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Can we live without Internet?

Interview with Esther Paniagua

Published: 30 Nov 2023
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.
Can we live without Internet?
Error 404 in the Spanish, German and Italian editions
What impact has technology had and continues to have on our lives? And on our creativity?

This is such a broad question that it would be impossible to answer here, and would require a whole book, like Error 404! I will try to be brief and refer to connected technologies, which are now part of our everyday life and are with us morning and night. Most of the services, devices and equipment we use, as well as the operations we make, our communications, free time, relations, work, supply services depend on Internet.

However, these services are governed by algorithms (mathematical formulae) which decide what we read, which music we listen to, which results appear when we search for something, which adverts we see, what is hidden, and what price air and rail tickets have. And these algorithms also influence other aspects like who is selected for a job, who receives financial aid and mortgage terms and conditions. It has been like this for years. Now, with the arrival of the most advanced artificial intelligence algorithms, the level of permeability of these technologies as mediators of our life is expanding like a constantly growing spider’s web. AI companies want this technology to become the foundation for everything, for our entire life and in absolute terms.

In the field of human creativity, Artificial Intelligence can be a source of inspiration or a limitation. It can provide us with ideas but also restrict them, because any answer from these systems is based on everything that has been created previously. For example, it is impossible to conceive a song in a musical style that doesn’t already exist and for which there is no existing data. AI cannot imagine something that is new. It only answers to human instructions, and the answers it provides are limited to what is contained in its database, a closed framework of possibilities. In order for creativity to be precisely what it is, it needs to overcome this framework and go beyond these limits. Furthermore, the time we spend using AI is not being used for activities such as exchanging ideas and holding discussions with other people, or for contemplative activities: activities, among many others, associated precisely with creativity.

AI cannot generate ideas by itself nor do ideas come to it out of the blue: “Oh, I’ll write a poem or paint a surrealist painting”. It’s not out here experimenting and living in the world, it has no cognizance, willpower or a personal opinion, qualities, among other things, found only in living beings. It doesn’t reflect or daydream.

In your book you talk about a growing techlash: will tech companies try to stop it?

In a capitalist system, every trend will be used for financial gain. Techclash is no exception. The big tech companies are aware of this rejection reaction towards excessive amounts of power and the monopoly of giant tech corporations, and their effects, whether we’re talking about on-line dependency, violation of privacy, disinformation and polarisation, algorithmic discrimination etc. This is why they try to present themselves as those with a solution to the problem. It is a perfect circle: they create the problem and profit from it, then they create the solution and return to profit from attempting to solve it. This is what’s happening with the tools for combating disinformation, the systematic violation of on-line privacy, the so-called bias of AI or the impact their work is having on the environment. At the same time, they try to ridicule and suffocate critical movements emerging within and outside their organisations when these movements potentially become a tangible obstacle.
Can we live without Internet?
Do you think we should fear the extensive use of Artificial Intelligence, especially in journalism? Or is it a tool we can use in some way to our advantage?

I think we need to take a cautious view of AI as it is a double-edged knife. In the case of journalism, artificial intelligence can be very useful for repetitive activities like copying or translating, to assist in checking content or even investigative activities. It can also be applied to a series of functions more closely linked to media business rather than journalistic activity as such (creation of content based on facts such as sports results or finance, news distribution etc.). However, it is very important to know where to draw the red line, whether it be to inform readers when content has been created using AI or to carefully select the purposes certain applications of this technology should be used for. There are numerous examples of media using generative AI to produce news with disastrous results, mistakes, inaccuracies and other more serious issues. We can’t forget that generative AI is a wide-scale disinformation machine.

Do you think that without Internet, disinformation and the viral nature of fabrications would be restricted? And are there active tools for containing them on social media?

Of course it would. Disinformation has always been around but has never had tools for spreading it with such efficiency and on such a wide scale as nowadays. Without Internet, this scale and efficiency would be dramatically reduced. That said, we need to be realistic: Internet may fall, but it would only be a temporary fall and would continue to exist. So, we need to look for other solutions which do not involve the destruction of Internet or a return to cave life. The digital platforms already apply various filters to prevent the most obvious forms of disinformation or spam reaching users, but these filters are not accurate enough to distinguish the most credible and dangerous fabrications and scams. The best tool we have against this phenomenon is critical thinking, seeking out reliable sources of information and, if in doubt, consulting the fact-checking organisations with research engines and instant messaging systems to verify if something is fact or fiction.

Can you name one thing in such a complex world that gives you an optimistic outlook of the future?

“Despite everything” I am optimistic, as a good friend of mine would say. There are a number of reasons for being hopeful. Internet is such a powerful tool for doing both good and harm. It is a place for collaboration, reciprocal support, mobilisation, participation, access and sharing of information and knowledge, and creation. There are a number of groups working to reinvent Internet as a sustainable network of awareness, solidarity and care. In order to achieve this, the economic and incentive aims need to change. If these things change, technology will also change. We need to use our imagination and have utopias which allow us to progress, even if it seems like a long shot: having them on the horizon will be the only way to move closer towards them.