Homo Sapiens v. Homo Economicus

In the current debate about the nature of public broadcasting in Canada, the question has been raised about how to define the public interest in the digital age. When in the near future everybody can receive a smorgasbord of information, entertainment and elevating treasures on the computer, via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and so on, it is asked, “Can space be reserved for the content of traditional public broadcasting and, anyway, why should it?”

The technology of digital distribution is so miraculous that, in the universe of signals in cyberland, there is no reason why X numbers could not be called “public space” – or, preferably, a more imaginative label. The Nature of Man demands this. If the signals originate with advertisers, they are addressed to “homo economicus,” to man as consumer. The purpose of the communication, however useful and/or delightful, is to sell something, and its usefulness and/or its delightfulness, if any, is therefore merely a by-product.

The Three GracesBut Man – and in this conceit women are men – is also “sapiens” – knowledge-seeking man – and has therefore a right to receive untainted signals that serve Truth, Beauty and Justice without ulterior motive.

Some time in the early ’twenties, Herbert Hoover, then Republican Secretary of Commerce and quintessential businessman, held up a crystal set and told his audience, “This new invention is so wonderful, and has so many possibilities in education and culture  [he was a Quaker] that, with God’s help, it will not fall into the hands of advertisers.”

God was looking the other way, with the result that only in the United States broadcasting became overwhelmingly commercial. Talk about American exceptionalism! Canada followed with a mixed system, with results that have led to the present crisis.

For Canadians, the time has come to think again. The new technology – and, one would hope, new political wisdom – makes it possible to extricate homo sapiens from the fateful embrace by homo economicus.

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8 responses to “Homo Sapiens v. Homo Economicus

  1. Excellent posting Eric. In this digital age (aka, The Great Disruption) is it still possible to have ratings and quality? But not as we once understood it. We need to stop thinking that it is still possible to be aggregating mass audiences. Ironically, at the same time as technology has allowed for more democracy, it can also allow for more quality niche content. Can public broadcasting lead the way? Not in Canada, you say? Pity.

    • Thank you, Jeff. I have NOT given up on Canada, appearances notwithstanding. Like Wade Rowland, I am an optimist.

  2. Horace Krever

    I don’t know why but this reminds me of the title to Professor Lorne T. Morgan’s classic pamphlet of the 1940s, “The Permanent War or Homo The Sap”.

  3. Jan Krouzil

    If defining ‘the public interest’ is the main concern then its incessant and transparent re-articulation by any means available, digital or otherwise, is necessary. Is ‘cyberspace’ capable of reviving the initial idea of the ‘democratic agora’ as a performative ‘stage’ for the ‘marketplace of ideas’..non-commodified?

  4. Fred Blair

    The question isn’t what platforms, digital or other, should be available to or used by “public broadcasting”, but whether the broadcaster will be provided the freedom and the necessary non-tainted — ie non-commercial — resources to seek out, assemble, edit, or produce content. I don’t worry much about the CBC fooling around with Facebook and Twitter, but I am very concerned that it lacks resources to properly cover the world scene, or to edit and present a coherent and focused news feed. (CBC News Network, are you listening?)

  5. Henry Lotin

    The picture above contains very nice looking Homo Sapiens. By any chance is this a picture of a statue at the Vatican Museum depicting Pagan Goddesses?