The birth of “soft power”

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
24 October, 2016
Editorial: 42
Fecha de publicación original: 22 octubre, 1996

Date of publication: 22/10/1996. Editorial 042.

* Fourth article in a series on digital journalism.

New King, new law

Amidst the roar caused by the collapse of an entire empire and at a time when the world had hardly begun to digest the new scenario which the end of the Cold War brought about, a couple of scientists —Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau — began sketching out on serviettes and scraps of paper a system that would try to resolve the communication problems afflicting their colleagues. They both worked in the European Laboratory of Particle Physics in Geneva, better known as the CERN. Neither of them was employed by the U.S. army or by any other country’s army for that matter, nor were they trying to solve some serious bottleneck in the military strategy of the West. These scribblings in 1991 and 1992 became what was to become known as the WWW in 1993. It was a rudimentary and cumbersome system, very different from the tool which today transports the publication which you are reading. At the beginning, the Internet was not even conceived as a platform for the web; the “strategic thinking” of these scientists naturally focussed on CERN’s own net. However, this reductionist temptation did not last long. It was soon clear that the Internet was the natural medium for the WWW and they concentrated their efforts on going in that direction.

The development of Mosaic, the Web’s first navigator, definitively changed the direction of the project and, along with it, the mother of all networks. This occurred in 1993-94, in other words a century ago in binary chronology. Since then, in just two years, the academic world has seen its laboriously constructed digital bastions pulverised by the invasion of internauts of all shapes and sizes. Was it merely a happy coincidence that the web appeared just as the Cold War was being filed away? The answer is no. The WWW was one of the most spectacular responses to the change of the political model –and, consequently, of communication — which has emerged as a result of the death of the bipolar world. If it had not been invented in the CERN, the web would have arisen elsewhere, perhaps in less neutral ground and closer to the hearts of lovers of conspiracy theories.

Among the list of determining factors which brought about the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the USSR is information technology (IT). Its discreet daily implantation masked the powerful effect it was having on social, political and economic organisation in the industrialised world, particularly in the USA. Before the collapse of the Soviet empire, Gorbachov himself with his famous group of experts came to the conclusion that the USSR would not be able to compete in the world economy, nor move from an industrial to a post-industrial country, if they did not open the floodgates to IT: computers, telematic networks, photocopiers and faxes. All of them are very compromising technologies for a centralised system of government because not only do they make the economic cycle more consistent and dynamic, but they can also be used for the dissemination of political ideas.

This first step towards opening things up became the factor that brought down the whole soviet deck of cards. China, confronted with a different situation, tried to freeze these technologies which they saw as a “threat to state security”. First it fought the fax (the authorities in Beijing blamed it for student organisation before, during and after the events of Tianamen Square), then parabolic antennas and now the Internet. Finally, the government has recognised the futility of this course of action and has begun to “get wired up” from one end of the country to the other while trying at the same time to maintain some state control over the Net; so far without much success.

These are just two examples of events that, to different degrees, have taken place over the last few years: the information structure which upheld the Cold War was sinking very fast. “Information is power”, the mainstay of the political model which held up both empires, became, all of a sudden, unsustainable and entered into crisis. All the power based on the strategic use of information of military power, the GNP, the population, energy and natural resources, did not anticipate for one moment the collapse of the USSR (nor the rise of a power like Japan). Through the cracks created by this crisis which had turned the world upside down, there filtered new factors which by demanding their role in affairs were destined to definitively bring down the rigid framework imposed by the Cold War. Information technology, education, the organisational flexibility of institutions, businesses and collectives, all sewn together by the subtle thread of interaction, made up the new power base.

This process is just beginning and it is not evident nor easy to discern what is happening. Two significant changes have been brought about with respect to the anterior phase. On the one hand, the nature of information has changed. Now it does not depend on the ability of specialists to gather and process information for its strategic use based on a bipolar model. The relationship between those who possess information and the rest of society, between the emitter and the receptor, the former playing an active and decisive role and the latter a passive one. This status quo set in after the Second World War but began to be demolished when information technology incorporated a new and subversive feature: interaction. The barriers between the holders of information and what we could call, in the broader sense, the “audience”, suddenly began to become diffuse, ambiguous, complex. The digital medium, populated by computers, telephones, television, multi-media and satellite systems, began to overlap with traditional powers: military, social, economic and political. In some cases, noticeably reducing their powers and the logic of their pre-eminence, in others enhancing and multiplying them.

In the second place, the power of information had been based before on the criterion of exclusion (the fewer people who had it, the more valuable it became). However, in a world integrated by information technology, value moves towards the cooperative abilities of social agents. The digital environment has turned information into a crucial commodity in international relations in a rapidly changing world. Exclusively possessing it has become a prickly, expensive, unsustainable and, in the end, sterile exercise. The information society demands a participation which dynamites such attempts at being exclusive, although for some time these will continue to exist successfully because there are still powerful structures inherited from the time of the Cold War in place.

The creation of new systems for the transfer of images and data in an immediately accessible form via simple and low-cost digital means has predictably brought about an explosion in the volume of information, communication and exchange of knowledge. This has added value to some aspects of this information that for the public used to have only a relative importance: its accuracy, timely access and immediate comprehensibility (combination of images and data).

In this way, instead of the “hard power” of the Cold War period, protected as it was by the capacity for destruction of nuclear power and information values aimed at maintaining the politics of superpowers alive, the “soft power” of information technology has emerged. We have moved on from transferring information in a uni-lineal direction from the active processor of information (state, business, media etc.) to the passive receptor, to multilateral and interactive dialogue. In other words, towards a much more complex, ambiguous and less schematic world, where interaction is power. This new state of affairs is beginning to lay down its own working laws.

The frozen lens of the Cold War, through which we viewed events up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall, has been shattered. Now what we want is to know what is going to happen and what we can do about it. And the answers are not coming from the powers-that-be but from this new “soft power” forged by the fires of information technology. This change has become a pluralizing force that builds non-repressive markets and, moreover, does not reinforce centralized power as was the case in the past. It is also true that the USA is taking the lead in this process and that its government can use to its own advantage its privileged position in the business of gathering and processing information thanks to the powerful technological resources that it controls (the USA’s satellite system alone leaves them in a league of their own). That advantage is aided and abetted by the short-sightedness of governments and businesses which have not as yet understood the extent of this new revolution.

So we are faced with a scenario which is plagued with irony and risks. While the end of the Cold War has meant the end of the decisive value which mutual threats played in the shaping of society, this does not mean that the threats have disappeared, far from it in fact. In the present circumstances, there exists the danger of a growing dependency on the USA given their clear lead in the development and management of all the information technologies. This implies, among other things, the manifestation, in a different environment, of a cultural supremacy exercised without limitations. The digital environment could become a powerful vehicle for transmitting a particular vision of the world, an economic model and certain ideological and cultural guidelines in order to achieve a dangerous social, political and economic homogeneity. This is the great challenge which the new political model of the information society throws up at us: the development of multiple and plural spaces aimed at enhancing the diversity of cyberspace and assuring a multitudinous participation in its construction. In other words, to exploit to the full the democratic power of interaction.

Translation: Bridget King.


* Other articles dedicated to digital journalism

1.- In search of the digital journalist
2.- From the dictatorship of the technicians…
3.- …to the rebellion of the masses
4.- The birth of “soft power”
5.- The postman knocks a thousand times
6.- How to escape from the newsagent and survive the attempt
7.- The floating university
8.- The knowledge correspondent
9.- Hard disc journalism