In the current debate about the nature of public broadcasting in Canada, the question has been raised about how to define the public interest in the digital age. When in the near future everybody can receive a smorgasbord of information, entertainment and elevating treasures on the computer, via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and so on, it is asked, “Can space be reserved for the content of traditional public broadcasting and, anyway, why should it?”
The technology of digital distribution is so miraculous that, in the universe of signals in cyberland, there is no reason why X numbers could not be called “public space” – or, preferably, a more imaginative label. The Nature of Man demands this. If the signals originate with advertisers, they are addressed to “homo economicus,” to man as consumer. The purpose of the communication, however useful and/or delightful, is to sell something, and its usefulness and/or its delightfulness, if any, is therefore merely a by-product.
But Man – and in this conceit women are men – is also “sapiens” – knowledge-seeking man – and has therefore a right to receive untainted signals that serve Truth, Beauty and Justice without ulterior motive.
Some time in the early ’twenties, Herbert Hoover, then Republican Secretary of Commerce and quintessential businessman, held up a crystal set and told his audience, “This new invention is so wonderful, and has so many possibilities in education and culture [he was a Quaker] that, with God’s help, it will not fall into the hands of advertisers.”
God was looking the other way, with the result that only in the United States broadcasting became overwhelmingly commercial. Talk about American exceptionalism! Canada followed with a mixed system, with results that have led to the present crisis.
For Canadians, the time has come to think again. The new technology – and, one would hope, new political wisdom – makes it possible to extricate homo sapiens from the fateful embrace by homo economicus.