Vancouver Courier
April 25, 1999

Futurists and technological determinists boast that we live in a post-modern information age. Try as I might, I can make neither head nor tail of this expression.

“Post-modern” is a catch-all bit of pretentious bafflegab that confers credibility or virtue on any aspect of culture or art that would otherwise be dismissed or ridiculed by anyone with a modicum of esthetic sensibility.

As for “Information Age,” what makes this age so special? The 15th century was certainly an information age because Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type. The inventions of Samuel Morse and Alexander Graham Bell also ushered in information ages.

Memories are short and getting shorter, so our culture esteems only computer-type innovations: the microchip, modem, Internet, fax and cell phones. I suppose the next stage will be directional, programmable brain-wave transmitter/receiver headsets, and modems will be museum pieces.

Without a doubt, more information can be sent to more places at higher speeds than ever before, but intelligent debate about the value of instant communication is precluded by appeals to necessity.

Apologists for our New Age either dismiss criticism as unprogressive or give you the lights-are-on-but-nobody’s-home inane grin and declare “It’s change!” as if change were manna from heaven. Furthermore, they’ll tell you that the Internet is making information more democratic, which can only be a good thing.

So, since neither post-modern nor Information Age means anything particularly useful, how should we describe the dying days of the 1900s? I recommend “post-democratic.” Although this expression looks no different from the numerous empty “post-” words that clutter our language, “post-democratic” has the virtue of depicting the state of our society accurately.

First, the connection between instant news and an informed electorate doesn’t hold water. Proponents fall into the trap of asserting that the demand for instant information exists then justify delivering that information by virtue of that need. This famous type of circular reasoning is known in Latin as post hoc ergo propter hoc.

In a panel discussion on this topic at a recent journalism conference, Robert Hurst of CTVNews conceded every criticism of 24-hour news reporting: it’s more error-prone, superficial, and susceptible to manipulation by skilled propagandists than regular reporting. Nevertheless, he defended CTV’s 24-hour news channel, and all such channels in general, by saying it’s a “product” that people want.

To think of news as a commodity is certainly offensive to those of us who take reporting seriously, but a commodity it has become. Not only are we told what happened, the information is repeated ad nauseam. At some point, news becomes indistinguishable from white noise—you know it’s there but you pay no attention.

Time was, if the networks had breaking news it interrupted regular programming. Viewers knew something important happened because it cut into their favourite sit-com or sports event. Moreover, the networks knew people were watching and would get the message. The rarity of bulletins made them important.

People who wanted to see what happened waited till the late newscast, by which time producers, editors and reporters would have had time to vet the information and put together a coherent analysis. Quick and dirty instant news simply panders to our seemingly insatiable voyeuristic appetites.

With 24-hour news, sheer repetition renders important matters mundane, and mundane matters trivial. If familiarity breeds contempt, then repetition surely must breed disinterest and fatigue. For this reason, I suspect, instant infoglut actually creates a less informed society, as people become conditioned to expect instant answers to complex questions.

Sound bites replace information, product supplants news, and we walk around in a plasma of hype and factoids desperate to read or hear something of consequence. Never have so many people had access to so much information that told them so little about so much.

As for the parlous political state of our democracy, you need only look at the disgraceful conduct of our so-called guardians of the public weal.

Power has become concentrated in so few hands that Canada can only be called a democracy in the broadest sense of the word. The prime minister and his office has mutated over the past 25 years into a de facto autocracy, in which most ministers, to say nothing of Parliament, have increasingly little influence.

When Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, after repeated principled denials, arbitrarily said Canada would now consider sending ground troops to Yugoslavia, he did so with Bourbon-like absolutism.

Then we have B.C., where Glen Clark and his elected mafia are a living contempt of law and honest government. The Gang That Couldn’t Govern Straight cheated its way into office, lied about the province’s finances, stole money from charities, and rammed the constitutionally dubious Nisga’a Treaty through the legislature without proper debate. 

The irony is that Lt.-Gov. Garde Gardom could put a stop to this travesty, but won’t. The argument is that an appointee cannot dismiss a democratically elected government because such an act would violate political convention and cause a constitutional crisis.

However, Gardom should note that we live in interesting post-democratic times. The Constitution is already in crisis.