Monasteries of the XXI century

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
14 June, 2016
Editorial: 3
Fecha de publicación original: 23 enero, 1996

Date of publication: 23/01/1996. Editorial 003.

On tenterhooks

The fate of the Benedictines in the XV century and British rural immigration in the XIX century are the two historical milestones which perhaps can help us to best understand the phenomenon of the Internet, or more correctly speaking, that of the interactive information society and how its rules apply to the media. The activity in the telecommunication networks is beginning to subvert the content, ways of working, organisational structure and business strategies of the means of communication as we know them. Up to now, the media have taken it upon themselves to gather, process, synthesise and disseminate information, while the role of the audience –readers, listeners and viewers– has been to receive it. This has consolidated a model based on the strict division of labour between them. Of course, the laws of the market (when they have worked) have imposed some kind of necessary affinity –economic, social and political– between media and audience in accordance with the supply and demand of information. Despite the wide range of possibilities which this model has provided, the actors in this game have not deviated at all over the last two centuries from the classic notion of us and them, those that disseminate and those that receive information. Internet, which we can take as the epitome of interactive on-line information, has torn this marriage apart. We are starting to witness the shock waves of a daily and permanent explosion the power of whose blast is as yet completely unknown to us.

Information in the traditional media is structured in a vertical manner. Regardless of what we would like to know, or what our concerns on any particular day are, we are told from the front to the last page which of the world events are important because of the position and space they occupy, the size of the headlines or of the pictures, the page on which they appear, etc. The media assumes that the role of the reader is a passive one.

However, when one plugs into the net, the relationship with information is horizontal. Users decide what the front page will be, what the most interesting news for them is and can select their own sources of information from such a wide range of choice that it would be unthinkable even in the best newsagents on the planet. In addition, they are able to interact with this information, get into direct contact with those involved and, of course, rework the content of the information. In other words, they can turn it into knowledge through a participative process and, if they wish, put it back into the net. So the users not only receive information, but also disseminate it. In other words, they function as a means of communication in their own right.

Therefore, Internet has given the voice back to millions of human beings who up to now have only had eyes. Human beings that, individually or collectively, are learning how to satisfy their needs for information and knowledge according to the still unwritten laws of the information society. The traditional media will have to seriously examine this crucial aspect of the new era rather than defend their present position based on their prestige as “professional disseminators” of information –a prestige which surely will be challenged by the diversity and multiplicity of media available on the net. They could act now by taking advantage of the dynamic generated by the new infostructure and the variety of resources they can deploy in that direction. But, if all they are able to do is to transfer to the Net their present habits and methods of elaborating and disseminating information, it does not take a prophet to foresee the problems they will inevitably face.

In capitalism (or in any other -ism) nobody’s rights are inalienable. Tendencies arise, crystallise and die or fade away at the hands of new ones. The same happens to the organisations that espouse them. Today, there is a new paradigm evolving which questions the traditional way of obtaining and disseminating information and knowledge. The media who do not address this new situation and raise their standards and skills to the challenge at hand, are bound to suffer. To take part in the information society one cannot be guided only by traditional economic analysis (where profit lies, who pays for what, etc.) because it loses sight of the fundamental importance of the social event i.e. that I, with my own voice and those of my electronic neighbours, can generate a new vision of unimaginable repercussions.

This is where the Benedictines and other religious orders in the Middle Ages come into the picture. They set up the biggest and most prolific publishing business the world had ever known. Then, one Jan Gensfleisch, known as Gutenberg, removed them from the pages of history and relegated them to the museums by inventing the printing press. Ironically enough, the beautiful, illuminated manuscripts they produced died at the onset of literacy . This literacy, which began gradually, suddenly took off as a result of the phenomenal emigration from country to town at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Nobody could have envisaged then the cultural, economic and social consequences of the incipient rise of industrial cities. Today we face a similar challenge. Internet is still a small town of 40 million inhabitants, no more than New York, Mexico and New Delhi together. Can anybody imagine what will happen when the passive inhabitants of the “information rural areas” emigrate into the bustling electronic cities of cyberspace? This event will not be destined for our children, but we ourselves will live to see it. The most cautious estimates of Internet’s growth speak of 200 million internauts by the year 2000, the most optimistic of 1,000 million. Which of the present media organisations will become the monasteries of the XXI century trying to survive on the edge of the turbulent, vigorous hyperactivity of a cyberspace replete with “info-literates” thanks to their dual facets of being both disseminators and receivers of information?

Translation: Bridget King