The loneliness of the citizen in search of in-depth information

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
12 December, 2016
Editorial: 55
Fecha de publicación original: 21 enero, 1997

Date of publication: 21/1/1997. Editorial 55.

Closed book imparts no wisdom

An interesting debate called “Barcelona: A Sustainable, Vital, Healthy City” was held here last week. It was organised by the Civic Forum for a Sustainable Barcelona, an umbrella organisation in the making which has brought together a wide range of the city’s social collectives interested in finding out whether our city is getting any closer to the principles of environmental sustainability or not. In order to come to any conclusion on such a complex matter (and one which goes so much against the official line), tools are needed for measuring a series of parameters to draw up some kind of image of how the city, its citizens, and its services work, and a résumé of our expectations as regards the serious environmental problems that we are inflicting on our planet.

Those who attended the meeting took it for granted that present statistics, which the authorities use to justify the beautifying, improvement and constant progress of the city, are either insufficient for getting to grips with the idea of what a sustainable Barcelona is, or that they are not viewed with that objective in mind. As a result, a number of different social sectors have started discussions to draw up a number of “indicators for sustainability”, the criteria which will allow us to measure more accurately up to what point we are contributing to the barbarity suffered by the planet and how we can change this state of affairs.

The commitment of the 150 people who attended the debate was beyond doubt: they stoically sat through an all-day conference, from 10 in the morning to 7.30 in the evening, with only a short break for lunch, bums steadfastly on seats, despite the fact that it was so cold in the hall that our feet froze. Yet, what really froze our spirits was the confirmation of what we already knew beforehand, the vast implications of which seem to belong to the realm of the imagination until the tough moment when one is forced to face crude reality: how truly alone citizens are when in search of in-depth information. Obtaining the necessary data to draw up the renowned indicators is going to be a mammoth task, or, in some cases, practically impossible. One by one areas of daily, urban life were examined and it became clear that either there was no information on them, or if it did exist it was not available, or if it was available there was no way of getting hold of it.

Barcelona, for example, has no reliable data on poverty as related to its different areas or sectors, nor statistics on suicides, a spectacular omission if one is trying to paint a picture of the “mental” health of the city. Finding out about the structure of domestic units, which would enable one to have some kind of advanced vision of how nuclear families are changing and how this affects individuals and their expectations (not to mention their consumer habits) revealed itself as a Utopian task for anyone who wished to take it on. And so it went on, all through the day, as more and more gaps emerged only serving to highlight this years’ arduous agenda.

We are not talking about esoteric, strategic or classified information here. We are talking about data on daily-life which should be readily available to citizens from various sources. Inevitably the debate sometimes focussed on the right to information and the duty of the Administration to gather and make it accessible to its citizens. We are blatantly deficient in this regard, even more so since, with a great song and dance, we are now entering the Information Society, according to our most qualified representatives of the powers that be. Xavier Trias, Minister of the Presidency in the Generalitat de Catalunya, wrote an interesting article, published in the newspaper Avui on 9/1/97, called “Catalunya davant la technologia de la informació” (Catalonia Takes On Information Technology). In it, this important local government figure, reflected on the social and commercial possibilities which this technology has to offer. Although his comments were an attempt to view the situation from the standpoint of the peculiarities of “a minority culture such as ours, given the number of citizens which make it up”, in fact, it did not deviate one bit from those formulated by other public administrations, whether European, national or from other regional governing bodies. Firstly, he lamented the fact that English remains the dominant language in Internet. Then, he pointed out the attractions of being on the Internet: “The Information Society can help us to become known and increase our presence in the remotest corners of the planet. We need to make ourselves known as a collective with our own unique character, but also as a country advanced in new technologies.”

All this is perfectly legitimate (not least because, in addition, this time it is true), but what about us, those that live here? We don’t need the government to become known, we need the government to help us get to know our country through the information it holds and by stimulating research into that which it doesn’t yet have, and by putting this at the disposal of its citizens in a simple, direct and inexpensive way, for example through the Internet. Shouldn’t we be the principal objective – or at least be rated on the same level– as the other corners of the world? Minister Trias‘ words will be mentioned today by a multitude of politicians, high-ranking government officials and civil servants with huge budgets depending on their signatures. The Internet certainly affords them the chance to become known. However, this does not mean that they are building the Information Society, but rather their Information Society. His justifiable complaint about the predominance of English cannot be diluted merely by a remote control propaganda exercise. The hegemony of English on the Net is based, among other things, on the vast accumulation of available information which can be used to maintain pressure on the authorities and their policies when the situation demands it (whether they do so or not is another matter). The terrible deficit of Spanish, Catalan or any other language we might wish to add to this list, is precisely this: the lack of content, the existence of which is fundamental for operating within the perspective of the Information Society. The Minister refers to the efforts of the European Union to “achieve a cultural presence of some kind to reflect the diversity of its citizens and the different nations which make it up”. Language is one of the manifestations of that diversity. Public administration shares, along with many other sectors, the responsibility of maintaining, supporting and turning it into an industrial asset on the Net. I get the impression that this cannot be achieved by mere exercises in digital officialdom which will only make internauts flee from such information. We can all see the mote of English in the eye of our neighbour, but now is the time to take the beam out of ours.

Translation: Bridget King.