Reflections on the Double-edged Powers of the Internet

William Krehm

The Globe and Mail (03/07, “Why the Internet is a double-edged sword” by Abraham Cooper and Harold Brackman) revives old memories. Of some of these Canada should be very proud. However, they do have their edge of ambiguity, which explains why they are not run up on this country’s highest flag-poles. And more often than not, it has to do with the often ambiguous effects of advanced technology and our clashing responses to it. But let the authors of the article quoted say their piece before I will do my bit of reminiscing around them.

“‘Who knows,’ Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio told the Swedish Academy when he picked up his 2008 Nobel Prize for literature: ‘If the Internet had existed at the time, perhaps Hitler’s criminal plot would not have succeeded – ridicule may have prevented it from ever seeing the light of day So do the dramatic protests in Iran, dubbed the Twitter Revolution by some, make the French writer a prophet in his own time?’

“There is no doubt that cyber-freedom’s promise is limitless, its palpable impact truly global. Evidence: Blogger Xeni Jardin, who visited a remote Guatemalan village without television or telephone landlines but with a few cell phones and a nearby Internet café. Village elder Don Victoriano absorbed the news of Barack Obama’s presidential victory over his Hotmail account: with the immediate response ‘If a black man can enter the Casa Blanca, maybe a Mayan person one day can become president of Guatemala.’”

And that set my mind down memory’s lane. Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s trumpeted the emerging “global village” in which “the medium is the message.” Today, it still is just that for those who see the Internet as the herald of a new polity of citizen activism via aerial social networking, e-mail petitions, virtual town meetings and on-line organizing. An English professor at the University of Toronto, McLuhan’s prophetic mind simply refused to move in conventional grooves. With no background in economics, he sensed what a monetary reformer like me must signal a breakdown between the medium and the message that so absorbed him, and before I knew it he invited me to expound what I had to say at one of his weekly classes that were not confined to any particular subject. The University had sensed that geniuses tend to be unruly and had a genius on their hands.
There was a rendezvous with the future, which already had a foot in the door, reshaped by the marvelous new technologies for transmitting new ways of perceiving the explosive new relationship between man and the transmission techniques that had just begun begin springing their surprises. What concerned McLuhan was less what and how the communication techniques were occurring, but rather what they would do to the human mind as they reached out or failed to reach out to meet the powerful new transmission of information half-way. “The medium is the message” was taken as reason for many of his old English literature colleagues, who may have resented the extent of the attention he received from the American advertising gentry, were too ready to write him off as a little dotty.

But there was nothing defective about McLuhan. He was simply entirely engrossed by the new technology of communication, he sensed with foreboding how it would change society. for better or worse. I was gratified to have been included on a small CBC radio panel to mark Marshall’s passing.

Marshall McLuhan can only be paired with an equally prophetic high school drop-out of a generation earlier who trained as a metal worker – though he did later get a law degree – that an ungrateful Canada has completely forgotten. Gerald Grattan McGeer, not only grasped the potential of central banks in lifting the economy crippled by Depression, but carried it much farther and much earlier than John Maynard Keynes and other great reforming economists at the world’s great universities. After obtaining a law degree he became in turn Mayor of Vancouver, member of the House of Commons in Ottawa. He was in fact the bumble bee on the bottom of the Liberal PM William Lyon Mackenzie King that pushed him into nationalizing the Bank of Canada to deal with the Depression, and then to finance Canada’s World War II. Monetary reform was very much in the air in Canada at the time, but McGeer like a sleep-walker moved as though in a trance towards complete solutions for just about every aspect of the problem. and taking that revolution much farther than Keynes, years before Keynes even started along that path. Yet you will search for a copy of his book in the main library of the University of Toronto in vain, unless you head for its Catholic college. That is because, as a pious Catholic for his impeccable logic leading to the ultimate goal he based his argument on the Holy scriptures as much or more than on any of the great early or contemporary economists. But he dealt with every problem that the new concepts of money and the economy dealt with years before other economists, to the extent that they did at all, got around to doing so.

Canada, for having produced a pair of prophets like Gerald Grattan McGeer and Marshall McLuhan could be proud of their contribution to the better world that we are still struggling for – one in which we can live in peace with its every more lightning-like rapidity of technological revolution. That involves reconciling ever more revolutionary scientific technologies, with the improvisation of illiteracies dictated by untrammeled greed. Some of the contributions by the latter which COMER pursuing the analysis of the late great French economist François Perroux involves turning propositions around and holding them to remain valid, or raising that to higher levels assuming that propositions that are wrong rather than just risky can be insured. And just about every mathematical boner, that only dunces seated in the back row of a class or qualifying for a PhD in an economic department of some of our leading universities, could swallow.

That is Canada’s penalty for ignoring the great prophets it has produced.

The authors of the otherwise excellent article, miss that point, when they conclude: “There’s little reason to believe the Internet could have stopped genocide in 20th-century Europe and more than it has in 21st Africa.

“In 2009, regimes such as Myanmar protest sin on the Internet by outlawing the Web, no medium, no message. But others, from China to Iran, take a more sophisticated approach. The Chinese government, with the complicity of the gatekeepers such as Google and Yahoo, has found ways to squelch Internet dissents even while economically exploiting the Web. Beijing is forcing internet cafes to switch to state-controlled Red Square Software, high use traffic and the system’s safeguards against ‘viruses….’

“Tehran seems to be going further. Finnish-German telecom equipment maker Nokia Siemens has been criticized for selling eavesdropping technology to Iran that Iranian authorities used to track online dissent during the recent post-election protests.

“As Big Brother regimes manipulate the Internet, extremist movements strive to exploit it. In 1995, when the Simon Wiesenthal Center began tracking online hate, there was one hate website. Today there, there are more than 10,000.”

What a shame that McGeer and McLuhan are dead and their great legacy has been buried for the great surrender to our speculative banks.

William Krehm

– from Economic Reform, July 2009