The Networks of Life

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
26 November, 2018
Editorial: 258
Fecha de publicación original: 13 marzo, 2001

What you don’t know, you shouldn’t say

According to the media, the Stock Market and the big banks, the New Economy is going down the drain fast, but it is, nonetheless, a fascinating spectacle. Dot.coms are tumbling down like autumn leaves, some of them the very symbols of the euphoria we have experienced over the last couple of years. The upsurge in portals, in e-commerce between companies (B2B,) directed at individuals and in multi-million projects aimed at the virtual world, is faltering and sweeping enormous investment away with it. Businessmen who were once convinced that the world was their oyster (Emilio Botín, president of the Banco de Santander Central Hispano, forecast a year ago that they were “going to clean up the Net” and spent thousands of millions of pesetas on buying up the portal Patagon), are now lighting candles and uttering challenging cries of revenge such as “We’ll be back” . We are going through a period (how many days constitute an era in the Internet age?) when it seems that a substantial part of the world’s economy is collapsing. So, how much of all this is true? Let’s have a look behind what many of us have considered to be a smokescreen for a long time anyway.

Yahoo! is in trouble and taking a nose dive and it is this image that is becoming symbolic of the debacle. If Yahoo! goes, what are we left with? Is there anyone out there to protect us from the fury of the storm, this almost perfect storm? Well, luckily, if, in this vast darkness that has been forecast with markets crashing and the big banking corporations abandoning the Net, we turn on just a tiny torch, we can get a glimpse of the whoppers we are being told. For the second time in almost a year, someone has been cleaning up surplus finances on the Nasdaq and Wall Street and pocketing the savings of millions of people with impunity, in broad daylight and with malice aforethought. There’s a deadpan expression on the face of the New Economy.

Meanwhile, despite what the media says, money continues to flow into the Internet, more cautiously, as is only natural, but unceasingly nevertheless. User population figures continue to soar all over the world. The overkill so many have been predicting lately is not manifest in internaut figures. In short, things have not gone the way they were expected to. Internauts, determined as they are, have not behaved in the manner predicted by business school gurus.

The Net has once again completely confounded the paradigms of an informed elite who always think they know what’s best for us. Over the last few years, as we’ve said on more than one occasion, that part of the New Economy that gets the most publicity is only one part of what many online companies have to offer, and it makes no serious attempt to take advantage of the opportunities the Net has to offer for questioning and interacting with internauts or detecting existing market trends that are little, or not heard of at all (see, for instance, the editorial “The Critical Mass of Experience” 19/12/00). In the shadow of a veritable “haemorrhage of offers”, the most successful projects were bought up (success being measured by the number of visits to a site) without taking a careful look at where the public’s real “preferences” lay.

So people rambled on about the power of “customised” advertising, content architects appeared and norms for user-friendliness were established which guaranteed the economic well-being of the projects concerned. Despite this, in the same way as millions of people, collectives, companies and institutions made web pages that said “here I am, look at me!”, millions of dollars were spent on promoting e-commerce based on the same principle, “Here I am, look at me, and while you’re here buy something from me”. But, the novelty has worn thin. The novelty, and let’s be honest, the irresponsibility of those that should have known better and gambled less frivolously with other people’s financial resources. But, since nobody asked them to justify what they were up to, the bed of roses seemed possible.

So, we have seen and read about portals, shopping centres, stores and other projects designed on the basis of intricate webs, resistant to user participation, with pre-established content drawn up by huge news staffs to satisfy the supposed needs of internauts. These bottomless pits swallowed vast sums although today, despite the thousands of millions of web pages stored on Internet servers (see Inktomi data), more than 70% of information on the Net is still distributed via e-mail. So which Internet is dying or disappearing then?

justifyp style=”text-align: left;”>In the meantime, there are some cadavers that still look healthy enough. And if this is not the case, why are European governments and the US so concerned about the lack of technicians going into new technology? If we really don’t want to make the same mistakes again, the ones we face on the economy pages of the newspaper over breakfast, however, then it would be a good idea to seriously look into the question of where this above-mentioned deficit lies exactly. Up until now, from what we hear, there is a need for more engineers, computer technicians and more telecommunications experts etc. And, at the same time, grandiloquent programmes are launched –which still raise considerable financial support– for the promotion of digital education, virtual public administration, online health projects, etc. In order for these projects to work, three things are needed, for a start: more Net capillarity so that information reaches those interested; companies and organisations capable of finding out what social demand there is without getting lost in their desire to improve that which they know nothing about, and finally there must be a huge effort to advance digital literacy so that the opportunities the Net has to offer can be taken advantage of.

The question is where are these literacy teachers? Where are the programmes to fulfill these urgent and essential objectives? Are these the information technicians that the government is looking for? It seems to me that the answer is, obviously, no. Stretching out in front of the opportunities that the Net affords to do things differently, of weaving a social fabric that will uphold new economic activity, and taking advantage of the combined talent of people and the Internet’s potential, there is a turbulent cultural ocean which does not necessarily call for mere technological solutions.

It is true that it is easier to say that one is “for the technological revolution” than to understand what putting a real portion of one’s life into the Net actually means. And if the latter does not occur then the Information Society will take much longer to lift off, particularly for those societies that don’t develop the means to do this, both on a political as well as economic, social, educational and cultural level.

To achieve this aim, Net projects are needed which:

— Increase user participation in areas that interest them, so that they can obtain the information and knowledge they consider relevant to them. This means designing interrogation systems that detect trends in demands and don’t just go for vertically-based, instrumentalised offers. These interrogation systems should combine debate techniques, information retrieval technology and the reworking of this knowledge base contributed by the users themselves.

— Promote interaction. This means that these systems should involve all sectors interested in furthering and obtaining information considered relevant to them. The large portals have equated interactivity with supplying loads of services, many of which are indeed useful, but which do not encourage user participation beyond the level of chats or forums “with their own historical memory”.

— Stimulate the growth of a collective knowledge base. In the end, the success of any information and knowledge economy will depend on this. If internauts, on a personal, collective, business or institutional etc. basis, do not perceive that the considerable portion of their lives they invest in the Net is contributing to their own growth, then it means that we are offering them a world they do not feel part of.

One only has to examine the areas to which user activity is shifting as their relationship with the Net matures. Where they are unable to exercise their talents, knowledge or relationships with other users, their opinions are devastating. “I can’t find the information I am interested in; I waste my time looking for things and people I need; there are no answers to my problems”. Out there somewhere, however, there are people with this information and solutions. But we haven’t yet developed the systems that allow them to come together in common virtual spaces. This is the challenge and to face it we need digital communicators, online knowledge managers, designers of interactive online information systems, in short, the type of professional profile that we have hardly even heard mentioned yet. As a friend of mine, a wise old anarchist, says, “there’s still a lot of work to be done”.

Translation: Bridget King