Slicing the cake a different way

Posted 03.18.09

The late Dr. Ursula Franklin, Professor Emerita at the University of Toronto and Senior Fellow at Massey College, once described the world as a giant cake which had, throughout history, been sliced vertically, by location, nationality, constituency, and community. The layers were stratified by class, caste, or custom, and individuals seldom moved more than one or two slices away, to a neighboring country or community.

Early transportation began to slice the cake horizontally, but one seldom moved from the bottom of one layer to the top of another many slices away, as individuals were required to pass through adjacent slices or adjoining layers in order to leave the location where they were born.

Technology changed all that. With the advent of the telegraph and telephone, and now of the fax machine and Internet, we are able to manipulate space and time, separating the message from the messenger.

Thus, I am able to send e-mail to a writer in Denmark whom I've never met, whose professional organization I've never heard of, who lives in a town I can't find in my atlas. I don't have to know his name or address in order to meet him, share his concerns about copyright, know his hobbies, how long he's been married, and the names and ages of his children.

Along with the wonder of instantaneous and unrestricted communication comes myriad problems.

Governments are still thinking vertically, protecting boundaries which have become increasingly fluid.

Some individuals move so horizontally they've lost all sense of their roots, of where they belong.

International trade and investments allow money to be separated from owners with incredible speed and very few restrictions, allowing international credit ratings to hobble decision-making.

The cake, instead of being cut vertically or horizontally, is being hacked by a random wire which zigzags in an irregular and unpredictable pattern, scattering crumbs as it creates new divisions.

Culture, according to Dr. Franklin, is the only glue that keeps human beings together, the adhesive that prevents entire layers from crumbling. Unfortunately, the 20th century brought a homogenization of culture, the pervasive spread of US television bringing Baywatch to every remote country with electricity.

In this century, we're experiencing a dramatic erosion of our cultural institutions and their distinctive expression of what makes us unique.

Dr. Franklin used the example of the food processor to describe how tools shape and change an entire culture. The advent of the Cuisinart, which allowed quick and easy slicing and chopping of vegetables, changed first menus and then the diets of North Americans.

Similarly, e-mail changed timelines. Issues which were formerly discussed in a meeting are now often decided in messages flying back and forth outlining all the details. The final report, complete with graphics and video, is sent electronically to everyone, which means participants may never meet face to face.

Electronic communication via the Internet and other forms of technology is changing forever the world of the writer. We are now the model for the worker of the 21st century, who will -- as freelancers always have -- operate a business or provide a service from a home office, communicating with customers, superiors, and colleagues without face-to-face meetings.

Home-based businesses are the small businesses of the future, and satellite workers, many of whom will be "freelance" instead of salaried employees with sick days, holidays, and other benefits, will now face the kind of uncertainty we have always faced. Those without self-discipline and solid business skills will not survive.

We have much to teach these new entrepreneurs, but at the same time our traditional livelihood is in jeopardy by the relentless zig-zagging of the technology knife.

As the Internet allows anyone with a computer and a modem to locate information quickly and at low cost, the rights of the creators of that information are being infringed as publishers ignore copyright to make their publications available on databases and CD ROMs, and insist that writers sign all rights, worldwide, in perpetuity contracts.

We have to remember that the same invention that gives us the wonder of fireworks kills the innocent in war.

The information highway is like no road we have experienced before. It is millions of lanes wide, with no speed limits, no traffic signals, no patrol cars. Writers need to be vigilant in protecting their rights, insisting on fair compensation for electronic rights in any contract negotiations.

So hang on; it's going to be a bumpy ride as that technology wire makes yet another jagged cut.

Bobbi Graham's website has free pages and many resources for writers, publishers, and cat-lovers. Go to www.SimonTeakettle.com, and make sure you read Terzo's blog.

Copyright © 2009 Barbara Florio Graham/Log Cabin Chronicles/03.09