By Ignacio Ramonet – Feb 17, 2021
The modern Internet, the Web, was invented in 1989, thirty-two years ago. In other words, we are living the first minutes of a phenomenon that is here to stay for centuries. Let’s think that the printing press was invented in 1440, and that three decades later it had hardly changed anything, but it ended up disrupting the world: it changed culture, politics, economics, science, history. It is clear that many of the parameters we know are being profoundly modified, not so much by the current pandemic of Covid-19, but above all by the widespread irruption of technological changes and social networks. And not only in terms of communication – is truth dying – but also in finance, commerce, transport, tourism, knowledge, culture… Not to mention the new dangers of surveillance and loss of privacy.
Now, with the Web and social networks, it is no longer only the state that watches over us. Some giant private companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, etc.) know more about us than we do. In the coming years, with artificial intelligence and 5G technology, algorithms will determine the course of our lives more than our own will. Let no one think that such decisive changes in communication will not have consequences for the very organization of society and its political structuring as we have known it up to now. The future is a long way off and the decisive changes have only just begun.
“(…) although the digital revolution has allowed an indisputable democratization of communication—a goal that seemed absolutely unthinkable—this democratization now leads to an uncontrolled and disorderly proliferation of messages, as well as to the deafening noise created above all by social networks.”
We live in a universe in which our privacy is under great threat; we are more under surveillance than ever through biometrics or video surveillance cameras, much more than George Orwell himself imagined in his dystopian novel 1984. Moreover, robotics, drones and artificial intelligence threaten to create an ecosystem from which human beings could end up being expelled; not to mention the “crisis of truth”—in terms of information—replaced by fake news, post-truth, new manipulations or alternative truths. At this point, the future could be approaching our most terrifying past, faster than we think.
On the emancipatory aspect of the current digital revolution, the most notable aspect is the “effective democratization of information.” An ideal that constituted a fundamental demand, and to some extent a dream, since the social revolt of May 1968—i.e. the desire for citizens to take control of the means of communication and above all of information—has to some extent been realized. Today, with the mass equipping of lightweight digital communication devices (smartphones, laptops, tablets and others), individual citizens have more communicational firepower than, for example, the first global television channel, Cable News Network (CNN), had in 1986. It is much cheaper and easier to operate. Every citizen is now what used to be called a mass media. Many people are unaware of it or don’t know the real power at their disposal. Today, in the face of the big media corporations, we are no longer unarmed. Whether we are making optimal use of the communication superpower at our disposal is another matter.
In that sense, even though the digital revolution has allowed for a new solution to the problems of information and communication, has it solved them? The answer is no, because in life every solution creates a new problem. This is the tragic human condition. The ancient Greeks illustrated it with the myth of Sisyphus, condemned to push a huge boulder to the top of a mountain; once he reached the top, the boulder slipped out of his hands and tumbled back down to the foot of the mountain. Then Sisyphus had to pull it back up to the top, where it slipped again, and so on until the end of eternity.
In this sense, although the digital revolution has allowed an indisputable democratization of communication—a goal that seemed absolutely unthinkable—this democratization now leads to an uncontrolled and disorderly proliferation of messages, as well as to the deafening noise created above all by social networks. This is precisely what constitutes the new problem. As we said, truth has now been diluted. If we all have our truth, what then is the real truth? Or is it, as Donald Trump said, that “truth is relative”?
At the same time, the objectivity of information (if it ever existed) has disappeared, manipulations have multiplied, intoxications proliferate like another pandemic, disinformation dominates and the war of narratives spreads. Never before have fake news, delusional narratives, “emotional information” and plots been “constructed” with such sophistication. To make matters worse, many surveys show that citizens prefer and believe fake news more than real news because the former corresponds better to what we think. Neurobiological studies confirm that we adhere more to what we believe than to what goes against our beliefs. It has never been easier to fool ourselves.
More than a “new frontier,” the Internet, i.e. cyberspace or digitalandia, is our “new territory.” We live in two spaces, our usual, three-dimensional space and the digital space of the screens. A parallel space, as in science fiction or quantum universes, where things or people can be in two places at the same time. Obviously, our relationship to the world, from a phenomenological point of view, cannot be the same. The Internet—and tomorrow Artificial Intelligence—gives our brains unprecedented extensions. Certainly, the new digital sociability, accelerated by socializing networks such as Facebook or Tinder, is profoundly modifying our relational behavior. I don’t think there can be any “turning back.” Networks are simply the defining structural parameters of contemporary society.
We must also be aware that the Internet is no longer the decentralized space of freedom that made it possible to escape dependence on the mainstream media. Without most Internet users realizing it, the Internet has become centralized around a few giant companies that we have already mentioned – the GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) – which monopolies it and which almost no one can do without. Their power is such, as we have just seen, that they even allow themselves to censor the president of the United States when Twitter and Facebook cut off his access and silenced Donald Trump himself at the beginning of January.
We did not understand in the early 2000s that the economic model of “advertising versus free” would create a dangerous phenomenon of centralization, because advertisers have an interest in working with the biggest, with those who have the largest audience. We must now succeed in going against this logic in order to decentralize the Internet again. Public opinion must realize that free access leads to such a centralization of the Internet that, little by little, control becomes stronger and surveillance becomes generalized.
In this regard, it should be pointed out that surveillance today is essentially based on technological, automatic information, much more than on human information. It is a matter of “diagnosing the dangerousness” of an individual on the basis of more or less proven elements of suspicion and the surveillance (with the complicity of the GAFA) of his or her contacts in networks and messages; with the paradoxical idea that, to guarantee freedoms, we must begin by limiting them. Let it be understood: the problem is not surveillance in general, but mass clandestine surveillance.
In a democratic state, the authorities are fully legitimized to monitor any individual they deem suspicious, relying on the law and making use of a judge’s prior authorization. In the new sphere of surveillance, every person is a priori considered suspicious, especially if the “algorithmic black boxes” mechanically classify them as “threatening” after analyzing their network contacts and communications. This new security theory considers that human beings are devoid of true free will or autonomous thought. It is therefore pointless to try to retroactively intervene in the family environment or social causes in order to prevent possible aberrations. All that is desired now, with faith in the surveillance reports, is to repress as soon as possible before the crime is committed. This deterministic conception of society, imagined some sixty years ago by the American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick in his novel Minority Report, is gradually gaining ground. It is the “favorite” that is now being pursued, under the pretext of “anticipating the threat.”
To this end, commercial companies and advertising agencies search our lives. We are increasingly being watched, spied on, monitored, controlled, and put on file. Every day, new technologies are being perfected to track our footprints. The online giants secretly compile exhaustive files of our personal and contact data, extracted from our activities on social networks via various electronic media.
However, this generalized vigilance does not prevent the awakening of some long-silent and now interconnected societies. Undoubtedly, what was called in 2011 the “Arab Spring,” like the “Indignados movement” in Spain and “Occupy Wall Street” in the United States, would not have been possible—in the way they developed—without the communicational innovations brought about by the internet revolution. This is due not only to the use of the main social networks, which were then only just spreading—Facebook was created in 2006 and Twitter was launched in 2009—but also to the use of email, messaging, and simply the smartphone. The impact of the popular demonstrations provoked by these communicational innovations was very strong in 2011, regardless of the nature of the political systems (authoritarian or democratic) against which they clashed.
Of course, in the Arab world, which had been “frozen” for various reasons for half a century, the “shock” had spectacular consequences: two dictatorships (Tunisia and Egypt) collapsed, and in two other countries (Libya and Syria) painful civil wars began which, ten years later, have still not ended. Even within democratic systems—Spain, Greece, Portugal, and the United States—there were considerable shocks that year that definitively changed the way politics was conducted. Take Spain, for example, where, in the heat of this movement, a new left-wing party, Podemos, emerged, which voters eventually propelled to power in 2019, in coalition with the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE). This is not a small thing.
I would like to add two thoughts. First, that these communicational innovations soon gave rise to a political use of social networks. We cannot be naïve. There are manuals for using the networks with subversive intentions. They have been used against Cuba countless times, as well as against the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela and against the government of President Nicolás Maduro. Let us also remember that between 2003 and 2006, in an organized and planned manner, with financing from powerful interests, what were called “color revolutions” had already taken place in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Kyrgyzstan (2005), etc.; with the undisguised intention of breaking these countries’ alliances with Moscow and diminishing Russia’s power.
Secondly, we will comment that in the autumn of 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic spread to the entire planet, the world—from Hong Kong to Chile, via Iraq, Lebanon, Algeria, France, Catalonia, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Colombia, among other nations—was experiencing a trail of large popular protests driven and accentuated by the use of social networks. All the governments of these countries, theoretically democratic, did not know, in most cases, how to deal with this new type of social protest except with brutal repression.
So we could, in effect, say that on the one hand, social networks and messaging of a new kind (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Telegram, Signal, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Zoom, TikTok and others) have undeniably expanded the space of our freedom of expression, but at the same time they have multiplied infinitely the capacities for manipulation of minds and surveillance of citizens. It is classic. We could say, to paraphrase Marx, that history is the history of technological innovations. Each technological innovation provides a solution to a problem, and in turn, as we have already stressed, each solution creates a new problem. In other words, whenever there is a leap forward in communication technologies, we are indeed faced with progress in terms of the capacity for expression, but also with the danger of confusion, confrontation and new mental intoxications. This is normal. There is nothing new in this respect. Every power that has a monopoly on public expression despairs at the appearance of any democratizing communication technology that threatens its solitary use of the word. Think again of the invention of the printing press in 1440, and the panic of the Church and the throne at a machine that would suddenly take away their monopoly on truth.
Faced with the dilemma of dangers vs. advantages, the question remains: what to do? It depends on who is asking the question. If it is the people, it is foreseeable that they will want to make immediate use of the excessive power conferred by the networks, without taking the precaution of being wary of the second aspect: the manipulation to which they may be subjected. Disappointment can therefore be strong.
If it is the powers-that-be who are asking the question, I would say that they must keep their cool; they cannot dream that, by some miracle, the networks that are already here for good will disappear. It too must adapt to this new reality, to this new communicational normality. Censorship, denial or blindness are of no use, they would only aggravate the problem, seen from the point of view of those in power. The rigid breaks, while the flexible resists. Therefore, power must understand that the networks are a new space for debate and confrontation, and constitute perhaps, in the political field, the main contemporary space for dialectical confrontation. It is today’s agora, and it is there, to a large extent—as it was in the pages of newspapers for a long time—where the major disputes and controversies are now being settled. Anyone who does not want to be the big loser of our time must be present in this central space of debate.
Yes, social networks are the dominant media, just as television, radio, cinema or the press were in the past. It is a considerable revolution, as there has never been before in the field of communication. Once again, any major change in the field of communication will inevitably have a decisive impact on social and political issues. There are no exceptions. From the invention of writing to the Internet, via the printing press.
In any country, the networks are forcing all other mass media (print media, radio, cinema, television) to rethink themselves. A media Darwinism is underway. The media that does not adapt to the new ecosystem will disappear. Adapting does not mean that the other media must do what the networks do. No. The networks are also the territory, as we have already said, of manipulation, intoxication, fake news, “emotional truths,” “alternative truths,” conspiracy stories. The written press, for example, must concentrate on its qualities: the quality of the writing, the brilliance of the story, the originality of the subject matter, the reality of the testimony, the authenticity of the information, the intelligence of the analysis and the guarantee of verified truth.
Featured image: Illustration: Brady Izquierdo