Catalonia, limping along

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
4 July, 2017
Editorial: 112
Fecha de publicación original: 24 marzo, 1998

One hand washes the other

Since the massive enthronement of the Internet at the hands of the WWW, Catalonia has played the role of a digital driving force in Spain. It not only has the highest density of connected people in the whole country, but Catalan cyberspace also has more and more interesting initiatives with content and proposals that are maturing and becoming more consolidated all the time. Gone are the days of the first directories –such as Infopista Catalana–, personal pages and the first timid poster-type appearances of many companies, or the pioneering steps of the communications media in cyberspace. Today we have a veritable swarm of communities, some of them embryonic, others already established, many with their centre of gravity still leaning towards the real world rather than the virtual one and others firmly anchored there. The picture we are getting is that of a rich tapestry where we are just able to make out the outline of an emerging industrial sector which is beginning to take shape based on the two fundamental commodities of this turn of the century change of paradigm: the acquisition, processing and emission of information and knowledge.

Of course, this image points towards the enormous opportunities that are opening up thanks to this social and economic network which has disembarked in cyberspace and which, when explored, at the same time, constructs it and imbues it with its own special personality. The painting is still incomplete however. The participation of the public sector has hardly gone beyond putting in its own pages. We don’t have an official body for the Information Society in Catalonia (although we have had more than our fair share of rumours) to fulfil the objectives set by the OECD in its report Towards a Global Information Society, which we quoted in the previous editorial.

In a recent interview with the Councillor to the Presidency of the Generalitat of Catalonia, Xavier Trias, I was told that “it is a mistake for the administration to play the main role in the development of the Internet, this should be the job of the private sector. We should be there to propitiate and encourage its initiatives.”Trias laid down, without being too explicit, a basic programme: a) guaranteeing citizen access. b) guaranteeing services through the net (planned by public administration) and c) resolving the problem of communication with Europe. As far as what has almost become a slogan in the mouths of many politicians, “We have to regulate what happens in the Internet”, this high-ranking Generalitat official said he preferred to lead the way without interfering. “If there are too many rules and regulations, we will just go backwards”, he pointed out. And, he added, that the administration’s job should be to convince financial organisations to invest in companies which represent the future of the country.

With the exception of point b), the other two are still in the air. And, there are still some of the targets specified by the OECD missing for this list to make it into a real political strategy. While the Net is bubbling over with projects, for the moment anyway, the activity which should be there to help form the backbone of the Information Society is not forthcoming either from the Catalan administration or from the financial sector. Curiously enough, this editorial is being published on the same day that the Spanish Senate is drawing up a Special Commission on the Internet, the first of its kind in the whole country, and proposed by the Parliamentary Popular Party Group (presently in power) and unanimously approved in parliament. Esteban González Pons, PP senator for Valencia, made the proposal on 23 February this year. In a recent interview with iWorld, the senator explained that the three basic principles of his commission would be: 1) introducing citizens to the Internet, 2) changing the impression they have of the Internet as a result of the excessively negative aspects of cyberspace sometimes highlighted by the large communications media and 3) preparing the country and administration for the transformation which will take place as a result of this technological revolution which is the Internet.

To fulfil this basic programme, the three corresponding answers to to the plan sketched out by Esteban González would be (despite the fact that, in the interview at least, he did not mention them) 1) finding out what there is in the Net, 2) promoting what is already there and 3) convincing the administration, in general, and political groups, in particular, that there role should be, amongst other things, to promote private sector investment. This plan should become a common one for all the autonomic regions in Spain and should be put into practice immediately if we don’t want what has happened on previous occasions in history to happen again. In other words, that present opportunities become incurably stunted in the short term.

In less than two years, in Catalonia we have seen how cyberspace has become enriched with a varied and very active population. Virtual communities have emerged from the depths of the industrial revolution, such as ICTNet. More than 200 professional journalists have established the Grup de Periodistes Digitals (the Digital Journalists’ Group), which is at present organising the I International Congress of Electronic Publication together with the Col.legi de Periodistes de Catalunya, an initiative which has attracted the attention of the European Commission, but there has been no comparable response on the part of the local political powers that be. VilaWeb has kept on growing as an electronic newspaper and now has more than 50 franchised subsidiaries. Products such as ExtraNet! are obligatory reference point for thousands of internauts. Dozens of electronic publications, evolving before our very eyes, have opened up a wide range of topics and information services of a high professional standard. The teaching community is ploughing through the most important territory in the Information Society, education, in the search for content which protects cultural identity in a world without frontiers. Research centres, such as the UPC‘s (The Catalan Polytechnic University) CANET, have started to appear in order to develop applications which will convey social relations in cyberspace. Foundations, such as Jaume Bofill, are determined to discover the function of networks in electronic democracy. The number of electronic distribution lists on scientific, linguistic, cultural, technological or environmental topics is getting bigger every day. Finally, to cut this tightly-packed list short, more than a hundred companies have responded to the call of Proditors, an association of producers and editors of material in an electronic format, creating a new and innovative space where quite naturally supply and demand meet.

Although we don’t have any exact information about the real nature of this corner of cyberspace – a task which is becoming more and more urgent–, it is becoming clear that there is enough substance there to make it a matter of pressing concern that administration and the financial sector (whether banks or big business) make their presence felt and not just in order to replicate the activities that are already been undertaken by others in other spheres. Their job should be focussed on facilitating and promoting the development of the Information Society, aiding its growth and helping it to spread throughout all layers of society and not doing a job which borders on “disloyal competition”. To this end it is, of course, essential that they –and we– believe that all this activity is real, that it will determine to a large extent the type of society we are building and that once we set off down this road there is no turning back, although on the side of the road there might be ample space for camping out and checking out what others are up to and consequently turning up too late, as has happened on so many other occasions in the past.

To take full advantage of this historic opportunity, it is essential to be aware of the fact that the Internet, as in no other period in history since the industrial revolution, is propped up by an army of new, and not so new, companies and it is they that are really constructing the interior –the content– of the world information network. This is a unique state of affairs since the capitalist era began. Especially because the driving force behind this business framework is not, as has been the case up until now, in the sphere of material goods but rather in intellectual ones. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why it is so difficult to know what is going on in the Information Society. A company which sells trousers knows whether it is making a profit or not by the number of trousers it sells (and in the process bids them goodbye and has to make more trousers all over again). A company that sells information and knowledge doesn’t really know where its money is coming from because it sells information, training, research and products related to knowledge which have no physical economic representation in the real world, nor in the virtual world (but in the process, it never loses what it has sold, on the contrary, with each operation that takes place it increases because each of these enriches the product itself). Understanding this “anomaly” of the Information Society is the first step towards weighing up and assessing its own peculiarities.

The longer it takes to find a “meeting point” between those that are shaping the Information Society, public administration and finance, the greater the risk that we will not make our way towards the necessary social changes. Senator Esteban González said the same thing in different words: “If in the XIX century, when the steam engine was invented, a commission of this kind (like the Internet one) had been invented so that people had sat down and thought for just ten minutes about the applications of steam in industry, agriculture and public transport, and had reached some conclusions about what would probably happen, our century would have been very different”.

It’s an interesting lesson. Commissions such as that established by the Senate and those that should be set up by the autonomous governments, would be most welcome if what they did was promote, give incentives to and stimulate the development of the Information Society. But they should take care not to target what is really just the starting point. Their task should not only be to warn society and institutions that the technological revolution is under way and that Spain should be a pioneer in the field. Their job is to discover that Spain is, perhaps, already a pioneer in various sectors of the Net (as is, without doubt, the case in Catalonia) and consequently they need to work specifically not only on maintaining this leadership, but also in extending it, as much for the number and progressive participation of users, as for the volume of our own content circulating in the Internet.

Translation: Bridget King