Last year I read a very important book by Roberto Maragliano, the New multimedia teaching manual (ed. Laterza, Bari 1998) which aroused me many questions.
In my opinion Maragliano, when he tends to contrast textuality with hypertextuality , showing only the great defects of the first and only the great qualities of the second, is a little one-sided. But perhaps his is only a provocative attitude, which among other things, by virtue of that particular grace that characterizes his prose, does not disturb at all.
The first, instinctive, question I asked myself after that instructive reading was the following: what guarantees can hypertextuality offer that does not fall within the traditional limits of textuality, which are – as he himself says – “the closed, univocal meanings , to which the reader user has to adapt “(p. 11)?
In other words: why will the user never risk adopting a similar attitude of mere adaptation towards hypertext ?
What if hypertextuality, precisely because of its superior complexity, ends up inducing a greater dependence ?
Let me explain. We know that for traditional media the user is only a substantially passive, influenceable individual: the user must be induced to learn certain notions (in school), to buy certain products (on the market), to vote for certain parties (in politics ) etc. 1
Vice versa, today hypertextuality, especially that experienced on the Internet, allows the user to transform himself into an “agent and interacting”, that is, an active and interactive subject . So much so that the services (commercial and non-commercial) offered by the various agencies require, in order to be used with relative security, a marked personalization.
But, apart from the fact that to realize hypertextuality and multimedia the costs are considerably higher than those of traditional textuality (physical, technical, technological, energy costs …), apart from this, which is in any case not insignificant (especially in Third World countries), are we really sure that the contents transmitted by hypertextuality are more formative, more “enriching” the personality compared to traditional textual contents? Just because there is a new way of organizing knowledge?
I ask myself: is interactivity a specific requirement of hypertextuality? In other words: aren’t you at risk of falling into a sort of techno-IT fetishism? Wouldn’t it be better to say that textuality was closed yesterday, one-sided, etc., simply because such was the culture that supported it, that served as its background?
We know that interactivity, in the national school field, has always been little present because “knowledge” is something that is basically transmitted qua talis , on the basis of a role, that of “teacher / learner”, clearly predefined. When there is interactivity, it constitutes the (subjective) exception to the (objective) rule, in the sense that a teacher may also be available for dialogue with his pupils, but this will not prevent him from performing the function of mere performer of ministerial programs decided elsewhere, independent of his will. 2
And this despite the fact that the theories of interactive learning go back to Rousseau. But it is a fact that the Italian school has always had little familiarity with pedagogical theories, least of all with scientific ones.
Today, however, I ask myself: we can confidently say that interactivity exists precisely by virtue of hypertextuality, that is, for an exquisitely technological motivation, or it is perhaps not true that hypertextuality, as a mass phenomenon, arose following the collapse of ideologies , pre-established values to be transmitted unidirectionally?
Was it not the collapse of ideologies that allowed the emergence of a networked, decentralized, multifaceted, multipurpose, incredibly interactive knowledge, in which the traditional roles of “teacher / learner” were reversed? Today the interchangeability of roles has reached levels unthinkable until some time ago. 3 It is no coincidence that the need to have ministerial programs that establish a priori the contents of the topics to be transmitted, the need to adopt certain textbooks, even the need for the world of school to refer to a Ministry is being seriously questioned. of public education. Is a “public” education necessarily “state”? that is, must it necessarily be organized by the state? Why if it is not organized by the state it inevitably becomes a “private” education, that is, for the few who can afford it?
Of course, historically things did not go exactly like that. We all know that the basic motivation that led Vannever Bush in 1945 to the intuition of hypertext systems and Theodor H. Nelson, 20 years later, to their design, was that linked to the typical need of our culture to archive and organize in a systematic way the huge amount of knowledge that has accumulated over time, so as to allow an easy and immediate consultation. 4
But it is very probable that without the credibility crisis of the institutions that began in the 70s, this happy intuition would not have had the impetuous development it had: it would almost certainly have remained for use and consumption in relatively restricted environments (military, scientific, political or administrative), as we still try to do in those countries where we think we can overcome the lack of trust in institutions using repressive methods (e.g. in China). There are even 45 countries that place restrictions on internet access, forcing for example to use state-run providers.
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Now, however, I would like to make an excerpt, explaining that I mean the term ” hypertextuality ” in a philosophical sense , not simply technical, that is, I mean it as the most mature product of a civilization, that of advanced capitalism, which on the level of knowledge wants to go beyond beyond the acquired, of the “already given”. In this sense, I believe that the web is the most significant expression of the concept of hypertextuality (which, in this aspect we say epistemological, includes the concepts of multi- or hypermedia). Parenthesis closed. For the more theoretical aspects, I refer to the bibliography. 5
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The West (rationalist by definition) has always considered knowledge the best way to solve problems. The development of science is in fact a consequence of this conception of knowledge. Encyclopedism is a typical feature of our civilization. It was even before hypertextuality.
Indeed, we can say with certainty that hypertextuality has brought encyclopedism to an absolutely exceptional development, since the updating of knowledge is very fast, punctual, detailed, even customizable, easily available online and on the basis of “quantitative” levels as well voluminous that on the one hand the organization of the materials becomes an almost daily effort and, on the other, the belief of being able to use all the information received to the end quickly becomes a mere chimera.
In order to adequately manage even a small part of the knowledge that potentially the web offers us as useful for our work, our interests, etc., we should live not once but a thousand times. If I said that at the moment the mass of information residing on the network amounts to about 20 million billion characters, I would lie, because surely at the end of reading this art it will have increased by a few million bytes (in fact, a new site is born every four seconds).
In short, I have the impression that we are moving from a great illusion, of enlightenment derivation, that according to solving problems it is enough to want to know them , to an even greater illusion, neo-enlightenment, that according to the current mega-knowledge ( the result of worldwide interactivity) it is practically impossible not to solve the problems .
What do I mean by “problems”? The usual: unemployment, hunger, marginalization, etc., which in the West are seen and not seen, seen but not heard, they are heard but without too much commitment. “Social”, not “mathematical” problems, problems that were thought to be resolved yesterday with the tools of religion, philosophy, politics and which today are thought to be solved with the tools of the exact sciences.
Is not the time that we dedicate to implement the structures that will have to support all this mega-knowledge time taken away from the effective management of the social need , that is, in substance from the human relationship stricto sensu ?
Today mega-knowledge is practically within the reach of the middle class (at least in advanced societies): just buy encyclopaedic cd or visit the web.
This is certainly an advancement of democracy, freedom of speech, information, learning …
However, we cannot hide that the true mega-knowledge is only that of the web , not that of the cd-rom. For one simple reason: that a CD is not much different from a paper encyclopedia. It can have a thousand positive aspects that make it preferable to the traditional encyclopedia, but it has one that destines it in today’s world to an early obsolescence: it is static , its knowledge is acquired, it is given. The hypertextuality it proposes is not metaphysical, but technical, it is only a series of links, without the magic of knowledge that is built along the way.
True mega-knowledge is offered only by the web, because only the web guarantees maximum interactivity. The interactivity of a cd-rom affects, at best, the first time. That of the web never tires, because it is constantly changing. It is magmatic. Only an inexperienced or culturally limited person can think that this perennial mutation is a disturbing, distracting, deafening noise.
To date, this mega-knowledge has been offered almost free of charge , also because it was the result of an interactivity based on volunteering . Obviously I’m not talking about the fact that Amazon has put millions of book titles on the net (and for sale), nor that Treccani is freely accessible by the web user.
I am referring to other realities: for example to the Manuzio project , or to those formidable sources of knowledge that are the Faq (the questions, with related answers, on problems or on the use of operating systems, various software and hardware, of the many computer languages etc.).
But I also intend to refer to the work of those who, free of charge, have archived all the world’s magazines and newspapers, all publishers, all schools, universities, all the regulations of this or that professional sector …
These thousands of people were able to work more or less for free precisely because in the advanced countries the widespread wealth could allow it.
But now I would like to ask a question: given that the web is the most powerful medium in circulation (not only for the level of knowledge and interaction it offers, but also for the business it can provide: it is perhaps a coincidence, in this sense, that the best search engines today are those that have turned into a commercial enterprise?), therefore, given this, what will happen -I ask- when the big economic companies will take over this electronic medium? Will not mega-knowledge end up being subordinated to market needs?
Or maybe we have to think that digital democracy will be a consequence of e-commerce?
Until now we can say that the web has remained free : knowledge is paid for in very few sites. On the contrary, we have become so accustomed to gratuity that we are not even willing to pay for that service on the net that instead we would pay for it out of the net in a completely natural way.
Today some search engines are worth millions of dollars and are listed on the stock exchange. If they were bought by a number of multinationals and suddenly put on payment, how would the web user react? Let’s not forget that traditional companies have not yet entered the net with all their weight simply because the procedures relating to commercial transactions have not yet reached an optimal level of security. But it is only a matter of time.
Today the web fortunately allows alternatives. If Yahoo! were paid, you could contact Altavista . But if the biggest search engines (which guarantee most of the information) were paid and the web user did not want or could not pay, his fate would be sealed: he would lose the mega-knowledge required by the computerized society. In fact, the other engines would remain too small, or would sooner or later be swallowed up or ruined by the competition.
Aren’t we already seeing that big search engines are buying small ones? Yahoo! he bought that huge virtual city called Geocities and declared that he intends to use all the materials as he sees fit (and so will probably all the providers that offer free web space or they will oblige to put up with unwanted advertising daily).
Is the web user beginning to experience the effects of an impossible gratuitousness to the bitter end? Or, if we want, is he perhaps beginning to experience that where an incredible gratuity is being advertised (think of the offers of Tiscali, Tin, Infostrada), there is a strong danger of being at the mercy of interests much greater than him?
Is this triumph of anarchy over authoritarianism, which has done so much good to freedom of thought, now perhaps leading to a new form of authoritarianism, which in the West is always closely connected to the rules of business?
In short, I have the impression that the circle is beginning to close. That knowledge which, starting from the Renaissance, even before, starting from the medieval rediscovery of Aristotelianism, was thought to solve all the problems related to the livability of human experience, only to demonstrate its dramatic inadequacy (especially from the moment in which it was the ruling classes that appropriated them for their interests), today, transformed into mega-knowledge , it shows its limits ever more intensely.
Is it ever possible that the West can make its revolutions (in this case, Maragliano would say, “semiotic and anthropological”, p. 19) only with the tools of knowledge?
I remember, from my university studies, when Marx complained that in his Germany the bourgeois revolution had taken place only in thought (the idealistic philosophy), while in France he had had the courage to do it also in practice , with the revolution of 1989 . Of course he was wrong to think that this last revolution, just because it was “political”, was better than the other: the devastating consequences on the human level actually led us to think otherwise.
And yet I wonder if with this computer revolution there is no risk of creating an even greater gap between advanced countries, masters of immense wealth, of super-knowledge, and backward countries, rich only in misery, ignorance and above all of populations. Let’s not forget that only 10% of the third world population uses the telephone and that 3/4 of the Earth’s population owns only 12% of the world’s telecommunication networks. Across Africa, users who connected to the network at work did not exceed 800,000 at the end of ’99; in South America there were 4.5 million; across Asia only 22 million. Ridiculous figures compared to the US and Canadian ones: 100 million, and European: 35 million (at the end of ’99). It is no coincidence that the average user is a person between 18 and 35 years old,
It is true that the Internet allows the average user, with a relatively modest expense, to create his own commercial niche and to achieve, in an unexpected way, certain profits, but it is also true that this result presupposes a whole wealth of knowledge and skills. that would immediately make that average user in a backward country an authentic white fly.
So how can the web help 80% of humanity to reach the levels of the remaining 20%, or is it perhaps this 20% that must begin to lower its standard of living a little?
We Westerners say that the network offers great opportunities for personal fulfillment even to those who are not “father’s son”, but it is always a possibility of development within our advanced society, where the opportunities to individually acquire sufficient competence to master the IT media are relatively high.
In short, to conclude, I would really like the web to be experienced not only as a source of acquisition of mega-knowledge or as an opportunity for electronic commerce for the mass of users, but also and above all as a great opportunity to develop the concept of democracy.
The network, for example, served to denounce and avert the scheduled execution of the American journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, even if the appeals from several sides put forward to save J. O’Dell’s life did not have the same effect. . It also served to give voice to the oppressed peasants of the Chiapas uprising, to support the cause of the students in Tiananmen Square, to put Sarajevo in connection with the world during the war in Bosnia. It even served to allow the capture of the assassins of the Brazilian ecological leader Chico Mendes. And these are only examples.