I’ve just left an interesting discussion that I had over the phone with a couple of other people who were also guests on a radio show on Radio Malta. Andrew Azzopardi had invited me to phone in on his popular programme “Ghandi x’Nghid” (“I’ve got something to say”) and the subject was the Internet. Thanks to the marvels of technology (the one attributed to Alexander Graham Bell and not the one credited to Tim Berners Lee), I was able to join the Saturday morning chat show from the comfort of my living room in the company of a double-espresso and the marvellous view of snow-sprinkled Rue de Bragance.
It turns out that Andrew’s show on Radio Malta is a very popular corner of the radio listening world with an average listenership of around 12,000. I must confess that I do not often tune in to radios notwithstanding the possibilities that are available for streaming in the digital world; on the other hand I do like to look up a podcast or two that can be played back at one’s convenience without the restrictions of having to get out of bed early on a weekend. Andrew’s programme is not yet available as a podcast or as an archived stream – which is a pity because I am sure it would add to its current listener base of the early Saturday birds.
Back to the programme. We spoke about the “Internet” and, as with all programmes that tackle a behemoth of a subject such as the net, it was impossible to condense all the thoughts of the various guests into the hour or so that was available. I find it intriguing that discussions about the net will inevitably follow a trail that leads to discussions on “power” and “control”. It makes you wonder whether post-promethean homo sapiens discussed the pros and cons of the flame and fire in much the same way. Promoters of “Hey, it’s brill when applied carefully to the mammoth steak” would join “I love the way I can find my way through the forest at night” in arguing with “Did you see how Ugg went up in smoke the moment he got too close to the shiny thing?” on the benefits and drawbacks of Prometheus’s stolen gift.
Thankfully, Tim Berners Lee was never bound to a rock and no eagle was ordered to repeatedly tear out his liver as a punishment for discovering the Internet. Nor for that matter will Mark Zuckerberg ever turn into flowers while gazing at his immense genius mirrored in a stream. The discussion on the power and control of the new medium that embraces a myriad possibilities will rage on however. There will always be those who want to police the web in order to guarantee safety and those who feel more comfortable sticking two fingers up at the boys in blue and who have more faith in society’s ability to regulate itself.
Upon reflection, if we were to ask the Pythonesque question “What has the Internet done for us?” we might attempt a sort of reply. While every development in communication has in some way “empowered” homo sapiens (from writing to the book to the radio to the TV), Internet brings three important “improvements” (not always innovations) and these are Immediacy, Accessibility and Interaction (thanks Liz Groves of Island Books for the real-time grammatical tip). It’s quick, it’s open to all and, even more than any of its predecessors as a medium, it is heavily interactive.
So where does power come into it? Well it’s all about Adam, Eve and the apple in the end (credit to mother for the inspiration). Because while all this immediate, accessible and interactive exchange is going on, the primary bit of currency being traded in this global network is the one that is at the origin of every primordial story in every culture: knowledge… “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed”. And what is knowledge, dear reader of deadwood media, if not the key to all power?
Tower of Babel
Once we view the Internet’s spread from the perspective of knowledge then the picture becomes a tad bit clearer. Bereft of the confusing masks that the new technology might wear in its different forms we begin to notice a pattern. Look at China and its gargantuan efforts to control the contents of everything. Look at collaborative Wiki projects from -pedia to -leaks and see the levels of power constantly changing. The naked truth of Zuckerberg’s toy pervading your everyday life with apps for your delectation is all the more clear. The battleground for the universal allegiance to a platform or a “graph” is exposed in all its nudity.
Taken to another level, the fear of exposure, of privacy, of vilification is understood for what it is. As I had the opportunity to mention in a Dissett episode a while back, the “internet” (or parts of it) has the effect of holding up a huge mirror to society – Adam and Eve realising their nakedness – and sometimes we do not like what we see. The battle for knowledge – what knowledge is shared and what is not – has raged from time immemorial. Luther’s reformation centred on the availability of more knowledge to more people. Reading sacred texts in one’s own vernacular had an immense emancipatory effect on the population of Europe while at the same time leading to a century of fratricide and bloodshed.
Orwellian theorists will be thrilled to expose the “Big Brother” style conspiracy of controlled and measured information. Communist/fascist extremes of control are counterbalanced by the liberties in liberal democracies advocating self-control. We tend to experience more of the middle way as we settle down to “cope” with the powerful means at our disposal. Controlling the sharing of knowledge is not simply a matter of Internet policy though. It exists with or without Internet.
Until social media were available, the traditional media could get away with a fair share of spinning. Only last Thursday Daphne Caruana Galizia wondered whether “the growth of the media pool has led to the creation of a sort of alternative fish pond, with those who swim in it speaking mainly to each other and building up issues and stories that don’t really exist”. There’s no doubt that this is often the case: this fish-pondism. When you have a multiplicity of agendas and/or perspectives this is bound to be the case. Media institutions like the papers of the English Sunday press might prefer to highlight different issues. When political interests get intertwined with the communicating (the technical term is spinning), then the need to control what knowledge is available gets more interesting.
Daphne chose to point out the fish-pondism to criticise the current fetish with what we could agree to define as non-stories like the issue about the Dwejra sand. Of course what Daphne will not say is that she has often engaged in fish-pondism herself. I am probably guilty of doing so too. The truth is that with non-immediate, non-interactive media this is always possible. You can choose to cocoon yourself in your own reality and within your own parameters. The medium you use can be tailored for your needs: whether it is Daphne’s 900-word column, Bondi’s Plus, Peppi’s Xarabank or a One/Net TV news item, you pick and choose what you want the audience to read, hear, see.
Fish-pondism is not the exclusivity of self-referential press but spreads to opinion columnists and even to bloggers who exercise excessive moderation to give a false shape to the “discussion” on their blog. The unwillingness to engage beyond one’s own turf: to play “away” as football jargon would have it, is a direct result of what is probably an inability to engage with neutral rules.
Columnist David Friggieri has declared that Xarabank has won the cultural war. The statement is wrong or incomplete. Xarabank may be winning the battle by outshouting the other voices but there are voices on the other side and they have not given up. These are the voices that are confidently dismissed by those who monopolise the traditional media with some uninformed excuse that they are “boring” or “uninteresting”, but these voices have the new media to thank and are gearing up for new battles.
Fish-pondism is the media equivalent of putting their hands on their ears and yelling “nanananana” in the hope that your different opinion will eventually go away. If that does not work they might resort to vilification, personal attacks and threats, but it only serves to point out that you (or rather, your opinion) are dangerous and that they are no longer comfortable in their cocoon. The rules of the battle are shifting and there is only so much time before the dry formula of a Where’s Everybody programme runs out of new ways to deliver a monotone message.
The Beach Head for the change that is still happening in Malta is the world of social communication. Facebook, Twitter and blogs are still settling in the social mindset. The big challenge ahead will be the development of value networking – when the citizen learns that empowerment is not simply getting hooked to the net but using it wisely so as not to be dismissed with the general crowd of commentators and hate-mongers (trolls in jargon) that have tended to populate the dark ages of early social networking in Malta.
Which is where we lead to education. The young people of today grow up in an atmosphere of Twitter and Facebook while automatically texting. They will review their literature books using summaries available on some Wiki and will process loads of information through this filter. I believe that the educational system must show an awareness of this potential not by emulating the fish pond and controlling the agenda but by imparting solid social values that could be just as useful in the street as they are on Facebook and Twitter. Twitterers or facebookers are still homo sapiens sapiens after all!
It’s the web stupid. In Italy the student movement is making full use of the social media to protest en masse. Even the media was taken by surprise at the speed with which thousands of students converged en masse on different monuments to make their point. Knowledge. Communication. Power. There is hope yet. I get the feeling that Malta’s leaders fail to recognise the importance of having a net-savvy population. Sure we have agencies and institutes supposedly working on projects such as e-government but you get the feeling that there is a fish-pondism of political sorts going on in the IT industry that fails to encourage innovation and fails to provide opportunities based on merit – preferring to cocoon itself with in-house jobs.
Missing the bus on this huge opportunity to invest in developing the best HR money can buy would be a huge disaster for our tiny country that cannot boast of too many resources beyond the human. Remaining “stupid” on an IT level would only be a blessing for the various fish ponds that currently dominate the dissemination and exchange of knowledge in the more traditional networks – political and mediatic. It’s useless claiming that we’d love a SmartMalta when all we do seems to point to a StupidMalta in the making.
The problem with fish ponds is that they risk getting stagnant after a while. Time to change the water?
www.akkuza.com comes to you live from snow-sprinkled Luxembourg for your knowledgeable delectation.
(Article appeared on The Malta Independent on Sunday on 28th November 2010)
- Tim Berners-Lee says Facebook is a trap (news.bioscholar.com)
- Tim Berners-Lee on net neutrality: it’s needed for free markets, democracy and science (libdemvoice.org)
- Tim Berners-Lee on protecting the Web in the December Scientific American (ebiquity.umbc.edu)