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La Red: Cómo Cambiarán Nuestras Vidas los Nuevos Medios de Comunicación

Author: Juan Luis Cebrián
Publisher: Madrid: Taurus (Colección Pensamiento), 1998
Review Published: November 1998

 REVIEW 1: Sara Martín

Juan Luis Cebrián's La Red (The Net) is the book most likely to condition the image that most Spaniards may have of the Internet. This best-seller comes from the pen of one of Spain's most prestigious intellectuals. Cebrián, a member of the Real Academia Española -- the institution that safeguards the welfare of the Spanish language -- is known, above all, because of his fundamental role as founder and director (1976-1988) of El País, one of the main Spanish newspapers. Cebrián is now an outstanding member of the board of PRISA, the corporation that owns El País together with the influential radio station SER, and the TV channels run by Sogecable, Canal + and Canal Satélite Digital. His name has recently appeared in the media in relation with the war waged between PRISA (which is close to PSOE, the Spanish socialist party) and the right-wing government of José María Aznar for control of digital TV services. This war is still going on after the failure of the merger planned for September 1998 of the two combatants, Canal Satélite Digital and Vía Digital, the latter a company indirectly related to the government through the formerly state-owned Telefónica.

La Red springs from a project presented by Cebrián in 1995 to the Club of Rome during its Buenos Aires conference. The Club of Rome is an independent association of a 100 leading intellectuals, businessmen and politicians from more than 50 countries, whose aim is to stir debate around issues relevant to the whole world. The Club became famous thanks to the report "The Limits of Growth," presented in the 1960s by an MIT team. Cebrián's project led to his being commissioned to write the report finally presented and debated under the title of "How Will the New Media Transform Society?" in the conference held in Washington in 1997. That report is the text now published as La Red with the subtitle "How Will the New media Transform Our Lives." As Ricardo Díez Hochleitner, the president of the Club of Rome, observes in his preface to the book, the ideas that Cebrián discusses are all relevant to the Club's interests but the conclusions he reaches are not anonymously accepted by the Club members. The Club agrees, though, that Cebrián's text is accurate in its presentation of the issues under discussion.

Among those who disagree with Cebrián is Don Tapscott, the president of the Alliance for Convergent Technologies and the author, among others, of the book Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (1998). Tapscott's twenty page preface to Cebrián's own rather short text (160 pages) is substantial enough to act as a countertext to La Red. Entitled "Promises and Dangers of Digital Technology," Tapscott's text is a complete critical summary of Cebrián's theses but it is also a statement that contradicts in many points Cebrián's European -- and deeply Spanish -- wary attitude towards the new media. Tapscott offers an optimistic, American stance from which the problems pointed out by Cebrián, mainly his fear that the Net will create new inequalities in our very unequal world, will be indeed solved by the governments' taking an active role and, above all, by the rising "Net generation." Tapcott writes of children who must be listened to because they hold the key to a brave new world in which cyberspace will be the home of new work, business, and culture ethics. Cebrián portrays a bleak scenario in which family life gives way to the chaotic new environments that swallow dependent teenagers who "hallucinate their belonging to a universal tribe when, in fact, they surrender to the syndrome of isolation" (86, my translation).

La Red has been marketed as an accessible, easy to read essay that will open up the debate surrounding the Internet. The question Cebrián sets out to answer is whether the so-called revolution brought about by the information highways is a revolution indeed or just a noisy revolt (38). This is a question that remains unanswered as Cebrián wants his readers to make up their minds for themselves. What is clear is that the reader Cebrián has in mind is not an expert user of computers, as he himself clearly is not, but a person informed enough to follow his summary and discussion of the main topics (and clichés) surrounding the Internet. Cebrián's choice of a title, borrowed as he acknowledges from the Sandra Bullock film The Net, suggests that this is a book with a populist vocation and abundant in popular ideas. Popular, that is, not only in Spain but in many Western countries.

One of the aspects in which this book shows it is indeed a report is the lack of originality in Cebrián's discourse. In the acknowledgments he describes the book as "an author's book" to list immediately an impressive number of collaborators. The reader cannot escape the impression that he has just polished up ideas he has gathered from the media and the bibliography and has added little of his own, except for certain touches of wry irony. He is most perceptible as the author of the book just in the few passages in which his negative Spanish vein comes up and he allows himself to express rather negative views on the Internet with language that, to say the least, clashes with the easygoing tone of the rest of the report. Losing patience with those who envision a cozy future in which people will work and enjoy their leisure time at home, Cebrián retorts "Todo ello bien calentitos o fresquitos, según los climas, sin mover casi un músculo, como no sean los del ojo y un par de dedos dedicados a machacar sobre el teclado. Ignoro si la cosa es demasiado atractiva, aunque no me parece del todo inevitable." (145, "All of this with us conveniently warmed or cooled, depending on the climate, hardly moving a muscle, except those of the eye and a couple of fingers banging on the keyboard. I don't know whether this thing is too attractive, but I don't think it is wholly inevitable", my translation). Even more shocking is his description of the English used in the Internet, which Cebrián calls "pichinglis" (?) and defines as "un inglés que, como dicen los castizos, no lo reconoce ni la madre que lo parió y es expresión de la pobreza cultural y de la ausencia de imaginación de aquellos que se lanzan a navegar en el ciberespacio sin tomar la precaución de haber aprendido a andar convenientemente sobre la dura tierra." (161, "An English that, as the good old speakers of Spanish would say, not even his mother would know and which is the expression of the cultural poverty and the lack of imagination of those who plunge into cyberspace without having learned to master the skill of walking on the hard earth" - my translation quite softens the impact of Spanish "la madre que lo parió"). Otherwise, Cebrián's authorial 'I' only intrudes directly in the text to stress his belief in the future of books: "Mi confianza en el futuro del libro se basa, esencialmente, en la poderosa interactividad del mismo con el usuario, su simplicidad de manejo y su perdurabilidad." (166, "My trust in the future of the book is based, essentially, on its powerful interactivity with the user, its simple use and its lasting long," my translation).

La Red is divided into six chapters, apart from the introduction, that examine different issues related to the Internet. The main aspects Cebrián discusses are the actual poor performance of technology incomparison to its promises, the subordination of consumers to the new media, power, money, and education in the Internet and, above all, whether the new media will contribute to widening the gulf between the rich and the poor. Cebrián insists especially in chapters 3 and 4 that some kind of state intervention is necessary to prevent inequality from spreading, both within countries and across international borders. He is worried, above all, that the future depicted in popular sci-fi films like Blade Runner will soon reach us and leave us stranded in a world run by the big corporations. There our intimacy and our identity as individuals would be threatened to levels we can now barely begin to imagine thanks to the Internet. Cebrián urges the USA, Japan the European Union, and the main supranational organizations, to draft the appropriate international legislation but he himself notes that, unfortunately, democracy moves too slowly to contain the spread of illegal power (terrorism, mafia, pornography) in the Internet.

But if Cebrián sounds sensible and convincing when discussing this point, he is much less so when it comes to considering the impact of the Net on individual users. He sees the advantages of virtual education and insists on the importance and convenience of digital TV and its attached services (obviously with less objectivity given his role in the Spanish media business circles). But this future in which the computer and the TV screen will merge makes him nervous, as should be expected from a man living in a country in which communal life is very active. While publicizing the wonders of cable and digital TV, Cebrián cannot help questioning the positive concept of interactivity first espoused by Joel de Rosnay. Instead, he typically notes that "la interactividad de la red no evita una actitud pasiva, receptiva, casi hipnótica, del usuario" (85, "the Net's interactivity does not prevent the user from having a passive, receptive, almost hypnotic attitude", my translation). Cebrián's average user of the Internet is to be found among passive groups -- housewives, the unemployed, the young -- who can be easily prey to the "chaos" reigning in the Net. In his shrillest paragraph, Cebrián even claims that "los científicos se resisten a catalogar la ciberdependencia entre las patalogías clínicas, como hicieron en su día con el alcoholismo, pero ya son muchos los centros de salud mental que prestan atención a desviaciones del comportamiento típicas y exclusivas de internautas. El día en que la red se conecte a las pantallas de los televisores domésticos, la amenaza crecerá, pues serán muchos más los individuos expuestos a su influjo." (83, "Scientists resist cataloguing cyberdependence as a clinical pathology, as they did with alcoholism in its day, but plenty of mental health centers already devote their attention to behavioral deviations typical and exclusive of the 'net surfers.' When the Net merges with the TV screen, the threat will grow, as many more will come under its influence," my translation).

In his conclusions Cebrián finally falls into the temptation of playing prophet. Even though he speaks of the "frequent foolishness of prophets" (59, "la imprudencia frecuente de los profetas") he does usethe future tense in his last chapter to announce changes that may or may not happen. Cebrián is aware that the prophet is bound by the speed of the changes which makes all predictions old-fashioned even by the time they are being formulated. His last words summarize well the mixture of technophobia and wonder of his discourse. "La sociedad digital," he writes, "puede ser un fabuloso instrumento de igualitarismo sin necesidad de aniquilar la pluralidad de opciones y propuestas. Pero puede convertirse, también, en una forma añadida de dominación. He aquí la mas sublime y aterradora de las paradojas de nuestra moderna existencia." (196, "Digital society may be a wonderful instrument to reach equality without annihilating the plurality of options. But it can also become and added form of domination. Here is the most sublime and terrifying of paradoxes of our modern existence").

This sensible conclusion has to be understood in the context of the European culture pervading Cebrián's text. As a report for the international Club of Rome, La Red avoids particularizing references to individual countries. It is clear, though, that as a European, Cebrián is concerned with the overwhelming presence of the English language and the USA in the Internet, which he sees as threats. As a book addressed to the Spanish reader -- or the reader who can read Spanish -- La Red is also marked by the particular conditions of the Internet in Spain. On the one hand, readers aware of the role played by PRISA's Sogecable in the battle for digital TV in Spain cannot misread Cebrián's forecasting of the failure of cable TV in Europe. On the other hand, Cebrián's constant allusion to unequal access to technologies has very much to do with the war Internet users are waging now in Spain against the abusive prices of Telefónica, Spain's main telephone company. If even in Spain, a fairly rich country now among the few countries of the European Union heading towards monetary union, the unequal access to technology is so evident, what can be the situation of poor countries battling famine? This, of course, is difficult to see from the perspective of countries like the USA in which access to the Internet costs nothing since local calls are free. The Net generation might well be, after all, a local phenomenon.

Juan Luis Cebrián's La Red may contribute nothing new to debates surrounding the Internet and the new media but it is worth reading. This book is an excellent summary of the main issues that have been raised in many countries as the Internet has reached the homes and the work places of millions of people. It will not clarify matters for those who do not use the Internet, but it will make those who use it consider the advantages and disadvantages of the utopian and dystopian discourses aboutthe future of the Internet. Although trying to strike a balance between the good and the bad points of the Net, Cebrián's book cannot help emphasizing the chaotic nature of the Net itself and of the future that cannot be predicted. It is a deeply European -- deeply Spanish -- book which contemplates the wonders announced by American gurus of the information highways with suspicion, to say the least. Instead, it proposes a more conservative reading of the Internet, stressing the pointthat the Internet is nothing but a new instrument. Neither good nor bad in itself, its benefits will depend on the use we make of it.

Sara Martín:
Sara Martín is a senior assistant lecturer at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, where she teaches English Literature. Her main fields of research are popular fictions, gender studies, Gothic and Literature/Film. She obtained a doctoral degree with a PhD dissertation on monstrosity in contemporary film and fiction and is co-founder of the Spanish Association for the Research of Popular Texts.  <ilfic@cc.uab.es>

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