Citizens & Our Institutions: It’s gonna be a bumpy ride

Written by Lisa Hrabluk

Best-selling author. Award-winning journalist. Purpose-led entrepreneur. Find me hanging out where culture, people and ideas collide.

November 25, 2014

Ignored, abused and sued: this is the state of the relationships between governments and citizens in Canada in 2014. How the heck did we get here?

Blame it on the Internet.

Amidst all the Silicon Valley-inspired rhetoric about world-changing technological innovations, the Internet is the one piece of technology that has lived up to the hype. Like Guttenburg’s printing press and Marconi’s telegraph, the Internet and its companion, the World Wide Web, have irrevocably changed how we communicate and in the process, have changed us too.

While each of us practise compromise and conciliation with varying degrees of success in our private lives, as a society, we are becoming far more unyielding in our approach to civic life. As New York Times media critic David Carr said; “The problem with the Web is whatever answer you are seeking, you will find it.”

Of all the Internet’s promises, the one that we failed to deliver on is also its most famous: Think Different. Apple’s iconic ad campaign, which has decorated countless dorm rooms and office cubicles, is classic Steve Jobs-era Apple: aspirational in its intent. Even now, 17 years after it debuted, we can hear Richard Dreyfus’ voice in our heads say those now-famous lines:

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

It was the perfect value proposition for The Breakfast Club/Reality Bites generation, the kids raised on video games, music videos, the 24-hour news cycle, and the John Hughes universe of geeks, nerds, and outcasts. In 1997, they were young adults, trying to fit into a workforce grappling with disruptive new technologies: misfits and rebels, every one, at least in their own minds.

Former Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson’s theory of the long tail, which has propelled countless tech start-up ideas since it was developed a decade ago, is born of Gen X’s early use of digital technology. Buzzfeed,, and the U.S.-led network of progressive political organizations have their roots in Anderson’s theory that as distribution costs fall, narrowly-targeted messages can connect with a large number of like-minded people.

That’s great if you’re selling stuff, connecting with fellow fans or planning a grassroots rebellion, but the long tail is highly problematic for civil society because it does precisely the opposite of Apple’s aspirational message: it reinforces our desire to think similar – just as we desperately need to embrace collaborative thinking in order to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.

Media theorist Clay Shirkey describes it this way in his book, Here Comes Everybody; “Our social tools are not an improvement to modern society; they are a challenge to it,” he writes. “The hallmark of revolution is that the goals of the revolutionaries cannot be contained by the institutional structure of the existing society. As a result, either the revolutionaries are put down, or some of those institutions are altered, replaced or destroyed.”

We are watching this happen in real time from Burnaby to Bouctouche.

Our old, asymmetrical communications model, which limited access to the means of production and transmission, is being challenged by our new symmetrical communications, which enables just about anyone with a wireless connection and a smart phone to send and receive in equal measure.

And what is it that prompts so many of us to freely share information? Love for the things we hold most dear. The dispassionate language of business and government can’t compete with that.

That direct appeal to our emotions, for so long the central tenet of corporate public relations and political propaganda, doesn’t draw us in like it once did. There are other voices in the conversation now, and they bring a passion to their message that feels more authentic than the carefully controlled messages of professional communications.

Why? Because recent history has taught us to doubt the veracity of our institutional leaders.

The 21st century’s first decade-and-a-half is littered with the public failures and disappointments of politicians, corporations, and non-profits. Combine that with our growing uncertainty over our personal, financial and job security, and we are left with the unease that our institutions are no longer looking out for our best interests.

Uncertainty breeds conflict, and as our conflicts multiply, so does our level of anger. Here, as in so many other aspects of our modern world, digital networks are driving this change.

Like it or not, conflict is an inevitable byproduct of new communications technologies. By lowering the barriers for people to connect with each other, power is shifting away from traditional hierarchical models of authority towards flat, interconnected networks. Hierarchies contain conflict – networks release them.

It’s why democracies appear more argumentative than authoritarian regimes and the 1950s seems downright pastoral compared to our snarky present.

But despite our discomfort at the volume and tone of public debate, we can’t wish it away. Nor should we, because somewhere in the chaos lie the solutions we seek.

We need to listen closely as we wade in, so we can hear its signal amidst all the noise.

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