Recyclable Junk

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
17 January, 2017
Editorial: 65
Fecha de publicación original: 1 abril, 1997

Date of publication: 1/4/1997. Editorial 65.

With Latin, a horse, and money, you may travel the world

Before you read any further, I’d like to ask anyone who intends to commit suicide, go out and rape someone, cohabit sexually or spiritually with aliens or just give their parents a dirty look, to kindly write to the magistrate concerned exempting me or the Internet of any responsibility for these acts. This is not a gratuitous request, as I intend to carry on discussing the topic of info-anxiety — some of the symptoms and dire consequences of which of which I dealt with in last week’s editorial . It is llustrated by the repeated and tragic events brought to the public’s attention, which we are reminded of so frequently by family and friends (some of whom would be better off studying the strange behaviour of the comets rather than worrying their heads off about the intrinsic evils of the Internet. After all, they are as near to the former as they are to the latter and, given the choice, the astral bodies at least stimulate genuine existentialist questions such as where we came from, where we are going and, above all, why).

The information explosion caused by the Internet is making the air rarefied and crowded with bits. Under these circumstances, the body takes a knock and the manifestation of certain illnesses, such as info-saturation, info-anxiety or info-stress, to mention just some of the pathologies that will be admitted before long in the courts as grounds for divorce (or as aggravating or extenuating factors in criminal offences), are to be expected. Given this panorama, the least we can do is demand a certain standard of quality from the information we breathe. The problem is how to establish quantifiable parameters to measure this quality. In order to do this, in the first place, we need to find out where the information comes from, so that we can assess what kind of filters it is necessary to set in place and where. What is clear, however, is the objective: accessing information that is tailor-made to suit the needs of each individual, cutting out any excess or unsolicited bits which cloud the message. In other words without what many call junk information.

When we examine where the information comes from, we come up against one of the curious features of cyberspace, namely that it has made the destination more important than the origin. By means of a simple telephone connection and pressing a few letters on the keyboard, we are plunged into a swimming pool full of bits where all of us who are connected, without exception, swim around together. In other words, information and knowledge has been democratised to hitherto unimagined levels and not because of where it comes from, but because of where it lands up. This is a fundamental factor. So, those social, economic, political, professional, class, national, citizenship, neighbourhood, religious or cultural barriers, in fact, the filters that protected us from the indiscriminate winds of information and knowledge, have disappeared. Not just in principle, in a metaphorical sense, but in practice and quite literally.

A magazine like, for example, if sold in a newsagent’s would only interest a particular kind of person and perhaps some absent-minded, curious person might venture upon it. The same happens with any other magazine or newspaper. In addition, it would only be sold in certain places in certain cities and, of course, only in one country. The possibility of being transnational in these endeavours is reserved only for media of certain economic dimensions in the real world. The same venture in the Net turns, as if by magic, into a global product and becomes available to anyone who is connected. So, not only has the diversity of those interested incremented, but the possibility of being exposed to the media is complete, and, except for having access to the Net, there are no other intervening factors involved (apart from linguistics). Through the mechanisms of interactivity and e-mail, amongst other things, it is quite probable that although the particular medium of communication does not interest us at all , we will get to hear of its existence and –depending on the skill of the person responsible– it could be sufficient to whet an appetite for information in us that we didn’t for a moment suspect we had. Within the Net, information increases informative entropy. Those of us who are pleading for info-quality are, by sending this petition into the Net, automatically degrading the digital atmosphere by creating the corresponding subdivisions between those that think it’s junk and those that find it interesting depending merely on their own perceptions. This has nothing to do with the person who is sending the message at all, but just depends on the fact that it is available in a territory without frontiers of any kind. Before the Internet, all we had to do was look elsewhere (or we were made to) to be saved from this contamination.

This new situation exposes us all of a sudden, theoretically, to the whole volume of information existent in the Net (and a part of what is associated with it outside). There are no discriminating or other selection factors to help us decide what information is “ours”, that which “belongs to us”, as is the case in the real world. In the Net, we live side by side with information that is vital, substantial or fundamental (or the opposite) only for population groups that, it is more than likely, we have never had any contact with before other than for vague references in the press, literature, cinema or ….. even our fantasies. And then suddenly, there they all are. And they’re all talking. It is as though life, in all its subtleties, shades and forms, had dived into a bottle and we were able to look at it all at the same time. The only thing is that we are inside the bottle too. It is an “unembraceble” looking-glass phenomenon and, for some, unbearable. And the way to keep a distance is to draw the line between quality information (that which satisfies our own needs) and info-junk (the rest). But, if life was that simple, such a complex place as cyberspace would not have been woven into existence.

So what means do we have to reject redundant information, maybe useful to some, but not for us? One possibility is to jump out of the bottle again and recreate the circle of pre-digital information again. That would be hard to swallow, because the poison which Internet injects is precisely that which we want to get away from: that fascinating window on human diversity and the multitude of ways the business of life can be approached. Going back to the real world and definitely abandoning the virtual one, would be like deciding that the time has arrived to retire to your childhood home. So that’s out for the moment.

There is a second possibility: For a long time, getting to the news in the Net meant being on the spot (there are still press conferences being held to present new web sites), the question now is finding the news of those that are on the spot, i.e. what constitutes news for each individual. That makes the solution personal. Personalised information, that is the very latest fashion. The grand strategy of the moment. Each person, alone in front of the screen, must be able to describe exactly what his physical, spiritual, cultural, social, political, etc. needs are and then the Net, like an obedient butler, will dish up the menu we have ordered. The problem lies in the concept itself: we think we will know what we want from the grandiloquent world of information and knowledge when we don’t even know what we want in much more reduced — and for that reason supposedly more controllable– spaces, such as that of our private lives. But, it’s a nice idea and, if it works, might even sell. Personalised information aims to plug one in to those specialised centres where only those beautiful bits that our brains will be grateful for, are emitted. What a pity that these centres always highlight the fact that –just as happens in real life, and that is the problem– our brains don’t know how to stop being grateful enough because they are blessed with a series of inexplicable, and apparently autonomous, functions, such as curiosity, the ability to learn, synthesise and create new worlds, as well as the ability to consume and process information and knowledge to unfathomable, and clearly pathological, depths (the real reason for info-stress and a genuine desire to throw the computer out of the window if it weren’t for the fact that we are sure that just at that moment a really interesting message is about to arrive). To all of this we would have to add other intangible things such as imagination, feelings and our moods which are dependent on what is happening in our real lives. Plain personal information just like this, reminds me of the perfect inhabitant of an info-semi-detached house, in a nice clean neighbourhood, self-contained, protected by security guards if possible, where there is no real need to get to know your neighbours –apart from an occasional polite greeting — and info-affluent: cable, parabolic dishes, the best printed media, a good library and time to delve into it. An idyllic setting and, consequently, only suitable for hypochondriacs who worry about info-heart attacks.

The third possibility is to recreate the internal life of the news, but taking the special conditions of the Net into account. In this case, the quality of information would not be ruled by its extrinsic value (where it comes from, or its cost), but rather by our capacity to use it for building community links, almost urban ones I would say, in the global context of cyberspace. From this perspective, it makes more sense to take on board the hybrid nature of info-junk, albeit in its unsafe and even dangerous digital environment, rather than the shining, supposed purity of info-quality. Everyday life has never been any different in that sense and it is not likely to be so in the new, cosmopolitan, “nomad” community of cyberspace. There, as ever, we will look over and over again for the individuals and groups in which we can recognise ourselves. If we find them, then we will be able to recycle the junk in order to mine and profit from its best components.

Translation: Briget King