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Seeing at a distance

September 2002 marked the fiftieth anniversary of regular television broadcasting in Canada. The Canada Science and Technology Museum’s television collection consists of about 430 artifacts, ranging from receivers to cameras and video cassette recorders. Television has such an important place in our holdings because it has been a key tool in the creation and expression of cultural change in this country. Since Confederation our history has been marked by developments in communication technology and in social life that have shattered the ideal of stable local communities bound by kinship, shared customs and economic independence. In the second half of the twentieth century, no system of communication had a more obvious role in this transformation than television.

Television has provided a reservoir of manufactured common experience in the form of shared images, language and references, even fictional acquaintances, that extends to a national, continental, and global scale. Exposing Canadians to cultural influences far beyond their local areas, it has been attacked as a tool of Americanization. At the same time, advocates of public broadcasting have sought to turn this same power to the creation of a new sense of nationhood. The English and French networks of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) were created with this express purpose. Yet in Canada and abroad, television has been denounced for debasing both culture and individuals, for peddling fatuous, violent or sexually exploitative entertainments, for encouraging passivity, promoting obesity, stunting creativity and eroding local community life and civil society. Through programming and commercials, television has promoted not only consumption of specific new products but consumerism as a new way of life. Conversely, television has been hailed for its revolutionary impact on human consciousness, shattering the linear, authoritarian perspective of print culture. By stimulating total engagement of the senses, by fracturing reality into multiple points of view, by restoring the value of oral communication it is creating, some believe, a “global village.”