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The SOURCES SELECT Online Story
By Barrie Zwicker
Back in the late 1980s, we started to hear about the dawning of a wondrous new age. A time of global E-mail, the paperless office, and instant electronic communication.
The "digital revolution," we've been told, is on a par with the inventions of the printing press and television. It will irreversibly change and shape our lives, our societies, history.
Through all the hype, a few people - consultants and gurus such as Alvin Toffler and Nicholas Negroponte - have grown rich offering their predictions and insights to the rich and powerful.
But others - thousands of people who do not stand to gain personally - are just caught up in talk about revolutions. Many do not see, as York University professor Trevor Owen has observed, that "instant communication" is an oxymoron.
And the greatest danger of new technologies, as McLuhan pointed out, is that they'll be adopted without sufficient thought about the consequences.
By mid-1995 much of the hype is wearing thin. Some find themselves asking some important McLuhan questions: Who is developing and promoting this technology? What are their motivations? How is this technology likely to be used? Who might gain and who might lose? What effect is it going to have on society?
A widespread reaction against the digital revolution is taking root. A book called Silicon Snake Oil is a best seller, while "Crime in Cybercity" stories appear almost everywhere, including the cover of Maclean's.
Fewer and fewer can declare with confidence that "improved" communications such as the Internet are blameless in the rise of social violence. Did the Internet help or hinder social peace in connection with the Oklahoma City bombing? Does the Internet help or hinder social understanding? The answer surely is: both.
Within this discussion one point especially deserves further examination, in my view. Hateful messages and images can travel just as fast as messages and images promoting comprehension, understanding and tolerance. That's a commonplace. But how do we grapple with this: hateful ideas, messages and images have always been simpler than deeper thought and therefore always easier and faster to the grasp. Ideas, messages and images of hate, bigotry and intolerance are more action-oriented, externalized, easier to remember and refer to.
In other words, there is a fundamental uphill battle for proponents of tolerance and understanding. As H. G. Wells put it: "History is a race between education and destruction."
Beyond reaction, more people see the need for action: to consciously relate new communications technologies, and the content they store and transmit, to the problems and opportunities that people and the planet face.
A great deal is going on in the world besides the rapid development of new communications technologies. Billions are starving. The Earth's ecosystems continue to be pummelled, even while a new breed of tricksters, such as those in the "wise use" movement, is in ascendancy. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen at the local, provincial, national and global levels. One per cent of the American population now owns 40 per cent of that country's wealth.
In the lead essay in the May 1995 edition of Harper's, titled "To Have and Have Not: Notes on the Progress of the American Class War," author Michael Lind claims the much-touted global economy is developing into a series of "sweatshop republics" constituting a feudal-like "global plantation capitalism."
A good portion of blue collar industrial work has already been exported to countries with low wages and lax labour laws. Now the same thing is happening with software research and design; more firms are farming this work to poorly-paid local computer specialists in Russia, Poland and India. A new social inequity has been established, that of the informational "haves" and "have nots." But not all those who consider themselves "haves" will remain so.
There is a question as to whether these growing inequities will even benefit those promoting them most vigorously. In a world where the pool of poor and disadvantaged grows ever larger, to whom will the "haves" sell their products?
To help promote a system of informational fairness is part of the mandate of SOURCES SELECT Online. Communications resources are equivalent to other basic needs - shelter, food, health care, for example. Everyone should have reasonable access to all. The greatest good for the greatest number.
In SOURCES SELECT Online (SSO) we attempt to provide true diversity: access to people in organizations large and small, for-profit and not-for-profit, from low-tech to high-tech, long-established to just-launched.
Within SSO you will find both mainstream and alternative information. Some may consider alternative as off to one side, not quite up to par, more or less second hand. Within SSO "alternative" is considered differently, considered as authentic and substantial, even if normally less accessible.
The surprises, the jarring notes, the flashes of insight, the "odd takes," the pearls of wisdom, the cries de coeur, the avant garde, tomorrow's news, the prophesies, the unfiltered, the exciting, the elsewhere-squelched, the memorable, the eccentric, the thought-out-at-length, the unmentionable in polite company, the outrageous, the uncensored ... these are what "alternative" media offer. So far as we can, we will include the alternative on SSO.
SSO's driving philosophy is flat-out informational democracy enabled by user-friendly technology. The assumption is that there is a significant fraction of Canadians who want to use and benefit from such an information resource.
The assumption is that a significant fraction of Canadians want to expand their search for solutions, and deepen their understandings, rather than chant conventional wisdoms (however freshly minted) to each other.
Tensions exist in society and in informational communities that make for excitement, danger and opportunity. Your comments on our services and philosophy are sought.
The number of users and calls to SOURCES SELECT Online has grown steadily since it became operational the first week of January this year (1995).
The first SSO line was opened on a test basis on June 30 1994. To the end of May this year, more than 5,000 calls were registered. Inside the system more than 12,000 activities (searches, E-mail dispatches, etc.) are taking place monthly.
By the end of this year, expanded Internet connectivity will be
established. The data on SSO will be available to anyone on the
Internet, and enhanced Internet access will be open to local callers
registered on SSO. For more information send an E-mail message.
At the core of SOURCES SELECT Online are the listings from Sources and from Connexions.
And by the time you read this, the entire Parliamentary Names & Numbers (PNN) database (192 pages in print) will be on SSO.
PNN includes all Tier I and selected Tier II lobbyists. Tier I comprises firms that lobby professionally for clients (such as Hill & Knowlton Canada Ltd.). Tier II comprises organizations that engage in lobbying for their own interests (such as the Alberta Medical Association, the first one listed).
You can search for and find a registered lobbying firm or find an organization that lobbies. You can do this by the name of the outfit or by subject (examples: air transport, youth issues).
Or you can find a client of a registered lobbyist firm. Or an individual
lobbyist by his or her name, by subject, by his or her client(s)
or through his or her lobbyist firm or lobbying organization.
Provincial and territorial legislators are being added, following provincial and territorial elections. This process will continue until all provinces and territories are included. Because of this added scope, the database may be retitled, in both print and online form. Political Names & Numbers (and internationally, Canadian Political Names & Numbers) may be the new titles.
Also on SSO, you'll find Internet newsgroups, including ones devoted to journalism (alt.journalism), journalism criticism (alt.journalism.criticism), censorship, Canadian culture, news media and Noam Chomsky.
Documents online cover topics from astronomy to workplace hazards. A large number of documents relate to health and social justice issues, thanks to the Connexions database.
Three important features earn SSO a place among the best online
The first is that when you use SSO you can access thousands of people and their communications numbers. Experts. Walking encyclopedias. People who know what they're talking about on 14,000 topics. People who express themselves well, and who are offering their time, knowledge and expert opinions.
A second feature is selectivity. Judgments applied in the development of SSO are based on its being a specialized service for editors, reporters and researchers, or to put it another way, for people who often need to track down the most up-to-date information very fast. So newsworthiness, diversity and accuracy are key criteria.
That this selectivity underlies the project is reflected in the fact that - as the culmination of a two-year process - SOURCES SELECT was granted final registration as a Canadian federal trade mark in April.
The third critical feature is indexing. Not automated keyword retrieval,
which has its place, but honest-to-goodness human judgment-based
indexing, as at the back of any quality book.
Nothing (apart from the mass of messages in the Internet newsgroups) goes onto SOURCES SELECT Online until it is fully indexed by Ulli Diemer, editor of Connexions and new General Manager of Sources.
Also critical to the successful functioning of an online service is the human backup, especially the system operator (known as the Sysop). The Sysop behind SOURCES SELECT Online is Richard Simm of RKS Enterprises in Willowdale, Ont. Richard is also the R&D Associate for Sources as a company. Richard had five years' experience operating his own BBS, which provides support for an international franchise company, before becoming involved in SSO.
A large number of Bulletin Board Systems, it seems to us, are less useful to the serious researcher than they could be because of three common characteristics. First, they tend to be skewed toward computer utilities and entertainment (games). Second, they tend to duplicate each other with freely-downloaded unselective information. Thirdly they're local.
The information on SOURCES SELECT Online is for the most part originated (actually written or compiled and indexed) by this organization, with your needs in mind. The balance is selected and indexed with your needs in mind.
SSO, as with the print Sources directory, is free
to accredited editors, reporters and researchers. And like sources,
SSO is available to non-journalists for a modest fee. PNN
is available for a modest fee to journalists and non-journalists
Your suggestions are important. Please use whatever means you wish to let us know improvements you want.
Phone (416) 964-7799, fax (416) 964-8763, or E-mail
Or drop in to our office. Ask for a coffee. --BZ
This article originally appeared in Sources
#36, Summer 1995.