(May. 14, 1998, Gazette)

The Empire of Speed

By Ronald Deibert

Near the end of his life, Harold Innis believed that there was an imbalance in Western civilization towards the bias of space, with a corresponding neglect of time. In his essay A Plea for Time, Innis urged a correction to this imbalance, believing tha t the time dimension had been reduced to a superficial "present-mindedness" reflected in an obsession with statistics in the social sciences and the fetish of newspapers with current events and catastrophes.

Needless to say, much has changed since Innis made these reflections. I think if he were around today, Innis would zero in on a new kind of temporal bias that has emerged, what I call the "Empire of Speed."

What is the Empire of Speed? It is a complex of forces working in the general direction of unleashing the velocity and flow of information across borders and around the world. At its heart are the swift currents of capital that circuit the globe 24 hou rs a day, shifting astronomical sums in a swarm of electrical impulses. It is manifested in the dream of unleashing friction-free capitalism over the Net and the rise of e-commerce and digital cash. It is formed in and around the space of flows that defin e the just-in-time production networks and the virtual corporations of so-called "Kanban" capitalism. It is driven by the mass obsession for ever faster computing and communication technics, which has ripped through governments and consumer culture - grea ter bandwidth, more baud rate, faster Ethernet connections, speedier processors.

As Lewis Mumford remarked not so long ago, "The power complex today is preoccupied only with acceleration." Forget the "megamachine," this is the Megabyte Society.

I believe Innis would also have pointed to this preoccupation with speed as an explanation for the urgency felt among elites to get people wired, to extend networks to rural communities, winding ever tighter the electronic ties that bind and speeding u p the currents inside. And he would have likely asked, "To what end?"

If every society is established with a view to some good, as Aristotle said, then what is the good to which the information superhighway leads, and why do we need to get there so fast?

Searching around today he would likely find as a response from those in positions of power, "We are building an information society and a knowledge economy." Now knowledge has been defined in many different ways but I think Innis would have to be restr ained not to remark on how narrowly it is being used today. What is this so-called "knowledge economy" that we are working to create? Reading Industry Minister John Manley's comments in a speech at the university a month or two ago, I can't help believing that it is simply a desire to reorder the Canadian system in ways congruent with global market forces.

"Knowledge," here, is not the knowledge of Plato and Aristotle, of the arts and humanities, of music and literature and spiritual fulfilment. It is simply the extension of technique to more domains of life: building "knowbots" for the information econo my. Concerned about Canadian culture? Let's digitize, put it on a CD and export it. That'll save it. Can you imagine what Innis would have made of that idea?

Speaking of Canadian culture, there is also something pathetic about those recent Molson "Canadian" beer commercials. Flashing images of toothless hockey players and shouts of "I Am Canadian" pounded into the retinas of the viewers. I think people look ing back on this generation from now on will see it as a reflection of a society in panic and desperation. Most of all, Innis would have been troubled about how the entire process is being played out and wrapped up in what Lou Pauly calls the "language of inevitability." We have no choice but to go along with the whirlwind of change, so the harbingers of globalization tell us. We have no choice but to deregulate, to open up borders. It is inevitable for reasons of competitiveness. New technologies make ol d regulations obsolete. We must adapt, change, or get left behind in the dust. Is it any coincidence, though, that the combination of velocity and abundance of information creates an environment in which pausing and reflecting and indeed questioning where we are headed is placed at a disadvantage?

What kind of society is it, Mel Watkins once asked, where I have a choice of 30 different brands of light beer but no choice over the direction of the society as a whole? Indeed, there is an end to the information society we are building after all - it is what Mumford once called the "goods life." Not the "good life"; the "goods life."

In the goods life, information and knowledge are commodities. Efficiency, speed and technological proficiency are virtues of the highest sort. And the end to which all is directed is nothing more than a society where every home and workplace has been c onverted into a computerized box office, shopping mall, video arcade and slot machine, open for business all day long, every day of the week. That is the Empire of Speed, and those are the biases of our time.

Ronald Deibert is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto. This article was reprinted with permission of the U of T Bulletin.