In search of Jenny’s Daughter

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
27 March, 2018
Editorial: 187
Fecha de publicación original: 2 noviembre, 1999

He who digs out a lot of dirt does not dig very deep

In an era like ours of such rapid and profound changes, the most productive question we can ask is how individuals, institutions, businesses and organisations are going to adapt to the new situation. If the central problem posed by the Information Society is digital communication, then it is clear that Journalism and Communications faculties at universities find themselves at the very heart of the adaptation process. Given the competition one can imagine there will be between them, will they be able to develop new knowledge areas in time? How will they do this? What lines of research will they follow to foment know-how related to information and knowledge production in the Net and what form will these take? These are by no means trivial questions, nor are they limited to some universities only. As we had imagined, and have been able to verify in from the reactions we have had in response to the articles published over the last few weeks on this subject, concern about these matters are similar at the University of Columbia (New York), at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in Medellín (Colombia), at Salamanca (Spain), Antofogasta (Chile), the Universidad Autonoma in Barcelona or the University of México.

Research into new ways of informing on the Net, of creating virtual spaces rich in the exchange of knowledge and coordinating the necessary training for those that are going to manage them, cannot be reduced to just being a journalist with an e-mail address. Merely adding more disciplines to training is not going to be the answer either, although most of the new courses and journalism masters on offer over the last few years seem to be hoping to bring this miracle about. And, as if this were not enough, the Internet is not only breaking down the barriers between information emitters and receivers, but it is also making itself felt in all facets of our daily lives, right down to the least expected, converting them into part of the communications process.

Journalists may not see themselves working on courses in Quantum Physics at universities, but a digital course in this subject based on a technology for generating content, will mean that the new kind of journalist will have to work in close collaboration with the content producers themselves in order to design the communication flows between them and those that traditionally had nothing to do with university training, will now do so thanks to informational technology. This essential job of communication will not just appear like a rabbit out of a hat, nor because it happens on a web or distribution list. We need to design a whole new conceptual technology which produces tangible products (in this case, the course content) and which, at the same time, is projected via a certain amount of knowledge organisation and management –knowledge management on the Net– which multiplies the accessibility of these results by its packaging in new media.

Something similar could be said of businesses that launch themselves into e(lectronic)-commerce. The distance between what they have to offer and the complications involved in finding it, are surprising. What is missing, in general, is a “layer” of communication between supply and demand (the internaut) which is sufficiently developed and complex enough to convert the user into part of what they wish to communicate. People think that a nice web page with a few well-structured data bases attached is enough. And then they are puzzled by lack of response. The easiest thing to do in this situation is blame someone else: “E-commerce hasn’t taken off here yet because people are not used to buying on the Net”.

The only people that have that culture, it seems, are those that visit, wherever they may come from. In my opinion, the success of this electronic bookshop is not a result of the fact that they sell books at more or less reasonable prices, and that just when everyone was predicting a decrease in book sales. Anyway, their formula has not been patented nor will the police prevent anyone from repeating it. In reality, their success lies in their superbly designed communication flow. The information production process in Amazon depends, to a large extent, on the action of users who influence the front page design, establish priorities and contribute information and knowledge, and Amazon returns the favour with intelligent proposals based on internaut activity. They even manage to give the impression that these proposals are personalised. While the vast majority are still fascinated by price policies –don’t forget that we are in the shrine of the market–, the speed of delivery and other factors of undoubted importance, Amazon has received hardly any of the recognition it deserves for its innovative proposals in the field of communication.

This exceptional case reflects the embryonic state we are in as far as exploiting the Net’s communications possibilities. We are still a long way off from creating a digital communications layer made up of technologies capable of creating really personalised media for highly segmented content. A layer with specific characteristics which can be standardised for all networks, as the Web has been. This requires initiatives similar to en.medi@, which I consider to be an example of new conceptual technology for content generation. en.medi@ can be applied in different environments to fulfil a variety of objectives, however different they may initially appear to be from classic journalism, which are essential for communication. It can be used to help to unearth social innovators in a company and provide a clear picture of its virtual organisation via real management of the knowledge at the heart of the company, or generate content for training courses on specific subjects (health, education, science, citizen networks, etc.), or become a media reference point in these areas as a result of information produced by those that participate in spaces of this kind.

Research in this field and the development of new technologies designed to increase relationships and interaction amongst internauts has hardly got off the ground yet. We have got as far as the Web, a basic platform for communication. But this is not the beginning, nor the end of the Information Society. Despite the differences, I think we are going through a period similar to that of the last third of the XVIII century. During that time, the successive inventions of people like John Kay, Richard Arkwright, James Hargreaves and Samuel Compton modified the traditional weaving machine, invented the “Spinning Jenny” and made it possible for workers to go from handling one spindle to handling a thousand at the same time. In addition, the source of energy for the weaving machines was transferred from the workers’ feet to water power. This was a crucial change. From weaving at home, it now became necessary to go to another building where hydraulic energy could be applied (an Italian invention, by the way). And that is how the factory system began, the birth of the Industrial Revolution which changed the course of the world’s history. But it was not an easy change. In 1780 there were just 20 of these “water machines”. 10 years later, there were only 150 in use.

Slow progress, even in those times. That was what Richard Arkwright thought anyway. A transcription of his problems then sounds highly topical now despite the fact that it was written in the 1770s. “The difficulties which Arkwright encountered in organising his factory system were much greater than is commonly imagined. In the first place he had to train his work-people to a precision in assiduity altogether unheard of before, against which their listless and restless habits rose in continuous rebellion; in the second place he had to form a body of accurate mechanics very different from the rude hands which then satisfied the manufacturer; in the third he had to find a market for his yarns…..So as late as 1779, ten years after the date of his first patent, his enterprise was regarded by many as a doubtful novelty.” (Ure: “History of the Cotton Manufacture”, 1836, quoted by L.C.A. Knowles in “Industrial and Commercial Revolutions in Great Britain during the Nineteenth Century”, 1921).

When the textile industry became an explosive phenomenon in the following century, many supposed that those inventions were the beginning of the end of the industrial era. They couldn’t see that engineering and science were preparing a whole arsenal of new artefacts and discoveries of profound importance to accompany the enormous changes that the factory system was already causing. Agricultural society was swallowed up by new cities, new technology of all kinds, new knowledge and educational systems, communications systems, markets, wars, conquests, cultures and visions that made up the Industrial Revolution.

Today we have a new Jenny on our hands: the tangled weaving machine of the Internet. It seems, from what we hear, read and see, that it is the beginning and the end of the Information Society. However, it is just one of the first technological advances, and quite a basic one at that, of those which will be developed to deal with and publish information and knowledge. Over the next few years, we will see the rise of much more revolutionary ways of bringing human groups with specific interests together on a virtual level, the creation of powerful new conceptual technologies capable of arbitrating new ways of producing information, discovering new information producers and of transmitting their informational products via media whose “intelligence” will be based on overcoming the dichotomy between information “emitters and receivers” as we understand them today. And, just as was the case with Richard Arkwright, we will have to find the appropriate training for those who will be in charge of making these technologies work.

Translation: Bridget King