Information imperialism

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
22 November, 2016
Editorial: 49
Fecha de publicación original: 10 diciembre, 1996

Date of publication: 10/12/1996. Editorial 49.

(A reply to Quim Gil 1)

Still waters run deep

Temperatures have risen in the discussion list of the Digital Journalist’s Group with Quim Gil’s justified outcry at the fact that no-one seems interested in debating the point of view he put forward in the article “Xarxaires enxarxats” which was distributed as Communicat 25 on 12/11/96. I would have liked to have been able to answer him immediately, but I was all tied up with the series of articles on Digital Journalism and then, as the couple of congresses which kept us busy in Barcelona at the end of November came to an end, the digital Guardia Civil reared its head, and I was delayed even further. But here it is. I would just like to qualify that, through the list, I have asked Quim to clarify a few points that I don’t understand and which, of course, I will not deal with here so as not to give superficial answers based on my own suppositions and not on what he really wanted to say.

On the other hand, I would like to remind him and the other people who take the trouble to read these weekly articles, that is above all a place for debate and reflection. A lot of the proposals put forward and questioned by my friend Gil have already been discussed here on various occasions during the year, from company training to the question of language, not to mention the subject of who digital journalists are (and will be). At the beginning of this year, I gave a talk for VallesNet with Artur Serra which I called “Will there be journalists in the Information Society?” This has been a recurrent theme in Salamanca, Madrid, Valencia, Seville, Pamplona, Bilbao, Cadiz and in various parts of Catalonia culminating in the paper I gave at the Congress of Catalan Journalists at the end of November. I answered many of the most important questions that Quim asks both in writing and verbally on that occasion. It is sometimes the case that debates do not always begin when one warns someone else that you are going to deliver an answer. I do not mean to be sarcastic if I inform Quim that those discussions were not invented by “newsgroups”, nor was their methodology uncovered at these forums. Things are much more fluid than that and, as Heraclitus would say, one has to know the way the river flows to choose the exact moment in which to put one’s hand in and hold it back even if just for a fraction of a second.

Anyway, I am going to answer Quim in two parts (if not, my weekly translator, who as well as having to put up with delays also lives with me, will kill me, which will not help things although I pay her for her work) and, I am going to avoid the tiresome job of making a reference list for each of the topics linked to the relevant

Quim has written a long article about Internet and professional journalism the core of which is a series of questions (I’ll use inverted commas “…” when I quote him directly).

  1. “Can we convert Catalonia into one of the axes of world electronic communication?” What he means here is whether we can launch some kind of initiative from within our territorial and entrepreneurial environment (and I suppose he includes cultural and spiritual as well) capable of “making unique ideas, important revolutionary concepts, flourish” on the Net.
  2. “Does the USA always have to be the only point of reference on the Internet? It doesn’t seem that they are genetically and/or historically predestined to be so. Is their supremacy inevitable? In Tokyo and Brussels, at least, they don’t seem to think so.”
  3. “Are high technology and multi-million investment the only driving forces?” (for initiatives on the Net).
  4. “Have we got anything to say to the world?”
  5. “Do we, or could we, have large areas of influence information-wise? We are well-known and appreciated in the Spanish-speaking world, in Europe and in the Mediterranean”.
  6. “Do we, or will we, have the resources to do this?”

Quim comes to the conclusion that we can answer in the affirmative to points 5 and 6, from which he deduces that we will logically have to work in Spanish, but along the way he turns everything into a question of willingness and forgets the history that he himself is describing.

I am not quite sure what being the axis of communication means (I do not feel part of a human community which is, or has ever been this, within the sector that we are referring to; although I have to admit that I have soaked up and dealt with a lot of foreign cinema, TV, literature and powerful communications resources. But my community, that to which I belong in the strict sense of the word which the first question implies, whether seen from the linguistic or geographical, social, or entrepreneurial point of view, does not have to be, nor has ever been the centre point of communication since the Industrial Revolution) and even less so if we talk of worldwide electronic communication. It is hard enough to make Catalonia the centre of its own communication and the distance between that aim and the one proposed by Quim is not insignificant. I do not understand why the emphasis is not on the former. Above all, when Quim assures us that we exercise “an appreciable influence on the Spanish-speaking community, we are members of the EU and our neutral role in the heterogeneous Mediterranean area is acknowledged”. Apart from our membership of the EU, all the rest is arguable. Very arguable. I don’t think he has access to research which confirms these contentions (or at any rate he doesn’t mention them). But, the question is, above all, if Internet is going to enable us to have an important influence on these communities, who is it that is going to exercise that influence in Catalonia? It seems to me that our first objective should be to establish interactive paths of communication within our own environs, to generate content amongst ourselves, establish companies that will allow us to do this, and weave the fabric which will put us on the threshold of the information society with certain clear objectives which initially and, as a matter of principle, should lead us in this direction. Namely, equality in access to networks regardless of social position (“the right to interaction”), the generation of an economy controlled by its participants, the design of new market places in which the supply and demand of products and services is mutually satisfactory, the multiplication of breeding grounds for communication in our own social framework at all levels, public, private and individual, plus a long list of etceteras. Everyone will decide whether they wish to communicate in Spanish, Catalan, Euskera or Esperanto with a Pyrrenean accent. This will depend on the scope that they wish their contributions to have and the framework within which they wish to develop them. If what Quim is suggesting is that each individual should work in his/her own language, thereby turning it into an industrial resource within the Internet, I agree with him entirely. We should operate within the Net on the basis of our individual peculiarities, and that is the vision we should give the world of our world. If everybody does the same, our impression of the world will become more and more complete and closer to reality. And we will interact according to that vision. However, this is not necessarily achieved by the use of a particular language, but rather by what one actually has to say in that language. And this is the crux of the matter.

That’s why what you propose, Quim, is exactly the opposite of what you say: “Thanks to the Internet we can regard the American continent as a fundamental part of our audience, from Patagonia to the cities in North America with a high percentage of Spanish speakers. But, beware, this does not mean our intention is to propose an alternative to the information imperialism which the North Americans have imposed for decades” “What is it we have to offer Spanish-speaking America? Well, firstly, a first-hand vision of the world, obtained by our own correspondents, whose professionalism and criteria are often very different from those of the Americans. We can also offer professional, technical and entrepreneurial training, and a two-way flow of information which will mean that citizens in the EU are better informed on events in Spanish-speaking America.” And that isn’t information imperialism? What right have we to say that our vision of the world is first-hand? (and what right do the Americans have either?). What vision of the world are we talking about here? Are we perhaps saying that the Internet should become once again the periscope of groups big and small which give the best and most accurate vision of the events that affect us? I thought we were working in a decentralized and non-hierarchical digital system in which the analysis and interpretation of what becomes news in this new media sends us to many other places, establishing a process of participative communication which involves the protagonists of the news stories while at the same time not coming to any definitive conclusion. For if we reach a definitive result, then you are right, that is what could be called a “first-hand vision of the world”. But, Quim, and I don’t mean to be pedantic, the world that we live in is much more complex than that. But now, let me show some muscle and say that it is those with a certain experience –which many would call age– who have the fundamental vision necessary to start the alarm bells ringing when arguments like these are put forward. That experience doesn’t come from reading Manga comics, or listening to heavy metal music, or other such things, however important these might be in the life of many people. It comes from other sources, because life did not begin with Vint Cerf or ArpaNet, and even less so with the Web. Losing sight of these details results only in a clear explanation of where this kind of flat and lineal thinking comes from.

In any case, I am going to enter into the communication made by the kind of journalism that you suggest in order to ask you: Do you really know the Latin American publishing industry? Have you ever personally got to know an Argentinian, Brazilian or Mexican journalist? We are talking about countries with a very long journalistic tradition, plagued by thousands of events and carried out under conditions that we could not even imagine in our worst nightmares. Many of these journalists have been nurtured by the most powerful Spanish-speaking communications industry. Their publishing houses, despite repeated crises, still fill the news-stands with publications of all types. In Argentina, for example, there have been local TV stations since the 60’s in practically all its provinces. When it comes to newspapers, Clarin‘s circulation alone is the equivalent of the four biggest newspapers in Spain put together. And we have a population of 40 million compared to their 30 million, but our literacy rates are higher. By the way, why is it that no newspaper here has been able to do half of what Clarin has done on the Net since the first day they entered it? And then we presume to teach them about good journalism, the kind of journalism that conveys a first-hand vision of the world.

Your argument reminds me of something that happened to me when I worked for the Latin American service of the BBC in London. One of my colleagues was an Argentinian and one day while we were having lunch, this friend, who worked in the radio theatre department, began ranting and raving about the blatant but at the same time sibylline imperialism of the station; the way they transmitted a British vision of the world, whether it be through the supposedly objective news (there they call it balanced) or in cultural programmes that were completely unrelated to the idiosyncrasies of Latin America or the preferences or needs of its inhabitants (all of which was quite true). “For example,” he said, “I have spent the last seven years on Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe or Charles Dickens. Who in Latin America is interested in what these people said centuries ago? We have other problems to deal with.” And then, he immediately began to recall with nostalgia a job he’d had in the External Service of the Argentine National Radio. “We broadcast to the whole Arab world. It was fantastic. Every Christmas we put on Martin Fierro, a beautiful play for radio.” Martin Fierro, in Spanish, for the Persian Gulf, from Buenos Aires! And all said in the same breath. But, because it came from a less powerful country than Great Britain, it wasn’t imperialism. It was cultural fraternization.

I think we should alter the way we look at things, starting with what we think people are going to do on the Internet. In other words, the question is not how we do things or with whom or in what language (all very important, of course, but not quite so much if we depart from dubious ideas of what is and isn’t suitable), but rather what it is we are going to do. What content we are going to put into the Net, why, for whom and what our the methods of intervening and participating are going to be. I think you have got carried away by formalities: company training, the minimum amount of investment required, the reincorporation of young unemployed journalists and so on, without saying a word about what they are going to do, apart from the fact that they will give a vision of the world from this side of the Mediterranean ( which is obvious). The debate should begin by taking a look at all the gaps we are leaving in our desperate rush to compete with the Americans or other big powers, who still cast their long shadow on the Net. But on their ground we can never hope to compete with them. On ours, where we allow each person to express what, and how, they please depending on their needs, we have everything to gain for the moment. Our task is to find out what those needs are.

It seems to me that one of the first thing we have to learn in this digital world which is almost upon us, is how to coexist in an environment in which everyone gets their voice back (did they ever have one?) and is able to use it before the audience of their choice. Learning how to listen and interact as a consequence of what is said, are virtues which are not determined by age, or any other variables whether biological, professional or economic. Perhaps I am very much mistaken, but we are talking here about a kind of learning that is less corporative than that that you put forward and more universal. In the end, it is the latter that really makes each person a richer human being.

(The relationship between questions 2, 3, and 6, in the next number of

Translation: Bridget King.