Graham Watt and I get together for coffee fairly regularly and discuss almost everything, ranging from kids to education to communications theory. Graham has posted several comments on this blog and recently I took one of his comments and made it a post, The Communication of Bias. I thought that it might be a neat idea to have Graham as a guest blogger, so here is a post that has more humour than any of my straight-laced, and always trying to be balanced, blog posts. They may even a become a regular feature.

We don’t have a productivity problem. We have a proximity problem.

by Graham Watt

We’re just too damn close to the U.S. Not politically. Physically. It’s turned us into American junkies. We’ve faced south so long now our asses are frozen solid. We don’t even bother inventing anything any more because they’ll do it sooner or later down there and we can just copy or borrow. Business learned this ages ago.

But it’s not just business. It’s us too. Look at television shows and movies. We’ll take their mediocre lives over our mediocre lives even if they don’t ring exactly true. We can compensate for that. Let them make them down there. We’ll just watch them.

All these problems with our low productivity relative to the U.S. can’t be solved only in economic terms. They have to be solved by addressing our proximity problems.

We have to get a handle on where we are, not who we are.

That’s snow out there, not rose petals. And that tingling feeling in your fingers isn’t stroke onset, it’s frostbite. I once saw a piece in the Montreal Gazette during a cold spell which showed us how to put plastic bags in our shoes to keep warm on cold days (an article taken from a Fort Lauderdale newspaper). I read that and I swear I could hear a whirring sound as all those fur traders buried on Mount Royal started spinning in their tombs. We haven’t got a clue where we are. It’s like we’re ducktaped to the side of a manic rhino lumbering through a swamp (Boy, I hope he knows where he’s going!).

Yes, proximity is a problem, isn’t it?

Who needs research when you can just let those other folks do it. Yet, there was a time when we actually did some neat innovative stuff. That was back in the days when pawsta was pronounced pasta. and Viet Nom was Viet Nam.

We were a big physical country then with very few people and airports, so deHavilland Canada designed Short Take-Off and Landing aircraft (STOL). The Beaver, the Otter, the Caribou, the Buffalo, (Gee, they even had Canadian type names too).They could land on little airstrips and lakes throughout the country. We sold tonnes of them. Most of them are still flying around, because they’re simple and you can fix them easily.

Remember the DeHavilland Dash-7? With the world’s most advanced STOL technology; a 55-passenger pressurized aircraft as quiet as a school bus, that could land in 1000 feet. When they tried to let it fly into Toronto Island airport there was an incredible outburst of indignation. All about noise and danger. You would have thought it was the Hindenburg with a load of plastique in it. The real problem was the Dash 7 was designed and built right in Toronto. Had it been designed and built in, say, California, the Toronto city fathers and those environmentally sensitve mothers in the Beaches would have been clambering over themselves to buy this thoughtful, sensitive and passive technology. Would have reflected well on the city. But hey, all the good stuff is down south isn’t it?

So it isn’t just business, it’s us. We don’t screw up because we try. We screw up because we don’t have to try. And it’s all of us.

That’s the proximity curse.

So forget about productivity. Our problem is proximity. We have great copyability because of it. We’re actually quite nice people, given that we look at the U.S. as if it was the J Crew catalogue.

But does anyone else actually believe proximity’s the problem? Not on your life. A new study from the Conference Board of Canada recommends that we hunker down even closer to the U.S. to get our productivity up. What’s that mean, exactly?

Copy more stuff?

Assemble more of their cars here?

Watch more of their TV programs?

Speak more like they do?

There was a time when we had clearer heads. Must have been a zillion years ago. We liked the squeak of snow on leather. An old fur trade doctor named John Rae once snowshoed from Hamilton to Toronto just for a cocktail party. No big deal. And I’m certain he wasn’t wearing a “hoodie”. In those days, another guy invented a motorized contraption that could go like crazy on all kinds of snow. sold a slew of them. Ended up making planes, trains and boats, and got so big and successful we started hating the whole idea. It wasn’t normal doing that stuff in Canada.

A long time ago another bunch of guys used to get in canoes and go from Montreal all the way to Alberta and back again. All without Vibram soles on their boots or Gore-Tex jackets, GPS’s or Tony Robbins CD’s. And they did it while singing songs. They had nature-tech canoes made of bark and if one sprung a leak they stopped, got some spruce gum from a nearby tree and some bark, patched it up, and got going again.

What was their secret? Well, they did stuff relative to where they were, not some place 500 miles south. And they weren’t doing this because they heard other guys were doing it in the U.S.. They did it for money and adventure. Ahh, you say, but that was then and this is now. Well, I have news for you. It’s only now in the U.S.

The day we understand that the problem is proximity, and we turn around and let our asses thaw, is the day our productivity will begin to grow.

9 Responses to “Proximity”

  1. Stephen Downes

    Hm. It’s not clear to me that the Americans are inventing things and Canadians are copying. More like the reverse.

    All that web technology? Running on Nortel switches. Using Canadian-invented XML. People using their Canadian RIMs. Web CT? Canadian. E-Learning 2.0? Canadian.

    The Dash-8 commuter aircraft? Canadian. I flew on one in Africa. Bombardier’s CRJ? Canadian. I don’t much like it, but airlines love it – it’s fast and cheap. I flew one of them in New Zealand. We would be world leaders in fighter aircraft too, if the Avro Arrow is any indication, but the Americans made us stop. We’re just a little, you know, too good.

    For a country that is 10 percent the size of the U.S. we certainly play above our weight in the entertainment industry. Forget about Anne Murray and Paul Anka. Think Shania, Nellie, Nickleback and of course Neil Young. Think Alex Trebeck, Rich Little and Monty Hall. And the Scud Stud.

    Clothing? I was recognized as Canadian in Europe because of my Roots backpack. I used to wear a SunIce parka. Oh, and mukluks, of course.

    Yes, no doubt there are some imaginative Americans. I’m happy for them. But the suggestion that we’re second rate, that we have stopped inventing and innovating, well, that’s just empirically false.

  2. Kevin Kelly

    I recently participated in a collaborative book project about online teaching and learning, headed up by Sandy Hirtz and others in British Columbia. Many of the authors are Canadian. I was honored to be asked to participate.

    Kevin Kelly
    Online Teaching and Learning Coordinator
    San Francisco State University

  3. graham watt

    Wow. Stephen Downes is quite right. There are a lot of thigs we do well.
    But in my view, winter isn’t one of them. There’s a company in Quebec called Chlorophyl that makes great winter clothing. Another is Kanuk. we make wonderful winter boots too. MEC is a wonderful company. What connects all three are the physical pecularities of Canada. There’s a
    program at the U of Man. which does research on cold, particularly hypothermia. These are all elements based upon our day-to-day existence, which is quite different from many other countries.
    So why don’t we have a Canadian Winter Institute, for example? A
    centre for the study of winter’s effects and affects? AirBus and others fly into Canada to coldsoak their new designs before certification. Are they there just for the climate? I’d like them to be there for the expertise too.
    I think part of the reason we don’t have a CWI is because we too infrequently look within our own predicaments to find opportunities.
    Yes, the Dash 8 is a wonderful and tough airplane. and its engines were designed and are built in Longueil, near Montreal. I think the PT6 family is the most successful turbine engine in history. And the Canadair RJ is a
    solid performer but rather lacking in space. Ironically, it was begat from the Canadair Challenger, a biz jet that was known as Fat Albert because of its girth.
    As for entertainment, I see it as a mixed bag. We’ve always had lots of
    great singers and bands. But government regulations helped get them airplay here and then their talent got them fame across the border. But really, English television entertainment in Canada is almost 99% American. That’s why a lot of young Canadians think hoodies are warm (or cool). We may have lost sight of where we actually live. That CBC TV reality program called The Dragon’s Den is a rip of that New York real estate guy with the limp hair and the vulgar taste in hotels and wives.
    In Quebec, most people watch their own television shows. And Quebec is quite a hive of innovation in many different areas, technological, and social. Is there a connection?
    I like to think so. My piece on proximity as the problem wasn’t meant to diss our accomplishments, but to challenge us to understand that where we are is different from who we think we are. Why aren’t we the world’s leading experts on winter? Why don’t we lead in the design of snow tires, for example? Why do we sell cars with windshield washer containers
    designed for people in Atlanta? Why do we tolerate the hidden windshield wiper, when it just fills with snow and freezes. As I said, in many cases I think it’s because we’ve faced south so long our bums are frozen.

  4. Jennifer Nicol

    Surely these things are more to do with market size than (an admittedly poor) sense of national self. Quebec suffers the same lousy windshield wipers as the rest of us, despite their vibrant culture.

  5. graham watt

    The invention of the snowmobile had little to do with market size and more to do with being comfortable in an environment which inspired a song saying with passion; ‘Mon pays c’est ne pas un pays c’est l’hiver”. I agree with you on the market size dictating the washer tank size, but my argument on proximity is to get closer to our own predicaments and profit by offering solutions to these indigenous problems. Starting with the canoe in trade we became a leader in communications. Then with telegraph and telephone. Big long country, few people.
    Keep picking away at my arguments, I’m learning to be less rash and
    and hopefully more moderate.

  6. Jennifer Nicol

    Speaking of indigenous problems…

    For years I have wanted to invent a “snowskirt” … a stylish set of snowpants that accomodates a skirt or dress without wrinkling it, and that a downtown office gal could wear with pride and elegance as she rides the elevator up to her floor.

    For those of us who like walking to work but don’t like freezing our butts off, skirts and dresses stay parked in the closet until spring cause they just don’t work with snowpants. And snowpants look ridiculous in the elevator, as if you just tobogganed to work. Plus they make a loud swishing noise that sounds very unprofessional.

  7. graham watt

    I know how you feel. I used to run to work and ended up looking like Titus Oates leaving the Scott expedition tent to die in a drift. There’s something called a cagoule, a sort of parka that forgot to stop. I know Sierra Designs has one. They’re made out west, quite long and very stylish. I don’t think
    anyone in Canada has really thought about this problem. Those Austrian Loden coats are long too, but you risk looking like Heidi’s maiden aunt.


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