Faith is not a good digital adviser

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
19 July, 2016
Editorial: 14
Fecha de publicación original: 9 abril, 1996

Date of publication: 09/04/1996. Editorial 014.

Those who live in glasshouses, should not throw stones

Each time Nicholas Negroponte is interviewed, he is asked the inevitable, obligatory question: “Will the increase in electronic information and communication bring the era of printed newspapers to an end?” MITs guru always answers with a categorical: “Yes. Although we will access digital information through new technological means which won’t be anything like the computers we know today, the printed press as we now know it, is becoming history.” Paper will become a museum piece. Predictions of this kind, which are bandied about all over the place, perplex newspaper readers, worry those responsible for the printed press and fill internauts with expectation as, tingling through their fingertips, they feel the palpitations of what we could call, with apologies, the imminent birth of “the Negropontian baby”.

Is this really what will happen? Will paper merely become the nostalgic swaddling clothes for a new media infant? If it is born, what will this brainchild be like? If it is not born, what labyrinth of passions could have brought about its abortion? The best answers to these questions is usually that of the Galician philosopher: it is just too soon to know what we are talking about. Which, however, does not stop us one minute from talking about it. Meanwhile, two camps have already formed: those pro-paper and those anti-paper. Or, in more political terms: the “continuists” and the renovators (I think it would be excessive to drag in more radical terms which might offend certain, at present rather sensitive, historical memories, such as referring to the dichotomy between conservatives and revolutionaries, “ancient regime” and digital proletariat, landed (forested) aristocracy and bit-hungry masses, etc.).

In the first camp, the pro-paper one, what is happening is that as the digital onslaught becomes more evident and consequently worrying, a fervent faith in the properties of the material extracted from the forests is beginning to crystallise. Examining events through the spectacles of faith is not exactly the best way to assess what is happening. Through its glasses, miracles and other wondrous acts worthy of saints can be found, but hardly anything else that any mortal could reproduce without being electrocuted by their aura. The first commandment for those faithful to paper is that the appearance of new means of communication does not automatically mean the substitution or disappearance of existing media. In fact, quite the contrary could occur and after the initial shock waves caused by their bursting onto the scene, things will settle down and a mutual state of co-existence will develop, though this might not always be exactly peaceful. To illustrate this point, they use the example of radio after the birth of television. Neither brought about the downfall of the other, nor did they turn the written media into just a mid-century memory.

What this argument fails to mention, however, is something which has indeed become just a mid-century memory, what we could call the “intrahistory”. In other words, how exactly this symbiosis of the different media developed. It is true that television did not annihilate the radio or the written media, but it did annihilate the type of companies which produced information over the airwaves or on paper in those days. Television forced the creation of a type of industrial organisation capable of absorbing the technological developments of the new media and, at the same time, expanding the content on offer to a new audience. In the process, organisations involved in the information business — whatever the type of media — had to undergo a profound process of restructuring. Many were unable to fulfil the objectives which the times demanded and fell by the wayside. Others survived in penury. And the most adept and powerful of them emerged, like geographical accidents, as the most prominent and outstanding features on the new landscape of communication. It is true that in the battle, paper did not fall. But many of the companies producing printed information did. Forever. This is the fundamental question today.

Long before the appearance of the new creature prophesied by Negroponte, communication and information distribution systems using computers have already created a lot of tensions among the communication companies. For each of them, individually, the question is not only who will win the present battle between paper and bits, if the former continues to exist on its own merits, or whether it is able to adapt to the latter and co-exist with it, or whether it will forthwith become a story told by grandparents. The central question for communication companies is finding out what role they can play in any of these possible scenarios; how they should organise themselves and what kinds of structure and functions will guarantee their part in the move from the present model of communication to the new one being engendered in the nets. During this process there are no inherited rights or inalienable traditions. Nobody’s place in history is guaranteed by simply having entered onto the stage some time or another through whatever door. They could just as easily leave again without any eyebrows being raised. History exists because people enter and leave the stage constantly. If this were not the case, nobody would be talking about these things, nor would I be writing on a computer (nor would there be papyrus, which in itself signified an almighty revolution).

The only thing we can be certain of is that what follows will entail the process information and communication distribution to suit the changing demands of society. And, if this is not done by those who have performed this role up to now, it will simply be done by others. In fact, this is what is already happening on the Internet. Anybody with their eyes open and a little time to navigate can see how, in just a few months, new communication companies have sprung up apparently out of nowhere on the Net and have very quickly taken the lead and gained prestige. In the world of atoms this would usually involve many, many years and many, many millions, but more particularly many, many headaches. And faith is not the best aspirin in these cases.