Signal vs. Noise: On Bridges, Words, and Kardashians

In each Spur city, we will select a Canadian from the local community who is under 35 and interested in public policy, journalism or serious non-fiction writing. The Public Fellow attends all the Spur festival events in his or her city, and takes the pulse of Canadians on the topics being pursued, by engaging the speakers and audiences (in-person, online and through social media) on the ideas they bring to the festival. Below is an examination of the themes of the 2014 Spur festival, seen through the eyes of our Ottawa Public Fellow.

Spur [verb]: give an incentive or encouragement to (someone); cause or promote the development of; stimulate.

In its inaugural year in Ottawa, Spur Festival 2014, focused on the theme of Signal vs. Noise, did just that.

Ottawa is not a curious place to host an event like Spur, the confluence of politics, art, and ideas, but it is much more interesting given the theme of the event. As the centre of all things political, the sheer volume of noise that Ottawans face daily is deafening. There are times when you reach a saturation point, an information overload, where it becomes difficult to find the signal among so much noise. How are we to determine which information is credible and which isn’t? In our increasingly complex world, how are we supposed to find solace?

Over four days of stimulating events and thought-provoking discussions, three main themes emerged at Spur Ottawa.

The first theme prevalent in Ottawa was that of technology. Technology is often a common theme at conferences and festivals, however, what was striking about its use at Spur Ottawa, was that it was viewed as both a positive and a negative. This juxtaposition is very fitting for Ottawa, a place that is usually at odds with itself (between the arts and culture community and the bureaucracy), but is finally coming into its own.

If you’re an avid Twitter user, you will have likely noticed how technology has provided us with the opportunity to be in the know about everything. It has enabled politicians to interact with Canadians in a more (seemingly) authentic way; allows journalists to get instant feedback on their articles or goings-on in Parliament; and even provides authors with an alternative medium to promote their work. Yet, at the same time, technology is a distraction. In a world of instant feedback and gratification, we are far too eager to click away from an important news story if our interest wanes for a single second; respectable news outlets are expected to report on the latest Kardashian and Beiber gossip; and the increased demands on journalists (to tweet and write important journalistic pieces) prevent them from doing much deep investigative journalism.

The second theme to come out of the week was the idea of building bridges. Canada, and Ottawa more specifically, is unique in that it (formally) brings together two cultures, two languages. This is not without its challenges, and we are constantly trying to bridge the gap between the English and French cultures. Overall, we do a good job of this, but there is certainly room for improvement.

This bridging idea goes further, however. Within the last 25 years or so, political marketing made its mark in Canada. Rather than selling a platform and policies, politics became about selling a candidate and a brand. In a social media driven world, the bridging becomes apparent when politicians are leveraging the power of the Internet to push out their brands, which is often incongruous with their image “at work.” They are trying to find the connection between who they are at the office and the authenticity required to have a successful political brand.

The final theme of Spur Ottawa was the idea that words are a very powerful tool. While this likely doesn’t come as a surprise, this theme was very apparent through the juxtaposition of so many writing genres: journalism, fiction, short stories, poetry, comedy, song, and of course depicted in one of the venues being the National Archives. We’ve seen the importance of words in the Idle No More protests and in the Occupy movement. Our words hold our biases; they enable us to make connections with others, and to tell our stories. In Ottawa, words could not be more important; politics is emotional, not rational.

These themes are by no means exhaustive and barely touch on the fascinating content provided, however, they do capture the essence of what Spur Ottawa was about. While Spur is a confluence of politics, art, and ideas, it is also the meeting place for a broad cross-section of people. It signals that these topics are of interest to people from varying backgrounds, and provides a venue for us to come together to find solutions for the problems we’re facing.


Erin Gee is a lover of most things, but primarily: pop culture, food, music, words, sports, fashion, public policy, and technology. She contributes to numerous blogs and publications, including: PIVOT Magazine, Haus of Hybrid, #GovLife, Canadian Government Executive magazine, the Huffington Post Canada, and GTEC. Erin believes in the collective power of people to do good. A 2014 99u Conference Fellow, Erin enjoys connecting with like-minded people and turning ideas into actions. She is also the lead organizer of TEDxElginSt, a TEDx event in Ottawa. A former Team Canada softball player, Erin is now an Assistant Coach at the University of Ottawa.

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