Today, let’s talk about books

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
11 July, 2017
Editorial: 113
Fecha de publicación original: 31 marzo, 1998

A silver key can open an iron door

Nicholas Negroponte is not just a technologist keen on predictions. As a character, he embodies the density of users, and the information they move in the Internet that surrounds him. To a certain extent, he is the spokesperson of a social phenomenon that has matured far enough to generate its own literature. As far as this is concerned, the US is streets ahead of us. Amongst us, books which reflect, analyse or even discuss what we could call ” the meteorology of the Net” (prognosis and prediction) are so rare as to be practically non-existent. A wander through any bookshop, whether real or virtual, testifies to our creative poverty when it comes to analysing the cartography of evolution and projection in the Net. This gap is even more resounding if we take into account that, as everybody says when they refer to the phenomenon of the nets, we are talking about the future. Despite the fact that scrutinising the entrails of such a slippery entelechy is, like chess, a game where one never knows where sport ends and science begins, the absence of this exercise amongst us demonstrates two things: either we are too busy extending the Net and so we don’t have time for metaphors, or we haven’t reached the point yet where it spontaneously emerges as a result of a certain critical mass that demands pause for reflection. I imagine that it is this duality that paralyses publishers who, apart from manuals on the subject, have as yet to include the Internet in collections on “contemporary culture”.

Over the last few months, various books by American and British authors have made their appearance in which the idea of the future is inextricably associated with the fate of the Internet. Written from different perspectives, they reflect the present polarisation brought about by cyberspace, from optimistic, depoliticised, merely technological visions, to the other extreme where computer mediated communication (CMC) inexorably leads to a stark social environment, where a relentless Darwinism, fraught with unimaginable dangers, reigns. Falling into the latter category is “Net.wars” (which can be read without leaving your computer) by Wendy Grossman (New York University Press). It is one of those rare American works in which this country does not take centre stage in the analysis but instead examines the global impact of the Net. Grossman traces the subtle lines of social communication through computer networks to show us that we are accepting and promoting very profound changes, some of which are so great that we cannot begin to imagine how they are going to affect us, and, even less so, how we will adapt to them.

Of course, the first and biggest paradox is that the Net was borne of a military project only to become an instrument that contravenes, to begin with anyway, the very essence of military organisation and objectives. But, both these elements –civil appropriation and military “original sin”– are amalgamating more and more and giving birth to hitherto unimagined environments. When we buy at a market, nobody knows where the money has come from, where it is kept and how much remains in the purse. Within the Net, on the other hand, the only means of maintaining a similar degree of privacy would involve using cryptography, which is now mixed up with arms dealing and is forbidden in various countries. Individual privacy and military intrusion are two sides of the same coin. Even though these images are not very well-defined yet, there are some corners of the Net where they have become clear enough for us to be able to make out some kind of vision of the future and the risks involved in a negligent use of the Internet.

Grossman, nevertheless, reverts to a certain American provincialism when she examines who the internauts in her analysis are. The idea of information superhighways —Al Gore‘s grandiose project– impregnates the book. The author, and perhaps she is right here, doesn’t think her compatriots will be capable of creating social structures on the Internet which will transcend the barriers of specific campaigns for (or against) a particular event in cyberspace and of evolving towards a community network of a different sort. Nevertheless, if this is not possible in the US itself (and there are many who subscribe to this point of view), this does not mean it might not happen elsewhere in the new digital territory.

It is to this new territory that Frances Cairncross devotes her book “The Death of Distance”(Orion). This journalist from The Economist is more interested, for obvious reasons, in the economic implications of the Net. As opposed to the previous book, a somewhat European perspective surfaces here in her treatment of her two basic concerns: the destiny of the State and relationships between internauts. As regards the first, Cairncross goes along with many other writers (such as Manuel Castells) in predicting the decline of the institution that emerged from the Industrial Revolution (a point on which Peter Drucker, who at 88 years of age is still earning his living by making predictions that are much more interesting and fertile than those of Negroponte, does not agree). The author bases her conclusions on the fact that the Net breaks down historical differences between big, small and medium-sized businesses, making them compete on an equal footing and putting them in a common pool of ideas: cyberspace. From this, she deduces a certain optimism: as time passes, there will be more peace and prosperity because we will be less susceptible to propaganda. A controversial point which I will return to over the next few weeks.

Finally, I would like to mention a book which almost seems to have been written just for me. Some years ago in El Periodico, there was a photocopier with which I did constant battle. Every time I tried to make a photocopy, the machine refused and made up the most extraordinary excuses for not doing so: no paper (the paper tray was full), no toner (recently filled), paper stuck (rollers clean) or, simply, the dreaded “System Error” which forced me to turn it off, turn it on, wait for it to warm up and then start the whole cycle all over again. All this witnessed by colleagues or not. The damned thing didn’t feel the least intimidated by a stupefied audience, on the contrary, it invented its most spectacular breakdowns just for these occasions. It didn’t tell me to “Go to hell” only because this command wasn’t on its liquid crystal screen. To show you that this was a question of personal hostility, if there was someone else who wanted to make photocopies at the same time, it did so without a squeak. But when I put mine down bang! the whole thing convulsed, chewed up the paper, lights went on and off and the terrifying error light blinked which I always thought was the machine’s way of telling me that, “Either you buy one of your own or you’ll have to get your great grandmother to make your photocopies”.

When I told this story to friends and acquaintances, there arose, as if by magic, a session of collective group catharsis because to a greater or lesser extent everyone had a similar experience to tell. To all of us, Rosalind Picard; who works with Negroponte, has dedicated a book called “Affective Computing” (MIT Press), in which she maintains that the future will only really have arrived when we manage to teach machines to perceive and respond to human emotions (an idea which Negroponte has mentioned on occasions in his monthly article in Wired). If that photocopier had belonged to the new generation of machines, its manufacturer would have given it feet to run away from angry users. Picard doesn’t suggest this simple evolutionary step, despite her concern about the psychological effects of connected computers when they apparently act on initiatives that nobody has created. Or, at least, that’s what they say.

Translation: Bridget King.