Born with an idea

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
12 July, 2016
Editorial: 12
Fecha de publicación original: 26 marzo, 1996

Date of publication: 26/03/1996. Editorial 012.

Just a three day wonder

Population studies on the Internet are proving to be just as complicated, if not more so, than real ones. Each new poll merrily changes results obtained only three months ago by various millions. Each prediction on the possible internaut population in the year 2000 has a margin of error of anything between 100 and 500 million people, which is not exactly a very workable figure. If a housing policy were established on the basis of these results, it would create riots that no political body would be able to deal with, as, every winter hundreds of thousands were left without a roof over their heads (we assume that they spend their summers in Spain).

It appears that demographic studies of cyberspace are plagued by the same errors as those of real populations. Errors, brought about, above all, by the self-seeking adoration of quantitative criteria. It would seem that population dynamics could be reduced to mere head counting right up to the last visible member of the species. Obviously this is a reductionist stance, since numbers are not the only factor that play a determining role in assessing global populations and much less so when projecting their future development.

The key factor is the volume of resources used by each group. In the end this is what determines in real terms whether there has been an increase in population or not. Or, in the words of the eminent Catalan ecologist Ramon Margaleff: “The only way populations with little in the way of resources can maintain their genetic capital is by having more children, which is how organisms compete. So, the population growth of that part of the population which uses the most resources to the detriment of others, is much greater in real terms, for, although it may have a negative or zero birth rate, each new member of that society is a potential consumer of resources infinitely superior to an individual born into a poor society. This is exactly what makes poorer societies increase their production of children.”

Something similar is happening in Internet although the characteristics of the dynamic of its population growth are obviously different. For reasons of space it is worth examining briefly two of these characteristics. They are perhaps the most outstanding because they act as the driving force behind this dynamic keeping cyberspace demographers in a constant state of uncertainty. While in the real world it would still be utopian to try and establish any kind of even vaguely significant relationship between cooperation and competition, in Internet this relationship has been operational for quite a long time although it has not yet reached maturity.

As a result of the way the net developed right from the very start, cooperation stamped it with its own seal of identity — a kind of genetic code. Decentralisation and “de-hierarchicisation”, the two factors which led to its rapid development and dissemination in the 70’s and 80’s, nourished the cooperative drive until it became a force in itself which in its turn fed the other two. This process is facing its hardest test so far. Competition, as a consequence of the commercial exploitation of the net, is a new factor in play. Nevertheless, as many utopians since Thomas More have maintained, the combination of competition and cooperation in the right proportions gives rise to an explosive mixture for the imagination. This mixture works as long as neither the “commercial” or “social” variables are able to impose their own dynamic on the other. If this happens, it inevitably leads to well-known processes of sterility and collapse.

This mixture of competition and cooperation is exactly what is driving the Internet in this phase of its existence. Its being turned into a big shopping centre — the economic parameters are no longer separable from the demographic – and has meant not only cohabitation with, but, to a large extent, a dependence on the cooperative social component to maintain a diffuse cohesion in the global behaviour of the net. Never before has so much commercial activity been accompanied by a cooperative force of these dimensions with the aim of constantly recreating, on an enlarged scale, the very space where transactions are taking and will take place.

Competition and cooperation are the sparks which ignite the creative process, a fact which is confirmed each day when we switch on the computer and connect with the Internet. This is the other determining factor when analysing the dynamic of the internaut population. The inhabitants of the net, old and new, don’t enter cyberspace just to have a look around. They come to do things and if possible improve on what already exists. This they are able to do thanks to the extraordinary help they receive from thousands of weird and wonderful places where people they do not know are prepared to put powerful tools at their disposition for thinking, innovating and creating. In so doing they alter the characteristics of Internet.

This wave of initiatives is transforming the way information is distributed before our very eyes. Vast new social sectors are being incorporated into these initiatives and they in turn sow the seeds for converting new ideas into even smarter, more entertaining, more effective and attractive ways to communicate. This is the fertilization process which is keeping Internet’s “labour wards” full to overflowing. We are not witnessing a quantitative demographic explosion– –today there are 20 million of us, in a year there will be 40 million of us and by the end of the century 600 million — but a qualitative one. Today there are 20 million of us who use these services, this content, these means of acquiring and distributing information and knowledge, but as it changes and becomes enriched it will triple its attraction for potential new users and by the end of the century we will almost certainly have tripled any projection.

Meanwhile, we continue talking about Internet in conventional terms, although everything points to the fact that we are entering a different virtual space. One only has to look back (without being nostalgic) at what the Internet was like two years ago, to assure ourselves that things ain’t what they used to be. Information is not being distributed in the same way, nor is the user of this information dealing with it in the same way. Internet is changing before our very eyes precisely because of the creative pressure being exerted on it by the internaut population and not just because of the quantitative value of its membership. Each internaut enters the world of cyberspace armed with an idea. The sum total of these ideas is quite possibly radically changing that which we used to call the Internet and giving birth to a new phenomenon whose basic characteristics , although still based on the idea of the distribution of information and knowledge by electronic means in an interactive manner, point to a completely new horizon.

Translation: Bridget King