The telegraph (1837) and telephone (1876) permitted communication by wire over long distances almost instantaneously, a vast improvement over the earlier methods of rail, ship and pony express. Communication by wireless telegraph (1895), shortwave radio (1926) and then more reliable high-frequency microwave radio (1946) overcame the physical constraint of connecting every point by wire or cable. Microwave provided larger-capacity communication channels for transmitting television signals and set the stage for the development of satellites and space communication (1957). In the 1970s, mobile communication handsets were developed, as was the basic technology foundation for the Internet and the World Wide Web. Both mobile and Internet communication have grown rapidly since their introduction in the 1980s to the point where mobile access to the Internet (e.g., smartphones) is the dominant and fastest growing form of communication.
The primary thrust of information and communications technology (ICT) development in the 21st century is to expand both the capabilities and the capacity of the equipment and facilities used to communicate over telecommunication networks. Through the 1990s and 2000s, the term technological convergence became the catchphrase to describe the way new ICT are being used to bring together what were previously separate communication media — like voice telephone, radio, TV, newspapers and computer data — into one medium, the Internet, provided over enhanced, high capacity broadband telecommunication networks.
As ICT have continued to improve and the Internet has expanded to near universal coverage in most developed countries, software-based network applications are being developed and applied far beyond the information and communication industries: in the banking, retail and services sector; in industrial production, agriculture, education and medical services; and in government services ranging from issuing licenses to taxation. Increased capabilities for gathering enormous volumes of detailed information (meta data) and the establishment of networks of communicating devices (e.g., Internet) have provided new opportunities for beneficial applications in fields such as science, health and environmental monitoring, but also facilitated serious erosions of privacy by enabling spying on individuals and organisations by governments, corporations and sophisticated hackers.
It has long been recognized that advanced communications technologies can provide enormous economic, political and military advantages. Information is power. Communications technologies have had an important influence on the distribution of power within societies, as well as the rise and fall of empires, as the studies of Canadian scholar Harold Innis have shown. A major portion of research and development in information and communications technologies (ICT) has been, and continues to be, financed by the military budgets of the major powers.
Today, for Canada and other technologically advanced nations, ICT is a cornerstone of industrial and political strategies seeking to promote the domestic economy and unify the country, and to obtain advantage in a competitive global political economy. As a leading country in the development and application of ICT, Canada is well-positioned to benefit from the revolution in ICT now underway.
Regulation and Development
Because Canada has a relatively small population distributed over a vast geographical area, it has always had a unique association with communications technologies. Just as at Confederation the railway was seen as physically binding disparate regions of the country together with ribbons of steel, so too communications technologies and networks have been envisioned as the means to promote economic development and dialogue, facilitating common understandings and perspectives among Canadians (see Railway History). And just as the federal government was the key player in promoting the development of the railway, so too has it been central to the development and implementation of communications technologies and the creation of communication networks throughout Canada.
The federal government has been active in the development of information and communications technologies (ICT), pioneering the development of an early teletext video terminal in the 1970s (Telidon), as well as private-public partnerships like Canarie, dedicated to advanced Internet development. In addition, Canada has been a leader in the development of tele-medicine, Internet-based education and e-government services.
Since the 1990s, however, the federal government has been gradually withdrawing from the strong development role it traditionally has played in the telecommunication/ICT field, leaving the primary initiative to private sector players. However it has maintained a policy and regulatory role over issues relating to Internet access to basic services throughout Canada.
Promises and Problems for Canada
New technologies have often been promoted as solutions for economic and social problems, promising new wealth and freedom in both the workplace and social life. Yet not all the effects of new technologies can be foreseen. In the competition to promote the advantages of new technologies, the potential disadvantages and problems of adjustment are too often ignored and sometimes suppressed.
For instance, some analysts argue that, since the late 19th century, Canada has followed a path of "technological nationalism" and blithely promoted the development of technological systems — and particularly communication networks — as a means of binding the country together without adequate consideration of the content that would be communicated over those systems. Consequently, Canada's communication networks, particularly in English-speaking Canada, are filled primarily with foreign content; and Canadians are often more familiar with the history and icons of American culture and society than their own.
Other analysts argue that both industry and policy makers have been in the grip of a technological imperative and propelled down the road of rapid technological development by the belief that new technology itself is the key to both personal and national prosperity. Here the concern is also that this uncritical embrace of technological change overlooks its problems and pitfalls, such as: an increasing gap between the information-rich and the information-poor; the over-commercialization of the Internet; significantly reduced privacy; and the ways technology is fostering changing patterns of employment and income at the expense of vulnerable groups in society.
Still others observe that the dominance of the private profit motive is the primary force guiding the development of information and communications technologies (ICT) and argue that by allowing private corporations to set the agenda for development, many of the possible public benefits of ICT — universal new educational opportunities, greater democratic involvement in political processes, more interesting and rewarding jobs — are being sidelined by the drive for short-term profit.
Although these concerns are real, they are by no means unique to Canada, as all countries must fashion policies to attempt to influence the developmental path of the ICT revolution in the best interest of their citizens. Maximizing opportunities, minimizing undesirable effects and finding the right balance between private and public activities is a formidable challenge, especially in an economic environment dominated by powerful private corporations. If the public and social benefits of ICT are to be realized, and the detrimental aspects minimized, governments will have to include strong public interest considerations in their ICT policies and programs.
By overcoming the limits of time and space, and expanding enormously the volume and variety of information that can be created, collected and communicated, information and communications technologies (ICT) can provide substantial benefits to most people and organizations, and especially to users with substantial budgets for specialized ICT equipment and services. They permit an extension of the bounds of administrative control and offer potential increased efficiency in large organizations. Perhaps the principal beneficiaries are transnational corporations that are able to expand the scope of their operations, enlarge their markets and transfer financial resources instantaneously around the world.
In many countries, especially developing nations, this development may be a threat to domestic production and employment, to national sovereignty and local cultures. Although the rapid spread of mobile phones around the world has made it possible for millions of people in poor countries to obtain access to basic telecommunication services for the first time, these typically are not advanced services and there are still many millions without access. Closing this “digital divide” is the goal of initiatives at the UN, World Bank and several non-governmental organizations.
Experience has shown that ICT opens new opportunities and inevitably creates new problems. The new techniques can enable more informed democratic participation in society and help solve a range of social, political and economic problems. Alternatively, they can promote a fragmented and disoriented society of passive observers with access to an endless supply of entertaining “facts,” but with little knowledge or understanding of how this information overload may be used for their own betterment or that of society at large. The balance will be struck by the political, military, economic and social policies that emanate from the dominant institutions that influence Canadian society and the larger world community.