Errore 404 is the nightmare of those browsing the web: it is a typical error message which appears when content is no longer available. Error 404
is also the title of a book written by Esther Paniagua (published by Einaudi and translated by Marta Zucchelli). It is a non-fiction book which, starting with the title, hints at the collapse of the web, an event further underlined in the subtitle: Are you ready for a world without Internet?
. Are we really ready? We asked Esther herself, former editor-in-chief of the «MIT Technology Review» and associate at «El País» and «National Geographic», a journalist who for years has been covering technology and the effect of technological evolution on our lives. Our talk with Paniagua covered an Internet hung between dreams and nightmares, the future of IT, creativity and Artificial Intelligence.
In her book, Error 404, she explains why the Internet’s original sin lies in the fact that the World Wide Web was initially free and perceived as democratic and open. Do you think we can go back to that idea of an Internet not revolving around making money?
I don’t think this idea has ever died, and in recent years, we have seen new attempts to regenerate it, as was the case five years ago with the buzz around blockchain technology and as happened recently with the Web3 concept. I don’t think that the Internet being used for commercial purposes is, in itself, a bad thing. On the contrary, this original sin is linked to the fact that no one foresaw such a use and that neither resources nor regulations were put in place to supervise it, when it was obvious that such issues would emerge. Whether we like it or not, we live in a capitalist world, and wealth always finds new opportunities and niches in every unexplored and unexploited corner. The problem is that, in the absence of rules, the entire Internet has been commercialised and exploited by a few parasitic industry giants. Our duty now is to try and free Internet from these parasites, limit the power of monopolies and digital totalitarianism; incentivise and promote spaces which encourage attention, solidarity, participation, information and exchange of knowledge, with a view to achieving a harmonious on-line co-habitation where business deals can be done, but where not everything is a business deal, and where people are not the product.
Do you believe that magazines and newspapers can still have a life beyond Internet or are they destined to succumb to the on-line?
I definitely believe that hard copy is not about to become extinct. Even today, new printed magazines, even ones with no digital version, are being launched! It is a declaration of intent and also a way of looking for one’s own space. A few years ago, the press was the norm and digital was the novelty. It has been difficult to adjust. Now digital has become mainstream, and hard copy has acquired a new meaning, a charm which perhaps became lost when it was taken for granted. I doubt we will go back to the production and sales levels of magazines and newspapers of the pre-Internet era, but I don’t think that’s necessary. It’s good that both options are available. The problem is that the media can’t find their business model. We have been used to accessing free content, and it has been difficult to adjust to paying for it. The spread of music and entertainment platforms in streaming has contributed to familiarising us with the subscription model, but with information products this is more difficult. To this we can add an even greater problem: tech giants (mainly Google and social media) are taking a large chunk of the advertising pie which used to go to the press, and this is compromising the content found in the latter.
We need to understand that behind every form of communication are people who conceive, design, program, check the facts, create content, analyse, interpret and make changes: it involves a wide variety of professionals who deserve adequate reward for their efforts. This concept can also be applied to any other service or app which we use every day. These people need to receive a salary, and we as citizens and consumers need to accept it and back this idea. If everything is free, then we ourselves become the product. If a service is offered at a low price, we will have low-cost work, low-cost economies and a low-cost society.