The Cosmopolitan Canadian, A Radio Show
By John Taylor; 2010 March 09, Ala' 08, 166 BE
Here is a proposal I submitted to the CBC in January for a public affairs radio show I called "The Cosmopolitan Canadian." It would be a multimedia meeting show exploring the opinions and reasoning of diverse audiences. It would act as a sort of dynamic poll, exploring not only what people think about events and issues when they happen, but also why they think that way. Better still, it would have given me the chance to do what I have always wanted to do: dress up as Socrates and engage in a live dialogue with live people. Sadly, the idea was rejected by the Powers That Be at CBC.
I do not submit my work to others very often. In fact, you could count the times I have done so on one hand. Why? In my formative years, I read a humour piece in Mad Magazine about a writer who got so many rejection letters that he decided to start collecting rejection letters. He papered the walls of his home with them and had only one bare space left. Just one more rejection letter and his collection would be complete. Eagerly he rushes to the mailbox, only to find, to his chagrin, that his manuscript had finally been accepted.
That is why I have specially designed the Badi' Blog never to reject anything I write. It has never written me a rejection letter, even when my daily essay is total didgeridoo. So, here is my rejected idea for a radio show.
The Cosmopolitan Canadian
What would you get if you took the best of "Cross-Country Check-up," "Ideas" and "As It Happens" and put it under the benevolent but critical cross-examination of a modern-day Socrates? Answer: "The Cosmopolitan Canadian," a current affairs-meets-philosophy-meets-social media show exploring how to take citizenship to the next level: cosmopolitanism. Each episode of Cosmopolitan Canadian takes a headline or intractable current problem and brings experts and the public together to brainstorm principles, plans and solutions.
The CBC, whose embrace includes radio, television and, increasingly, the Internet, is in a unique position to introduce the concept of "plugged-in democracy" to the world.
The Plugged-In Meeting
Recently, political commentators in Canada and the United States have noted with consternation that our democracy is proving to be contentious, corrupt and dysfunctional just when the challenges facing us all, such as global warming and environmental degradation, reach crisis proportions.
Ironically, at the same time that applied democracy implodes, impressive electronic technology is being developed to augment and facilitate how we come together, consult and arrive at decisions. Mohawk College in Hamilton, Ontario, for example, offers policy makers a "plugged-in" conference room dynamically linked to what they call "decision support software."
Unfortunately, few Canadians have heard of these innovations, nor are there demonstrations of the technology in conferences or public meetings, nor is there experimentation in using it to reform voting and electoral campaigns. The Cosmopolitan Canadian would change this by interposing Socrates, a character who in Ancient Athens was put to death by a similarly imperfect democracy. On this show, he comes back to life to help us use his teaching method to improve what Churchill called "the worst system, except all the others."
To begin, in my guise as Socrates I will not need anything more than a remote control device for each audience member allowing him or her to respond "yes," "no," or "maybe" to my questions. This feedback is mediated by unsophisticated "clicker" software that tallies responses in real time. Something similar is already available in many university lecture rooms. Having instant feedback would enable myself or a guest dialectician (usually a trained philosopher) to cross-examine the presuppositions and opinions of a target audience. This group can be either live or virtual, using Internet teleconferencing, or both. This technology permits what has never been witnessed in a public forum or broadcast, to have a large number of people dialogue as a single interlocutor, following a single chain of argument where it leads. For Socrates, this opens up worlds of possibility. Any number of people, lay and expert alike, can serve as foils to his inquiry into the limits of knowledge, in just the way that Plato's friends did for Socrates in the famous Platonic dialogues.
Here is how Socrates might apply computer-aided interaction for what he called dialectic.
If an audience agrees with a proposition that I (in the guise of Socrates) pose for them, then a graphical summary of their level of consent, doubt or disagreement is projected on a large screen behind me. On radio, this feedback can be dramatized by a spoken, computer-generated voice response, whose variations and intonations are modulated for various effects -- including comic effect. As anyone with young children and an iMac computer knows, such text to speech voices are fascinating, often hilarious and provide highly dramatic feedback.
Here is how it works: If, say, more than 80 percent of the audience agree, for example, their collective answer would be an emphatic, "Certainly, Socrates." If more than 80 percent disagree, the answer would be a vehement, "By no means, Socrates," and so forth for every shade of consent between the two. Degrees of consent are signified by spoken phrases taken right out of Platonic dialogues, varying with each shade of perplexity or certainty on the part of the audience.
Note that in order to be portable we might need to write a new computer program from scratch, and my skills are more philosophical than technical. Technicians could adapt existing "clicker" or "smart blackboard" software for this purpose, lending out cheap remote control devices even to large audiences.
One goal of these "plugged-in meetings" is to compare live responses from a particular audience with recent statistics, opinion polls and surveys on the question at hand. The interplay of this feedback is projected on a screen behind me to allow audience members also to contrast what they think to what other audiences believe, as well as what, for example, opinion polls say that most Canadians think about a given question. In the radio show, this information is spoken aloud, either by an announcer or perhaps a distinctive computer-generated voice. It would be interesting to see what imaginative tweaks sound technicians, actors and comedians might come up with for the software generated voice responses.
Although there will no doubt be moments of levity, the main purpose of the plugged-in meetings on Cosmopolitan Canadian is serious, to bring experts and the general public together and see them interact in ways that have not been technically possible before.
Here some ideas for sample shows.
An early episode asks how to improve voting and electoral procedures, in view of the rejection a couple of years ago by Ontario voters of a proposed alternative to "first past the post." This episode uses teleconferencing software to connect two meetings in real time, one held in a faculty of democratic studies in a major university along with a simultaneous meeting representing a diverse cross-section of the population. Aided by special software, each of these audiences could not only react to the philosopher's questions but also pose questions themselves to the other group, perhaps offering comments too.
Another show asks how to make construction and urban planning more environmentally friendly. It juxtaposes an audience in a faculty of architecture with a meeting of tenants and homeowners. Like many CBC Shows, it would comment on recent news headlines of journalistic interest. As well, Socrates would be there to veer the conversation towards universal concerns, in this case housing needs around the world.
Other shows attempt, for the first time in two and a half millennia, to cover the same ground that certain dialogues of Plato, looking at questions like: What is justice? Or, What does temperance mean? Even in Socrates time, this was never done in a real-life setting as part of democratic policymaking.
I envisage plugged-in meetings taking place over a whole evening, interspersed with music and short documentary briefings. This leisurely pace would build the cordiality and intimacy so evident in the dialogs of Plato. Later a selection of the dialog can be summarized and compressed into a one-hour weekly show. Like "As It Happens," the Cosmopolitan Canadian could furnish content and sound bites for later newscasts, making it a public affairs show that itself produces news.
Because this is so new, I anticipate an extended period of trial and error, trying out live meetings, small and large, before the show "goes live." I would like to work out the technology and conversational techniques with diverse groups in locations across Canada and the globe. If the hardware is portable enough, I would like to hold some meetings in counsel chambers in town halls across Canada; local government is rarely put in the limelight, in spite of the fact that cosmopolitan change starts there.
Just as the drama of ideas clashing in Plato's dialogues brings dry, theoretical issues to life, the interest of Cosmopolitan Canadian, especially for young people is watching sparks fly from the interaction between Socrates and audiences.
Philosophical Goal of the Dialogues
The Cosmopolitan Canadian starts and ends as a meeting show, a plugged-in meta-dialogue where one group meets another group, and all interact with a comprehensive set of principles. It takes on the central challenge of today: how do we balance the will of the people with the considered opinions of experts? Until we strike this balance, we cannot possibly respond adequately to climate change in our lifetime.
The goal of our consultation is to lay out the grounds of common agreement between public and expert opinion upon which future policy can tread.
The Cosmopolitan Canadian is dedicated to the proposition that we can solve conflict and environmental problems only by taking matters to the level of principle, and thereby avoiding conflict. The title is a play on what Immanuel Kant called the "cosmopolitan condition," the ability that a perpetual peace compact would give us to plan a "universal civic society," which Kant considered to be the ultimate consummation of human evolution.
As a life-long fan of CBC Radio, especially the three shows mentioned above, there is no need for me to praise this oasis in a vast media desert. A problem, however, especially with news broadcasts for intermittent listeners like me is that the trees crowd out the forest. Conversation flits from one crisis, disaster or issue to the next without overall perspective. The format of the Cosmopolitan Canadian is designed to correct this by uniting all major elements of the human condition into ten broad principles, and cycling through them continually.
Although shows start with current events framed in the usual journalistic way, Socrates job is continually to bring the listener back to first principles. As with other CBC shows, a listener who misses an episode of Cosmopolitan Canadian can keep up by visiting its web site, with links to podcasts of missed or extended shows. The site also links to the same mini-documentaries that brief members of the original live audiences about issues discussed. The difference is that the Cosmopolitan Canadian's site revolves around a series of ten world principles. It accumulates data and statistics gathered from meetings held so far; for example, you could see points that audiences agree or disagree with, suggestions that experts made and objections that the lay made in response, and so forth. These results further determine how the principles are framed in future.