The digital hubbub

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
20 December, 2016
Editorial: 57
Fecha de publicación original: 4 febrero, 1997

Date of publication: 04/02/1997. Editorial 57.

In the house of the blacksmith knives are made of wood

There might be people in Spain who still don’t know the name of the Minister of the Interior or Agriculture, or who the most important scientist in the country is, or how many member states of the European Union there are. There might even be those who still haven’t realised that the Russians and the Americans share the Mir space station. But, there is one thing that nobody can claim to be ignorant of and that is that this country has definitely entered the digital age. This does not necessarily mean that they have a clear idea of what digital is, nor what its advantages, promise or dangers might be, nor that loads of people have decided to risk their savings in order to jump on this bandwagon. No. What is happening is in fact something much worse than this: there is simply no place to hide from the torrent of epithets that digital prefaces with which we have been bombarded recently. Contrary to what many of us foresaw, this baptism of popular culture on the basic elements of the the society of the future has taken a most unexpected turn: the war that has broken out over how, the rather pompously named, digital television market will take shape.

The contenders, as is often the case in these “bloody” commercial battles, come armed with iron-clad pragmatism. In one corner, the right-wing government led by José Maria Aznar, neoliberals by their own admission, is taking up an interventionist and regulatory stance against this sacrosanct marketplace. In the other corner, a group of media companies, supposedly of social democrat leaning (or bordering on it), are demanding that the market remain in all senses of the word and despite the consequences, just as Adam Smith ordained, without hidden hands to protect them. I’m not going to delve deeper into this matter. To unravel it I would need to use a part of the Internet’s memory infinitely greater than this, and a hand from lots of other people to make it clearer. Nevertheless, I would like to point out one of the aspects of the conflict that I believe is symptomatic of what is happening in the media of the “real” world and the kind of journalism it advocates. Above all, because of the consequences it will have for them and cyberspace as a means of communications.

The tempestuous controversy which has arisen between the government and the media companies concerned (PrisaAntena 3El MundoAbc etc.) has meant that corporate information has become institutionalised (information generated by the company’s own activities) in the different publications published by these groups. A phenomenon which up until now has occurred more or less covertly and discreetly, keeping within the legitimate limits of business interests and not reaching a bothersome pre-eminence for the media consumer, has become overnight (to coin a phrase) overwhelming, invasive, inescapable and dominant to the extent of declaring the identity of the media in question from their very front pages. The volume of information devoted to transmitting the opinion of each media company, the effort made to put across this information as though it were of general interest to the audience and, above all, the fact that it occupies space which could be used to cover a multitude of other events occurring all over the world which under other circumstances would unquestionably have gained more information space, has definitively tipped the balance towards the corporate side. The impact of this tendency is bound to have a profound effect on the media products of these companies themselves and, especially, on public perception of the role they play in the communications model within which they are powerful protagonists.

We all know that a business group, whether it produces textiles, fountain pens or pizzas, will use all the resources at its disposal to defend its policies and promote its position on the market. The communications media are no exception to this rule, although in this regard, given the peculiarities of its particular product — information –, its importance is even greater. However, up to now legitimate defence of its interests only occasionally interfered –or only at crucial times– with the total volume of information, taking into account, of course, the fact that the “colour” of this volume always corresponded to the colours worn by the particular company concerned . The difference now is that we are not dealing with colours or tendencies, but with corporate information, that the companies produce from their economic position and social power, and this now makes up the main content of their information products.

The reader, (listener or viewer) watches on perplexedly as this strange ceremony unfolds causing the world to fade into insignificance behind the glare produced by the business strategies of the very companies whose job it is to bring that elusive world to them. Newsrooms are intent on churning out corporate information as if on an assembly line. Very few other events have earned such outstanding, continuous and persistent treatment as this. Paradoxically it demonstrates that, at last, news doesn’t just have to disappear from the media from one day to the next leaving readers with the sensation that what was apparently fundamental information for the continued existence of the planet one day, on the next, for some mysterious reason, is no longer important and thus vanishes without trace. The controversy over the digital platform increases with every passing day both in volume and detail, including contributions from experts from a wide variety of disciplines, from social anthropology to neuronal semiotics. The public views this information with incredulity, and one suspects that it interests them very little, while at the same time confirming their suspicions about the role of the communications media, especially given the traumatic period at the end of the previous socialist government’s term of office in which newspapers close to the Partido Popular played their hand to the full.

The result has been a serious degradation of the journalistic profession. What one could just have imagined as a possibility given the conformism of the big media companies and their need to rely on expensive promotional adventures to ensure their continued existence, has now become the norm. Both these factors have paved the way to more corporate information in the media. Fierce competition, the continued downward drop in readership, which recent studies confirm, and the increase in concentration of the groups themselves, as well as the amount of investment necessary to explore new territory on the communications map, has encouraged these tendencies even further. The recent crisis over the digital platform paints a picture of the journalist’s job as being in direct confrontation with any kind of moral code at all and poses serious doubts as to how the profession can regain its credibility (and I know that a considerable majority of professionals are enormously worried about this serious state of affairs).

Faced with this communications model, readers, no matter how much digital TV they are promised, are like helmet-less, wallflower guests subject to bombardment at an event which they did not ask to be invited to – nor be excluded from. So, for them, cyberspace represents a subversion of this old information order, the corrosive elements of which are its most outstanding features at present. While Internet seethes and bubbles over with information and events of all kinds in which internauts themselves have something to say — even when they are not directly taking part in events — in the news agencies, radios and TV’s yet another battle is fought within the model (the final one?) based on power, hierarchy and authority. If we want to find out what is going on in the world — if we understand the world as a succession of interconnected environments which we convert through our own cultural interests into our personal virtual neighbourhood, the place where the face of the millennium to come is taking shape — if we want to participate in what is happening or have some contact with those who make things happen, the answer lies more and more in cyberspace, notwithstanding the degree of clarity or lack of it with which these events are being transmitted at the moment. This does not mean that on the virtual planet entrepreneurial wars do not exist which taint the information they produce with the colour of their digital blood. Nevertheless internauts are not mere eye-witnesses to these battles, stripped of all their other senses. Just by opening one’s e-mail the force of their collective position is obvious as they try to prevent the attempts of a number of corporations to fence in the world of communication. At least here the fight is an open one in which we all can participate.

Translation: Bridget King