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Culture Cuts a Blow to Canadian Digitization Strategy

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Tuesday August 26, 2008
The Canadian cultural community has been abuzz over the past two weeks as details emerge about the government's plans to cut millions of dollars from nearly a dozen culture programs. My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that while the cuts may find support among some Canadians opposed to public funding for the arts, a closer look at the plans reveal that this has little to do with handouts to artists.  Rather, the affected programs are focused on industrial policy and the creation of a digital information strategy. 
The industrial policy programs, including PromArt and Trade Routes, provide financial backing for Canadian artists and culture through the promotion of Canadian artists abroad. Supporters of the cuts argue that the market should be the sole determinant of artistic success and that public dollars for promotion are unnecessary. Yet the reality is that these kinds of programs are common in industrial sectors throughout the economy.  The Canadian government regularly launches trade promotion initiatives, maintains trade offices in foreign countries, and allocates billions of dollars in support for key sectors such as the aerospace, automotive, and energy industries.

Few people argue for a market-only approach for the sale of airplanes, largely because public support is recognized as a necessary pre-condition to global commercial success.  The same may be true in the cultural industries. As we move from a world of scarcity (limited bandwidth and access to culture) to one of abundance (near unlimited access to culture), Canadian policies must shift from unworkable regulations that limit access to foreign content toward efforts that back the creation and promotion of Canadian content. In other words, cutting off funding for promotion is not just bad cultural policy.  It is bad economic policy.

The second class of programs relate to the digitization of Canadian content.  These programs include the Canadian Memory Fund, the Canada.ca portal, and the A-V Presentation Trust. These cuts are particularly disappointing since Canada once prioritized support for digital networks, but it now lags badly behind much of the world in its digitization efforts.

Most of our major trading partners, including the United States, European Union, Australia, New Zealand, and China have already established digitization strategies that feature robust programs and ambitious plans. Those countries recognized that an effective digitization strategy yields significant domestic benefits such as wider access to knowledge for all communities, a greater appreciation of national cultural heritage, and the facilitation of lifelong learning.  There are tangible international advantages as well, since digital access supports cultural exports and collaborative scientific research.

Yet the announced cuts move Canada in the opposite direction. For example, just as the government was cutting $11.7 million to the Canadian Memory Fund (which gives federal agencies money to digitize their collections and post them online), the European Union - which is currently led by the Conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy - was committing nearly $200 million next year alone toward digitization and efforts to provide online access to Europe's cultural heritage.  The European Commission has urged its member states to increase their digitization budgets, as Europe works toward the creation of a massive European Digital Library.

These program cuts seemingly guarantee that Canada will fall further behind the digitization race, leaving Canadians without online access to their cultural and historical heritage and doing precious little to promote Canadian content to the rest of the world.  The decisions may provide short-term gains among some voting constituencies, but also promise long-term pain for Canada's presence in the online world.
Comments (13)add comment

Icarus said:

Good news !
Well, I guess i have to rejoice for the first part because, as a libertarian, I am one of the "few" people who also argue a market-only approach to the sales of airplanes. Obviously I'm happy to stop giving my money to an obscure public servant who trades influence by giving it back to friends who put forward great projects like the flying banana.

Perhaps with the end of the public money bias we will see sometime a Canadian culture that canadians can relate to. Not something precooked by the intellectual "elites" who would like to tell us what to like.

I'm in total agreement however with you regarding the support for Canadian Memory Fund. I guess this will be prioritized when the paper archives are near destruction.
August 26, 2008

some dude said:

the truth
Canadian culture is a myth.
Have you ever really thought about it? What is Canadian culture?
It seems to me that whenever the Canadian "identity" is brought up, it's usually part of some tim hortons or beer commercial. They make us look like mindless zombies, walking through the streets moaning "maaaaaple sssyyyyyyrrruuuuppp". Is it any wonder why no American can find us on a map? We suck as a nation, and even more so because of our lack of culture. We pride ourselves on being consumers(since culture is used a means to market beer-donuts-hockey), and I guess that will be our sole legacy... to be followers....
August 26, 2008

Ash said:

RE: the truth
Just because you don't have any culture doesn't mean you need to stereotype the rest of Canadians. I live in a city thriving with live music from Canadian artists, an art gallery with many Canadian works, social programs aimed at sharing our culture (culture crawls). An American that can't find us on a map couldn't find us regardless of how much "culture" we have.
I think we're a proud nation because of our amalgamation of culture that is truly unique.
August 26, 2008

William said:

...
"the truth" is confusing culture as a whole with highly simplified cultural icons used by businesses, politicians, and others to sell us an idea by promoting a sense of shared identity and values through shared symbols. Culture is something much more than that: it is the sum total of our customs, practices, languages, and expressions. Canadian culture goes beyond beer, hockey, and watery coffee, just as every other culture goes way beyond their flags and symbols. Every society has a culture. Even chimpanzee tribes have distinct cultures.

The notion of intellectual elites telling us what to like is also far from the truth. The amount of money spent to promote the exploration and development of new forms of expression is absolutely minuscule compared to the vast sums spent on regurgitating and reinforcing existing mass culture by commercial entities. The rationale behind doing this is that new ideas rarely achieve enough immediate popularity to have a chance to compete with or thrive alongside established ideas before. If left on their own, they will probably be smothered before they have a chance to take root but, if nurtured, some of them, will come to be appreciated and will eventually be able to survive on their own, which will in turn help create a richer and more diverse cultural landscape. I won't comment on whether the rationale is a good one or not and, clearly, there are many people who dislike or outright fear diversity in public discourse and ideas, but let's stop pretending that there is some elite cultural priesthood spending vast sums of our money in an attempt to control our minds and make us like what they have decreed is best. We can have reasonable arguments about whether the programs in place are as efficient as they could, are directed to the best possible effect, or are given an appropriate share of funding, without having to deny that their ultimate goals may be perfectly valid and reasonable.

August 26, 2008

MCE said:

Excuse Me
What? There's a lot of Canadian culture to be proud of. Rock artists such as The Guess Who, Steppin Wolf, and of course Rush. Not to mention all time world renown actors; William Shatner, Leslie Nielsen, John Candy, Mike Myers, etc., etc...

BioWare for it's innovative games, a top 100 employer and community contributions. We also have Ubisoft Montreal with it's university for graphic arts. Many top selling EA games are produced right here in Canada.

I don't see Canada as a cultural vacuum. Just visiting the city of Montreal is testament to that. So, yes, it's a terrible mistake to cut funding to culture, as this will drive away many world worthy businesses and send a message that Canada is no longer strong and free.
August 26, 2008

ENO said:

value vs cost
In my country we say “cultura non è verdura” that means culture is not a vegetable. Culture is not something you can buy or sell thus you cannot apply market rules to it. For example you would be able to buy your way in an aerospace degree but you’ll never be able to build a spaceship without any aquired “engineering” culture. There is lot of busines around the topic of culture but the culture that is sold is just pathetic subculture or garbage. Britney Spears sell more CDs than Beethoven and that tells you everything about the level of culture we leave in. Only government (that is us as a healty society) would have the will and the possibility to invest in a culture that is not profitable but invaluable.
August 26, 2008

March said:

WEll welll
Excume MCE are all those artist you name made their big break in canada ? i don't think so don't get me wrong i like them very much but if it wouldn't be that they crossed to the US you probably would have heard of them just a little because te market here is small
this said it's true that canadian culture is a myth and if it's not
please tell me as i don'T consider trailer park boys as canadian culture
August 26, 2008

bragladish said:

um do you know what yr talkin about?
Um, yeah, Well Well, all of them did get there break here, because they all worked here before going to USA... they crafted their talent here, to a point where they became a commodity elsewhere. KD Lang figure out how to sing and had many a gig here, before going big in the US... like all our musicians, comedians, actors, painters, writers, filmmakers, poets, etc... Leonard Cohen got a grant to write his first book of poetry... All of them had to start somewhere and needed help to get where they have gotten. All of your favorite Canadian music, like Leslie Feist, has been supported with grants, to make videos, to tour, to print her albums! People who don't know how these things happen always think that it just happens out of nowhere, without realizing, we wouldn't have a chance, in hell, to fulfill our dreams, as artists, without the help of grants. You have no idea the position we have been put in, as artist, when you live next to a cultural predator like the USA, who dominate our airwaves, TV and theaters with their content, and who also use endless tactics to suppress our content back in their country... it's not a wonder we need grants, when our government always sells out our interest, for their own, when it come to our culture. Many of you need a history lesson, when it comes to the predicament we are in today. You can't blame the artists who are at the mercy of a government who does not protect their interests, allows foreign control of their content, for a fraction of the cost, allows our markets to be flooded with foreign content, magazines, TV, film, literature, and then underfunds an already underfunded creative community. It's easy to pick on artists, but your totally unaware of the true circumstances that they live with and the true nature of our dilemma, as a creative nation.
August 27, 2008

Icarus said:

alot of misconceptions...
Well, I feel compelled to rewrite because of some werd comments i've read.

First, William :
"The rationale behind doing this is that new ideas rarely achieve enough immediate popularity to have a chance to compete with or thrive alongside established ideas before."

While I can understand where your comming from with this comment (the sixties), there are ways today for new ideas to achieve enough immediate popularity to have a chance. Its called YouTube and Viral Marketting. Of course, for this to pick-up the value of those "ideas" must be shared by the majority of people.

You dont need the gouvernement to do that anymore. The only ones who dont break though are those who are not appreciated by the majority of Canadians. And therefore, could hardly be constructed as "canadian culture"

Second, William says :
"So, yes, it's a terrible mistake to cut funding to culture, as this will drive away many world worthy businesses and send a message that Canada is no longer strong and free."

In my book, if you have a worthy business you dont need public funding. And should you want public funding as a company you go to a thing called THE STOCK MARKET. Lets please stop with this Corporate Welfare mentality.
August 27, 2008

bragladish said:

Icarus yr mindless
Icarus yr a mindless goof that doesn't know the first thing about Canadian Culture or how any of it has spread. We don't live in a free society with free markets you gullible baboon! There are dominant player in the market that do just that, dominate, by suppression of their competitors... What do you live under a rock? The studios (In terms of film) do many thing within there own power including buying up Canadian films and shelfing them, buying up good scripts and shelfing them, they're all worried about their opening weekend, and want no competition from a word of mouth film... You truly are naive, and have no idea how the Publishing industry works, or film distribution, or anything for that matter. No one can buy anything, no matter how good it is, if they can't find it. You said to use outlets like Youtube and the like, how are you supposed to do that with no money for production, above the line, editing, sets, film stock or gear? you live in a fantasy land!
August 27, 2008

Icarus said:

Thanks !
First, thanks for the bag of insults bragladish. I guess a nerve was hit somewhere, sorry if i touch you where it hurts (are you a beneficiary of public money perhaps?). Anyway.. I think that, as a Canadian, my vision of Canadian culture is worth that of any other canadian.

I'll try to reply to the rational arguments in your "peice".

You have a very pessimistic view of the Canadian market for culture, thats for sure. I'm quite certain that, indeed, dominant players play dirty to suppress as much as possible would-be competitors. This is true in ANY market. If you cant play the game, let others do it.

In my view, most creators live mostly to communicate an artistic message. Those who live by this standard would much rather have their works distributed (even to a smaller audience) then just sell-out to a big studio that will shelve the work. There will always be sellouts, the ones who do not will be the ones who shape our culture.

"No one can buy anything, no matter how good it is, if they can't find it."

Perhaps you missed the point about content being out there in the "internet" (perhaps you've heard of it). New democratic distribution channels are emerging today, artists use viral marketing on YouTube and BitTorrent or even iTunes to get known and are successfull. Anyone can publish video now, so the distribution monopoly is at an end.

Now about production money, I'll say you this. I've seen many amateur short films around here that are 10x better then "big budget" productions of Hollywood. Creativity sells, not big special effects. Get popular first on a lower budget and then go big production. Once you ARE popular, budgets will follow.

After your next insults post, ill give examples of artists who successfully pursue this model.

Fantasy land out !
August 28, 2008

fedge said:

...
If government funding for can con is cut, then certainly the government obligation by broadcasters to air can con should also be cut...
August 29, 2008

Custom Digitizing said:

Custom Digitizing
Whole with extremely simple social symbols used by companies, political figures, and others to offer us an idea by advertising a sense of distributed identification and principles through distributed signs. Lifestyle is something much more than that: it is the sum complete of our traditions, methods, dialects, and movement.Other culture goes way beyond their banners and signs. Every community has a culture. Even chimpanzee communities have unique societies.live in a town successful with stay songs from Canada performers, an collection with many Canada works, social applications targeted at giving the west (culture crawls).Custom Digitizing
May 10, 2012

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