The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Time zones and technology

Welcome to our BC viewers. The Liberals have won a majority. Good night.


Faced with a near inevitability of western voters having foreknowledge of previous election results on election day, Elections Canada has traditionally chosen to impose a news blackout upon western regions until such time as their own polls close, so as not to skew results through preknowledge of earlier results. The basic aim is that of fairness: all voters should be able to cast their vote with an equal knowledge of the outcome. Telegraph, telephone, and other private communications based upon modern technology have always been able to undermine this attempt, but on a relatively small scale. Mass real-time public and private media such as television and radio have by-and-large conformed to the restrictions: a combination of their willingness to comply with the ideal of fairness and their unwillingness to actively break the law.

Yet I sometimes wonder whether at least some part of western alienation in Canada has not indirectly arisen from the constant sense of western political helplessness created by the combination of time zone staggering and early news blackout. How could it be otherwise, when the election so often seems already to have been decided before the polls even close west of Lake Superior? Certainly other factors are involved here as well (relative population density comes to mind): but surely it cannot be purely coincidence that libertarianism and an absolute dominance of freedom of speech over almost every other freedom is found uniquely not only in non-young democratic countries with multiple time zones, but specifically dominates the political landscape in every non-coastal region of those countries which lies west of the country capital's time zone? Since the electoral college and senate structure of the much-more-regionally-based United States mitigates some part of this issue (at the expense of other structural issues), the Royal Canadian Air Farce's take on staggered CBC reporting of an Ontario-swayed election, quoted above, only articulates a deep electorial temporal disconnect very nearly unique to Canada.

The current legislated compromise is to stagger poll opening and closing times across the country such that no more than an hour separates furthest east poll closing from furthest west: and to try to encourage a complete blackout, until 10 pm EST (the last of the polls closed at 9:30 pm EST) on all media accessible equally across the country independent of time zone. Television coverage can be staggered and made region-specific, as it has been since its inception. Internet cannot: and so the blackout extends to cover bloggers and other Internet discussion, at least on Canadian servers. Most Canadian bloggers, recognising the intent behind the regulation, voluntarily complied, even to the point of temporarily disabling comments on their sites -- which some had personally discovered was necessary, since there seems to be a need by a few to force knowledge upon others regardless of what the recipients might wish.

But now: Twitter has changed all the rules.

At its most simplistic, any attempted restriction of knowledge for any purpose whatsoever evokes the knee-jerk reaction that information should be freely accessible, that it simply is not right to restrict free speech: but this approach ignores the potential influence of foreknowledge upon outcome, assuming that all knowledge is inherently beneficial yet neutral (which, incidentally, contradicts the other assumption that knowledge shapes the way we vote and indeed should shape the way we vote). Assumption of the self-evident rightness of absolute freedom of speech ties closely with assumption of the self-evident rightness of (almost) absolute freedom of action: your right to throw your fist ends where my nose begins -- but then again in this context free speech simply cannot be viewed as harmful, ever, because information can only ever be seen as beneficial to the individual; and benefit to the individual always trumps fairness. (Which might partly explain why, offers of debate notwithstanding, Bill O'Reilly will never venture away from a studio he controls in its entirety even to a neutral debate environment: how would such a move benefit him ?)

And so some individuals -- most commonly from the midwest/west, though there are exceptions -- seek to break what some see as an attempt by the government to regulate electoral fairness and others see as government-imposed censorship (and thus inherently wrong). In this worldview things are black and white: and thus there can be no such thing as a hierarchy of freedoms or indeed any possible mitigation of individual freedom toward an attempted greater good, lest the absolute, self-evident rights of the individual to do whatever they wish be further "trampled".

As with so many other pieces of technology, the understanding that sweeping new communications media and instant self-publishing / samizdat just might have a second edge comes late, and thus cannot but be addressed ad hoc. Yet it might have been utterly predictable that it would be on the Internet, that ultimate bastion of individuality, that the first serious challenges to the traditional east-west information blackouts would arise, had arisen three and four elections ago, along with some very real questions as to enforceability of any attempted legislated restrictions. While mainstream mass media, at least over the issue of electoral fairness, tends to respect that there might perhaps have been a valid reason for the government ruling: anyone can Twitter.

Some choose to use that freedom to wave the banner of their own free speech uncaring of any other considerations -- for, to them, there are no other relevant considerations. (Respect for the wishes of others be damned.)

Yet apart from the reciprocal questions of free speech and respect for others: will even Twitter really make so much difference? Is there a sudden flocking to the polls in British Columbia during the last half hour? Do exit polls detect any sudden shifts in the daily trends?

Technology may change the rules of knowledge distribution: but maybe it is a change that really does not matter outside questions of ethics, in this context, at least.

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