The Ethics of the New Media

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
11 September, 2018
Editorial: 237
Fecha de publicación original: 17 octubre, 2000

I took in the mouse in my hole and it became heir

Recent protests in Seattle, Washington and Prague against the process of globalisation, in general, and the policies of international financial and commercial organisations in particular, demonstrate how much the Internet has been revitalised as an instrument of social change. Ironically enough, the most obvious standard bearer in this fight against the more perverse aspects of globalisation is the Net, a role which it played, with much less publicity, at the beginning of the 90s when the Internet was still mute, static and in black and white. Now, via new media and community and citizen networks, the Net is becoming a platform which finds its echo in social groups and organisations all over the world. At the same time, as is only to be expected, this has given rise to new problems which, to a large extent, highlight the enormous disparities existing in our societies.

Not even on the Internet are we all equal, although the contrary might appear to be the case. The global and local refer precisely to what makes us equal and different. If this is not taken into account as a fundamental guide to action, difficulties and conflicts, such as those in Prague, are bound to arise. Marta Centenera described some of these in her excellent article called “La moda de la resistencia global” (“The Fashion of Global Resistence”) which makes essential reading. Two aspects were particularly striking in the Czech capital: language and technological capacity. In both, the Anglo-Saxon world became the protagonists, almost without intending to do so, firstly because they were playing on home ground when English becomes the common tongue and secondly because they are veterans in the use of technology (digital literacy).

As Marta so graphically explains, language even became the vehicle for the codes and symbols that encapsulated the approval or rejection of proposals made at meetings. Participation then filtered through a kind of natural colander: the voices of those whose mother tongue was English were those that were heard. As far as technology was concerned, Marta illustrates the differences between organisations from the US and the rest. The new media, which acted as “organic intellectuals” of those that went to Prague -and of those of us that followed events on the Net–, to a large extent reflected in their content this US technological capacity.

The irony is that underlying this protest against globalisation is the innate rebellion of our age: no-one should be allowed to make decisions in the name of others and even less so if, on the basis of these decisions, 4/5 of humanity is condemned to poverty and chronic backwardness. The Internet intensifies this philosophy by making participation and interaction possible, in other words, everyone is given the opportunity to reveal their intellectual capital and this is circulated in common networks of distributed intelligence and so decision-making is made on the basis of this capacity for expression through the Net. But, we have to take this possibility by the scruff of the neck and turn it into reality for if we don’t it will be converted into just the opposite: the classical role of the spectator which we know only too well and which was so hammered into us at through our education system, will otherwise just be repeated.

When I read Marta’s article I found myself back at so many conferences and events where, there at the top, was the New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN; and a rung below The Times, The Independent, etc., quite a lot further down perhaps you’d find Le Monde, La Repubblica and other newspapers of similar standing; and out of the spotlight altogether, all the rest. The media from developing countries were not even standing in the wings. And this scale determined the information hierarchy, the information sources and the sequence of events. Now, at events like Seattle and Prague, it is clear that putting the technological heavy-weights of the most advanced nation in the world at the forefront, is not intentional. It could even be seen as the result of the ingenuity that derives from such great weight. Nonetheless, we have the Internet and there is no reason why anybody should stand in for or take over the functions of the rest.

An interesting aspect of this new situation is the ethical debate over the role that the new media have to play. Oriol Lloret dealt with it in his article “Activismo, medios e Internet, esperanzas y peligros” (“Activism, media and the Internet, the hopes and dangers”). The new media cannot afford to fall into the trap of taking on the same ethical criteria that predominate in the world of the traditional media: objectivity or unconditional involvement with us. As I have said before (see editorials “Daddy, where does the news come from” and “The Digital Blender”), the traditional media does not have a recognisable audience with whom to negotiate rules of conduct. Consequently, they have formulated their own codes of ethics and they accept them on a voluntary basis.

The audience of the new media is recognisable, or should be, in every detail. One of the commitments of the new media is to build them on the basis of participative information systems that guarantee interaction with readers so that they can be both content consumers and generators. In this context, the ethical debate is different because it is founded on a consensus between the parties involved. Journalists owe as much to “readers” as the latter do to “their journalists” because they can both exchange roles depending on the communication flow. The fact that this discussion is still conducted within the framework of “objectivity” indicates, very clearly, to what extent many new media, however community orientated and grassroots they think they are, still see themselves as privileged suppliers of information for objective audiences that exist somewhere out there.
The language debate is long-term one. Although we all accept that English is the predominant language of exchange on the Internet, and that, in this sense, it is the language of Europeans, Asians, Africans, Latin Americans and Australians, the truth is that it is not easy to follow debates in a language which is for the majority an uncomfortable prosthesis and not second nature. The Internet should be of enormous help here for two reasons. On the one hand, because it allows an asynchronous debate. Nevertheless, for this to happen, knowledge management platforms must be created to facilitate the decision-making process and the construction of multi-lingual archives. And this leads us to the second aspect. Up until now we know exactly what the community networks of Boulder, Colorado, or certain areas of San Francisco think and we even participate in their debates. But we don’t know the names of similar organisations in Sweden, the Philippines or Kenya. The multi-lingual content should be a bridge to other cultures, other needs, other means of participation.

The fact that we are here together on the Internet does not mean that we have to all do the same things perforce. As always, the most important thing is agreeing on what and then how to do it. And from this perspective, the first step consists of recognising that cultural diversity means putting local priorities in a global context first, and not the other way round. The Net allows us to globalise this discussion. But not to turn it into the minimum common denominator where language and technology get the upper hand. The key factor is to verify the common and divergent perspectives from a collective perception, in order for the social organisations — and the new media that work on them– to participate and interact.

These subjects will be part of the Global Community Network 2000, a conference on citizens networks that will be held in Barcelona the first week of November. New media in community networks will be discussed and we will have the opportunity to evaluate the new responsibilities of the players involved, the weight of the multilingual content and the trade-offs between the different agendas as a way of organising these networks on a global scale. This is an excellent occasion to reflect and learn about what happened in Prague.

Translation: Bridget King