Of explorers and cartographers

Rafael Martín
25 April, 2017
Editorial: 92
Fecha de publicación original: 4 noviembre, 1997

The hand that gives, gathers

The new wave of information systems appearing in the Net — and the maturation process of existing ones — is shedding more light than ever before on the new profile of journalists in the Net or, what amounts to the same thing, how information is dealt with in cyberspace. This will, undoubtedly, be one of the most crucial aspects of future development in the Internet. We talked about some of the features of new information professionals in a series on digital journalism published in en.red.ando in October and November last year, although the analysis focussed mainly on the traditional media. At that time, particularly when the III Catalan Congress of Journalism was in progress, our friend Vicent Partal‘s notion of comparing digital journalists to the traffic police of information, became popularised (not without some “opposition” from certain quarters).

The metaphor was, without doubt, an evocative one: the journalist directing the traffic of bits, sending them off in the right direction, gathering them together and scattering them according to need, etc. Nevertheless, this image was incomplete. Perhaps, it applies to some of the activities of some digital journalists, but not to those related to information systems on the Net. The traffic policeman operates in the context of an already established urban network, with streets, squares and avenues all laid out within predetermined dimensions. This is not the case in the Internet, where, if we continue the metaphor of the traffic policeman, what occurs is exactly the opposite: urban planning still needs to be done in a sprawling, unknown territory which is at best chaotically organised. Putting some order into this new territory is the task of information systems, either by bringing new content into it or working on that which already exists. Journalists, under these circumstances, are becoming closer to a combination of explorers and cartographers. Explorers of data and information and cartographers of knowledge, either as differentiated tasks or as a continuum. Their objective is to convert this process into an interactive relationship with the users in order to densify and increase the volume of information on the Net in an intelligible way.

Seen from this perspective, the job of the journalist is to make sense of a disorganised information map which needs a comprehensible design in order for internauts to be able to participate. Geographical accidents – the urban lay-out in the traffic cop’s case – need to be put in their place by the action of their new operators on the Net. In order for this to happen, as in the case of the explorer and the cartographer, they need to use the appropriate tools for the job, whatever the differences in objectives of the particular publication concerned. It is these which will determine what the proportions of navigational help, audiovisual content, relationships between information systems, the creation of communities with common interests and the quality of information will be, and how these will be put to use by the users.

These new knowledge platforms will, therefore, require an ensemble of disciplines which digital journalists must make their own. The basic skills taught at university journalism faculties will not be enough, not even experience acquired in the traditional media will suffice. The cartographer of the Net will need to combine, at least, some knowledge and experience of such fields as engineering, telecommunications, design, the ebb and flow of information and communication, the particular needs of the users (supply and demand) and interaction with content of diverse origin which synthesised generates new products.

Thus, the information professional is no longer going to be just an “observer” who testifies to events, thereby becoming the designer and constructor of information reality. Communication in cyberspace, an unending process, is fed by these new suppliers of content in a context where information is constantly changing hands between the emitters and the receivers. The flow of information, from this perspective, has very little to do with that of the real world. In cyberspace both agents operate within the new communications media on an equal footing, modulated by subtle oscillations in the supply and demand of information which, as they meet and are satisfied, immediately create new needs. And by this I mean the density of the volume of information. Public administrators, business, organisations, professionals, individuals, all frequent “market places” especially designed to maintain the corresponding flow of information for their respective interests. The establishing and maintaining of this process is the task of the knowledge engineer, the new profession that has fed on the shared wisdom of the explorer and the cartographer, which many, for lack of a better word, continue to call a journalism.

Quite another thing is the kind of publications that will be born of this new profession. Their scope, in the Internet, seems unlimited for the moment. Among us, examples abound, from community publications (such as VilaWeb itself), to specialist publications such as Extra!Net put together by our friend Cornella from ESADE. The latter has just got the wonderful Guiame! information system going, on which seven students are working. The whole team is clear proof of the work that journalists on the Net will undertake and the knowledge which they should make use of to fulfil the objectives of the new system (something which, by the way, is not being taught even at ESADE yet, but is being tried out on the Net). The long road to formalising these new disciplines and giving them substance as a profession for the creation of information systems in cyberspace has just begun.

Translation: Bridget King.