Net’s stones

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
30 October, 2017
Editorial: 145
Fecha de publicación original: 8 diciembre, 1998

Did you go to church? .–Yes, I did.
Did you see God there? .– Oh! I didn’t notice that much

At the end of last week’s editorial I talked about the need for building bridges to the Internet for people who still haven’t gained access to it. I brought it up in the wake of the purchase of Netscape by America Online, news which hit the media out cold without any anaesthetic or the necessary cushioning to soften its blow in a known information context. To put it another way, this week brought news of another of those corporate mega-fusions — Exxon gobbled up Mobil Oil. And, there’s not much more one can say about that. Everybody who goes to buy petrol and asks for 10 litres of Exxon gasoline or Mobil oil knows what the two brand names signify (and even something about their respective histories). But, what’s the equivalent in the purchase of AOL? Where does the person in the street go to buy half a kilo of Netscape or 10 litres of AOL? How does one consume browsers and content suppliers? Where can they go to see these products, touch them, squeeze them or have some spiritual encounter with them or whatever the case may be? The answer is simple – nowhere. And this could create a serious problem.

We are trapped in what we could call an a-digital Catch 22 situation. On the one hand, the traditional media, for a number of reasons, has still not managed to transmit a sufficiently contextualised flow of information about the Internet to people, a normalised vision of the Net and what it means in today’s world. And on the other, culture in general has not managed to establish “digital normalisation” through its products, either books, essays, educational TV programmes and documentaries, exhibitions, artistic displays, shows, performances, etc. The other side of the coin is, of course, the routine acceptance of its abnormality, an over-excited state produced by a terminal vision, almost to the point of a final shoot-out, of everything that has anything to do with cyberspace: Internet will finish off such and such, will liquidate that, will run amok in education and turn the economy upside down. The result being that the majority of people are trapped in the wrong place at the wrong time, the well known “out of place syndrome”: nobody ever feels they are in the right place because the Internet has already moved it. The justification is as direct as the explanation: this is what happens in revolutions (but this revolution is different as well, something we’ll touch on at a later date).

The immediate result is an almost pathological oscillation between technophobia and technophilia. Technophobia because those things that go on in computers are the reason why we are never in the right place at the right time doing the right thing. Now it seems that kids don’t learn what they should be learning, teachers know less than the kids, our work must be done differently (and, perhaps, by different people), the things we buy in the shops are not the best or the cheapest, newspapers are going to disappear just when we started to subscribe to them and we can’t even buy a bit of Netscape. It’s no joke. Technophilia because we are fascinated by the future no matter how afraid of it we are, and that fascination is accompanied by a technology that we don’t know how we got involved in, but whose ubiquity is inescapable: bar codes on all our products, automatic teller machines, magnetised tollbooths, video-electronic doorbells, online travel reservations and the Internet all over the place. All in all, thousands of things which we would not be prepared to give up just like that, but which we don’t like because they are imposed on us as though there were no other alternative.

In other words, we are at the steamy centre of a cultural change of considerable proportions (forgive me for, yet another, prophecy!) shared by three groups within the population, each of them with their specific problems and different solutions: a) the sect of those already initiated in the Net, b) those that are outside it but float around on the outskirts and c) those who don’t want anything to do with it but feel that they have been caught by the trouser leg anyway. The first group we know: it’s us. We hold the keys to the rites and liturgy of the Net, we know how to decipher unbreakable codes with the simplicity and naturalness of the chosen, whether they are given to us in the form of initials or concepts: AOL, Java, Netcenter, Gateways, FTP, HotMail, distribution lists or chats. No-one outside the Net has the necessary skills to break through the cryptic armour-plating which hides the profound significance of this language. And where there are rites there are myths. And where there are myths there are high priests, hierarchies, papacy. In fact, a church. A strange church, true enough, different from those we have known so far, but a church nevertheless, above all because it allows us to define with startling clarity the features of the faithful thereby distinguishing them from the ocean of heathen that surrounds us.

The latter oscillate between accepting the temptation of the virtual devil and baptising themselves in the first Internet access provider that comes their way (I was christened luisangel@ and, as is the way in this peculiar church, I have various surnames) or just wait. Waiting, above all, to find out more about this heaven or hell that the media report on in fits and starts. But it isn’t easy, not for them, or for those that have, for the moment, decided that that the Internet is a new-fangled invention that’s not really worth it (the arguments of this group, as we know, are varied. From saying that the US military are behind it, to claiming that the Net does not make one happy and that fornicating in the real world is better than in the virtual one.) The fact is that neither the one nor the other have valid reference points unless they connect to the Internet which is precisely what they don’t want to do without more prior information. And there doesn’t seem to be any clear way of solving this dilemma.

The Internet has not found its way out of its cables, switches, routers, processors and screens and into the real world beyond its proper names. The Net has not yet built its own churches, temples where its members and outsiders can come together and gain access to the digital catechism without having to die first (i.e. get connected) to find out if heaven and hell exist in cyberspace. Places where one can check out exactly what the Internet is, how it interrelates and to what avail, and what exactly all these advantages we keep hearing about are, and just how much it will modify physical spaces such as the home, the workplace and the city itself. And here we are not talking simply about Internet cafés where there is just more of what we have at home or at work.

These bridges to give people the opportunity to experience what constructing networks, working in networks, enjoying themselves in networks, learning from networks, etc. is all about, should be urban physical spaces conceived as a real, atomic, connection to the Internet where it would be possible to do in the real world what we do virtually. With the same results, for better or worse. Just as happens with temples. In the same way as in the past churches organised the urban layout starting with the main square presided over by the bell tower, it is now necessary to erect digital monuments in the urban landscape so that just by passing these “Internet buildings” we can see what is going on inside without having to make the sign of the cross. Buildings in which the cultural resources of the city criss-cross, where the specific demands of the people are expressed and where their co-operation and interrelation is facilitated as though they were connected via computer.

These spaces could be created to satisfy general needs such as discovering the changes the Net will make in the home and workplace, or to fulfil specific objectives such as, for example, Knowledge Centres (formerly known as bookshops), Culture Centres (museums et al.) or Learning Centres (schools). Within these, the integration of services coming from areas at present considered very remote or unrelated, but really very close to one another thanks to the Internet, will allow us to understand the reason for these denominations and make sense of cultural changes. Some other day we will talk at more length about the content of these new temples and the stones on which the real existence of the Net will be founded.

Translation: Bridget King.