by Roberto Savio
Publisher of OtherNews,
Italian-Argentine Roberto Savio
an economist, journalist, communication expert,
political commentator, activist for social and climate
justice and advocate of an anti neoliberal global
Director for international relations of the European
Center for Peace and Development.
is co-founder of Inter Press Service (IPS) news agency
and its President Emeritus.
Rome, November 14
This year the Worldwide
Web is thirty years old. For the first time since 1435, a citizen
from Brazil could exchange their views and information with another
The Internet, the
communications infrastructure for the Web is a little older.
It was developed from
the ARPANET, a US Defense Department project under the
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
designing it to decentralize communications in the case of a
That network enabled
scientists to communicate over email in universities.
Then in 1989
Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in
Switzerland invented the Hyperlink and the Worldwide Web
(www - the Web) rapidly moved from scientists automating information
sharing between universities and research institutions to the first
Websites now available to the general public.
In 2002 the first social
media sites began as specialized websites.
...and so on…
My generation regarded the arrival of the Web as a 'great
prospect' for democracy.
We come from the
Gutenberg era, an era that in 1435 changed the world.
drafted by monks to be read by a few people in monasteries, the
invention of reusable movable type meant that in just 20 years
already eight million copies of printed books went all across
Among many other
things it also meant the creation of information.
People who heretofore
had merely a scant horizon beyond their immediate surroundings,
could suddenly access information about their country, and even
the entire world.
The first newspaper
was printed in Strasbourg in 1605.
From then until 1989,
the world was filled with information.
Information had a very
It was a vertical
structure. Just a few people sent news to a large number of
recipients; there was little feedback. It wasn't participatory,
it required large startup investments, it was easily used by
economic and political powers.
In the Third World,
the media system was part of the State.
In 1976, 88% of World
news flows emanated from just three countries:
agencies based in these three countries included,
The world's media were
dependent on their news services.
Some alternative news
agencies, like Inter Press Services (IPS),
were able to put a dent in their monopoly. But what this Western
media published, by and large was a biased window on the world.
the Internet, and with it, came
Every receiver was
also a sender.
For the first time
since 1435, media were no longer the only window on the world.
could take part in social, cultural and economic interactions.
This change was evident
in the United Nations Woman's World Conference in Beijing,
networks prior to the conference, and came with a common plan of
Governments were not
so prepared, so the Declaration of Beijing was a turning point,
one which was entirely unlike the bland declarations from the
previous four World Conferences.
Another good example is
the campaign to eliminate anti-personnel landmines, started by the
Canadian activist Jody Williams in 1992.
This soon blossomed
into a large coalition of Non-Governmental Organizations from
more than 100 countries.
pressure Norway decided to introduce the issue to the UN, where
the US, China, and other manufacturers of landmines like the
USSR, tried to block the debate, declaring that they would vote
The activists did not
care, and 128 countries adopted the Mine Ban Treaty in 1997 with
the US, China and the USSR voting against.
A vast global
movement was more powerful than the traditional role
of the Security Council.
The Internet had become
the tool to create world coalitions.
Those are just two examples of how far the Internet could change the
traditional system of Westphalian state sovereignty as defined at
the Conference of Westphalia in 1648.
The Internet spanned
national frontiers to bring on a new era.
Let's say, for the sake
of symbolism, that the Internet brought us from the Gutenberg Era,
to the 'Zuckerberg era', to cite the inventor of Facebook and
a leading instance of what went wrong with this medium...
The Internet came upon us with an unprecedented force.
it took 38 years
for the radio to reach 50 million people
the Web just 4
it had a 1
billion users in 2005
2 billion in 2011
it now has 3½
billion users, 3 billion of those using social media...
So the two traditional
pillars of power,
...also had to learn how
to use the Internet.
The US provides a good
All of American media
(national and regional publications) involves printing 50
million copies daily.
Quality newspapers -
both the conservative broadsheets like the Wall Street Journal,
and progressive ones like the Washington Post or the New
York Times - together print ten million copies a day.
Trump has sixty three million
followers on Twitter; they read Trump's tweets but don't buy
The Web has had two
was the dramatic reinforcement of the consumer society.
Today advertising budgets are ten times larger than budgets
for education, and education only lasts a few years compared
with a lifetime of advertisement.
development of social networks, people - now more consumers
than citizens - have become objects for marketing goods and
services, and recently also for political campaigns.
All systems of
information and communications extract our personal data,
selling us on as consumers.
Now the TV can
see us while we watch it.
become microphones that listen in on our conversations. The
notion of privacy is gone. If we could access our data, we
would find out that we are followed every minute of the day,
even into our bedrooms.
form profiles of each and every one of us.
Based on these
profiles platforms provide us with the news, the products,
and the people that these algorithms believe we will like,
thus insulating us in our own bubbles.
intelligence learns from the data that it accumulates.
China, with 1.35
billion people, will provide its researchers with more data
than Europe and United States together. The Internet has
given birth to a digital extractive economy, where the raw
material is no longer minerals, but we humans.
development that went awry is that the digital extractive
economy has created unprecedented wealth.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was recently divorced from his
wife. In the settlement she received 36 billion dollars yet
Bezos remains among the 10 richest people in the world.
This is just one
story from an increasingly sad reality of social injustice,
where 80 of the world's richest persons hold the same wealth
as nearly three billion poor people.
A new sector is evolving, the "surveillance capitalism"
sector, where money is made not from the production of good
and services, but from data extracted from people.
This new system
exploits humans to give to the owners of this technology, a
concentration of wealth, knowledge and power without
precedent in history.
The ability to
develop facial recognition and other surveillance
instruments no longer lies in the realms of science fiction.
government has already given every citizen a digital number,
where all their 'good' and 'bad' behaviors converge.
If a citizen goes
below a level, their children will not be allowed to go to a
good school, and the citizen themselves, though they may
still be able to travel by train, won't have access to
technologies will soon be in use all over the planet.
London town now
has 627,000 surveillance cameras, one for every fourteen
citizens; in Beijing it's one for every seven.
A study conducted
by The Rand Corporation estimates that by 2050,
Europe too would also have one camera for every seven
between democracy and the Internet is now creating a belated
awareness in the political system. The European Parliament has just
released a study, about the negative impact of the Internet.
These impacts are:
There is unanimity among doctors and sociologists that a new
generation is coming, one which is very different from the
Over 90% of those
aged 15-24 uses the Internet, as against 11% for those over
55. Young people spend 21 hours per week on the PC, and 18
hours on a smart phone.
little time for social and cultural interaction.
4.4% of European
adolescents now show pathological Internet use "that affects
their lives and health". The American Academy of Psychology
has officially included Internet Addiction as a new ailment.
resonance studies of those with Internet Addiction
Disorder (IAD) show that they exhibit the same brain
structure alterations as those who suffer from drug or
Harming cognitive development
A particular warning is given about children under two years
More than 20
minutes a day of screen use reduces some of their neural
development. People pushed to isolation tend to develop
symptoms of distress, anger, loss of control, social
withdrawal, familial conflicts, and an inability to act in
Internet users in
tests were faster than non-users at finding data, but they
were less able to retain data.
The condition of having too much information hampers the
ability to understand an issue, or to make effective
decisions, an important issue for managers, consumers, and
social media users.
Microsoft, attention span for a title has gone from 12
seconds in 2000 down to 8 seconds in 2016.
span for reading has gone from 12 minutes to 8 minutes. Two
new terms can be used: one, the 'popping brain', describes a
brain less adept to adapt to a slower pace of real life and
then there is 'Neuroplasticity'; i.e. the ability to alter
one's behavior after a new experience.
immersion in virtual worlds can reduce neuroplasticity and
also make it more difficult to adapt to the slower pace of
real life. The need to compete in speed between social media
channels is well known.
Amazon estimates that one second of performance delay would
cost 1.16 billion losses per year in sales.
Harmful effects in knowledge and belief
The fact that social media deliberately tends to gather
together users with similar views, tastes and habits, is
fragmenting society in a negative way for democracy,
resulting in closed systems that don't allow for alternative
longer discuss significant subjects. They go to their
virtual world, and if they come across somebody from another
group, they tend to insult each other.
The Internet is
full of fake news and misleading information, and users
have great difficulty distinguishing 'accurate' from
appear to be far more pervasive, and may unite those with
more extreme and partisan political and ideological
positions, therefore undermining possibilities for civil
discourse and tolerance, supporting radicalization.
Harming public/private boundaries
The Internet blurs the distinction between the private
and the public.
becomes public. This is especially negative for teenagers
who lose the concept of privacy, for example by sending
private photos across the Internet.
observation is that teenagers now get their sexual education
from pornography, where women are always an object to
satisfy men's sexual fantasies.
This is in turn
creating a lack of respect for women, and a
new generation that risk, for new reasons, returning to a
of teenage girls are clearly a result of this trend.
Harming social relationships
The Internet is clearly a powerful instrument to create new
used negatively, it can also damage communities, because of
the migration to Internet of many human activities such as
shopping, commerce, socializing, leisure, professional
activities and personal interaction.
creates impoverished communication, incivility and a lack of
trust and commitment.
The Internet has been a powerful tool for participation, and
therefore for democracy.
However the study
notes with concern that a growing number of activities are
also harmful to democracy.
incivility of many online political discourses
and ideological polarization, uniquely possible
using the Internet
Misinformation, and, in particular, fake news
manipulations through profiling based on harvested
social media information
We all know what
happened in the US elections with Cambridge Analytica
data, gathered by Facebook, and how thousands of false
web users and bots now heavily interfere in elections.
We should add to this
study some other considerations.
is that finance now is now also run by algorithms.
The algorithms do
not only decide when to sell or buy shares, but now also
decide where to invest.
Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs) last month reached 14,400
billion dollars in trades, more than that traded by humans.
This trend will
continue with the development of artificial intelligence and
soon finance will become even more dehumanized. Even when
Internet users invest themselves they too will be directed
by machines and algorithms.
consideration is that young people read less and less.
Reading a book is
very different to scrolling a screen. We are experiencing a
progressive reduction in levels of culture. It's not
uncommon to have university students that make grammar and
Let us remember
that when the Internet was still new, its proponents told
it is not
important to know, rather it is important to know how to
We are more and
more dependent on search engines, learning less and less,
and we are unable to connect that data in a personal
holistic logical system.
There is clearly a need
for regulation to reduce the negative aspects of the Internet and to
reinforce positive values.
The owners of social
media platforms are now under increased scrutiny so they have taken
the road of self-regulation. Twitter, for instance, has decided that
it cannot be used for political purposes.
Zuckerberg is an
exponent of market myths telling us that good news
will automatically prevail over fake news.
Except that platforms
help users to read and find only what they like, to maintain our
attention, providing us what is striking, unusual and
This is not a free
The 'Zuckerberg era' is clearly creating an entirely different
generation, very different from the generations of the Gutenberg
This raises many
from privacy to
freedom of expression (now in private hands), from who will
regulate, what to regulate and how.
A five year-old child is
now very different from a Gutenberg five year-old. We are in a
period of transition.
The meaning of democracy
is changing. International relations are moving away from the search
for common values via multilateralism, to a tide of nationalist,
xenophobic and selfish views of the world.
accountability, participation and transparency,
...are becoming outdated.
What is clear is that the
present system is no longer sustainable...
from debate, now referred to only as 'politics'.
Vision and paradigms
are getting scarce.
Over and above all of
this the threat of climate change is looming; yet last year
toxic emissions from the five largest countries increased by 5%.
Young people are
largely absent from political institutions as is shown by the
BREXIT where only 23% of the
18-25 age group participated.
At this very moment
we have large demonstrations in thirteen countries all over the
In those streets
young people do participate, frequently demonstrating rage,
frustration and violence.
If we cannot bring back
horizontal communication to the Internet and we do not free it from
the commercial fracturing of young people, the future is hardly
Yet as the marches
Climate Change clearly demonstrate,
if young people want to change the world, values and vision will
It is evident that the
Internet can be a very powerful tool.
But who will redress
Will the Internet
become a tool for participation?
How will this be
These are questions that
political institutions, if they really care for democracy, must
address as soon as possible.
The 'Zuckerberg era' must
make this choice now, in a few years time it will already be too