The toy is ours

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
25 April, 2017
Editorial: 91
Fecha de publicación original: 28 octubre, 1997

No invention, good or bad, is the work of one person

So, we have been allowed to enjoy ourselves for a while, but any time now they’re going to snatch our toy away from us. From us all, because in no time it will be in the hands of the rich and powerful alone. And us ordinary internauts will be left empty-handed or, at most, able to play in the little bits of cyberspace left over for us by the big corporations. Lately, this has been the message, with a few subtle differences, that we have been getting from various think tanks regarding the possible future of Internet and the Information Society. Conspiracy theories, so widespread in the real world, about the “real aims of Internet” or claiming that “it’s impossible that something so wonderful can possibly belong to all of us, especially if it was invented by the US military”, seem to be gaining ground among people in prestigious think tanks who should know better. The latest of these, and one which exercises great influence on governments, corporations and intellectuals, is the Club of Rome. Its recent annual general meeting in Washington was devoted to the Global Information Society. The final report draft was defended by Juan Luis Cebrián, member of the board of the Spanish publishing group PRISA.

Cebrián, who used to be editor of the Madrid-based newspaper El Pais, argued that the risk of the Global Information Society ending up in the hands of a few monopolies and oligopolies is real, particularly because US companies could create transnational corporations capable of imposing themselves on national government and which, in order to defend themselves, would exercise an autocratic power on their own companies and citizens (this smells of an analysis closer to present home events than a real look at what the future holds in store). In the European Union this message also abounds, although tinged by vernacular colour: in the land of telecommunications monopolies, of public telephone corporations, we have been warned about alliances between these giants — now public, semi-public, de-regulated, private, established and emerging — which could bring the freedom which Internet has enjoyed so far to an end.

According to experts on different European commissions studying the evolution of the Net, the possibility of creating closed and vertically controlled networks is drawing nearer. Above all, now that electronic commerce is moving like a medusa through cyberspace. Well, before I go any further, let me say that I simply do not share their point of view. Which is not to say that I rule out the possibility that the temptation of creating a digital ghetto exists in big transnational corporations. In fact, experience has taught us that tendencies of this kind are firmly imprinted on the genetic codes of these companies. Nevertheless, it is not clear that this kind of genome is the most suited to an emerging Information Society.

The message from the Club of Rome and European experts seems to draw some comparison between Internet and the telephone networks that we already know. However, even then, the message is, at the least, confused. Wherever the resources have existed, such as in developed countries, for example, the telephone has reached almost everybody, despite the fact that telephones can be subversive (Mr Hoover is a living (now dead) testimony to the fact that a whole lot of telephones can turn anyone with an ounce of power into a heavy-weight paranoid). This tendency has not been any different even in autocratic and dictatorial regimes such as Pinochet’s Chile or the China of two (or three or four) nations. The reason is simple: the business of telephone companies has not been to prevent people getting telephones (although on occasions we might have felt that way), quite the contrary, in fact.

The Internet case is similar, though not the same. There is a substantial difference between the data network we use to communicate with one another and the telephone network. The telephone business is there to transport voice as its name implies. Voice goes in one end and out the other. Nothing remains in the system (not even for the “buggers” on duty eavesdropping conversations: either they record them immediately or they are gone for good). The same occurs when we send a fax. What makes the telephone networks rich is the density of connections and the traffic that flows through the lines from one point to another. On the Internet, however, the objective is not to send information from one end to the other, but to store it on the Net in any of the 20 million computers that today make up its nucleus (there were 9,5 million in ’95 and 5 million in ’94). Internet gets richer the greater the volume of information stored within these computers. In other words, its value depends on the number of users who contribute to this library, and consequently, interact with it (i.e. with other users). The volume of information within the Net and interaction are the two factors that justify its existence. Otherwise, no-one would give a damn about it.

As a result, any ideas of “closing off” the Net goes against its very operation and the business of those that live off it. The more people there are connected, the more information is stored in it and the more possibilities there are to do things with that information, and that includes electronic commerce. The idea that corporations might “close off” the Internet would be like opening a gigantic shopping mall in the centre of the city which only some people with special passes, that are never distributed, have access to.

Talk of attempts by centres of power to control the Internet –and we need to define this in much more concrete terms– and their possible success ( Microsoft’s attempts to monopolise the Internet, for example, should be studied seriously: it has already failed on more occasions than the CIA in its attempts to kill Fidel Castro— perhaps those same agents are Gates’ advisers now, who knows) forget that it is the users themselves who have enriched the Internet and made it what it is, the backbone (for the moment, anyway) of the Information Society. It wasn’t the corporations –big or small– nor the media landlords. Were this not so, it would be hard to understand how half a million Afro-American women congregated in Philadelphia this weekend without having promoted the event publicly: the word spread by word of mouth and, fundamentally, by the Internet. I didn’t see any mention of this demonstration in the New York Times the week before, or in Microsoft’s beautiful web or on CNN.

Closing off the Internet, reducing its content significantly, mutilating its interactivity and at the same time maintaining present enormous interest in it, would, it seems to me, be a magician’s trick worthy not only of the big centres of power but of the Great Houdini and Claudia Schiffer‘s boyfriend put together. If the world was the same one that led us into the Cold War, that famous conspiratorial statement that “there must be someone behind the Internet and in the end they will do what they please with us” would make sense (not the same as common sense). But, the world is not the same, nor are those behind it, nor could they do much if they did not negotiate with the hundreds of thousands of users –60 million to date– swarming around the Internet. Negotiations that aren’t, of course, internaut to internaut, but with multi-faceted citizens who have more and more resources at their disposal to press their demands home. That is why they live in a Net-world: connected, interconnected and interactive.

​Translation: Bridget King​.