Cultural Changes

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
26 November, 2018
Editorial: 259
Fecha de publicación original: 20 marzo, 2001

Fame is inflated reality

Things are changing. New information technology, the Internet, the digital economy. What a tidal wave! It’s obvious that we have to change too. I have to change. So, I buy the latest gadget. I plug it in and, after a hiccup or two, it works. I get myself an e-mail address, I’ve got my own @. I connect. Wow! Just how far does this cyberspace thing go? Here I am, all alone in front of my computer. And out there there are millions of people. And they’re passing on information all the time. So, what about me? ….I give them information too, but will I be up to scratch? Then comes the hard part: I socialise with these changes. So how do you socialise via computer? What does living “online” mean? When some things change, everything changes. Amongst them my relationships with others. Should I accept this? How do I go about it? It’s all so confusing! Just how far am I prepared to go to discover new people and new ideas when it is already so hard to understand those I already know. Well, anyway, those are the rules of the game, on the Internet new relationships are established, new opportunities arise and ….. people disapprove of me because, it seems, I don’t do things the right way, with the right people, or at the right time. I must just accept this is as part and parcel of the changes of course, but it’s getting me down. What am I to do? Where are my points of reference? Should I read a book or two? Should I continue or leave off being a citizen of this new technology era? Well, at least one thing is clear – the latter is not a possibility.

Latest upsets in the so-called New Economy have opened up an interesting debate on “the state of the Internet”. Opinions of all kinds abound. Things are not going smoothly because we lack a “critical mass” of users, or because the latter can’t see just how cheap and cheerful companies are making things for them, or because, in short, in cyberspace no-one is prepared to pay for things which they would cough up for in the real world, and that won’t get us anywhere. As usual there is some truth in all of these arguments. But, it doesn’t seem good enough reasons for dissecting this way a phenomenon such as this fresh, young Net society. We don’t have the finely-tuned tools for measuring the layers of this critical mass (or when and how the explosive mixture between newbies and experts is reached on the Internet), nor is there ever much agreement when the subject of paying for information comes up.

It seems to me that what is more important is the obvious dichotomy between the perception, on the one hand, of networks (of all kinds), and in particular the Internet, forming part of a world that we cannot afford to miss out on unless we want to be condemned to ostracism in some awful limbo reserved for the retarded, and, on the other, drawing up guidelines for ways –personal, collective, commercial or institutional– of dealing with these changes. One thing is buying a computer to fling oneself headlong into new information technology, and quite another is to simply make what we could call “life online” (and I won’t go into further detail right now), part of our daily routines. We are surrounded by companies that spend more money telling us that they are online than on their real life within the Net. In an attempt not “to miss the bus to the future” they invest heavily in human and financial resources for web pages that project out. But looking inwards, into the Net, and at online organisation, investment in just one person for answering e-mails, is often considered a waste.

This distance between abstract cultural changes (“I’ve got to be there”) and concrete cultural changes (“this is what I am up to”) is going to need a very fancy life line to bridge the gap and save it. And the solution must come, of course, from the field of education, which means digital literacy and not just loads of plugged in and connected computers, nobody really knows what for. In other words we need to understand that these are not just technological changes we are up against requiring more chips per square centimetre of individual person. Technological changes, as always, bring social change. And on this occasion, the social changes information technology are making possible have vast implications because of their quantitative and qualitative dimensions.

This change is, moreover, sustained by three different dynamics which make statistics, so in vogue in our time, and attempts to capture images and draw conclusions on Net evolution, very difficult indeed:

1) changes take place in networks made up of people, collectives and organisations

2) the size of this population changes constantly, every second, generating mixtures of unpredictable results and

3) the only way this population can relate is by communicating to exchange the information that they themselves have generated. Each of these dynamics is an unknown from the point of view of quantity and quality. Consequently any attempt to measure them comes up against the difficulties of this vague and elusive reality. Just like the Universe, the Internet has vast areas of “dark matter” which not even search engines or consultants can reach, and that’s saying a lot. But there are people out there.

What are the real dimensions of the Internet? How much of the Internet do we miss out on because we don’t have sensors that can detect it? 90% of the total? According to up to date measurements made by the Inktomi system, there are now approximately 500 thousand million pages on the Net. And search engines only just scratch the surface of this ocean of bits. Who lives in those distant digital regions that search engines bypass and, it seems, only a few know anything about? Is there really no life beyond the better known search engines? Do these areas of the Net have anything to do with the problems it is undergoing at the moment? Is it a dead weight or is it alive? If we don’t have any clear answers to these questions, and we can’t have because we are talking about something we know nothing about, then, it seems to me, that we are dealing with reductionist analyses when we try to explain “what is going on in the Internet” in the same way as we might try to develop a theory about how the universe works on the basis of the orbit of a planet in our own solar system.

The problem, as I see it, is that we forget the relationships between the three points we mentioned before: the networks, and a population that is constantly growing and exchanging information (which means a constant growth in the amount of information available). So, instead of analysing them separately, which is what almost all the statistics offered by Net consultants do (there are so many of us here or there, this group decided to do that, these search engines show us such and such, the “most popular site” on the Internet is ….etc.) which are basically just a bunch of figures of dubious origin and little measuring value, we should be examining how the creation of networks online is affected by the dynamics of population and the type of information generated –and how valuable this is. This is possibly one of the the bases of cultural change and one which, somehow or another, we are resistant to despite our decision –to a greater or lesser extent– to form part of the Knowledge Society. In my next editorial I will be putting forward some ideas on this subject.

Translation: Bridget King