An Interview with Heather Menzies

[The following was first published in ASH Magazine Volume 4 Number 1, Winter 1996.]

Your argument, in the book Whose Brave New World?, is that a corporate agenda is “colonizing” the institutions and services upon which we depend in this country. Would you comment on the choice of this word?

In a colonization model, what we are talking about is empire rather than democracy —the empire of technique, but also the new corporate empires imposing their centralised authority, which is what empire is all about, over more and more of the territories of our lives. Colonization has to do with the fact that there is a cultural component, and related to that an ideological component. We’re shifting from an ethic of public service to an ethic that treats services as commodities and service transactions. In the health care field this is very dramatic, and therefore something very important to watch. This is coming out of the United States, where health care is an industry, where sickness is the raw material for a profit-making industry —their bias is built into that— and these are completely taking us away from prevention of debility, prevention of disease, and taking us toward simply the treatment model, where people can make money off a continuing dependence on medicines and treatments and so on. So the colonization aspect gets at the cultural component and the shift toward this more commoditized approach to life, generally, and then within that, service being transformed from an engaged and empathetic human interaction, to a service transaction —which is a business.

There is also colonization in the sense of an existing knowledge base being pushed to the side and treated as completely unimportant while this new knowledge base, and the new sets of technological skills being imposed by the colonizers —by the new technological agents— are being treated as the only ones that count. It’s the same kind of way in which you had the imposition of the pricing system and the commodity form that displaced barter, exchange, and the subsistence basis of an economy based on the commons of the land here.

Neil Postman has stated, in Technopoly, that a technology will “play out its hand” when introduced —that is, it will do what it’s designed to do, regardless of our efforts to control it. But you seem to believe we have a good degree of control.

I’m neither for nor against technology: I’m for a particular use of technology, one that extends what people do, rather than replaces people and replaces what they do. And so, at a fundamental level I understand and I work with the definition of technology as a social construction. Now, there’s a point at which it begins to become deterministic. It’s a bit like what Ursula Franklin said, that once values are incorporated into the design of a technology, they cannot be negotiated. That speaks to the fact that, for instance, once software monitors people and has taken over more and more of the knowledge required to do a job effectively —taken that knowledge away from people and de-skilled them — once that system is put into place, you can’t negotiate around it. There is a time when one has to negotiate. That is in the initial stages of design, and the initial stages of organizing work and the place of technology. There is scope for intervention at that point. I am somewhat sanguine about the possibility of people gaining control. People still have the capacity to negotiate. People are endlessly inventive.

What do you say to the people —and some of them aren’t necessarily pro-business— who find your critique of corporations “conspiratorial,” or at least so dark that it’s hard to accept? I have to admit I find it hard to believe that business has gotten so mean-spirited that it can enrich itself on human misery.

I think that people who subscribe to conspiracy theories are capitulating to the mystique of all-powerfulness associated with many of the institutions of power, which get all the press and are held up as being the only institutions of power. The corollary of that is that these people are betraying and not sufficiently having confidence in the power that in fact people out in the community still do have, to think for themselves, to speak for themselves, and to act. Where I think I come down is that those people who are in institutions of power do have, usually, access to faster means of communication, and they are therefore able to more quickly apprise the situation and seize an opportunity to exploit it. History is much more chaotic, much more fraught with possibilities than the conspiracy theorists would have us believe. And also it’s peopled on the other side with an awfully lot more stupidity and laziness than conspiracy theorists would have us believe [laughter]

There is another enormous advantage for those who have power, and that’s the ability to define the public interest. Until a public interest is defined, it’s impossible to get any sort of program underway.

And again, that comes back to this moral voice issue. I was giving a speech Friday, in which I stressed the importance of scale —the scale of the voices that are saying “This is in fact what the public interest is all about.” I proceeded to lay out what’s happening —the social devastations that globalization and restructuring are causing, with the downsizing and deficit being part of that larger agenda —and having done so, I was talking about the need for media paying attention to networking amongst all those voices, so that you can get the kind of sustained moral tone that is going to in fact communicate this different definition of the public interest: that the public interest is not deficit cutting, is not global competitiveness; the public interest is in fact defined by meeting people’s needs and positioning all these other agendas within the caring capacity of the larger social environment.

I find myself using the language of “community” when I speak of the public interest. But I suspect this is a buzzword — I mean, community is clearly important, but it’s hard not to be self-conscious. Do I really live in a community? And what’s the relation of business, on any scale, to the interests of community? — particularly given the erosion of traditional ties of business to employees, towns, and even democracy itself?

Too much of this gets discussed in the abstract. And abstractions can be so used by anybody. Community is a perfect case in point. You’ve got various ways in which “community” is being used. It’s being used by business to talk about corporate alliances —now they’re being called communities. Communities are also being defined around ownership of consumer goods, such as cars. And communities are being defined around lifestyles. These are all a redefinition of community into consumer roles and property relations. And that’s a complete betrayal of the historical origins of community. People don’t tend to pay attention to the hard work that communities involve. There’s this tendency to reach into the past and pull out this golden, hazy image of community where everybody gets along with their neighbours. But in fact there is no such community. Community-building is hard work. It’s the art of listening to the other person, putting up with their halitosis [laughter] —one of my ways of describing it— but it’s also the daily practice of dialogue, and dialogue doesn’t just involve speaking for yourself, and your family, and your locale, and the particularities of your group identity. It also involves listening. Listening, to be able to respect, so that freedom can be combined with responsibility, in the microcosm, and you can actually work out differences —you know, negotiate differences. That’s my sense of a real community. We need that kind of practice to avoid the idealisms: the golden age of community, which didn’t exist, and also to avoid the new commoditized images of community. The public interest isn’t an abstraction; it’s the people going to the food bank around the corner from where I live, or the Daily Bread food bank in Toronto, or the one where you live.

The current buzzwords do express an abstracted way of looking at the world which has not very much to do with people and a lot to do with processes and technologies.

One of the major shifts going on right now is we’re moving toward the equivalence of the neoliberal and neoconservative agenda —they’re really one and the same. Democracy and democratic values are being subsumed by corporate values. Human rights are being subsumed, or eclipsed, by property rights. “Whoever has the most power wins” seems to be emerging as the ethic of the new era. It’s really important to name that for what it is, and then also know what you have to do if you want to turn that around. You don’t do it, I think, with abstractions about human rights. I think we can regain our perspectives by grounding ourselves, positioning ourselves in solidarity with the people who have been marginalized —who are being displaced. We’re not doing them a favour; we’re doing ourselves a favour. Because we can redefine the public interest with people at the centre.

The economist Paul Krugman has stated [in Mother Jones], “it will take another [Roosevelt], and perhaps the moral equivalent of another war” to bring back the decent society Americans had a generation ago. What do you think it will take here?

What I was also saying about “the empire versus a democracy” is that you get something imposed, versus something negotiated. The whole public discussion of this has almost shut out the notion, the idea, that this kind of thing should be negotiated. In other words, that there should be a debate, a negotiation, between an ethic of social justice and an ethic of business efficiency and corporate profit. And instead what we’re getting is the imposition of this one ethic, the business agenda. Negotiation is reduced to quibbling over the adjustment mechanisms. To be able to reassert that this is in fact an ethical discussion, and that there are moral choices to be made, requires leadership in a very engaged form. And I think there are already in Canada a number of voices that do represent the kind of moral equivalent of, let’s say, the Roosevelt era —people like Ursula Franklin, various people also in communities. We need to pay attention to the fact that the macrocosm is also composed of a bunch of microcosms.

You’ve written a half-dozen or so books about computers, and one about cheese [By the Labour of Their Hands]. Obviously, there’s more to Heather Menzies than technology.

[laughter] The Menzies were farmers in rural Ontario, so this is sort of my personal roots book. I was also as a child taken to the cheese factories. I got a sense of fascination with technology as part of the landscape. I think I gained a sense that machines had characters and were part of our story. And having written that book, it gave me a lovely perspective, because I jumped into 18th and 19th century technology. I learned a lot about technology in the process of writing [By the Labour of Their Hands], although it isn’t at all a technology book. It’s very much a book of the rural culture in Ontario, which has hardly been written on at all. The other thing is I’m a writer first; I hate being described as an expert on computer technology. Now I’m able to pose, at least for myself if not for others, some of the deeper questions about our society and the philosophies at work in it. It’s been an interesting journey.

Heather Menzies is the author of 7 books, including Whose Brave New World?: The Information Highway and the New Economy. (Between The Lines, 1996). She spoke to ASH from Ottawa, Ontario.

2 responses to “An Interview with Heather Menzies

  1. The theme is called Bueno. The author may be found here: http://www.woothemes.com/

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  2. Where did you get your blog layout from? I’d like to get one like it for my blog.

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