The Fourth Estate is under construction

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
23 May, 2017
Editorial: 100
Fecha de publicación original: 30 diciembre, 1998

To every bell its own clapper

Welcome to editorial number 100, the last one of l997. If I’d worked it out in advance, I wouldn’t have let the last one of the year be such a round number. Having a month’s summer holidays this year – the only time the magazine didn’t change its weekly content since it started– has meant that we can satisfy our craving for round numbers full of zeros for meaningful dates. I would like to offer my heartfelt thanks to all those who have sent me electronic messages of encouragement, telling me how much they enjoy reading the monthly offering of this editorial or to disagree with the opinions that I’ve been putting forward every week for the last two years. Some have even developed their ideas into contributions which have in turn been published in In all my thirty years of journalism, I have never had such a lively and direct relationship with my readers. I know that this is due to the way the system works and that this is one of the most wonderful things about it. But we’re only just starting and I am convinced that there is more and better to come. In fact, I believe that in 1998 we are going to be witnesses to an important change in this respect: the emergence of new media which will give a whole new meaning to the term “Information Society”.

Up until now, we have been exploring some of the possibilities which the different facets of the Internet can offer, especially email and web pages as well as these used in combination, and seeing how these can begin to lay the foundations of a new generation of information systems. However, the broadcasting capacity which these applications offer in the hands of different collectives has not led to the creation of communication centres with their own identity (apart from some notable exceptions), more than anything because they consider themselves as only complementary to the work carried out by the traditional communications media and to whom they concede a high level of impact, given their headlines, social prestige, specialised staff and their well-organised archives. This sanctimonious position, as far as I see it, has started to change, especially at the hands of certain professional organisations, which have started to discover that they themselves can operate as other communications (in the full meaning of the word) media do, competing with the traditional “fourth estate”. This does not of course mean that their areas of information overlap – although they do sometimes – but rather that the new media open the field of communications up revealing a vast panorama and so, in passing, demands on the part of the users. As I have said on other occasions, the main feature of cyberspace is that it creates a dense communicative fabric which is stored in computers and which feeds itself, grows and spreads the full spectrum of information and, at the same time, stimulates a taste for it.

To put it another way, the Information Society doesn’t consist of increasing information coming from known sources (something which hasn’t happened now for some time), but instead in the multiplication of these sources themselves and in our own participation within this process. A well-informed person nowadays is someone who has access to a wide range of services where the news, information and knowledge required to handle the multi-faceted aspects of modern day life can be found. Newspapers, radio and television are not enough for this task. More communications media with a different outlook are needed. This is what is happening with the Internet. When these new means of communication manage to convince themselves that they really can carry out the role of new media covering not only existing information needs, but also those which they create themselves, the Net will start to accomplish some of the functions which have been attributed to it within the Information Society. Then the moment will arrive when schools, professional associations, whole neighbourhoods, education centres etc., will transmit the necessary information packaged as an interactive channel of communication which will completely change their relationship with their “natural audience” and will create new ones which, from then on, will depend to a large extent on these new sources.

Behind this process lies the need for an information policy, something which in general terms we have always been lacking. On the one hand, we have wrought a culture in which information has never been considered a tangible social good. On the other, we have always relied on others to produce it for us. In the new era, this viewpoint is not nearly enough to fully exploit all the capacities of the digital systems. But, in order to do this, we will have to acquire new skills, work with talents previously unheard of, learn to communicate, to take part in social debates – however specialised they may appear – through the dissemination of information, to make news and work with it, to look for new audiences and, in short, to create networks: the faithful consumers of information supplied by the corresponding systems.

Given this landscape, training becomes a major strategic objective. This is something which has scarcely made an appearance in our society. Administrations, businesses, organisations and individuals are starting to become aware that, to call themselves users of the new medium and to have an impact as communicators, it’s not enough just to have an email account and two megas of memory to create a web page with. The problem, obviously, is far more complex and requires an arduous process of apprenticeship and, at the same time, of learning to develop applications which allow the representation of information and knowledge taking full advantage of all the myriad of possibilities of cyberspace, from hypertext to multimedia, in a context characterised by interaction between users. This is a job which will have to be undertaken by schools, colleges, universities and the countless institutions which will come to embrace the path of information as an essential support for the development of mature information systems, systems which will eventually become established as real new digital media.

In Catalunya, the Universitat Politècnica (UPC) has just set up such a reference centre – CANET (Centre d’Aplicacions de Internet) – whose aim is the promotion and research into the more advanced applications of the Net. In their founding document, they define these applications as the combination of tools and services developed around networks of interconnected computers (internal and external) for group work systems, hypertext information systems and hypermedia, intelligent net agents etc., which can be used in different contexts, whether they be business, social or institutional. This centre, the first of its kind in Spain, opens, as far as I see it, a road which clearly outlines the framework of the new needs of the internaut community in our country.

At the same time, some systems which signal the birth of an information policy have also started to appear in certain very specific areas, setting an excellent example which can be applied in other sectors. I refer, for example, to the fantastic directory “Guiame!” developed by Alfons Cornella of ESADE (Barcelona). This system, whose use has grown spectacularly in the two months it has been in operation, came into being to satisfy a specific demand for information by a specific sector, the business sector, but which has rapidly grown and spread to other sectors which have adopted it as their own. The other day, a colleague said to me, half joking, half seriously, “I can’t believe that there was a time when “Guiame!” didn’t exist. What on earth did I do when I couldn’t look things up on it?”

So in the forthcoming months, the process of the net coming of age will revolve around the following questions:

  • a) The realisation that it is possible to have the transmission capacity of a traditional means of communication as long as it is adapted to the needs of each individual (collective) group
  • b) The development of an information policy to achieve this
  • c) The need for training to acquire the new skills necessary to carry out the role of communicators within these systems
  • d) The design and development of new media and their insertion in the complex fabric of the Information Society
  • e) An increase in social participation through these media.

This is a challenge which will deserve a toast in the New Year.

Translation: Bridget King.