Does It Matter If The Future Isn’t Available in Canada?
Vito Pilieci has written an interesting rebuttal to Macleans’ “You can’t buy that here” article – an article which mirrors many of the concerns I raised in my own “Borders Keep Out Innovation, Too” post. I can’t fault Vito’s logic – yes, Canadian developers could create iPhone applications using the SDK even before the device arrived in Canada; yes, Canadians can technically read e-books on iPhones, netbooks, laptops, or other devices without waiting for Amazon’s Kindle device; and yes, Canada is no more disadvantaged with respect to services like Hulu than countries like Japan, Korea, or even the entirety of Europe.
And yet, despite such a resounding thumping, there is still a ring of truth to the original article. A niggling, unsettling je ne sais quoi that speaks to a core injustice that unsettles Canadian technophiles. It’s not that Vito’s arguments aren’t sound – it’s just that they’re so unsatisfying.
Sure, you could develop iPhone applications in the simulator – but you would miss the experience of using the device in your daily life, of truly understanding the implications, applications, and untapped potential of the device. And yes, you could curl up with an ebook on your laptop or smartphone – despite the fact that the form factor is completely uncomfortable, and the screen technology strains your eyes. And yes, you could take comfort in the fact that you’re no worse off than consumers in any other country outside the US.
But every day, you’d still be getting pummeled with advertising on TV, in magazines, and on the net about The Next Big Thing, How Great It Is, only to discover it’s Coming Real Soon to Canada. And it would eat at you.
It’s neither a new problem, nor is it limited to technology. If you’re Canadian, you probably have noticed there’s an awful lot of extremely successful Canadians and, oddly enough, they all seem to have become extremely successful by leaving Canada, working outside Canada, and living the rest of their lives outside Canada. And you’ve probably suffered the simultaneous sensations of both giddy pleasure and guilty shame when any of these representatives of the Great White North receive any recognition in international press. The un-articulated outrage expressed in the Macleans article is an extension of this festering inferiority complex that riddles the Canadian national psyche.
It reminds me of an American Express ad that ran in Canada a couple years ago: the advertisement espoused that you could live the life you wanted (presumably using an American Express), but carried the laughable legal rider “Offer not available in Quebec” – apparently if you lived in Quebec, you were out of luck. And that’s how technophiles feel when the invisible, intangible web of national borders and legal frameworks or the lack of an insufficiently large population base denies them access to new technologies. These technologies promise freedom, capabilities, possibilities – they promise the future, and yet in a cruel twist of fate, these promises are held just out of reach by rules that many technophiles regard as either antiquated or out of touch with the borderless landscape of the Internet.
So while I can’t say that Vito is wrong, I can’t bring myself to say that he’s right either. Yes, there are other, more complicated issues that retard the Canadian technology industry (Vito names telecommunications regulation, investment regulations). But getting people to stand up and force politicians to take action on these issues requires them to understand what’s at stake, and what’s in it for them. Macleans’ attempt to point out how Canada is missing out on the future, however small a piece of it, seems like a valid tactic despite the weakness of its execution.
Well, as a dual citizen of the US and Canada (naturalized to both), I have to agree with Macleans Magazine. Just because Pilieci thinks that Campbell of Macleans “substantiates his points with a bunch of random, easily dismissed anecdotes,” doesn’t mean those anecdotes aren’t valid or don’t add up to a bigger picture. “Macleans should be ashamed,” he adds. Really? Shame? I hope he’s kidding, ’cause the old “you oughta be ashamed” canard really doesn’t cut it anymore.
I think you get at something very essential with your observations, Brendon, for example when you write about missing “the experience of using the device in your daily life, of truly understanding the implications, applications, and untapped potential of the device” (and while you were talking about the iPhone in that example, I think the point translates across the technology landscape.
It’s conditions like the ones that exists around technology and innovation in Canada that make the issue of Canadian culture so difficult, too, because the words “paternalism” and “tutelage [from authorities on high]” come to mind, not independence, liberation, freedom. And that, too, contributes to the niggling sense of inferiority.
Do you know what the wealthy establishment fathers of Canada told young artists in the Group of Seven (now recognized as the founders of national Canadian landscape painting) back in the early 20th century? “It’s bad enough having to live in this country. Why bother hanging pictures of it up on one’s walls?”
They preferred to collect Old European Masters instead – Dutch landscapes in shades of brown with brown cows. Instead of embracing the innovation that the Group of Seven artists offered, they turned to the past and haughtily told those innovators to learn to paint like the *Old* Masters instead. The innovators wanted to look to other innovators in Europe instead – Cezanne, cubism, futurism, abstraction. But the paternalists knew “better” – and with their “wisdom” helped stunt Canadian culture instead of furthering it. Take a look at the museums built on private collections in the US and you’ll see that contemporary American captains of industry collected European and American avant-gardists, not brown pictures of brown cows. Consequently, American culture benefited from their support, and – as a spin-off many decades later – there are now many seminal collections for the public to enjoy. Canadian collections from that period are small miseries in comparison, and viewing them isn’t nearly as satisfying. That’s how a culture of old-fashioned paternalism (with its flip side of “made in Canada” solutions – the Group of Seven worked often in isolation) has ripple effects that are felt for generations.