US genes

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
22 November, 2016
Editorial: 50
Fecha de publicación original: 17 diciembre, 1996

Date of publication: 17/12/1996. Editorial 50.

(A reply to Quim Gil 2)

Many kiss the hand they wish to cut off

“Does the USA always have to be the only point of reference on the Internet? It doesn’t seem that they are genetically and/or historically predestined to be so. Is their supremacy unavoidable? In Tokyo and Brussels, at least, they don’t seem to think so.” This was one of the questions which remained to be answered from the last issue of (Information Imperialism) in which I responded to a long article by Quim Gil (Xarxaires o enxarxats), published in the Digital Journalists’ Group list. It is, in fact, one of the hottest questions in the Net. So, since we are already on the Net I am going to answer it by limiting myself to the digital world, despite the fact that we are all aware of the fact that the true reference points lie in the real world. By examining the “little history” –however succinctly– namely that of the US on the Internet, will help us to hone our intuition and thereby analyse the role the US plays on a more general level better.

Firstly, the obvious: what we call Internet today (the word comes from Inter-networks or net of nets) began in the US where engineers, scientists, as well as academic and military institutions, together with the subordinate collaboration of technicians and universities in Great Britain, perfected the basic technology which would later become Arpa-Net. This net grew, developed and was disseminated almost exclusively in academic and research institutes in the US. During the 80’s, around the TCP-IP —Arpa-Net‘s basic communication protocol– and other communications’ protocol, a number of virtual communities emerged (the now famous BBS‘s) some of which became the first commercial on-line services, such as CompuServe. The latter’s success, for example, was based on the fact that the overwhelming majority of its content was provided by the users themselves. There have since been various imitations, the most successful being American On Line (AOL).

Meanwhile, the rest of us carried on using the telephone. A modem sounded then more like something to do with the army’s killing machine rather than a simple link to get computers to understand one another, thanks in no small part to the way it was described by computer experts in their typically popular and plain language. While the US had already begun to build and travel on the digital locomotive, the rest of us were still riding around in old analogue carriages (forgive my facile use of your facile analogy, Quim). So, it’s not really surprising that, today, out of the 173 million computers in the world, 74 million are in Clinton country.

This, for most people, makes the advantage the United States has in all areas of the Net clear enough: infrastructure and info-structure, business clout, the avalanche of content, the number of people connected, cultural prevalence, etc. Thus, its predominance in what was formerly called Arpa-Net and, after 1990, Internet, seems directly attributable to its dominant position in the complex framework of telecommunications networks, the initial fabric of which was woven by people like Vint Cerf and Larry Roberts at the beginning of the 70’s. But those who criticise the pre-eminence of the US on the Net from the demagogic standpoint of historical and biological determinism, overlook a fundamental factor. Almost invariably, they are not the sons and daughters of Internet but of the WWW, one of the information platforms within the Net. And it is precisely here that genetics and history get confusing for them.

The WWW, the driving force behind the demographic explosion on the Internet and the transitory flagship of the information society, turned two years old this month. In December 1994 (Netscape didn’t exist yet), I went to CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory, where the WWW was created and developed, for its coming-out ceremony. The official celebration, nevertheless, was really a funeral. Tim Berners-Lee, the Web’s ideologist, had already left the CERN in Switzerland for MIT in the US. Two months later, at the G7 meeting about the Information Society held in Brussels, it was decided that the WWW would be transferred to MIT where it would be managed by the W3 Consortium. What had happened? How had Brussels allowed such a thing to occur, the very same Brussels that supposedly believes that US supremacy is not an inevitability, and at a time when, coincidentally, the French were campaigning against US cultural imperialism (only in the film industry, of course)?

According to the civil servants involved in this transfer, which was confirmed by those responsible for the Web in CERN, numerous attempts were made in 1994 to create an industrial base in Europe to support the WWW. Those familiar with the system did not doubt its enormous potential for a minute, but believed it was necessary to create a nucleus of wide-ranging industrial and commercial sectors to exploit them. The first warning ( the first “defeat”) of what was to come, took place in 1993, when the first Web browser, Mosaic, was designed at the University of Illinois (one of the young people involved in the project was Marc Andreesen, who went on to create Netscape the following year). The second was a more bitter one: not one European company was prepared to take up the challenge for the EU. The Web did not interest them. Meanwhile, the W3 Consortium in US had taken corporations and bodies of all kinds under its wing. The balance tilted definitively in MIT‘s favour, which threatened to carry on alone if all the Europeans could do was sit around and twiddle their thumbs. The aforementioned meeting in Brussels, attended by Al Gore, sealed the fate of the new system. To avoid further disaster and save face, the EU chose INRIA, a public institution, as its European partner in the W3. Although an excellent research centre, they were hardly a match for MIT.

Up to the present moment, it is these beginnings which seem to have marked the development of the Web, and, to a large extent, the activities of its inhabitants. All the novelties that have appeared over the last few years in the WWW have come almost exclusively from the US. Its technological supremacy, whether hardware (satellites, cable, etc.) or content (software, programmes, info-structure, the speed of innovation, etc.) is astounding at the moment. And I am not referring just to the Internet here, but to the vast gamut of things associated with the digital society, everything from defence to finance capital, industry, leisure or whatever: the nets, over there (and therefore here, through them) are omnipresent. The only truly novel European contribution to the WWW, comes, curiously enough, from a Spanish multimedia company. OLR Software has created NetFun, a kind of screen cover which exposes only the useful part of the screen where the browser shows information. The entire frame around this turns into a multimedia fiesta, where lots of things happen: stories unfold, goods and services are advertised, information is delivered, games install themselves, all full of music and animation. NetFun could become the springboard for getting the advertising industry to deliver their products to the users or for sending useful information in real time while they wait for the web page they have requested. It is an ingenious new mechanism with vast possibilities. One of those products which make us swell with pride at what we attribute to our “Mediterranean creativity” and make us believe that we are the best. But OLR Software has had to come to agreements (which were sealed at digital speed) with US companies in order to commercialise their product. Brussels, as usual, washed its hands of them. In exchange for supporting the project, they demanded industrial secrets to be revealed to other possible European partners, obligatory participation of centres and companies from other countries, application forms sent on agreed dates and, logically enough, a 25 cent stamp. Meanwhile, Netscape and Microsoft were knocking on their door because they were working on a similar project and suspected that these four crazies in Barcelona ( you know that I say this with affection, Oscar) had already got there. This is obviously not a question of genetics. They, the US, were not born with an extra, digital chromosome. It is we who are missing something. Perhaps we are lacking the gene that connects our “congenital” creativity to our industrial vision of the world.

As far as Spain is concerned, it is clear that at this juncture our main weapon should be our language. Language as an industrial resource capable of channelling our traditional inventiveness into content and supported by commercial structures which guarantee its continuity and growth. This is, today, our great weakness. Industry (whether goods or services, with exceptions in the financial sector), has not been characterised in our country for its ability to take on the risks involved in technological innovation and, as a result, the investment that goes with it. We are lacking the social fabric to prop up the upsurge in powerful and sustainable initiatives. Nevertheless, we find ourselves at a historical moment in time where this weakness is all the more evident and, at the same time, where the circumstances present us with the real possibility of turning over a new page. The telecommunications sector in Spain is growing at an annual rate of 5% (double that of the economy) and predictions are that this will be maintained over the next five years. At the heart of this phenomenal upsurge, which is the driving force behind the economy, lies information technology. Will companies emerge that have the necessary audacity to invest in the development of content based in our social reality? Will we be capable of building the necessary local internets –whether they be VilaWebs, new areas of commercial transaction, information brokers, markets specifically designed to meet supply and demand, leisure activities and entertainment, etc.– to create a solid industrial fabric capable of resisting the inevitable challenges which will come sooner or later from the US? What we have at the moment is patently insufficient.

At the W3‘s recent meeting in Seville, where the subject under discussion was precisely multilingualism on the Net, there were hardly any Spaniards and very few Europeans, most of those attending were from the US. And they, that is the North Americans, do not have a problem with multilingualism on the Net, but with multilingualism in the markets on the Net. In May last year, American On Line offered me the job as editor in Spain of the service they were launching in Spanish: Hispanic On Line. Fortunately, at that moment they had already bitten off more than they could chew and the project never reached the scale they had aspired to; instead they simply launched a few products for the Hispanic market in the US. Nevertheless, the idea of beginning to translate and develop content in Spanish for distribution in Spain and Latin America is a project of strategic priority in the company. Various other giants of this kind would be prepared to follow suit (we are already seeing some examples of this on the Web). And, although we can always console ourselves with the idea that there are gaps which they will never be able to fill because we know more about them, the economic scales will have tipped in the same direction as always.

That’s why I find the plans for certain journalistic initiatives, which copy or reproduce the model of “cultural, technological and economic power of the US”, however much they might be garnished with Mediterranean ingredients and four vague demagogic promises of Brussels’ support, trivial. Unless consolidated multimedia groups of sufficient size take on this policy, the new companies on the Net ( the new journalists) will have to work very hard to find innovative products taking into account, above all, local development on the Net and the kind of social change that will take place on every level around them: from the industrial to the personal, from the production of new goods and services to the reorganisation of businesses as a result of the new communications model. Perhaps, along the way, we will discover that we have some beautiful genes to do these things, apart from the ones that come on the label: taking pleasure in the good things of life, good wine, good food and making love with nothing but the blue sky above. What a pity that labels are increasingly becoming mere advertising messages.

Translation: Bridget King