The Network Nobody Asked For (*)

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
15 January, 2019
Editorial: 273
Fecha de publicación original: 26 junio, 2001

Don’t boast about your gains; don’t remember your losses

The air is still redolent with the aftermath of protests against the suspended World Bank meeting which was to be held in Barcelona and we have once again been enveloped in the rhetoric of the so-called anti-globalisation movement. As I have said before, some of the issues which fall under this broad umbrella are genuinely connected to this process but there are others, with their roots in the past, that have nothing to do with it at all and only serve to add more confusion to the debate. I have a sneaking suspicion that it is going to take us quite a long time yet to agree on what we understand by globalisation, choose the kind of action we want to take and decide where we each stand on all the issues that are bundled together willy-nilly in this same “we will overcome” package.

In the case of journalism, the profession has been through several phases, each with its own particular characteristics. Now, given big company mergers and the formation of media conglomerates which brought media companies and telecommunications operators together, the only way to explain this wild mishmash of companies and figures is, of course, globalisation. Nevertheless, it seems to me that however traumatic these tendencies may be, what we are really experiencing is the bubbling over of a series of events that first came to the fores a long time ago, above all, in the 70s, and which, what is more, had very little to do with the aforementioned globalisation. Events driven by their own logic which began to converge with the arrival of the Internet, sometimes even aided and abetted by it, but which only make the debate even more fuzzy.

Although in an article like this it would be impossible to examine these tendencies in sufficient depth, I am going to try to highlight some of their most outstanding features:

* Microelectronics put their foot in the door.
In the 70s, the media’s traditional production system then based on the typewriter and the block printing press made of lead, was replaced by microelectronics, above all in the most important newspapers in the western world. Resistance to these changes was fierce. Epic battles were fought in Fleet Street, on the New York Times, The Washington Post and many other papers. Some papers were shut down and strikes often ended up with attacks on printing workshops. When the dust settled, the landscape had changed dramatically. Besides the most obvious alterations within newsrooms and printing workshops, a new system for processing, storing and distributing information, cheap considering all it could do and ubiquitous in its functions, had been introduced.

*The only life that exists is life in the media.
From the mid-seventies onwards and, above all, in the eighties, the idea that “only things that make it into the press really exist” became all the rage. Everyone who was anyone wanted to get into the media and this meant that each individual, collective, company, organisation, administration, etc., with a mission in this world, had to have their own communications department, their own corporate information body. In just a few years, the number of information sources whose aim was “getting into” the media multiplied exponentially. The battle for space (and attention time) started to become an organisational factor within media content.

* The attack era (from the mid-eighties onwards).
A constant increase in information broadcasters or producers meant, in reality, a constant increase in the volume and importance of corporate information. Audience ratings and advertising hotted up this process generating multiple strategic alliances between the media and other bodies (political, commercial, economic, cultural, spiritual, religious, state) which went beyond mere ideological affinities. At the same time, the drive for maintaining audience ratings (and finding the balance between information space and attention time) unleashed an incessant whirl of activity based on P&P (Promotion and Publicity). P&P, not in the traditional sense of making money via advertising and promotion, but as an activity intrinsic to the media themselves: corporate information about the media themselves all of a sudden became front page news. The cycle which started in the seventies thus coming to a close to a certain extent.

* The globalisation that nobody asked for.
In 1969, without anybody requesting it, nor capitalism demanding it (because, in fact, it didn’t need it), and without its authors even beginning to imagine the consequences of what they were up to, globalisation hit the scene. The first trial run of four connected computers at their respective universities in the US created a new space, a virtual space. Its characteristics were defined by the technicians and engineers who had designed it as an “Open Architecture Network”. It could have been designed any other way, with other traits. But, as fate would have it, for reasons connected with the project (and the moment) they wanted it this way.

So, what were the characteristics of this OAN?

a) The content was provided by the users themselves.

b) access was universal: everyone would be able to see what was on the network.

c) access would be simultaneous: everyone would be able to see everyone else, even if they were not connected at the same time.

d) access would not depend on distance, or time, as long as the user could log on to a computer within the network.

e) the network would grow in a decentralised way by simply adding computers (servers).

f) the network would grow in a non-hierarchical way, in other words no computer would have any say over how another worked.

The last two decisions were really surprising when one considers that the project was backed by possibly one of the most centralised and hierachical organisations the world has produced in a long time: the US Ministry of Defence. So, this virtual space, had one extraordinary feature: users did not have to move from where they were in order to process, store or distribute information. Instead they did it immediately in all virtual space, and this was visible to everyone else. In other words, they acted locally in a global environment. This, in turn, depended for its development on what we call the PIG formula: Participation, Interaction and Growth (of information and knowledge based on the former two). But there was more to come because, shortly afterwards, e-mail was added to the system.

Basically nothing has changed since then, from the time that the network was made up of just four computers to now when there are more than 80 million. From when there were just 14 users to now that there are more than 400 million. In principle, personal peculiarities notwithstanding, all users on the network have a voice, can introduce themselves, relate to one another and act. In other words, without anybody requesting it, suddenly in one of society’s most restricted zones (the US military and US research centres) a new communications model developed which was decentralised, horizontal, multi-centred and based on the activities of the users themselves. And all this within a global environment, without anyone having to move from their homes (or desks at work).

At the beginning of the 90s, when the Ministry of Defence and the National Science Foundation (NSF) decided to withdraw their investment in that network (then called ArpaNet), it began the process of interconnecting all the networks, based on ArpaNet’s communications protocol –TCP/IP–, which had flourished during the 80s: ArpaNet, CompuServe, AOL, APC, Prodigy, academic and community networks, “free-nets”, etc.. And so the Internet was born (Inter-networks, between-networks). No-one had asked for it. No-one. Least of all the World Bank, the large capitalist centres or the planning departments of transnationals. But the effect on all of them and on all of us has been tremendous. And that is the history of the last 6 years.

Audiences multiplied, 80s alliances became concrete mergers, and media frontiers began to manifest two poles which became more and more clearly defined. On the one hand, there were the large conglomerates with their traditional interests who were not quite sure how to take advantage of this thing called globalisation apart from trying to invade every space they were offered which gave off a whiff of money-making possibilities. On the other, the voices of millions of people who until then had been passively at the mercy of the industrial communications model. Millions of people who could suddenly raise their voices together, establish new relationships, open new frontiers and explore the possibilities of virtual relationships. Millions of people who started to feel that, thanks to a technological construction so special that it gave rise to a “glocal” (global/local) space, they could promote globalisation, demand to be heard, transmit information and knowledge, even build a new “status quo”.

Between these two poles there still lies a vast distance. Where before there was just one type of information, oscillating between the general and the very specialised, now many new shades and tones have appeared, segmented by the personal perspective, which the traditional communications model could not address. What it really means is the rise of a new capacity for being able to express demands that the old model could not allow being as it was structured from top to bottom, hierarchical and orientated towards supply.

The confrontation we are experiencing is formidable. On the surface we can basically just see the sparks flying from the clash between the big conglomerates, on the one hand, who are afraid of globalisation because it involves listening to people and acting on what they hear. This is the reason why, despite certain changes in their rhetoric, their flight into the future is precisely anti-globalisation: I will continue to tell the rest of the world what is best for them (cf.:the World Bank). While on the other hand, there are networks custom-made to fit the needs of individuals, collectives, social movements, companies and organisations that develop interrogation system to listen to, express and satisfy demands. This is really the hardcore of the globalisation movement and the driving force behind the information society’s new communications model.

(*) This text formed the basis of a talk I gave on Journalism and Globalisation in the Centro de Cultura Contemporánea de Barcelona on the 25/6/01. The event was organised by the Sindicato de Periodistas de Catalunya (Catalan Journalists’ Trade Union). Also participating were sociologist Manuel Castells and Alfredo Maia, president of the Sindicato dos Journalistas de Portugal (The Portuguese Journalists’ Trade Union).

Translation: Bridget King