31 January 2006

This is a Cool Medium

For all those media studies folk out in the world who point to television and repeat Marshall McLuhan's 1964-observation that television is cool (hint: today ain't 1964 and television ain't cool), take a look at Scratch n Spin, a wonderful little advertisement for a professional sound mixing device. Exercise for the student: Name all the ways in which this video satisfies the conditions and effects, for being considered a cool medium.
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30 January 2006

Telcos vs. Google - Who Feels Lucky?

With SBC/AT&T and BellSouth making noises about charging large providers like Google, Yahoo and others a fee for "expedited" service (a.k.a. "protection money - it would be's a shame if sometin' should happen ta yas latency time"), it seems like those bright lights at Telus are deciding to play monkey-see-monkey-do (with my apologies to the monkeys). You remember Telus's Internet service, right? They were the ones who suddenly decided to pull the plug on certain websites for their customers. Of course, by attempting to block access to their then-striking union's website by IP address, they forgot that they were also clear-cutting a wide swath through a stand of innocent websites who shared the same virtual subnets. Not too bright, and as it turns out, not too apologetic to those who were knocked off the air.

This is shaping up to be a battle of the titans. Michael Geist comments, and today's Star has a mention of the issue half-way down this article. Many telcos have not yet forgotten their monopoly days, from which grew arrogance and complacency, the deadly duo of today's market. Besides lobbying efforts in the U.S., and a possible reference to the CRTC - either move possibly making what the telcos want to do illegal - there is the obvious question: Do any of the telcos really want to take on the likes of Google in the marketplace? Or how about Google, Yahoo and MSN combined? Imagine the competitive ads:

"You can access the sites you want when you want them...

...or you can get stuck with Telus (SBC/AT&T, BellSouth).

Worse for the telcos would be Google offering its own access, say through municipal WiFi/WiMax, giving the telcos a run for their money in Internet access, as well as mobile and long-distance voice.

But then again, there seems to be a bit of a "cowboy" (def.3) mentality at work here: Telus, BellSouth, and SBC. I'm just sayin'...

Update (3 Feb 2006): A friend of mine who is a relatively senior tech strategy type at one of the tier-one ISPs shakes their head at this nonsense from Whitacre. While "Quality of Service" bits could be set for one company's network, it would only improve service for that one section of the 'net. Once you cross a peering point, you're back to regular service. It's unlikely that any content provider would pay protection money to every single ISP in the world, and without doing so, there would be no point to pay extra to anyone. As for ISPs getting together to negotiate a collective, cartel-ish arrangement? Well my friend's response was, "Ever sit in on a peering meeting? Ugly, ugly, ugly." (Peering meetings are intercompany meetings where they attempt to negotiate terms and access to each other's networks at peering, or crossover, points around the world.) The assessment was that Whitacre just realized that his latest prize acquisition isn't quite the cash cow that he anticipated, and now he's looking for "free" revenue.
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27 January 2006

Those News Photos

The great thing about mosaic media - they types that can juxtapose various elements in a non-linear way - is that they create great satire, especially the cooler they get. Here are two wonderful examples from the recent election campaign and aftermath that convey a ground effect, quite literally through the figures. Oh, and here's something that's just plain funny!
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A Tempest in a Blogspot

Antonia (among others) have fired up the Canadian blogosphere over Chrétien-era functionary, Warren Kinsella's, lawsuit against Mark Bourrie's allegedly libellous post.

Bourrie describes himself as
a doctoral student in Canadian, modern European and media history at the University of Ottawa. I also have an interest in failed states, concepts of reconstruction, treatment of prisoners of war, concepts of surrender and incarceration, security and terrorism issues. ... My thesis is on propaganda and censorship in Canada
His self-identification, juxtaposed with the circumstances and actors in the libel suit, strike me as deliciously ironic, no? But I guess I should point to what McLuhan oft said about the British consideration of libel, upon which the Canadian legal standard (I would guess - IANAL) is built (drawn from Understanding Media: "There is recognition of this matter of effect rather than information in the British idea of libel: 'The greater the truth, the greater the libel.'"
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26 January 2006

Bowling Online, or Putnam Unglued

Everybody and her brother is yakking about the latest Pew Internet & American Life Project report, The Strength of Internet Ties [pdf], that has just been released. The report's main researchers, Jeffrey Boase and Barry Wellman, both from University of Toronto, explain,
The internet and email play an important role in maintaining these dispersed social networks. Rather than conflicting with people’s community ties, we find that the internet fits seamlessly with in-person and phone encounters. With the help of the internet, people are able to maintain active contact with sizable social networks, even though many of the people in those networks do not live nearby. Moreover, there is media multiplexity: The more that people see each other in person and talk on the phone, the more they use the internet. The connectedness that the internet and other media foster within social networks has real payoffs: People use the internet to seek out others in their networks of contacts when they need help.
This is an important finding, as it lays to rest the alarmist myth created by Bowling Alone's author, Robert Putnam, that electronic communications were weaking "social capital" the glue, if you will, that holds together societies. In fact, the report finds, "Internet users have somewhat larger social networks than non-users. The median size of an American’s network of core and significant ties is 35. For internet users, the median network size is 37; for non-users it is 30."As significant as is this new study, it - like Putnam's examination of bowling, picnics and card games - looks at the figures and content of Internet usage - how email is used, how people use the Internet to assist in decision-making, how people use 'net connections to seek support for medical conditions, and so forth. What is important to realize is that the awareness that these changes in content or use are indications of a fundamental restructuring in the psycho-social mechanisms of interpersonal engagement, and signal a similar restructuring in the basic institutions of society. If one looks closely, evidence of these restructurings become evident - but it takes some close examination and thoughtfulness about things that are easily dismissed.

In pursuit of my research on the future of corporations, I've been reading some stuff from the late 1960s and 1970s on organizational effectiveness. I find it remarkable to think about how sure management scholars and researchers were that the corporation was an individual, well-definable entity - with inputs (suppliers, investors), process (the organization itself), and outputs (customers). Of course there was acknowledgement of an "environment" of competitors, industries and markets, but all could be known through looking at the individual, relatively self-contained, local entity.

The Pew report finds empirical evidence that such is not the case with regard to individuals - people have become globalized as much as the contemporary business world. Indeed, I would suggest that people who experience UCaPP are actually more globalized than their business counterparts, because the latter are far more aware of their geo-located constraints, and hampered by their Tayloristic grounds. This, of course, leaves much fertile ground for the researcher.
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Now I Understand

Wired has a piece that describes how the presence of DRM in almost everything electronic compromises innovation. For example,
Steve Vasquez, the founder of ReQuest, which makes ultra-high end streaming audio networks for homes, says his company struggles with the limitations of DRM-protected audio files.

A similar system made by Sonos creates a mesh-wireless network that connects up to 32 remote amplifiers with music stored on a home computer, but the company hides music bought through Apple's iTunes store, according to co-founder Thomas Cullen.

"We don't want to taunt them," Cullen said. "The best thing we can do is hide iTunes songs so they don't get an expectation they can play them."

Ninety percent of his customers own iPods, according to Cullen, and many call in after first buying the system, wondering where their iTunes songs are. But after the company explains it is Apple's DRM that prevents the file from playing, users universally respond that they will go back to buying CDs that they can then rip into non-DRMed audio files, Cullen said.
That explains it! DRM is the mechanism that so limits the capabilities of contemporary innovation in production and dissemination of music that consumers will go back to buying CDs, thereby rescuing the obsolesced business models of the folks at CRIA and RIAA!

I suppose they still don't want to hear the reality, that they wouldn't be in business today if their industry had been hampered by the technological protection mechanism proposals they, themselves, are promoting (besides the fact that the existence of DRM actually promotes so-called piracy.)
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24 January 2006

And the Winner is...

A fascinating result last night. Here are a few random thoughts and riffs on the election results.

The numbers
As everyone and her brother has observed, Prime Minister-elect Stephen Harper was given only a slim minority, hardly what one could call a mandate. The operative cliché is, “Canadians don’t vote governments ‘in’ so much as they vote governments out,” (which puts an interesting spin on today's cliché, that the West is now 'in'). What the polls didn’t predict – and why would they since the pollsters pulled the wool over the eyes of those who employed them – was the strength of the residual Liberal support. There was an anti-PaulMartinLiberals wave reflected in the voting, to be sure: that’s what likely accounts for the Conservative victories in Québec. But without a “kick the bums out” mentality going into the next election, Harper will have a challenge to retain traditional Liberal voters who thumbed their noses at a tired regime. And to those who say that last night's results demonstrate that the Conservatives are now truly a national party, I would respond, that's an observation of figure, not ground (although I would agree that a form of proportional representation would better demonstrate the "nationality" of all parties).

The myth of the “test drive”
Contrary to what many “ordinary Canadians” have been saying today on phone-in shows, a minority government is no “test drive” of what a party would do if they held a majority. Minority governments are typically on their best behaviour, leaving the more radical aspects of their platforms waiting in the wings until they are given a majority mandate. Better yet, they are “held in check” (an interesting Harperism that I read as reflecting latent frustration at being held in check) not by “activist judges” (ditto), but rather by being forced to work collaboratively with those who may not share their views. This has always made for better government – that is, more enlightened policy and more fiscal responsibility – in Canada, up until the point when partisanship rears its power-hungry head. Anyone believe that Harper will attempt to introduce any legislation that smacks of controversial social policy? Any that will touch off a Charter battle? No hands up, eh? I thought not. The minority rule: stay on your best behaviour and hope the economy doesn’t tank before you can go for a majority. By the way, the promise of successive minority (read: collaborative) governments is probably the best reason to push for proportional representation in parliamentary reform.

An election? More like an exorcism!
With Paul Martin stepping down as leader, we have finally exorcised the Liberal Party of two ghosts who have been clashing in the attic for decades, namely Pierre Elliott Trudeau vs. Paul Martin Sr. You see, it was PET who “stole” the reins of power from the current Paul’s father, who was the PM-in-waiting back in the late 1960s. Later, Jean Chrétien – a disciple of PET – replayed the rivalry of the previous generation, keeping Paul Martin Jr. waiting… and waiting… and waiting. Out came the long knives (oops! That’s a Progressive Conservative metaphor; right, Dalton Camp?) and down went Chrétien. But there was a curse left on 24 Sussex that Paul Jr. could not overcome, and so, embattled for over a year, haunted by the spectre of scandal and corruption, his political career is now laid to rest. (Last night’s concession speech will, however, enable him to return – be reincarnated, if you will – in the form of the elder statesman.)

Without getting too metaphysical about it, there is an earthly, realpolitik explanation for last night’s result. Many of the most powerful Liberal organizers decided to sit this one out, allowing Paul Martin to twist in the political wind, as it were. This was especially true in Québec. With a new leader arising, the old machine can once again be fired up; it will be a very different campaign next time, say about two years from now, give or take a couple of months. And given the relative solidity of the Liberal support base, probably a very different outcome. Stephen, I wouldn't get too comfortable in the new digs if I were you.

Liberal Arts
Assuming they care about what I have to say – and I don’t know why they would, necessarily – the best thing the Liberal Party can do now is to retrieve Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Trudeaumania in a new form. Think about it: Trudeau came to power when television was becoming the dominant medium of politics, just eight short years after the Kennedy-Nixon debates that defined broadcast politics. He was able to capitalize on the effects of the environment enabled by that medium to re-energize the entire country. He was relatively young and very different than traditional politicians: he was smart, worldly and hip to what was happening in society. The Liberal Party has the opportunity to do precisely the same thing by selecting a slate of leadership candidates who are similarly endowed, and analogously different from what came before. The leadership candidates have the opportunity to embrace the changes in the political environment enabled by ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity, but not yet capitalized on by any political party. In doing so, they have the opportunity to engage a wider spectrum of the electorate, not merely to vote, but to actively engage in the conversations that comprise democratic process.

And now that I think of it, this is a lesson that all parties can learn. School’s out… for now.
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P.S. I flipped among CBC, CTV, Global and City coverage last night. Tied for last place in TV visuals: Global, whose garish and juvenile graphics looked like they were done by a kid playing with his first graphics and animation software - and what was up with their percentage of popular vote icons sitting on the screen at 0% for most of the night; and City, who merely rejiggered their CP24 screen layout program, and consequently occupied too much screen (un)real estate with nothing. In second place, CBC, who tried to be visually tricky with their curved screen illusion, but the wiper effect on the numbers was downright distracting. As well, the live coverage window was a tad too small for my liking. The unanimous winner, in my household at least, was CTV, with non-distracting graphics, a large window to the live coverage, and an understanding of visual metaphors - the national seat count turning like an odometer demonstrated a great comprehension of interface design. Kudos as well to Elections Canada, who arranged for most of the country's polls to close at the same time, with BC only a half-hour later. It made for both a shorter, and more exciting evening.

22 January 2006

Ron Deibert and the OpenNet Initiative

On Friday, the Centre for Media and Culture Education at OISE hosted Ron Deibert of the OpenNet Initiative. He began by describing the three social forces that contradict the popular conception – some might call it myth – of the Internet being open, borderless, anonymous and free (as in speech). The three that put to rest what might have been the founding ethos of the ‘net include content filtering and censorship that render what appears as borderless as islands of sovereign spaces carved out from cyberspace; surveillance based on state policies that have significantly relaxed restrictions and oversight on the collection of information, often with mutual cooperation among countries; militarization of cyberspace, primarily led by the United States which has adopted a policy that views information operations as appropriate offensive measures.

The OpenNet Initiative is a collaboration among the University of Toronto, Harvard University, and Cambridge University to investigate and document patterns of censorship and surveillance worldwide. These occur within national firewalls over extended periods of time throughout the entire hardware and software infrastructure of the Internet. Their investigative techniques involve covert operations in countries being investigated via remote probes, specific tests by in-country visitors, and covert, literally black boxes attached as in-line, online monitors. Deibert described, for example, how some information is obtained at personal risk to some of the in-country operatives. The objective of ONI is to provide the imprimatur of academic rigour and objectivity to what is often anecdotal information concerning the info-surveillance, filtering and blocking operations of governments, primarily in Central and East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Their findings are impressive, if not disturbing. The scale, scope and sophistication of online filtering and surveillance is growing rapidly, with one repressive regime sharing “best practices” with others. A few years ago, the focus was primarily blocking pornography. Today, it is blocking human rights sites, news sites such as CNN and BBC, websites of opposition movements, anonymizers, web hosting sites and blogging sites. Originally, these countries blocked Western news services. Now, it is primarily local language news and information services that are being blocked, with the exception, of course, of state-sanctioned (and run) news agencies. Up until two years ago, Google cache was a way for local people to get around the filters. Today, Google cache, the Internet Archive, and other similar server locations are blocked. Additionally, there is apparently state-sponsored commercial “black ops” as VoIP and IM services are actively being blocked in some countries in order to maintain the monopoly of state-owned communication services.

Effectively, according to Deibert, the so-called borderless Internet does not exist because of the prevalence of choke points at every level of the Internet’s infrastructure. Geolocation filtering is growing in significance as well. Many countries are not able to access certain U.S. servers because the U.S. company blocks access. In fact, many Western companies are actively cooperating with repressive regimes to provide technology and expertise to facilitate blocking access to the likes of NGOs and human rights organizations. Among the biggest complicit culprits: Cisco, Nortel, Secure Computing (the filter of choice for Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Tunisia). It is now well known that to preserve their access to vast commercial markets, Microsoft, Yahoo and Google all comply with restrictive practices imposed by China, for instance. This includes Yahoo providing information that has led to the incarceration of dissidents. (Microsoft’s complicity is discussed at length by Rebecca MacKinnon.)

When it comes to such filtering and surveillance, there are issues of transparency, oversight and accountability that are raised, especially relative to companies and governments operating in the West. The Saudis, for instance, are quite transparent and conspicuous about their blocking activities. If one attempts to access a blocked site, a page is posted indicating that access has been blocked, the reason for blocking, with contact information if the user feels that the site has been blocked in error. In other places, the blocking is far more subtle, with time-outs, 404 (“not found”) pages, as opposed to 403 (“forbidden”), and redirection from the requested site to a government sanctioned site (including, once again, commercial hijacking to government-favoured service providers for, say, search). In many countries, individual blog posts, instant message postings, and even SMS text messages that have “inappropriate words” never make it beyond the gateway to cyberspace, bits dissipated like dust in the cyber-wind.

With all this activity, one is moved to ask, what is being blocked and filtered here at home? How do we know that certain sites that might be sensitive to domestic interests (especially in the U.S.) might suddenly vanish into the cyber-ether?
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20 January 2006

The Sounds of Honda

Regular readers know how much I love the Honda ads from the UK. Here's the latest that shows you the sounds of a Honda Civic - all made by a live choir! You've got to see it and hear it to believe it!

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19 January 2006

Privacy? What Privacy?

Howard Minz reports in the Mercury News that the Bush Administration is seeking search records from Google, nominally to find out who's looking for dirty pictures.
The move is part of a government effort to revive an Internet child protection law struck down two years ago by the U.S. Supreme Court. The law was meant to punish online pornography sites that make their content accessible to minors. The government contends it needs the Google data to determine how often pornography shows up in online searches.

In court papers filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose, Justice Department lawyers revealed that Google has refused to comply with a subpoena issued last year for the records, which include a request for 1 million random Web addresses and records of all Google searches from any one-week period. The Mountain View-based search and advertising giant opposes releasing the information on a variety of grounds, saying it would violate the privacy rights of its users and reveal company trade secrets, according to court documents.
To those who say, "if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear," here's a search engine for you. Just don't forget to use the terrorist:true or terrorist:false tags correctly.
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Leopard, Meet Spots

One of the major themes of both my work and my play is the discovery of the hidden ground - the stuff that we don't typically notice until it's too late; stuff that has the most profound structural effects on our society and our total experiential environment. During this election campaign, I've written about this theme relative to the leaders, and the nature of the campaign itself. I've also described the mechanisms through which we each make up our minds, (and justify it later). Most importantly, I've described why the medium of the campaign, and the way each party is carefully (sometimes not so carefully) conducting itself, is likely misleading a vast number of voters into making a decision that they might otherwise have not made.

Today, a small slip in an otherwise near-flawless performance by candidate Harper, that gives us a glimpse of that ground the Conservative party is trying desparately to hide. In a rare, unguarded moment, Harper revealed his true beliefs in a comment about "activist judges," as reported in the Globe and Mail. ""I am merely pointing out a fact that courts, for the most part, have been appointed by another political party..." [said Harper.] When one reporter asked if he believed judges are activists with their own social agenda, Mr. Harper replied: "Some are, some aren't."" Although he backtracked later in the day, the cat came out of the bag.

Some might view this as an innocuous comment, and as figure, it is. However, let there be no mistaking the fact that Stephen Harper's contextual ground - his worldview through which he would develop the actual policies that run a government - has not changed one iota from his Reform/Alliance roots. More intellectual than Mike Harris, more polished than Ralph Klein, but certainly out of the same ideologue stock. For those who might be put off by Harper's apparent softness, worry not and vote with a clear conservative (actually, neo-liberal) conscience.

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17 January 2006

Al Gore on Stopping the Reversal

Further to my post the other day on what could well be the last days for the ideals and principles of the United States of America, I want to point you to the passionate speech made by Al Gore, on the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, yesterday. (It's in Salon, available free if you watch a short ad.) As an aside, this is a man who has matured over the past eight years in his political style, retrieving the all-too-rare thoughtful passion of some of the great political leaders of the past.

Gore is blunt in his critique of how the Administration of Bush-the-younger is systematically attacking the Constitution, and the principles upon which the country was founded. He draws from his country's historical precedents to illustrate how previous Executive Branch excesses led to disaster, asking,
Is our Congress today in more danger than were their predecessors when the British army was marching on the Capitol? Is the world more dangerous than when we faced an ideological enemy with tens of thousands of missiles poised to be launched against us and annihilate our country at a moment's notice? Is America in more danger now than when we faced worldwide fascism on the march -- when our fathers fought and won two World Wars simultaneously?

It is simply an insult to those who came before us and sacrificed so much on our behalf to imply that we have more to be fearful of than they. Yet they faithfully protected our freedoms and now it is up to us to do the same.

We have a duty as Americans to defend our citizens' right not only to life but also to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is therefore vital in our current circumstances that immediate steps be taken to safeguard our Constitution against the present danger posed by the intrusive overreaching on the part of the Executive Branch and the President's apparent belief that he need not live under the rule of law.
Indeed, his essay is a clarion call to both Republicans and Democrats to exercise their constitutional responsibility to check the ever-expanding desire of the Executive Branch to act above the law, changing the role of President to that of monarch. If you are a supporter of GWB, or politically lean to the right, I challenge you to read Gore's speech and respond with a thoughtful and reasoned critique to any of his accusations, his challenges or his historical facts. If you a citizen of the U.S. you could do a lot worse than to pressure your Congress-people to actively make good on the pledge they took to uphold the Constitution, by preventing the Executive Branch from destroying it.

It's time to stop the reversal (especially because it might be contagious up here in the Great (not-so-)White North.
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Strategic Voting

According to today's Globe, "55% of Canadians would welcome a Harper majority," while according to today's Star, "the Liberals and Conservatives have drawn closer to each other." According to me, political polling should be banned during an election campaign, as it creates public opinion, rather than reflecting public opinion. The public should be allowed to make up its own opinion, thank you, one voter at a time.

But it sure seems that Canada will be having a "Brian Mulroney moment" for the next Parliament. I don't believe it will take more than one Parliament for Canadians to realize that, despite what many may think of Paul Martin specifically, Stephen Harper is unlikely to have changed sufficiently to represent the collective Canadian set of values. So now that a Conservative victory appears in the offing, the question of "strategic voting" rears up for those who would prefer not to see a Conservative government of any sort.

Traditionally, "strategic voting" meant this: If it looks like a Conservative victory, and you were going to vote NDP, vote strategically for the Liberal candidate to at least get the lesser of two evils. However, it seems as if Paul Martin is being cast as ... (take your pick of a tragic literary metaphor - the two I particularly favour are Ahab and Hamlet). It would seem that, in this case, the traditional strategic voting approach might be ripe for a reversal - if you were planning to vote Liberal, you may want to consider casting your vote for the NDP candidate. According to Jack Layton's endgame rhetoric, this would represent not settling for either evil, but rather for a positive choice. A smart move by Layton, I think, to attract the anti-Harper vote, turning the well-worn Liberal playbook back against them.
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Blogging the Election; Blogging the Government

Oh that Newsworld. Will they ever grow up and become a real TV network? I was invited to do an interview for them about a year-and-a-half ago. It was a capital-T, capital-D Total Disaster. I broke my vow never, ever, to do another interview with them again last evening, having been invited earlier in the day to speak to the national version of Canada Now on the influence of blogs on this election.

It was only a minor disaster, in fact, not even a disaster; I would classify it more as a minor fiasco. At least they’re improving. For the audio link, they use a phone line. About two minutes before airtime, they discovered the phone line was dead. The producers in Calgary said, “reset the system.” The cameraman in Toronto said, “Huh? How do you reset the system?” Calgary: “Push the button.” It took the third technician to know which, among all the buttons on “the system,” to push to reset the line. By this time, half the segment time was lost, along with half of what was to be the conversation with host Cathleen Petty.

They had sent me some questions earlier in the day to prep for the segment. So for those who might be interested in what I did/would have said, enjoy:

  1. How influential are blogs in politics now? Do the parties understand who writes/reads them?

    Unlike the United States, blogs in Canada are only beginning to show signs of influencing the political agenda and discourse. In the U.S., we saw the tremendous political power of blogs in the downfall of former U.S. Senate Majority Leader, Trent Lott, the remarkable Howard Dean Experience, the "retirement" of news anchor Dan Rather, and the enormous difficulty the current Bush administration is having in keeping control of a story. The Canadian political parties still view blogs as just another broadcast medium; they do not understand the power or the dynamics of blogs, and how they are changing politics. It's not a matter of the relatively small number of people who actually write and read blogs; its a matter of their overwhelming effects relative to that relatively small number. What this election has done is to energize the Canadian blogosphere that will be far more active during the next, and subsequent, Parliaments.

  2. Is the internet different than broadcast media in how a party handles their message? What are the differences in strategies between the traditional media and blogging or podcasts?

    The Internet is not a broadcast medium. Rather, it is a connection medium, one that amplifies voice, potentially for almost everyone. The traditional broadcast media, on the other hand, are accessible only to the privileged and relatively powerful. This means that the former "consumers" of traditional mass media (that is, media FOR the masses) are now producers of mass media (that is, media BY the masses).

    For political parties, this means that, first, they must be willing to give up a great deal of control of their message content (and I would suggest that in this election, the really important campaign dynamics are not controlled by any party, but primarily by happenstance). Second, political parties must encourage their core supporters among all demographics to create online opportunities for their supporters' "little circles" to become involved in conversations that are unique to that little circle. One of the lessons of the Howard Dean Experience in the U.S. was that blogs enabled people to become involved who were previously unreachable by the central campaign. We saw the emergence of hundreds of little specialty groups online - Punkers for Dean, HipHoppers for Dean, Grannies for Dean, Bikers for Dean - people who would never participate in the Democratic Party were suddenly politically active in organizing, bringing people in, raising money and creating a buzz. It's the same thing that Pierre Elliott Trudeau did with the dominant medium of his time, namely television. The first political party that figures out how to do this effectively with the power of the Internet to create connections, conversations and relationships will hold the reigns of power for quite a long time.

  3. Are blogs reaching a new demograph of voters? Are they a way of getting the message to people who would otherwise not hear it, or are they simply offering the message to those willing to listen just in a new form?

    In a McLuhan sense, the "message" is not the information or the content, but rather the effects. And the interesting thing about blogs - and we will begin to see this, I think, beginning with the next Parliament - is that they will be shedding a new light on the government through a phenomenon called "emergent transparency." This is the process whereby one person has a few bits of information, and so does another person (and so on), and they all connect to one another through the blogosphere, enabling a mosaic picture to emerge that reveals what's really going on. This is a new mechanism whereby the people who typically aren't getting the message through conventional media, namely the politicians themselves, will unavoidably be forced to listen to ordinary Canadians in a new way. The next occupant of 24 Sussex Drive, whoever he may be, will have his feet held to the proverbial fire by many more sets of hands than ever before.

  4. Is there a credibility issue with blogs?

    I think there is a credibility issue with all forms of media, and all forms of politics and politicians. The important question, in my view, is not one of credibility, but one of making sense of the country and the world. The blogosphere - that is, the collection of people who participate in writing and reading blogs - enables many more conversations, examinations, and connections of tidbits of information than are available through the traditional mass media. This not only enhances credibility, but puts many more eyes and ears on the job of ferreting out what may be the truth. The other thing that blogs do very well, that mainstream media do not, relative to credibility, is that they keep a story or issue alive, despite the either tacit or explicit political views and agenda of the broadcasting company's executive. It's very easy for CBC, or Bell Globemedia, or Canwest Global, or Torstar, or Quebecor to either maintain or kill a story, if any of them wanted to. Let's face it: for traditional massmedia, a story must capture interest within one or two news cycles or it's dead: a story kept alive for more than a few days risks losing attention and becoming irrelevant. But in the blogosphere, if a story is sufficiently important or interesting, it can stay alive for days or weeks, or come back months or even years later. As further evidence of the influence of blogs, we are seeing an increasing number of instances in which stories that appear in the broadcast media emerge first in the blogosphere.

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14 January 2006

Reversal of America - The Last Chapter?

Over the past few years, I have often blogged on my observation that America is in reversal. By this I mean that the United States of America has "been extended beyond the limit of its capacity" and has reversed what were its original, fundamental principles and character. While I called it several years ago, many more are today referring to the U.S. in terms of its Stalinist-like, or Soviet-like characteristics. Were the implications not so terribly serious for the entire world, such a satire could remain well-ensconced in the realm of Jon Stewart. But sadly, this is not the case.

The current hearings into the nomination of Sam Alito to the U.S. Supreme Court is akin to the construction of the Berlin Wall in its potential repercussions, and the length of time (and potentially, circumstances) of its eventual dismantling. Am I indulging in hyperbole? Have a read of this piece at Crooks and Liars, that admonishes, "Democrats cannot meekly accept defeat on Alito":
Such a fight will give Democrats the opportunity to make clear that this President has been breaking the law because he literally believes -- and his Administration has said -- that he has the power to do so. And he is now trying to pack the judiciary with nominees who have only one thing in common: they have a history of great deference to presidential power because, like George Bush, they are believers in an unchecked Executive.

What is at stake with this nomination is whether we are going to have a country that endorses and allows George Bush’s theory that the permanent war we are fighting gives him the right to violate whatever laws he wants to violate. All indications are that Alito is at the very extreme fringe when it comes to deference to Presidential authority and power -- exactly what is most dangerous for the country right now. A country where the President can break the law and claims the power to do so is an extreme and radical situation -- at least for the United States -- but this is what Sam Alito represents and it is why he was chosen by George Bush for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.
This, in my view, goes beyond partisanship - the principles at stake strike at the very heart of the U.S. Constitution, and the founding ideology of a once-great nation. If you live in the United States, I implore you to urge your representatives and senators to fight for the future of your country, and ultimately, the future of us all.
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13 January 2006

It will probably get me thrown out of OISE...

...but this is a snort-out-your-nose-funny blonde joke!
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Why Martin Can't Win (and What He Could Do About It)

I've been interviewed several times over the past week on the media effects of the current campaign, the parties' respective use (or lack thereof) of the Internet in general, and the blogosphere in particular. As well, I've been asked in a variety of ways how to understand the dynamics of the campaign, drawing from my "vocabulary" of McLuhan-as-analytical-method. I certainly didn't agree with the attempted analysis in the Star a couple of weeks back that (yet again) demonstrated that McLuhan's construct of media temperature remains the most elusive of his thinking tools - one that confused even McLuhan himself, according to his son, Eric.

But in the course of the interviews and several conversations, I've managed to work out what (I think, at least) is going on, derived from the concepts of hot and cool media, the nature of the respective campaigns, and the observation that TELEVISION TODAY IS NOT TELEVISION CIRCA 1964. (The caps are for all the media theory professors who blindly quote McLuhan without truly understanding the meaning of the medium is the message.)

You cannot "label" a medium as hot or cool by looking at the medium, but rather by observing its effects. A hot medium is one that is hypnotic, decreasing awareness by providing explicit, often simplistic, information. It is intense, and tends to separate and fragment. There is little active, cognitive participation because of the explicitness; rather we take it in and nod in agreement, eyes glazing over. If you find yourself mindlessly echoing tropes and memes without really thinking them through (to discover a hidden context, for instance) you have likely been exposed to a hot media environment.

Conversely, a cool medium engages active awareness and analysis, and therefore requires participation to figure it out - "filling in the blanks," as McLuhan folk often put it. Cool media often engender collaborations and are characterized by less intense (i.e., numbing) experiences. If we consider the phenomenon of the "couch potato," or people mindlessly repeating catch phrases from popular sit-coms, or the often admitted use of television as a narcotic or anaesthetic, it is clear that the nature and characteristic effects of television today is hot. This is neither surprising nor unexpected. What would be surprising is if television had not changed in 42 years.

In the last election, Stephen Harper lost because people "filled in the blanks" about what a Harper government might mean to our "Canadian values." In other words, the Liberal Party ran a cool campaign, betting on the ambiguity to save the day. Which it did. Sort of. In fact, for the last nearly forty years - ever since the master of political cool, Pierre Elliot Trudeau - the Liberal Party has run nothing but cool campaigns. That's all they know. Chrétien, a devoted student of PET, was as well a master of cool politics. Paul Martin, on the other hand is just not that cool a guy, but that doesn't really matter (contrary to what some folks might believe). The key point to remember is that in order to attract people to "fill in the blanks" and actively participate in creating your message (i.e. effects), there must be trust. People have to trust to become engaged and cognitively involved. This time around, there is no trust, which is the Liberals biggest problem.

The lack of trust issue, of course, applies irrespective of media theory. Regardless of the fact that what Martin has nominally done - called the Gomery inquiry, fired some of the perpetrators, referred the matter to the RCMP - should create trustworthiness, there hasn't been enough time to create trust. People are skeptical, and they are being told repeatedly to be skeptical by Canada's latest Svengali, Stephen Harper.

Harper creates a hot environment - fragmentation among constituencies, intense, simplistic, repeated tropes that induce hypnotic effects, an explicitness that precludes active awareness of contextual consequences. And he is very effectively using today's primary hot medium - television - to deliver a hot message, and Canadians cannot turn away. Paul Martin, quite literally, is cooked.

I've commented several times that none of the major political parties understands the first thing about the effects of Internet, or the reversals induced under UCaPP* conditions. For instance, today I was asked about podcasting - apparently the NDP (or is it the Conservatives?) have "podcasts" - which is to say, they are continuing to use the 'net as another broadcast medium, attempting to hold onto the artefacts of 20th-century-style broadcast politics as long as possible.

One of the effects of UCaPP is for "consumers to become producers." In the context of the current campaign, this might mean that ordinary people could be given a venue on the campaign sites to upload their own podcasts. Consider the Liberal Party dilemma of lack of trust. Now imagine if the archetypal "ordinary Canadian" was given an open and free opportunity to upload a "why I'm planning to vote Liberal" podcast directly to the Liberal party site. At the very least, all the ideas that the central campaign can't think of would immediately become available to them. What's more, (as we learned from the Howard Dean Experience) even anti-Liberal trolls (a troll, of course is relative to the venue; one person's troll is another person's freedom fighter, so to speak) would be contributing to the passion, fervor and motivation of the Liberal team and their supporters (Dean raised a huge amount of money through people pledging donations for every troll post to Deanspace). Most important, allowing such a forum for democratic participation and conversation is the move that would help to create the trust, openness and welcoming that a cool campaign requires.

Releasing control, and inviting open participation is one key to cool - especially when it comes to re-establishing trust, and will be the key to success for the first political party to figure it out. It's probably too late for Paul Martin. Any neo-Chrétienites (or neo-Trudeaunians) waiting in the wings?

*UCaPP = Ubiquitously Connected and Pervasively Proximate
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Righting Copyright Politics

A little over a week ago, I blogged about how American-style campaign contributions had influenced then-parliamentarian Sarmite (Sam) Bulte, who was chair of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage that essentially took dictation from the content industry and produced a one-sided recommendation for copyright reform. There has been an active response in the blogosphere against this type of influence buying (led by law professor and columnist Michael Geist). Now, there is an extensive grassroots response in the form of Online Rights Canada, "a grassroots organization that promotes the public's interest in technology and information policy. We believe that Canadians should have a voice in copyright law, access to information, freedom from censorship, and other issues that we face in the digital world."

They have launched two petitions, one "calling on politicians to swear off Big Content's lobbying money," and the other, against "Bill C-74, the Modernization of Investigative Techniques Act, would have allowed law enforcement agencies to obtain identifying information about you without a warrant. Even worse, it would have forced communications providers to build surveillance back-doors into the hardware that routes our phone calls, Internet traffic, and more."

What is frightening to me is the thought that both of these petitions came out of actions of the Liberal government; a potential Conservative government would likely do far worse! Here's where to find out more!

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12 January 2006

Whack the PM

No, not in a Sopranos sort of way. Franke James and that crazy James Gang are back with the latest version of Whack the PM, in which visitors get to clobber their least favourite of the five party leaders on an "issue-by-issue basis." Currently, Stephen Harper is the leading whack-job.

For more insightful commentary on the election, why don't you take a scroll through the main page?
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10 January 2006

Who "Won" the Leaders Debate?

Steve Paikin, the moderator, of course. His affable questioning style, and the sensitivity he demonstrated to issues that began to burn during the answering rounds will stand him in good stead when it comes time for him to move on from Studio 2.

Oh, you mean which leader. That's easy too: the leader of the party for which you've already decided to vote (regardless of whether or not you actually realize you're going to vote for it).

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09 January 2006

Are You Annoying? Go Straight to Jail in the U.S.

Ahh, that Big Brother. What will he think of next? According to Declan McCullagh,
It's no joke. Last Thursday, President Bush signed into law a prohibition on posting annoying Web messages or sending annoying e-mail messages without disclosing your true identity... Buried deep in the new law is Sec. 113, an innocuously titled bit called "Preventing Cyberstalking." It rewrites existing telephone harassment law to prohibit anyone from using the Internet "without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy."
The problematic text (which would likely not withstand a First Amendment challenge) says,
Whoever...utilizes any device or software that can be used to originate telecommunications or other types of communications that are transmitted, in whole or in part, by the Internet... without disclosing his identity and with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass any person...who receives the communications...shall be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than two years, or both.
Down on the ranch, I hear-tell they's asayin' "That's one way of takin' care-a those annoying folks on them Internets..."

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What Canada's Election is About

If you think that the upcoming Canadian election is about which leader/party will be best at governing the country, think again. The election is about one thing, and one thing only: who is the most clever campaigner. John Doyle hits the nail on the head with his column (via Google News) in the Globe today. When you combine Doyle's observation with the media fact that television is a medium that induces a hypnotic trance, the country is in really serious trouble.
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07 January 2006

Hearing the Medium, Hearing the Message

Wired has a great story, "My Bionic Quest for Boléro," that truly demonstrates that the medium is the message. The story describes how the author, Michael Chorost - partially deaf from birth and completely deaf from teenage - embarked on a quest to once again hear and enjoy Ravel's Boléro. That quest led him to a cochlear implant, as well as audiologists and engineers willing to hack its firmware to expand the range of sonic fidelity to capture not only the spoken word, but music.

The article itself is a fascinating read. Cory Doctorow interprets as a testimony to a person being able to take some purchased technology "to improve it, to extend it, using her own body and perceptions as a labratory for experiments on human perception and performance." (This, by the way, is something that the techno-entertainment companies are working hard to prevent.) I additionally see this as a near perfect lesson in the difference between the content and the message of a medium.

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06 January 2006

On the Media Effects of Immigration and Refugee Board Hearings via Videoconference

Hazzah! I just received confirmation that my paper, "On the Media Effects of Immigration and Refugee Board Hearings via Videoconference," has been accepted for publication by the Journal of Refugee Studies, published by Oxford University Press. This was based on some work I did for Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board that commissioned a study on whether the use of videoconference proceedings for refugee hearings represented an appropriate balance between the rights of refugee applicants for a fair and just hearing, and the need for expeditious hearings, given the number of refugee applicants. My submission was only one aspect of the review that ultimately concluded that more empirical study was necessary - a finding that was effectively rejected by the Board in favour of continuing with the use of videoconferencing. To be fair to the IRB, at least they asked the question, unlike the U.S. and Australia who adopted the practice without any investigation whatsoever.

Since OUP has post-publication rights to the final version, I will not post it here (as I usually do with almost all of my stuff). If you would like a copy of the full paper for your own use, please email me and I'll be happy to send you a copy. Here are the abstract and the conclusion sections of the final paper:
Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board conducts some of its refugee hearings via videoconferencing. As part of a review of the fairness of this practice, a theoretical approach, and review of the empirical literature was commissioned. Particularly under “high stakes” conditions, it was found that videoconferencing reduces mutual trust and understanding, exacerbates cultural differences in non-verbal communication, and increases the propensity to lie while decreasing the ability to detect falsehoods. Further, the inherent power imbalance between the tribunal and the claimant is widened as the tribunal members become acclimatized to the technology. In general, the difference in sensory perception of a mediating technology creates cognitive differences between mediated, and non-mediated environments. Further, sensory perception that feeds narrative construction varies by culture. The process of conveying and understanding meaning across cultures is sufficiently difficulty; adding the complexity of videoconference mediation introduces the possibility of inconsistency, inaccuracy, and altered judgement.

Conclusion: “Culture is Our Business”
Marshall McLuhan notes that “the effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance” (McLuhan, 1964, 18). The various literature cited in this essay have spoken to a variety of aspects through which our “patterns of perception” are altered by the mediation of videoconference technology. Despite the fact that videoconferencing provides both an audio channel and a video channel, our sensory perception of it – and therefore its effect on us – is different than physical presence. Why should this be? McLuhan offers the following explanation: “What I am saying is that media an extensions of our senses institute new ratios, not only among our private senses, but among themselves, when they interact among themselves” (McLuhan, 1964, 53). Specifically, the medium of videoconferencing – which itself is a media amalgam that turns one-way, one-to-many television into two-way, one-to-one telephone – interacts with the medium of “immigration hearing.” The resulting media stew is considerably different, and therefore has different perceptual and cognitive effects, from a face-to-face hearing interview.

The differences in responses between claimant counsel and Board-affiliated personnel as reported in Ellis’s review starkly demonstrate these perceptual and cognitive differences as experienced by those on either side of the television screen, and the disconnection that occurs between each party’s respective experience. Media theory suggests that each side will be tacitly influenced by their ground, or contextual frame of reference: Board members by concerns of economy and efficiency, claimant counsel by concerns for the welfare of their clients. While I am not suggesting that there is an overt denial of potential deleterious effects on outcomes and soundness of judgement on the part of Board members when hearings are conducted by videoconference, I do maintain that their own perception of fairness and soundness cannot help but be influenced by their contextual ground. As Marshall McLuhan reminds us, “in collective matters of media and technology, the individual is almost inevitably unaware of their effect upon him” (McLuhan 1964, 318).

Ron Ellis submitted his report to the Audit and Evaluation Committee of the IRB in October, 2004. Among his recommendations were a number of technical improvements to the operation of the videoconferencing equipment and proceedings themselves, and a strong recommendation for,
…a significant “testing period” during which the videoconferencing would be delivered in the most acceptable way possible and the relative fairness and effectiveness of videoconferenced hearings as compared to traditional hearings would be carefully and systematically evaluated through an independent and scholarly empirical study. The study… would involve a comparison of the experiences and perceptions of two sets of claimants – one set being those claimants whose cases are determined in videoconferenced hearings during the testing period, and the other set being those claimants with cases of comparable complexity and difficulty that are determined in traditional, in-person hearings during the same period.

The Board rejected this recommendation, stating that it does not have “cause to doubt the fundamental fairness of conducting a hearing by videoconference” (Ellis 2004, 55). In its response to the Ellis report, the Board goes on to say, “The board is strengthened in this conclusion by the fact that videoconferencing to determine claims for refugee protection is used in other jurisdictions … notably the United States and Australia” (Ellis 2004, 55).

The Immigration and Refugee Board assesses applicants for their eligibility to remain in Canada after applying for asylum. That is what it does, and thus, in media terms, is its content. As a medium, I would contend that its message is one of deciphering and creating meaning from among multiple, interacting cultural grounds – the applicant in the context of his or her homeland and its socio-political circumstances, rubbed against that of the adjudicator in the context of Canada overtop the ground conditioning of his or her own homeland. This is a supremely challenging enterprise, to say the least! Multiplying the complexity of this “business of culture” by the mediation effects created through videoconferencing introduces the significant possibility of inconsistency, inaccuracy, and altered judgement. It is left to the reader to judge whether this is the basis for a fair and just assessment that reflects Canadian policy and Canadian ideals.

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04 January 2006

Copyright Politics - Free Trade We Don't Need

According to Michael Geist, we seem to be importing U.S.-style political funding by lobby groups for the recording and content industry. In particular, Liberal candidate in Toronto's Parkdale riding, Sarmite (Sam) Bulte, has received significant donations from CRIA (music industry lobbyists) and CMPDA (movie industry lobbyists), as well as a recent industry-sponsored fundraising dinner. (Turns out that Bulte reached her cap on donations in 2005, so the fundraiser was held over until 2006 to get around the fundraising cap "technicality.") Geist reports that candidates (from any party willing to toe the CRIA/CMPDA line) can access thousands of dollars of support - support that inevitably works against the interests of all Canadians, and often against the interests of the artists themselves:
the revelations of recent days (Campaign Contributions, Tipping Point, That's What Friends Are For) suggest that we are not in a balanced debate searching for the policies that are best for all Canadians. Sam Bulte accepts thousands of dollars in contributions from the stronger copyright law lobby and brazenly holds a fundraiser for more money days before the election. The funders justify their contributions by noting that they needed to avoid the annual financing cap and that they balance the process by funding MPs from both parties.

Cory Doctorow blogs about this issue, and there is a page from Digital Copyright Canada that highlights the issues in Parkdale riding, in which opponent Peggy Nash from the NDP has a good chance of unseating incumbant Bulte this time around.

I had the opportunity to hear Sam Bulte, who was chair of Parliamentary Committee looking at copyright reform, speak at a symposium on copyright issues in Canada. To be frank, I was appalled at her glib spouting of industry propaganda, while not being able to convey any thoughtful commentary on the issue. It would be entirely inappropriate and sexist of me to call her a "spokesmodel" for the entertainment industry, but, damn it, that's the impression she made in front of several hundred people who gathered at U of T's Faculty of Law "Sound Bytes/Sound Right" conference.

The ramifications of copyright - and other "intellectual property" law - reforms goes well beyond the simplistic framing of downloading music. As we have seen in the recent Sony debacle, this issue touches what you are allowed to do with stuff that you legitimately buy and presumably own. The problem is that, if these industry lobbyists have their way, you will only be able to own what they want you to own, but pay for much, much more.
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03 January 2006

Campaign Scripts as Medium

Now that we're past the holiday season, the so-called second phase of the election campaign begins. Or, since this is shaping up to be yet another television campaign (all three major parties being totally clueless when it comes to the effects of the 'net), let me do it this way:
Previously, on The Race for Sussex
While Stephen keeps his policy-a-day pace, Paul wears his flag, and his heart, on his sleeve. Meanwhile, Jack, "of all trades," takes to factory floors even though his traditional heartthrob, Buzz, seems to have abandoned him for another. What lies ahead? Tune in for the next episode of... The Race for Sussex!
The whole thing so far has run, more or less, to script. The latest distraction of the income trust scandal is just that - a distraction that is being too overplayed to sustain Canadian's attention over the next three weeks.

Far more interesting is to consider how the major parties are handling their respective scripts, and how adaptable they are to events as they unfold. Not only is deviating from script a good offensive move against an inflexible opponent (the old martial arts technique of using your opponent's momentum against him), it is also an indicator of how responsive that party might be once in power.

From the first televised four-way speech-making session, a.k.a. leaders' debate, it is clear that Harper and Layton are both stay-on-message types. Layton is perhaps a bit cuter and more direct about it ("The answer to any issue? Send more NDPers to Ottawa!") Harper, however, seems to have a pre-programmed nominal policy response to the various issues that often rings somewhat simplistically. It's as if he dares not deviate from the planned script. And that strikes me as dangerously inflexible and unresponsive.

What brought this effect (as in message of the campaign script medium) from ground to perceptible figure was the issue of attack ads. Just before the holiday break, the Conservative campaign warned that the Liberals were about to launch attack ads, preconditioning Canadians to expect the "arrogant" Liberals to continue their "evil" ways. The Conservative script called for preconditioning, and then a quick response to the expected Liberal attack ads. Except, said negative Liberal ads have not (yet) materialized - a smart, responsive move on the part of the Liberal campaign to counter the Conservative preconditioning. However, the Conservative script called for a quick response, and thus, the first negative ad of the campaign - the one showing a scowling Paul Martin in evil colours - appeared this week.

At one time, one could reasonably choose among the parties and candidates based on what they explicitly said - the figure, what is obviously noticed. Today, the mechanics of politics is far more sophisticated, and that necessitates a greater sophistication on the part of the electorate. The more a politician (and a political organization) directs voters to look at figure, the more voters must search carefully for the contextual ground, and what is revealed by what is not obviously shown.
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