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Umberto Eco

The Information Flood

For the author of The Name of The Rose, the same internet that gives access to the best of human knowledge also loads people with such trash that everything can end in “pure silence”.

Tania Menai, in Bologna

Umberto Eco is a respected theorist in the semiotic field and a great literate. He owned audiences and movie screens when his novel The Name of the Rose became a film. At age 68, the Italian author also travels easily through time. Fascinated by the Middle-Ages, this is the époque he likes to set his stories in. In real life, however, he is concerned about what society and culture look like in the Internet age. At Bologna University, where he teaches, he welcomed VEJA for the following interview.

Veja – In your opinion what impact will the Internet have on culture?
Eco –
For the first time, humanity is absorbing an enormous amount of information at a low cost. In the past, this information was costly, and meant buying books, exploring libraries. Today, from the center of Africa, if you are connected, you can have access to philosophical texts in Latin. This is a great change.

Veja – What are the changes in the political scenario?
Eco –
The Chinese government is screening information on-line. Some programs block the website B and only give access to website A. But there are ways to reach website B through website A. The government is unable to control all websites. The internet is like a flood, there is no way of stopping the information invasion. In critical situations, this excess of information is very positive. At a conference in Bologna, a speaker pointed out that if the Internet had existed in the 40’s, Auschwitz wouldn’t have been possible – we would all know what was going on. People wouldn’t be able to say “oh, I didn’t know”, as they say still today. The internet forces us to know. You cannot stop information.

Veja- And what is the negative aspect of all that?
Eco –
The abundance of information. A good amount of information is positive; but its excess could be terrible because you simply cannot face it and choose what is really worthwhile. I always joke that there is no difference between the Stalinist journal Pravda and the Sunday New York Times. The first has no news whatsoever. And the second has 600 pages of information. One week is not enough to read all that.

Veja – In the midst of this amount of information, how can one find quality websites?
Eco –
Today we can find medieval philosophical texts on the Internet. The problem is how ton find out that they are there. I bumped into those texts doing research. But I am someone professionally involved with this kind of text. For someone younger, the Internet can be a forest: if you turn to the left, instead of turning to the right, we might miss the treasury that you are searching for. There are a lot of interesting sites. But there is also a lot of trash. I made a test by choosing the Holy Grail as a theme. I know that this subject involves a lot of crazy people and creates incredible fantasies. In the first search I found 78 sites. Hoje podemos encontrar na internet todos os textos de filósofos medievais. Two of them had good encyclopedia information. Two had information by universities. And five mixed up encyclopedia information with no control. The rest was garbage. How can we guarantee that a youngster will be able to choose between false and true information?

Veja- Good question...
Eco –
This is something that should be taught at the schools of the future, but we still not know under which class. I’m thinking of creating university groups to monitor websites. For instance, in philosophy they would select the interesting sites. So, if a young person starts searching on a topic, he or she could get a good advice. This could be a very successful service, even in economical terms. Today, you click on a button and get 10 thousand titles about one subject. But you don’t have time to read the 10 thousand titles, not to mention the books – that illustrates that the excess of information can transform itself in pure silence.

Veja – Once, you said that “when the Internet becomes a way of implementing real communities, through virtual communities, we would have a big change”. What do you mean by that?
Eco –
In the first phase, the internet had implemented solitude. People started to work from home, to communicate virtually with each other. How to transform this solitude in social occasions? Here in Bologna we are launching an enormous public space full of books and computers. Italy has a population of 50 million and only a minority of 5 million is connected to the Internet. In those spaces, people will be able to right their thesis, attend training courses, and get all kind of information. Some people us the internet once a week, why do they have to buy a computer? Fifty people using computers in one room can exchange information. This way, we use a gadget of solitude to create a small community.

Veja – In the virtual world, anarchy seems to prevail. However, there are control tools such as software and cookies. Who will be the winner: anarchy or bureaucracy?
Eco –
This is a problem that doesn’t have to do only with the internet. In this world, we are losing privacy. We are filmed when we buy whisky at supermarket, our purchases by credit card – from Bibles to porno books – are tracked, as well as our stay in hotels. With the internet we can reach paradoxes. We are registered on certain sites, which means that someone could have tracked my searches in the past six months and found out that I was looking for information on the philosopher Emmanuel Kant. This will, probably, lead to the end of secrets. I want to buy a gift for my daughter and keep it to myself until then. It’s a small secret, but even those are each time more difficult to keep. We will start living in the times of public confessions, when everyone used to reveal their own sins.

Veja – How can one avoid this persecution?
Eco –
Let’s say that I want to read about Emmanuel Kant, on a website that has nothing forbidden – but that, for some personal reasons, I don’t want to be monitored. What should I do? I make 50 searches in several philosophers, including Aristotle, Descartes and Kant. In the end, no one will know which one of them I am interested in. This is an artificial way of protection that takes time. We will be creating forms of protection for our most legitimate secret, or we will have to have a different attitude before them. As if we were saying “Yes, I have a lover. Yes, I bought Playboy magazine. So what?” Otherwise, we will have to invent ways of self-protection, new models of public hypocrisy.

Veja – Is English becoming the language of the Internet?
Eco –
English is Internet’s Esperanto. It is not the first time that languages become a world vehicle. In the past, it was Greek, afterwards, Latin. For some people, the web could be the opportunity to discover other languages. There are tools – terrible ones, by the way – that translate texts. Maybe an American translating something from French, and comparing the translation, start learning some French.

Veja – Do you believe that the Internet will change the English language for its dissemination and its use among people that already don’t use it correctly?
Eco –
Yes, but this language has been changing a lot way before the internet. The existence of America changed the English spoken in Oxford and, as the language circulates, it is in constant change. What happened to the classical Greek when it started to be spoken in the Mediterranean region, by the Egyptians and even by the Romans? A new kind of Greek emerged, called coine. It wasn’t polite, in comparison to Homero’s Greek. However, Aristotle wrote in that language. So, even with a simplified universal language, you can do excellent things.

Veja – The Internet is still a privilege of the elite?
Eco –
Today it is. And, frankly, I don’t think all of humanity will use it. The web will end up creating new forms of class divisions. The classes won’t be able to be based only on money, but on who has access to information. We will have the ones who will access, manipulate, interact, the ones who will passively use the web and the one who will be totally excluded. When class division was made according to richness, it was difficult to say “I will donate millions of dollars and you will be rich”. Now, it would be cheaper to give poor people access to the internet.

Veja – How can we speed up the democratization of the web?
Eco –
Through Education. Each child in the world must have access to the Internet. If they don’t have the money to buy a computer, they at least should be able to access it from public spaces.

Veja – What do you think of the e-book?
Eco –
E-books could partially change the panorama. The Italian encyclopedia Treccani must have about 15 volumes. Besides being expensive. It occupies an enormous space. You can fit it all in a disc. One kid can go to school taking only an e-book. However, I don’t think it is a pleasure to read a romance in this format.
Veja – Would you publish your book this way?
- Not yet.

Veja – How often do you use the Internet?
Eco –
I use it just like I use the car – whenever I need it. I don’t spend my life driving on highways. If I don’t have to move, I don’t use the car. I don’t spend the wee hours online. I have better things to do.

[ copyright © 2004 by Tania Menai ]