The Closing Session of Maig’98

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
1 August, 2017
Editorial: 120
Fecha de publicación original: 19 mayo, 1998

To go through bitterness, to attain sweetness

Closing Speech from Maig’98: I International Congress of the Electronic Publication, held on the 15, 16 and 17 May in Barcelona. This is not a transcript of my speech but an edited version of what I said and what I had prepared beforehand. The dignitaries present at the closing session included Ernest Maragall, Treasurer of the City Council of Barcelona; Joan Rangel, Councillor for the Interior, Treasury and Planning of the Diputación de Barcelona; Salvador Alsius, Dean of the Catalan Journalists’ Association, and Xavier Marcet from the vice-chancellorship of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya.


Good morning. It is really wonderful still to see so many smiling faces at this stage . For me, it’s the best evidence I could have of what the spirit of this Congress has been. I have been inundated by messages from all of you telling me what a great time you were having. There was a moment in which I wasn’t sure what it was we were up to, I’d thought we were here to debate the conclusions of Maig’98 but so much happiness started to take on almost erotic tones. It is clear then that the Congress has created a general feeling of satisfaction. Over the past few days, I have heard some truly surprising comments, both because of the passion with which they were expressed and because of what was being said. From amongst so many, I have chosen two. The first is the last line of the speech Bernard Smith gave during the inauguration. Referring to Maig’98 he said, “I think we must investigate why all of this is happening in Barcelona. Why not in Helsinki which has the highest number of internauts in the world, or California?” He didn’t choose these two places at random. He mentioned Helsinki, Finland, the country which is always top of the list when it comes to the number of people with access to the Internet in relation to total population. And, in the second place, California, guys, the Golden Dream, cyberspace’s Big Frontier. I am not going to answer Smith’s question, because as he put it, this needs to be investigated.

The second statement came from Alejandro Piscitelli while we were having supper at the Olympic Port last night. “I have been to dozens, hundreds of congresses, but this is the first time in a long time that I didn’t get bored, that I was interested in what was being said. I really liked the way content was organised and proof of this is that I have the feeling that this is all coming to an end far too soon.” This is a feeling we have all shared, we have all complained that the sessions were too short. Fortunately, however, the sessions are not over. The majority of the participants have expressed the desire for them to continue, all we have to do now is decide how.

I think that the success of Maig’98 lies, amongst other things, in the simple fact that this has been the first “Congress of Conclusions” of this kind to be held in the world. And, I think we must give this the merit it is due, and boast and speak out about it as loudly as possible. Never before has there been a Congress like this, with an online phase which established the rules of the game for the debate that followed in the face-to-face, phase. And, the reason has been that up to now, amongst other things, people who have organised congresses on the Internet, and I’m going to say this out loud and clear too, have never believed that the Internet could do the things that the Net is doing now. That’s why, when congresses are organised on the Internet they tend to be exact replicas of congresses in the real world with the name online tagged on just because e-mail is used for the announcement, call for papers and so on.

We believed in another way of doing things. We thought that it was time that what we have been saying all the time on the Internet was put into practice. We decided that it was time to see if it was true that, beyond its purely academic value, cyberspace really has flows of communication, interactivity, interaction and integration… And, in order to do so, we had to be basically very audacious, because we didn’t have very much to go on. This reminds me of something which has come to mind often during this Congress. In 1962, the Football World Cup was held in Chile. Carlos Dittborn, the head of the organising committee’s slogan was, “Because we have nothing, we will do everything”. I have always been impressed by the spirit of that statement which impregnated everyone who made that event possible. And a similar spirit has kept us going over the last months.

We haven’t just argued about the circularity of ideas in the Internet, we have put them into circulation. We haven’t only argued about the hypertextuality of knowledge, we have put it into action. And we did so without the necessary technological means when we started off. But now we are the only people on the planet with the necessary experience and knowledge to develop these technologies and apply them to “online congresses of conclusions”. And this knowledge and experience is summed up by your presence and participation here. We have established a new way of relating to one another, of discussing things via the Internet and giving expression to this phase in ideas, debates and projects, in a word, continuity, when we get to the “real” stage. There’s much more to this than meets the eye because it implies a particular way of understanding the Internet and its users. And it worked!

The online phase, as you know, took place from November 1997 to April 1998.When we reached this date hardly anyone had signed up for the Congress which, logically enough, made the Organising Committee and others involved in Maig’98, very nervous. I said, “Don’t worry, more than 400 hundred people will turn up”. Obviously enough, they looked at me like the perennial madman they think I am. But I had the proof in hand. The coordinators of the seminars and workshops, in turn, said things like, “Listen, whatshisname is saying that the workshop isn’t working out, nobody is saying anything”. And I asked, “Has whathisname contributed or sent anything in?”, “No, no”, came the reply, “He/she sent the message to me”. And I thought to myself: this is the law of the Internet, one person speaks and a hundred just take a look. The question was, were there really a hundred looking in? The last count I made with the coordinators gave us more than 300 participants between November and April, people who had shown themselves and said something. The figures were tallying. As far as I was concerned, the Congress had already worked. Because in the Internet one does not participate just by talking but by creating explicit and implicit information flows. And if you play with these and stimulate them, you get results. And in the end, as I said, the results are here, there have been 400 participants and to a certain extent what has happened is a calculated result, not a chance one. Over the last 6 or 7 months we have maintained a level of debate which has been uneven, unbalanced and arduous. It has been extremely difficult to find out how to do things because the mechanisms are not that obvious. Everybody tugged in different directions before we were able to structure the discussion. But, we held fast to the idea of an online congress: determined to get to the end of that stage with enough material in hand to extract conclusions for the “real” phase. Now what we have been left with is a very rich experience and a certain methodology, the real possibility of turning this resource into technological applications which will allow us to clearly define the content of all the phases of a congress of these characteristics. We even advanced along these lines when we incorporated the “multicasting” system provided by Narcís Vives in the Education workshop, thanks to which one message reaches the e-mail boxes of subscribers to a list, the designated web page and the newsgroup, classifies itself and can be searched for by a search engine. In other words, we are already starting to develop specific mechanisms for organising online debates in practice.

What were the results of all this effort? That very high standards had already been set by the time we got to the face-to-face sessions. We hadn’t come here to tell each other about little battles we’d had, although the temptation always existed and some people maybe gave in to it. We came to discuss an accumulated body of knowledge. We didn’t need to think about our point of departure because we already knew what it was, but just where we were going: and this is the territory of projects and teamwork. Standards were very high and that was especially noticeable in the quality of the contributions both by workshop and seminar coordinators and among the participants. We had so much to say that no amount of time would have satisfied our appetite for participation.

So, after this audacious exercise which proved that what we had been saying for so long about the Internet really made sense, we are now faced with a series of questions. On the one hand, the Grup de Periodistes Digitals (GPD) *, which has been the “alma mater” of the Congress, will have to make up its mind about what it is going to do in the future. This is connected, of course, to what is going to happen to our work from now on. I don’t know if you are aware of the fact that a vote was held in the GPD’s list to decide if it would become an association, the interlocutor for all that the Congress brought and will bring about. Now we will have to decide if we want to do this or not and under what conditions. Some of the projects set out here cannot go ahead with just an electronic distribution list as backup.

Another conclusion is that the Congress was held in Barcelona, in Catalonia, and when I say that we have hosted the world’s first online Congress of this kind, I mean that we have placed Catalonia on the map, so to speak, and, in addition, on a map which will be fundamental in the future. I think we should put this in its proper perspective, trying not to lose sight of the wood for the trees. We have done far more for Catalonia than other people who tried to distract from what the central goals of this Congress should have been.

There are three more things, though, all of them important. First of all, we have discussed the issue of electronic publications and have, in addition, turned the Congress itself into an enormous electronic publication. Many of the issues we have discussed over these three days had already been resolved within the mechanics of the Congress itself and, as so often occurs, we weren’t even capable of transferring them to the discussions in the halls, because the issues were so new, so innovative, that our discussions were frequently based on old parameters without taking the innovations we had generated sufficiently into account. We must re-examine all that we have done in the Congress from a critical perspective. So, I invite you all to leaf through the book of presentations which we have distributed before you go to sleep every night- there’s a lot to learn from it.

A second very important point deals with the future of the Internet and the role of local government – and I would like to stress this given the illustrious guests accompanying me. Beyond the discussion as to whether democracy should be participative or representative, or any other gibberish we are being fed about how cyberspace can affect political systems, this Congress set in motion a form of participative democracy that actually worked. We still don’t know how to crystallise and formalise it, but we managed it. We have had more than our fill of projects in participative democracy in every nook and cranny of the Internet, in which the people who should be the subjects of such projects have no say whatsoever. Well, in Maig’98 we uncovered the ways and the means, we participated, and we also reached conclusions. And moreover, our bodies, as the police officer told us yesterday, are begging for more –we want to continue what we started. And we want to continue in this innovative manner. We do not want to continue just listening – we want to have the chance to receive, transmit, integrate, propose and reach new destinations where the presence of each and every one of us can be felt. We will have to propose a set of minimum guidelines to make sure that this will continue to work and to explore new ways of participating.

Finally, the Congress has been quite successful in creating an audience, something we hardly discussed in the sessions. Like the other coordinators, I have maintained a list related to the participants in the newsgroup, along with the GPD’s list and the Congress website. In addition, these “ad-hoc” lists were linked to the lists set up by some of the participants. The end result was the creation of information and knowledge exchanges in a far broader and richer context than that which was strictly determined by the Congress. Such information flows are one of the great lessons of this Maig’98, which should be the object of further research for future encounters.

The Congress concludes by proposing two major projects, which I hope will be to everyone’s benefit. The first is the creation of the International Directory of Electronic Publications (DIPE), which has yet to be endowed with a security system in order to provide enough guarantees to make it safe for general use. Be that as it may, I invite you to participate in testing it and making suggestions as to how to go about developing it. The directory will give us a colourful idea of the electronic publication scenario, beyond traditional online media.

The second project is the creation of an open European and Latin-American centre for digital communication or electronic publication, which will be based in Barcelona. The GPD can advance this idea to a certain extent, but it is the task of the Autonomous Government of Catalonia, Barcelona’s City Council, universities and companies to take over this project and turn our city into a reference point integrated into a European network of similar centres and open to active cooperation with Latin America. We believe that a step like this would give us an active, decisive and definitive presence in the design and development of the Information Society. The centre would have three basic areas of activity: training, research and breeding ground for new corporate ventures.

I believe that the latter is an essential problem which requires a great deal of attention. I still think that discussions like the one we held yesterday about business and online publishing are entirely insufficient. Economists have destroyed the world so much that they are now poised to do the same with the Internet. They are addressing the wrong issues and questions. It made no sense at all that discussions revolved around who makes money in a room where over 100 persons, all actively participating in the Internet, were gathered. This type of question is typical of a particular world view. The major question right now is: what are you as a business person learning from managing information and knowledge through the Internet? The problem is the social potential of what we are doing and not its economic virtuality, because this is exactly what is being generated by a world which we are attempting to change by introducing new and different ways of working and interrelating on the Web. The social potential is phenomenal, and should be nurtured fearlessly and explicitly. Even though I may not be earning anything at present, when I log on and begin to work, I have to learn how to find information, manage it, re-work it, package it and distribute it. That is to say, I have to find the raw materials, process them in an assembly line designed by myself, obtain an end-product, open the doors of my info-factory, and send it out onto the market. I am doing this right now, and so far I have not made any money out of it. And I have never done this before. For the first time I am operating as an entrepreneur dealing in information and knowledge. At the same time, I’m still a wage-earner elsewhere. I am combining both “trades”. And I’m not the only one – all of you are doing the same. And if an economist comes by and asks me who is making money online, my answer is “What’s it to you?”. That’s the wrong question. The right one, from my standpoint, is: “What are we going to do to make this social potential come to life in the crucial sector of an emerging economy based on information and communications?” “What are our political, financial, administrative and educational powers doing about it?” Answering this question provides fertile ground for discussion. And we will probably pay greater attention to these questions at the next Congress.

And this is one of the questions which a centre like the one we are proposing must respond to. Because we are not creating a centre where only big media groups will be able to come to learn about how to function in the Information Society; our primary targets are the thousands of small companies which are at work creating the Internet today. And I’m giving fair warning – the problem is very serious, because these companies, which have never been taken into account as players in the society in which they act, are there in their thousands. Society –from local to supranational administrations– is not ready to talk to us. Everything is perfectly channelled so that only those who move tremendous resources, big names from industry and finance, have a voice. It’s going to be terribly tough to turn things around. It’s going to require a massive effort, and I believe that the centre which we are proposing will be able to provide the required boost in Europe and Latin America, at least in terms of training, research and company creation.

As we have shown over the past few days, we are very interested in and concerned with research. We are in a new, dynamic, boisterous and ground-breaking field. This has been obvious in many of our debates. If I were a researcher, the first thing I would do would be to congratulate myself on having proposed a work programme for the next 50 years, given the number of issues addressed. For starters, of course, I would tackle the still-vague concept of the “digital journalist”?. The only thing we really know about it thus far is that we are referring to something whose spinal cord, skeleton and other identifying features are being left by the wayside. After a mere 200 years of existence, the journalist spawned by the Industrial Revolution’s communications model seems to find itself between a rock and a hard bit. We have generated a wealth of arguments about the content and operation of electronic media. Clearly, the idea of electronic publishing still has too many cognnotations which are left overs from the ancien regime. It would be necessary to spread our wings and fly to imagine what the new media will be like from a different representation of knowledge. The debate in this morning’s workshop [hypocentres of hyperlanguage] has shown us the gap which still exists between hypertext and the circular representation of knowledge.

Well, I could say a million things more, but I’m going to close with a couple of practical issues. One is that we will logically respond to your request that this Congress should have some form of continuity. We still don’t have any clear ideas about how we’re going to do this, but you will be receiving proposals. We are thinking about creating platforms for discussion on fixed dates, moderated by a group of experts at first, and open thereafter to all participants to reach conclusions that can translate into projects and knowledge which will enable us to work better in the context of the Information Society. We will have to come up with some form of technological device that will allow us to do this. Fortunately, this Congress has had its own “Wizard of Oz”, Carlos Gascón, who with the generous help of Pangea and Frankie (from the Telecommunications Engineering College-UPC), has managed to solve problems that many of us laypeople would never even have begun to formulate.

It looks like this Congress will have sequels, because, as usual, when people have fun, an economist pops up and says, “Hey! There’s money to be made here!” Somehow, there is market value to be found in the fun and enjoyment of these past three days. It’s no wonder that fun and entertainment make up one of the wealthiest, most powerful sectors of the world economy, and not only on the Internet. Perhaps that’s why we have already received a number of concrete offers for the next Congress, and it has even been suggested that it should be a “roving” Congress, with the next one to be held in Madrid. We’ll have to make a decision about that too.

I am going to conclude by thanking those responsible for what you have all been telling me from the very first day –the excellent organisation of the Congress. Like true Spaniards, we are all consummate sceptics. Our first reaction when something runs as smoothly as silk is to say, “This is fishy… this can’t happen here, this is too well-organised. I come here, I get a warm welcome, I tell them my name and it is on the list, I’m given a dossier and shown in, and there’s actually something going on, everything seems to be in order with simultaneous translations in 3 languages…” Well, I’m not going to go on listing everything that went right, it’s just that it’s all too much for us. We don’t expect things to go right… we expect a bit of disorder, confusion and turmoil. We come from the Internet culture, we’re experts at managing chaos, not at living in organised structures –this has caused minor personal traumas and major culture shock. Everyone has felt the need to come to us and say, “Wow, this is really well-organised… fantastic!” It’s taken us a little while to change our mentality and make comments like “I met so-and-so, what a fascinating person”.

The people behind this surprising event are from Grup Serveis. They spent months on a razor’s edge because financially figures simply didn’t tally, and decisions had to be made constantly about the debt we were running up and what resources we could use. And then, in the second place, nobody had signed up for the Congress until only a few days ago. Let’s face it – as congress-goers, we’re not exactly the quintessence of organisation, and we tend to leave everything to the very last minute. Nevertheless, Grup Serveis performed the miracle of turning everything it touched into pure silk.

Carme Peiró in coordination and Anna Solana and Sílvia Llombart in the Secretariat of the Organisation form the solid core of the event. I can’t imagine having done anything without them. Carme Peiró played a key role in keeping the organising group’s spirits high. And so it went on with the coordinators of the seminars and workshops, who kept the Congress’ online machinery going and made it possible to attain the high standards of the ‘live’ sessions. Over the past months, I have always had the impression that David de Montserrat, ‘David Nono’ to us, was living inside the Web. No matter what time of day or night I sent him a paper, I always received a ‘posted’ confirmation a minute later. It crossed my mind more than once that his e-mail was equipped with an answering machine… but no, the speech or paper had indeed been posted on the Web.

Throughout these days, many new people have worked to make the Congress transmit this feeling of a living, healthy organism. Lavinia TV broadcast all the sessions via RealVideo and RealAudio. We know that hundreds of people throughout Spain, Latin America and the U.S. followed the Congress over the Web at one time or another. Boton Cybercomunicaciones broadcast the educational workshop via video conference. The UPC staff, in particular its technicians, did their utmost for us, as though the Congress were their own. Journalists from the Association of Women Journalists of Catalonia (ADPC) and journalism students have worked in all the seminars and workshops to draft the conclusions and glean first impressions from the coordinators. All this will be posted on the Web shortly.

The Col.legi de Periodistes de Catalunya (the Catalan Journalist Association) backed us from the beginning, which was very important for us to be able to act in the real world, where electronic lists like the GPD’s are neither highly thought of, nor frowned upon… they are simply not seen at all. The Col.legi‘s support was crucial in reaching our goals. The UPC didn’t hesitate one second to place its facilities at our disposal, something which clearly shows its innovative spirit. This formal marriage between engineering and communication is quite remarkable, even though the Internet is a product of both fields. We hope that this teamwork will continue into the future and that it can continue to bear such special fruit as Maig’98.

Thanks to the European Commission we have been able to publish the proceedings of the Congress.

Finally, a word of thanks to our sponsors, without whose help our debts would have been so immense that the next Congress would have had to be organised in the Seychelles, where we would all have taken refuge.

Our heartfelt thanks go out to each and every one of you. Without your participation, we would never have enjoyed these three days so much, and we would have missed out on an experience which will doubtless remain forever in our hearts. Salut!

* The Grup Periodistas Digitals (Group of Digital Journalists), which only exists as an electronic distribution list, has been the promoter and organiser of Maig’98: I International Congress of the Electronic Publication.

Translation: Bridget King.