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Arthur Kroker's Canadian Discourse

In "The Canadian Discourse," the introductory chapter to Technology and the Canadian Mind, Arthur Kroker reviews the theories of Innis, McLuhan, and Grant to theorize the Canadian experience of technology. Kroker claims the work of these theorists has contributed "a highly original, comprehensive, and eloquent discourse on technology" (7) to North American thought. This thought mediates between the "technological imperative" exemplified by the American empire, and the origins of the "technological dynamo" rooted in European history. Ours is an "in-between" culture oscillating between the "pragmatic will to live at all costs of the Americans and searing lament for that which has been suppressed by the modern, technical order" (7). Between the rock of progress without restraint and the hard place of environmental realities and the quality of human society falls the shadow of the Canadian technological project.

CN Tower

The central monument, in Kroker’s view, of the Canadian will to communications power is Toronto’s CN Tower: "an almost perfect phallocentric symbol of the union of power and technology in the making of the Canadian discourse" (9). Recalling the significant role played by the laying of railway track in the Canadian nation-building project, the CN Tower reminds us that our sense of national identity is associated with the way we deliver the goods to one another.

In suggesting that "Canadian thought forces the question of what is the most appropriate response to the technological dynamo," Kroker sets up a dialectical relationship between received culture (the past) and the technological imperative (the future)—-maybe not a distinction we need to accept—-claiming these polar forces intersect in the present with the self, the individual Canadian. "American thought has always privileged the relationship of technology and society; in Canada it is the ‘self’, not society that is privileged" (12). This suggests to me that Canadians who study the media must be prepared to study the self, how the self is defined, and how we perceive the world. Media mirrors identity, even as it shows false images of ourselves. Another paradox.

Kroker extends his dialectical method when he opposes the "technological humanism" of Marshall McLuhan with the "technological dependency" theories articulated by George Grant. "Technological humanism seeks to renew technique from within by releasing creative possibilities inherent in the technological experience" (14). Technology inspires the humanist, like McLuhan, to creative ends, trading on the relationship of technology to freedom. The global village is a more creative place, a return of the electronic world citizen to more holistic and involving participation.

In contrast, the theory of technological dependency focuses on the ways we are dominated by technology, how we become dependent upon it, and what compromises we are forced to make to accommodate it. Cars require roads and parking lots; telephones intrude into our private spaces; television shows us things we would rather not have seen; the internet acts as a conduit for both spam and cookies. Kroker writes, "Thus while McLuhan may urge that we ‘blast’ through to the new electronic age, George Grant reminds us that our fate as North Americans is to live as dying ‘gasping political fish’, suffering an oxygen-starvation of morality and vision in the midst the technological dynamo" (14). Grant explores how technique comes to rule our lives, how efficiency displaces morality and ethics, how we come to organize ourselves into bureaucracies. In The Perfect Machine, and following in the tradition of Grant’s analysis, Joyce Nelson reflects on the principle of efficiency—-an engineering term—-and how it has increasingly been applied to human experience.

In Kroker’s scheme of things, McLuhan’s humanism and Grant’s theory of dependency are mediated by the "technological realism" of Harold Adams Innis. As a political economist, Innis assured his reputation for his "staples" analysis of Canadian resource industries, from the fur trade and cod fisheries to the pulp and paper industry. In the later years of his life, he explored the history of communications technologies and their influence on the rise and fall of empires. It was this later work, The Bias of Communication and Empire and Communications, which established Innis as the founder of a new tradition of (Canadian) media studies. Kroker writes that "Innis’ ideal was always of attaining ‘balance and proportion’ between the competing claims of empire (power) and culture (history)." He appealed "for a reintegration of ‘time and space’ in western experience" (15). For Innis, technology always "contained paradoxical tendencies to freedom and domination simultaneously" (16). This ability to contemplate simultaneously the domination and emancipation of technology is one of Innis’ significant legacies to the critical thought on the subject.

In creating this scheme in which the realism of Innis mediates between McLuhan and Grant, Kroker risks over-simplifying the wide-ranging views of all three theorists, and we may eventually want to abandon his labels for something more subtle. However, this scheme does immediately present us with a working hypothesis and a way of generating questions for ourselves. How would you, for example, characterize the impact of technology on our culture? Do you see technology and culture in opposition in any way? Do you hope for a return to former cultural values, or are you happy to embrace the future? More generally, what is an appropriate response to new technologies and their impact on culture? As Kroker suggests in the final sentences of the chapter, there is some danger that we may be "marooned, possibly with a very real exhaustion of political alternatives, in the processed world of high-technology" (19). Is there some possibility that we will find ourselves exiled and isolated within the technologically-mediated world we are creating for ourselves?