Fifth in the league and on the way down

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
16 January, 2018
Editorial: 168
Fecha de publicación original: 18 mayo, 1999

Other people’s problems taste sweet

The state of Spanish on the Internet is “getting worse”. According to “El español en el mundo. Anuario del Instituto Cervantes 1999” (“Spanish in the World. The Annual Report of the Cervantes Institute 1999”), the only language that has grown on the Net is English (70% of web pages), followed by Japanese (5%), German (3,3%), French (1,9%) and Spanish (1,5%). Pedro Maestre, Director of the Centro Virtual Cervantes, undoubtedly one of the most active bodies on the Internet in defence of a Spanish presence, blames this drop on “lack of interest on the part of Spanish speakers to get their own content onto the Net”. Maestre makes a point of the appalling lack of information culture in Spanish speaking countries, from Spain to the rest of Latin America. However, this is not the only factor and, at this point in time, perhaps not even the most important one to blame for this state of affairs. Subsequent to the predictable quantitative increase in Spanish on the Net over the last few years, due to increasing numbers of connected Spanish speaking people, the present relapse is due to “qualitative” factors. And they are a bit more complicated to deal with.

Ironically enough, if we stuck to just quantitative criteria –a constant increase in the number of Spanish speaking internauts– the situation would be very different from that presented by the Cervantes Institute’s Annual Report. While, on the one hand, the bilingual English-Spanish population probably reached a ceiling over the last year, the numbers of those who only speak Spanish or are bilingual continued to grow. As new spaces have opened up on the Net in areas like health, education, senior citizens, art or local information systems, the need for more content in Spanish to be made available one would imagine would logically increase as well. But, this has not happened, or, at least, not at the same rate as the growth in population. This, by the way, does not mean that the Annual Report’s figures tell the whole truth since they only refer to web pages. The use of e-mail has risen notably over the last few years and this is made apparent by the proliferation of Spanish list serves. Nevertheless, lack of content still points an accusatory finger at our difficulty with converting language into an information industry.

The way I see it, there are various factors at play here which will, over time, increasingly influence the fate of Spanish on the Net and, consequently, the development of a digital culture adapted to needs of the emerging Information Society. Although there is a long list of them, I am going to mention only the five that I think are most obvious (and need to be dealt with most urgency) in Spain and Latin America, and not necessarily in order of importance.

1.- Deficiencies in the infrastructure of telephone networks and the high cost of accessing them which prevent the majority of the Spanish-speaking population from incorporating the Internet into their daily lives. The Forbes report on the state of the Internet in Europe highlighted this factor in Spain. Telefonica is very much to blame for this. The lack of speed in communication, a rigid interconnection policy, a rates structure designed for the enemy, scant investment in the improvement of telecommunications networks and the inflexibility of the architecture of these infrastructures, all conspire to make new arrivals by internauts more difficult so that they end up navigating constantly on the look out for the taxi-meter rather than the opportunities the Internet offers. And given that in order to take advantage of these opportunities they might have to wait for ages and be constantly cut off, their efforts at concentrating on what is happening on the screen are almost heroic.

2.- The size of our content industry is insufficient, both on its individual and collective scale, on the one hand, and from the intellectual point of view on the other. This is due, to a large extent, on spectacular misconceptions as to how this industry works in an Internet context. On the one hand, the vast majority of big companies don’t know what their own content is and how they should prepare it for competing on the Internet. They still see globalisation as an external phenomenon which has nothing to do with their internal organisation. They are grossly mistaken. On the other hand, those that have discovered cyberspace immediately adopt the peculiar attitude of “this is mine and nobody is going to take it from me because I am the best”.They don’t understand that dominant Net positions –which they dream of as soon as come in contact with the Internet– last as long as an injured gazelle eyed by a pride of lions. The digital economy is maintained by a wide diversity of actors and unpredictable communication flows. If we add to this the fact that innovation on the Internet still lacks the social prestige for it to be disseminated through the Net as a successful product (except when the usual myth-maniacs sell us everything that comes out of the States), the picture we are left with makes it quite amazing that we have any content in Spanish at all.

3.- The zenith of the waste-making culture. Administrations, businesses, organisations and corporations of different kinds, etc., seem to prefer to invest in grand gestures for the media to report, than in developing an industry based on their own content. Huge, spectacular agreements hit the headlines in the mass media (Retevisión-Excite, portals of all colours, etc.), but they are not turned into appreciable and appreciated products on the Net after that. Bread for today means hunger for tomorrow.

4.- There are not enough “organic intellectuals on the Net”, capable of thinking and philosophising about the impact that social changes already in operation will have and, at the same time, breaking with the nostalgia for a world that is disappearing. They simply are not there and this contributes to the backwardness of Spanish on the Net. In addition, public administration plays an ambivalent role as far as the Internet is concerned. On the one hand, they talk of the wonderful opportunities the world of the Net affords and, on the other, either they do not come up with the means to create this world or they emphasise the aspects that have to do with security, censorship or control, in other words, with fear. If they really want Spanish content to be the mainstay of a digital culture based on the language, intellectuals and public figures need to get to know what’s going on in the Net and encourage the avalanche of innovation that’s taking place there and that is affecting the economy, politics, leisure, and all the other sectors in society as well as questions such as marginalisation, exclusion, unemployment, all subjects which they spend so much time on in public speeches devoid of any solutions.

5.- Finally, the fate of the language as an industry, in a world where information acts as an organising factor, will go hand in hand with the capacity for extending the Internet into the most ordinary aspects of daily life. Discovering new possibilities, connecting communities whose common interests have been obscured by their lack of interrelationship, invading areas previously carefully guarded by a type of elitist knowledge, are some of the tasks still to be tackled in places where Spanish content has hardly made itself felt. Basically, the aim would be to fuse the culture of the real with that of the virtual using language as the vehicle. If we do not do this, others will, by translating their products into Spanish. This is already happening because of the penny-pinching of those who, despite having the resources to put a stop to it, prefer to jump on the media marketing bandwagon. Maintaining this attitude is easier than putting ones shoulder to the grindstone and producing own content. And this is one of the reasons why we find ourselves in fifth place in the league of languages on the Internet, despite our being second in the western part of the real world.

Translation: Bridget King.