New media symposium: From cellphones to cultural diversity

New media symposium: From cellphones to cultural diversity McGill University

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McGill Reporter
April 28, 2005 - Volume 37 Number 15
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New media symposium: From cellphones to cultural diversity

Caption follows
Line Beauchamp, Quebec's minister of culture and communications at McGill graduate student symposium.
Claudio Calligaris

Imagine that all the communication flying through the airwaves, through cable and phone connections were suddenly stained a royal blue.

At the Montreal Graduate Symposium on New Media, Internet Studies and Global Governance, April 14 and 15, presentations in a session on new media in comparative contexts showed that a bird's eye view of these currents would reveal wide discrepancies in the volume and speed of this flow.

Kuwait's blue current might be voluminous, but it would move more like a dawdling canal than a torrential river. Kuwaitis rely heavily on the internet to keep in touch with family and friends. "Without it, they feel lost," said McGill graduate student Sal Mubarak. Ever since the invasion of 1990, when Iraqi forces knocked out Kuwait's TV and radio for seven months, there has been an appreciation of the primal importance of connectivity. According to Mubarak, people stay in touch via email. There are roughly 300 internet cafés for children who play games online, plus other cafés for teens who chat with friends. People can even shop online at shopping malls. So much demand and use, and yet high speed connections are still out of reach for most: a DSL connection costs upwards of $200 to $400 per month.

Some communities in Labrador would be left high and dry, with hardly a trace of blue. According to Katrina Peddle, a masters student in communications at Concordia, although isolated communities in Labrador received $15 million for a government funded project (Smart Communities) that, in partnership with Microsoft, set up frame relay satellite and fibre optic networks, the broadband internet connection in the most remote communities was discontinued.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia communities with wealthy, artistic populations would be visibly in the swim of things. While they participated in the same government program as Labrador, they decided to go with a municipally owned fiber optic network. As explained by Peddle, their logic was based on the theory that, if the private sector was not already serving the community, they would not be any more likely to start because of a government program. In Nova Scotia, corporations now have to pay the municipalities to use the fibre optic system.

But what of the content pulsing through our communications systems? As some high-speed internet providers have begun to impose limitations on their clients' downloads, we can see that communications providers have a vested interest in the quantity of content shuttled from server to server, or, in China, from cell to cell.

McGill's Jia Zhao described how, in China, where the number of cell phone subscribers has jumped from 20,000 in 1990 to 300,000,000 in 2004, people compose and broadcast their own music, poems, and even novels, via their handhelds.

Then think of all those American films and music downloaded the world over.

At a special closing session on the UNESCO Convention on Cultural Diversity, Line Beauchamp, Quebec's minister of culture and communications, said that the U.S. has argued that cultural productions should be considered as commercial products like any other.

Not everyone agrees with that. In the fall of 2003, between 80 and 90 countries asked to be heard at UNESCO's general assembly, when the convention on cultural diversity was discussed. Japan was particularly involved, insisting that "immaterial" heritage (such as dance) be protected.

The U.S. has contested the use of the word "protection," but Beauchamp sees no problem with it. Drawing a parallel between biodiversity and cultural diversity, she argued that Quebec's maintaining quotas on film, TV and radio is not pushing a protectionist economy, but rather fighting homogenization.

For more information about the UNESCO convention on cultural diversity, consult

The symposium was jointly sponsored by the Ph.D. Program in Communications, Concordia University, UQAM, Université de Montréal; the Beaverbrook Chair in Ethics, Media and Communications, McGill; and the Department of Art History and Communication Studies, McGill.

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