C’est l’argent, c’est le gain légitimement réalisé sur ses ouvrages qui a délivré [l’écrivain] de toute protection humiliante, qui a fait de […] l’ancien bouffon d’antichambre, un citoyen libre […]. Avec l’argent, il a osé tout dire […] jusqu’au roi, jusqu’à Dieu, sans craindre de perdre son pain. L’argent a émancipé l’écrivain, l’argent a créé les lettres modernes.
Emile Zola, L’argent dans la littérature, 1880
Opening the first edition of the Young Publishing Professionals in Brussels (a successful Aldus initiative), the president of the Federation of European Publishers (FEP) Rudy Vanschoonbeek highlighted the negative prejudice, very common in the European institutions, that books are ancient media not able to face the wonderful world of digital networks and social media. This prejudice created enormous difficulties during the debate about the Directive on copyright and the digital single market in the last years.
The second day, the closing of the programme suggested that the climate described by Vanschoonbeek is probably going to change. Young publishers attended the first meeting in the new Parliament of the European Internet Forum (EIF), a cross-party group of Members of the European Parliament, open to stakeholders, created to stimulate political debate about all things digital (www.internetforum.eu). The meeting was the occasion to present the EIF agenda “towards 2030” about The top 10 Digital Trends.
Whilst till last year the Forum always showed optimism about the impact of digitisation on the European society and economy, in the document describing the ten trends for the future terms like “concern”, “issue”, “risk”, “attack” (to freedom of expression), “harm” are the most frequent.
The first point of the agenda is about (1) Defence of democracy: “If our open societies become ungovernable and our democratic institutions untenable under attack from malevolent interests enabled by digital technologies, all other issues become academic”. After this preamble, the agenda deals with (2) Emerging technologies, focusing in particular on artificial intelligence. Also in this case, however, the “concerns over AI ethics and inbuilt biases grow” emerge.
Then, the agenda emphasises the importance of (3) Data as “primary sources of economic and political power”. Related to this, concerns remain about (4) Data privacy and data security “in response to rapidly-evolving surveillance technologies”, which means that the EU should maintain the commitment “to protect personal data from breach and unauthorised use”. Economic power also evokes the need for (5) an effective Antitrust policy.
(6) Very high capacity connectivity is “the essential common infrastructure”, which “enables globally competitive digital transformation in all vertical sectors”. However, also in this area, there are “cybersecurity risks”.
More in general, the paper emphasises that a negative vision of digitisation is growing in the European society, which increasingly looks at (7) the Online harm, rather than the benefits. This brought to the creation of the neologism “tech-lash” and “calls for internet regulation to reestablish trust on-line”.
Digital technologies are pervasive and thus have an impact on the (8) Future of work / social stability, being “the key to future economic growth through growth of labour productivity”. However, this “also raises concerns over the character and distribution of future employment and, thus, social stability” and (9) “increasingly challenge established fiscal strategies”. Tax is the last concern pointed out by the EIF agenda.
In conclusion, the document sets the objective of (10) a Digital Leadership for Europe, without underestimating the difficulties of competing with “US, China and other Asian Tech powers”. This “raises new geopolitical issues and choices for Europe”, while “nationalist tendencies in a growing number of countries raise the risk of a fragmented and weaponised internet”.
Due to the political importance of the Forum, the EIF priorities are an important clue of a change of climate, which already emerged from the approval of the Copyright Directive, which occurred despite the cumbersome opposition of web giants. In that occasion, an argument proposed to reject the Directive was the representation of copyright as an obstacle to freedom of expression. For this reason, a second clue of the presence of a new cultural and political wave can be found in the Festival of free journalism, organised in Rome by No-Bavaglio (an Italian network of journalists and human rights activists) and a left-wing student association. The Italian publishers association was invited to talk about digital evolution and we were pleased to see how our voice was not isolated when we claimed that copyright, far from being an obstacle to freedom of expression, is a prerequisite, because it guarantees the independence of the journalists and book authors.
A few months ago, very probably, had the same argument been proposed to an audience of students, a flood of questions would have come up on the danger for web freedom of making social platforms liable in case of copyright infringement. In the new climate, technologies, copyright and freedom of expression seem to go hand in hand.
Two clues do not constitute evidence yet. The third is provided by the “Festival della Tecnologia” (7-10 November 2019) organised by one of the most prominent Italian technology temples, the Polytechnic of Turin, to celebrate the 160th anniversary of its foundation (www.festivaltecnologia.it). Rich programme, indeed, along the fil rouge set by the nice title: “Technology is Humanity”, which seems to retrace the same themes and the same concerns of the EIF agenda. Eight meetings were dedicated to political topics, somehow connected with the need for web regulation, starting with the meeting with Geert Lovink entitled “The network and its demons”.
Lovink is a fierce critic of certain trends on the Internet and in social media and can justify such a sharp title. It is even more significant that worried tones and critical readings are evident in the titles of the other political meetings of the Festival, which speak about “rebuilding trust”, “toxic effects of web monopolies”, “danger to democracy” or ask what happens “if the machines know who you are”.
Certainly, the aphorism attributed to Agatha Christie: “A clue is a clue, two clues are a coincidence, but three clues are a proof” has no scientific basis. However, the impression remains that a vision that is more critical than in the past of what happens on the web is spreading quickly. It almost seems that the outcome may be an uncritically negative view of technology, in the eternal pendulum between “apocalyptic and integrated” that has characterised the debate on old and new media for decades (the first edition of Apocalypse Postponed by Umberto Eco dates back to 1964).
To avoid this, the reflections of Holger Volland in The Creative Power of Machines (Beltz, 2018) can help. Speaking of the risks that accompany the growing role of artificial intelligence, Volland recalls that “It is […] the task of culture, not least of publishers, authors, booksellers and journalists, to provide people with knowledge and scenarios so that they can pose enlightened and important questions to technology companies and politicians. […] We cannot therefore afford to dismiss it as a niche subject for technologists. Technophobia does not help either. Only enlightened people can decide which developments they want and which not. […] Our industry”, he concludes, “must contribute to the fact that all those who today willingly provide their data without knowing which secrets machines can discover in it have to deal with it”.