The street is not enough

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
15 August, 2017
Editorial: 123
Fecha de publicación original: 9 junio, 1998

Good at Latin, but bad at English means study time wasted

William Gibson is attributed with a saying older than those of Hamlet’s ghost: “The street finds its own use for things” This truism perhaps best fits the Internet. Especially when the WWW unravelled the labyrinth that led to one of the most suitable and protected areas for science and research in the Western World. Three years later, we live in street that resembles the turmoil of Christmas Eve. The Net, drawn up by telecommunications engineers working for the military, exploited by scientists and technologists and taken over by every Tom, Dick and Harry in every corner of the neighbourhood, has generated such a jumble of experiences and knowledge that it has upset all these sectors from engineering and the exact sciences, to human sciences and numerous professional activities. And all this without new spaces where there can be systematic reflection about this coming together and its future projection within the Information Society. As Maig ’98: I International Congress of Electronic Publication, held in Barcelona last month, made patently clear, higher education and research institutions, both in Spain and in Latin America (and from what some European speakers had to say, the situation is not very different in the EU), have not yet fully opened their doors to the winds of change so they can do their job of preparing for the future, a future which is already here, where we will live with one foot in cyberspace and the other tele-transported heaven knows where.

To the complaint that in the Internet there is so much information that it is difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff, the only answer is that our challenge is the designing of systems for the organisation of information, systems capable of helping users to understand their own environment. This is a task which requires not only the ingenuity and intuition of those in the street, but a combination of disciplines, methodologies and systems that create the conditions for fulfilling it. And, this does not mean just learning to “select information”, but also understanding today’s world, discovering its most profound interconnections and preparing ourselves for the job of working with the multiple interrelations that make this a complex and dynamic system.

If we take a look at universities and research centres, it is immediately clear that the needs of the Information Society are not being met in their teaching programmes and research. One of the reasons for this might be that the most characteristic forms of these changes (the Internet, interactivity, new knowledge distribution and organisation systems, modifications in job descriptions) have burst onto the scene so suddenly that they have been caught off guard. After all, the WWW wasn’t on anybody’s agenda and even less so the repercussions of its rapid incursion into different areas of knowledge. Nevertheless, I suspect that there are more profound reasons than sheer surprise to explain the present imbalance.

Our universities and technological institutes, both on the education side as well as research, are organised along disciplinary lines within clearly demarcated territory. Each has generated its own school, culture, rites and, of course, masters and disciples. This is not all the result of a perverted design, although it might have had its perversions. Our systems for the evaluation of academic excellence are closely related to these disciplines. The entire network of departments, degrees, professional associations, etc., is based on these systems. And, they start to squeal when they feel they are being attacked from the “outside” (the street) and their very foundations begin to make less sense. Initial reactions to battering from without tend to be “ad-hoc” solutions. This is the case of Masters degrees, a kind of scapegoat for cutting across a tangle of disciplines and creating the illusion that they are answering a real demand. But there’s mud on their shoes: the research which should sustain them is called interdisciplinary but, in fact, it seldom seriously foments efforts at cooperation between different knowledge areas (and representatives). The results, therefore, are too often reduced to a kind of charlatanism which is backed up by a degree which only makes the horizon even more hazy.

The solution must meet the standards of the proclaimed complexity of the world we live in. The Information Society has opened the floodgates of knowledge and has poured some of it straight into the street, and the street is using it. In the field of journalism and communication, to name one of the most prominent areas in cyberspace, we have been witness to the sudden appearance of new actors almost overnight, such as telecommunications engineers (of software and hardware) who have started to come across communicators, historians, anthropologists, business people, researchers, etc., in their daily life and negotiate, define and design new digital information systems. In fact, they very quickly realise that they have to redefine their own areas of knowledge and the meaning of the term multi-disciplinary, to focus on and integrate knowledge in the Information era and in order to make it accessible for dissemination (in the street, of course) . During sessions at Maig ’98, we saw how students, professionals from all fields and researchers, actively participated in debates which should, in many cases, already have taken place in university classrooms. They listened to people whose knowledge and experience they had possibly never imagined might enter those classrooms. I think it is this rigid mindset that we must break.

This is, to a certain extent, the idea behind the European centre for digital communication and electronic publication that we are drawing up in response to conclusions from the Congress itself. Its objective is to overcome the rigid compartmentalisation of knowledge, bring together the efforts of departments and centres at different universities, attract teachers and researchers to collaborate in them with other specialists from different fields and link together three fundamental things: research, training and the transfer of results from both these phases into the creation and orientation of information and knowledge companies. Catalonia has both the human and educational resources to take on this task. It has an abundant and very active internaut population which could play a pioneering role in shaping, through a centre of this kind –European and open to cooperation with Latin America– the nature of future institutions of the Information Society for the development of the field of new media and electronic publications.

Creating this institution will give rise to very interesting challenges. Participating institutions (universities, administration, professional associations, businesses) will have to refrain from their natural impulses to rely on cobbling together fragments of the Information Society and instead mount it as though it were their own unique space. A centre of this kind will require much cooperation between universities, research institutes and experts from a wide range of subjects (from History and Anthropology, to Engineering and Computer Science, through Education, Social Psychology, Demography, Ecology, Biology, Social Communication, Business Studies, and Economics). Operating in cyberspace via these electronic publications and through these information and knowledge platforms, will demand a serious effort at synthesis from all those involved in order to unravel the most discreet but crucial connections, and not just the most obvious ones, of a world that is caught up in a net of uncertain behaviour and not necessarily very bright projections. The institution capable of this does not yet exist. Nevertheless, we can continue thinking about what it will be like and how to construct it.

Translation: Bridget King.