A tale of Two Cities

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
10 January, 2017
Editorial: 63
Fecha de publicación original: 18 marzo, 1997

Date of publication: 18/3/1997. Editorial 63.

A friend in need is a friend indeed

The debate over exactly what type of media Internet will gel into i.e. whether the “push” (looking for information oneself with the aid of browsers) or the “pull” (information distributed by agents, e-mail or other means) will prevail, or whether it will be a hybrid of both, whether the tendency will be towards Pointcast (screensavers) or Marimba (channels), or a simultaneous cocktail of everything, has picked up speed on the tail wind and reached every corner of the Net. New and ingenious digital technology promises to distribute information in an intuitive fashion and deposit it subtly in the user’s hard disc, wallet, cell phone, car windscreen (already the case in fighter planes), or television, either by means of programmes in the cables, or in NC, or in self-installed servers in personal computers.

So, are we witnessing the first palpitations of yet another reinvention of the Internet which will transform it into a completely new and revolutionary media? Are we attending, almost without wanting to, the funeral of the web, which until now has been the omnipresent window onto cyberspace? Or, on the other hand, is television making a a shattering comeback in a different format? The debate is heating up, especially in the US, amongst other reasons because this could bring to an end the imperative of moving around the digital planet with the aid of browsers and, consequently, what was announced as the most bloody battle of all between Netscape and Microsoft, may just pass by without so much as a skirmish or even a scratch. This possibility alone is cause for great glee in internaut circles: perhaps Bill Gates will slip up again in his attempt to dominate Internet’s basic technology and to turn Microsoft into the Universal Soul of the Net: all those that are with me are on the winning side; all those that aren’t are losers.

These days when a breeze blows over the USA we are bound to catch a cold. The discussion is, undoubtedly, very interesting and coming from whence it does, it will make its mark on us. However, it seems to me that despite its importance, since it goes directly to the heart of the technology which will shape the future development of the Internet, in reality what is being debated is something quite different. The question is what kind of virtual city we will build in the Net and what relationship this will have with the cities in which we really live. Since the web began, we have been laying the foundations, to a greater or lesser extent, of cities which are typically North American in style. The WWW, whose development and content is in the hands of navigators on the other side of the Atlantic, has been astounding, has become a fairly accurate reflection of US urban structure and the sociological composition of its population. In the same way as those cities sprawl out for kilometres along their highways and byways, with shopping centres as the only community meeting point, so millions of pages are distributed through the highways of Internet. In both cases the wildly mobile US labour market makes an indelible imprint on the shaping of its urban structures and the activities of its inhabitants. Social uprooting and an obsession with the dollar are the constant driving forces shaping daily life in the suburbs. And the spirit of the suburbs is what dominates in this country.

As a result of US power in the field of information technology, this suburban pattern dominates in the web and its there that we have blithely installed ourselves. US influence is obvious in everything from the way services are shaped in the Net, to its phenomenal degree of penetration into societies which are radically different from it, to the way that information flows back and forth without us really knowing where it is coming from and where it is going, and much less, why. These days we can navigate around millions of web pages without so much as being able to scratch the surface or find out anything about the human communities that lie behind them. In fact, if they emigrate, fragment or disappear, all that agitated activity does not cause so much as a surface ripple except, perhaps, at most, a change of e-mail address (which in itself does not tell us very much). Not even language is very explicit, given the use of English as a common denominator for communication. For all we know, we could just as well be in the US, Germany, Spain, Japan or Malaysia: so what pops up on our screens is sterile, sometimes interesting, de-localised, global information, ready to be consumed in any corner of the planet, and reiterative because messages are being sent out by people who have no connection with their neighbours.

The paradigmatic example of this city, perhaps, is the media, and in particular digital newspapers. Apart from a handful of references which we glean from their mastheads, a bit from the pages where we found their addresses or some news items which give some kind of clue as to their origins, the truth is that the societies which are contained in them rarely really show their faces. When one goes to the newsagent’s to buy a newspaper, one does so enveloped in all the urban culture that surrounds one, the layout of the streets, the clothes people are wearing, the bar one goes into to read it for a while, the language of the people around, in short, a tangible familiar environment. The media in this case serves as a bridge, just one of them, connecting the riverbanks of our existence and, logically enough, making it easier to understand the content of the environment in question. That environment does not exist on the Internet. Consulting one newspaper on the Internet is like consulting 30,000 (impossible at the newsagent’s). It is as if the newspaper boy on his bicycle has thrown the newspaper onto our doorstep. All we have to do is open the door, pick it up and go into the kitchen to read it. The outside world does not exist. Surprisingly enough, the media, usually so attentive to the needs of its readers, have not managed to inject enough imagination into their products to make them living bits of their own (urban) cultural geography by drenching them with references familiar to internauts. Their content appears in the same impersonal surroundings as Pointcast, which, while undoubtedly an excellent product, is the closest we have got so far to the newspaper boy doing his rounds on his bicycle.

With the new technologies for the distribution of information the screws will be tightened yet again on this model of the city. Everything points to the fact that the first cyberspace settlements will be pushed to a mature state of suburbanisation American style. Faced with this possibility, here in Europe we still do not have a clear vision of what the digital city will look like. As yet, we have not managed to transfer the rich tapestry of our social, cultural and urban life into the Net and show it off via products that accurately reflect it. In Spain (and Latin America), logically enough, on the whole the same thing is happening (or about three quarters of it). This does not mean that there have not been initiatives which have pointed to other ways of going about things. For example, Telepolis in Germany or Vilaweb in Catalonia. They are the seeds of what it seems to me the real discussion should be about: what kind of virtual cities do we want to live in and what will their distinguishing social and urban features be. The history of cyberspace will also be the history of its cities. For the moment the most outstanding features of the urban layout which is emerging, pertain to the US urban type (please forgive the generalisation). And the new technology that has been announced brings with it the necessary framework for continuing the job of extending it yet further. Building a different kind of city, with the same tools, plus those which we might be capable of inventing, a city which will be closer to us and at the same time because of its unmistakable idiosyncrasies, richer and more universal – this all depends on us.

Translation: Bridget King