summit in
Okinawa, Japan in July 2000, the leaders of the seven most
industrialized countries and Russia decided to establish the
Digital Opportunities Task Force (dot force) to find ways
to bridge the digital divide. The wisdom of those leaders
in seeing the need to address the digital divide was remarkable
considering that few of them have reputations for their computer
savvy. In fact, several of the leaders had just learnt to
send email or use the Internet, while one apparently did not
know what a mouse is.
While the digital divide is certainly real,
and while wider access to computers is key to achieving an
equitable distribution of knowledge, opportunities and, ultimately,
wealth, it is quite fascinating that the leaders of the world's
most powerful countries can get by quite well without ever
touching a computer. This is what one could term the "other
side of the digital divide."
The other side of the digital divide is a socio-economic
place where people are so empowered that their routines need
not be ruled by the exigencies of the machines which so rule
the routines of those who find themselves lesser mortals.
It could well be that the people inhabiting the other side
of the digital divide are simply the old-guard, all of whom
will eventually be replaced by people with more computer and
technology savvy. After all, one can be sure that none of
those on the other side of the digital divide get by without
using older technology like the telephone. What is interesting,
however, is that the successful people who get by without
using computers probably all have secretaries to answer the
phone for them, screen their calls and speak for them when
they don't feel like talking.
The other side of the digital divide is not
ultimately the ability to thrive without using technology;
it is rather about the ability to control technology and its
penetration of everyday life. Those of us who must go without
secretaries are now finally able to get the telephone under
control thanks to call display and voice mail. Nonetheless,
we still feel guilty about "letting it go on the machine"
when the phone rings. How long will it take for us to gain
similar control of technology more modern than the telephone?
While technology allows virtually everyone to
"get more done" in the day, it doesn't necessarily make anyone
more free. Indeed, as the ability to work more efficiently
increases, the demand for that more efficient work also increases,
and the technology only allows even more to be demanded. The
computer on your desk becomes an excuse by which your employer
can demand ever greater quantities of work from you (excepting
those who, by surfing the net for useless information all
day, subvert their employers' demands).
True freedom comes from being empowered to choose
to do what you want. When one cannot control the penetration
of technology, the "what" that one thinks he or she is choosing
becomes ever closer to, and more enmeshed with, the pursuit
of efficiency. True freedom means being able to escape the
ever-increasing demands of efficiency--or being in the place
of demanding efficiency rather than being forced to deliver
Should Parliamentarians get computers in the
House of Commons, the key question is whether they will be
enabled to engage in more meaningful debate or whether they
will simply be forced to "get more done". Ultimately, the
installation of computers will make for an interesting study
in who really is empowered and/or in power.
Copyright © 2001 Dean Dalke. All Rights
Dean Dalke lives and studies in
Ottawa, Canada, within a stone's throw from the Parliament,
although he hasn't found throwing stones to be an effective
way of getting the legislators' attention.