On Instant Information

In November of last year, my husband was offered a short-term job in Michigan as a guest director at a small liberal arts university. He went, of course. I stayed behind; I have my own job. But while he was gone, we were in communication on a daily basis – and we didn’t break the bank. The internet has made instant communication over huge distances possible, affordable – and commonplace.

We live in the Information Age. The ability to communicate instantly and cheaply over huge distances has revolutionized the way in which human beings relate to one another, and has revolutionized the way in which societies interact. These days, it is possible to link to other human beings anywhere in the world by using satellites, cell phones, and the internet. The world has changed, and – without realizing – we have changed with it.

But it appears we haven’t noticed this change. That this applies to us here in The Bahamas is not something that we talk much about. We conduct our business as though radio is the most efficient method of getting the word out, and appear completely to ignore the revolution going on around us.

But the in-your-face power of the airwaves pales in comparison to the internet, which is the most radical form of communication there is. It’s radical because nobody owns it. Yes, people (mostly Americans) own the access to it; in order to get online, you have to open the portal provided by the computer, your Internet Service Provider (a.k.a. ISP), and do a bunch of things that some people find intimidating. But once you have done these things, you will find yourself in the biggest democracy on earth.

It’s a democracy without borders. It’s a place where people who think alike can meet and discuss ideas without worrying about the kinds of things that people normally worry about – like where you’re from, which party you support, what skin colour you happen to wear – and for that reason it’s a place where it’s possible for petty barriers to melt away and for minds to meet.

And for that reason it’s a place where revolutions take place, quietly.

Let me illustrate, just briefly. In the 2004 Presidential Elections in the USA, a new power base made itself known: the world of blogs and blogging. Simply put for those people who have no idea what I’m talking about, a web log is a place on the internet where an individual can make his or her opinions known in an instant. It’s like a journal or a diary, but with one big difference: journals and diaries are traditionally private, and blogs are public. They attract readers and they start conversations.

And the blog is only one place in which people make their opinions known. There are also chat rooms and internet forums and countless cyber-places where people can go and hang out, anonymously if they choose, and say what they think. The very facelessness of the internet makes it possible for individuals to say what they think without fear of reprisal. And there’s something else, too. The newness of the technology involved means that young Bahamians – those people who will be ruling this country when those of us currently in power are hoping to retire in comfort and to age in peace – are more familiar with cyberspace communication than they are with almost any other kind. They’re certainly more familiar with it than we are.

So let me share a few truths about the Bahamian internet interface that might surprise those of us who were born before 1980.

Bahamians are talking in cyberspace. They’re talking about politics, about culture, about race, about development, about all kinds of issues that we have developed the (erroneous) habit of imagining that Bahamians aren’t interested in. And the opinions expressed are varied, thoughtful, and sometimes revolutionary. An afternoon spent on a forum like (say) Bahamians Online will reveal more about current Bahamian thinking than any radio talk show. There are no borders to our thinking, no limits on what we discuss.

But our institutions have not changed to reflect this fact.

The recent furore over the banning of the movie Brokeback Mountain is a good example of that fact. That a handful of individuals can imagine that it is even possible in this twenty-first century to prohibit the showing of a film in the public interest demonstrates how out-of-date our governing philosophies are. The advent of cable television, which is not governed by the Theatres and Cinemas Act, made that action obsolete; the fact that over half of our population has direct access to the internet through their homes, and that those who can’t get online in their homes can do so in any number of cybercafes (and yes, I do know that they were established for another purpose) renders the banning ridiculous. Theatre and film are the mass communication forms of yesteryear. If we imagine that censorship is the way to protect the morals of the general public, we are losing the battle before we begin.

The time has come, I believe, to face the fact that mass communication is no longer controllable, if it ever was. If we are to affect the way in which our children think, we have to engage our rusty reasoning skills and teach them, and ourselves, how to engage critically with information. It is no longer possible to imagine that public morality can be upheld through its control. No. The unbridled democracy of the World Wide Web means that our future relies – shock! surprise! – on our mastering the lost art of thought.