Four items of news and Morris’ bug

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
24 October, 2017
Editorial: 144
Fecha de publicación original: 1 diciembre, 1998

Long delayed news, means the demise of many

One of the things that most surprises me about the Internet is our evident ability for missing out on the big news stories that the Net itself generates. When I began using it, almost seven years ago now, the first thing that amazed me was that the public in general were completely unaware of its existence despite the fact that it had already come of age (it was over 20 years old). The only exception to this rule –as could be expected– was the “worm” that Robert Morris put into ArpaNet on the 2 November 1988, saturating the system’s memory, thereby paralysing it and initiating the first big court case –which ended with a guilty verdict — of what would later become the Internet. After that hiccup, the Net returned to its latent state and did not come to the public’s notice again until the start of the WWW three years ago. During this time, another important item of news, at least in my opinion, fell by the wayside joining another two more recent ones which have remained in the discreet shadows of cyberspace.

I found my way into the Net through the environment. When I was preparing the Earth Summit in 1992 for El Periódico de Catalunya, I subscribed to GreenNet to get access to discussions and and material circulating in this BBS. GreenNet, based in Great Britain, formed part of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), an organisation connecting numerous networks with common objectives all over the planet: environmental protection, the defence of human rights, minority or marginalised social groups, the peace movement, etc. I was amazed to find thousands of individuals and organisations there from the three worlds (the industrialised West, the East and the developing nations) all involved in global debates about their respective local environmental policies and the best way of establishing cooperative links, exchanging information and designing common projects.

It was from these discussions without frontiers, this dynamism without precedent, that the basic guidelines of what would later turn into the Global Forum, the alternative to the official summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, were drawn up. Its policies were “cooked up” to a large extent at conferences held in telematic networks in Central and South America, the US, Europe, the ex-Soviet Union, South-East Asia, Oceania and Africa, where it was common to find people from Nicaragua, Uruguay, California in the US, Sweden, Russia, the Ukraine, India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Australia, Kenya or South Africa, to mention just a few of the countries with the most active organisations. In that incipient bit of a digital world, voices from different lands were able to share an exceptional meeting place where they could directly exchange ideas, develop projects and share experiences.

The most extraordinary thing is that all of this enormous activity was taking place in the “backyard”. While “real” society, at least in the Western world, only got to hear the voices of the rich countries, and particularly those of politicians in the US and Europe, in the APC network a veritable swarm of individuals and organisations were expressing themselves and although they did not make their presence felt in “public opinion” they undoubtedly represented a much richer, more diverse, real and dynamic social fabric.

The third item of news is much more “recent”. The explosion of the WWW from Netscape onwards signalled a fundamental change in the Internet. The interconnection of networks that ended up on the Internet in 1990 reached its highpoint with this new platform which injected colour, graphics, typography, images and sound into the Net. Suddenly, the discreet predominance of the academic world in cyberspace was shaken by an infantry of millions of internauts as well as a cavalry of people belonging to companies, institutions or administrations , which changed things on the Net forever and, in doing so, the role played by information and knowledge at this turn of the century. The characteristics of the WWW itself, its formal similarity to publications, the flexibility of its tools and its user friendliness, gave rise to the explosion of communication of “everyone to everyone”, while, at the same time, imbuing it with the high degree of personalisation we have come to associate with all things digital.

Overnight, tens of thousands of electronic publications made their appearance, new means of communication that transformed the social, labour, political, cultural and economic relationships of those who were connected and whose operational logic affected the very essence of communication and the way it had evolved since the time of the Industrial Revolution. This explosion of new media nevertheless remained, and still remains to a large extent today, as a phenomenon occurring in society’s backyard. Public opinion still hasn’t got a clear idea of what has been going on in cyberspace over recent years, except for the hiccups caused by computer hackers and things of that kind (Robert Morris and his bug again!). The ways and means in which the Information Society has been built have been relegated to what we could call the cybermedia, publications specialised in describing the vicissitudes of telematic networks. Public debate emerging from cyberspace generally has to do with either macro-politics – state intervention as a direct consequence of the growing repertory of threats in police force catalogues – or macro-economy represented by the most emblematic companies in the sector.

Given this set of circumstances, the great commotion caused by the purchase of Netscape is not really surprising . American Online (AOL) bursting onto the scene with a cheque for US$ 4.000 million in its hand to buy a company which only exists in virtual space has left a lot of people feeling more than a little perplexed. If we add to this the judicial pat on the back Sun Microsystems and its Java received, as well as its participation in the AOL transaction, the eyes of those representing so-called public opinion have nearly popped out of their heads. All perfectly natural. Only those who are connected could possibly have a clear idea of what AOL, Netscape and Java consist of and are used for. In other words a very small part of the population. Nevertheless, in the name of this tiny island of humanity somebody got out their wallet and coughed up enough cash to make off with the most successful company to appear on the scene over the last three years………in the virtual world that is.

The ground has been laid then for illustrious magicians from the real world to get out their bag of tricks and conjure up the shining figure of Steve Case from their myth making trunk (what would they do without a shiny figurehead at hand?) or to discover all of a sudden that the real shark that’s going to chomp us all up is AOL after all, with or without Bill Gates’ help. He has, by the way, in just 48 hours, stopped being the turn of the century chief devil and become the cuckold of the incipient millennium instead. This lack of information regarding the daily evolution of the Internet lays the groundwork for a rich harvest of stupidity. The return of the old BBS American Online to power seems unprecedented and surprising and once again serves to cover up what is really going on on the Net, as well as the real challenges it faces in its development. Unlike the Gates’ court case, the purchase of Netscape directly affects the construction of cyberspace because AOL, the main character in this drama, is not only an Internet access provider but also a gigantic platform for developing content with 14 million subscriber-authors. Its great success has been the way it has paved the way to reach to the belly of the Internet. This is the big news which once again has not reached public opinion. A news item of a qualitative difference to the others, because in this case the idea is to build bridges between the enormous unconnected masses and the outskirts of cyberspace. In other words, to establish lines of communication in what I called the “area of intersection” in an editorial in March this year, the region where the real and virtual worlds interact.

The way I see it, this is the large, looming challenge which is sailing into sight on the horizon of the Information Society. Ordinary people need gangplanks which will help them to understand and get closer to the Internet not just through the cost of their virtual connection, but through a real approximation which allows them to decipher the enormous possibilities and opportunities the Net has to offer, as well as the leading role they will have to play when they enter it. Their digital literacy doesn’t need to happen only when they have a modem and computer. It could also occur via a different type of teaching– still to be researched and invented — that occurs in the real world, but with the power to evoke the virtual at the same time. It is only in this way that the wild economic turbulence in the Internet doesn’t obscure the fact that in the end it is us, the users, who will decide how this new social space of the Information Era will be constructed.

Translation: Bridget King.