F E A T U R E S    Issue 2.12 - December 1996

The World According to ECO

By Lee Marshall

Italian novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco expounds upon the Net, writing, the osteria, libraries, Finnegan's Wake, Marshall McLuhan and, well, God.

For a medievalist, Umberto Eco makes a pretty good Renaissance man. He's a respected academic, a fixture on the international conference circuit and a newspaper columnist. He's a literary critic, a satirist and a political pundit. And he's an incredibly successful novelist. The Name of the Rose, his post-modern whodunnit set in a 12th-century monastery, has sold more than 12 million copies.

And on top of it all he's a bit of a geek, fascinated by computers and their meanings. He's the guy who, in one of his weekly columns for L'Espresso, created the unforgettable metaphor of a "software schism" dividing users of Macintosh and DOS operating systems. Mac, he posited, is Catholic, with "sumptuous icons" and the promise of offering everybody easy steps that allow everyone the chance to reach the Kingdom of Heaven. DOS, on the other hand, is Protestant; "it allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions ... and takes for granted that not all can reach salvation." Following this logic, Windows becomes "an Anglican-style schism - big ceremonies in the cathedral, but with the possibility of going back secretly to DOS in order to modify just about anything you like." Until the advent of Windows 95, that is: "pure unadulterated Catholicism - six Hail Marys and how about a little something for the Mother Church in Seattle."

Eco first rose to fame in Italy as a parodist in the early '60s. Like all the best satirists, he oscillates between exasperation at the depths of human stupidity, and the benign indulgence of a grandfather. But he doesn't just take appearances apart for fun - he does it to better understand the world. Eco was analysing striptease and TV anchor men back in the late '50s, before anyone outside Paris had even heard of Roland Barthes, and way before taking mass culture seriously became everybody's favourite pomo pastime, with psychoanalysts eager to take on Tintin, and books on the semiotics of The Simpsons clogging up the reviews pages. The idea that any text is created as much by the reader as by the author - now academic dogma and an inspiration for anyone looking at what interactive media could be - can be traced back to Eco's Opera Aperta (The Open Work), published in 1962.

Eco continues to wrap his intellect around the information revolution, but he's turning his attention from the spirit of software to technology's political implications. Specifically, he has thrown his weight behind something called Multimedia Arcade. The project may sound like a CD-ROM game publisher with an imagination deficit, but Eco wants his Arcade to change Society As We Know It. The centre will feature a public multimedia library, computer training centre and Net access - all under the tutelage of Bologna town council. There, for a token fee, local citizens can go to surf the Net, send email, learn new programs, use search engines - or simply hang out in the cybercafe. Set to open early in 1997, the Multimedia Arcade will offer around 50 state-of-the-art terminals covering a range of operating systems and software options, and linked together in a local network with a fast Net connection. It will feature a large multimedia, software and print library, as well as a staff of teachers, technicians and librarians.

The premise is simple: if Net literacy is a basic right, then the state should guarantee it to all its citizens. We don't rely on the free market to teach our children to read, so why should we rely on it to teach our children to surf the Net? Eco sees the Bologna centre as the pilot for a nationwide and - why not? - even worldwide chain of high-tech public libraries. Remember, this is a man with that old-fashioned European humanist faith in the library as a model of good society and spiritual regeneration - a man who once went so far as to declare that "libraries can stand in for God."

WIRED: You say that the new Multimedia Arcade project is all about ensuring that cybersociety is a democratic place to live.

ECO: There is a risk that we might be heading towards an online 1984, in which Orwell's "proles" are represented by the passive, television-fed masses that have no access to this new tool, and wouldn't know how to use it if they did. Above them, of course, there'll be a petit bourgeoisie of passive users - office workers, airline clerks. And finally we'll see the masters of the game, the nomenklatura - in the Soviet sense of the term. This has nothing to do with class in the traditional, Marxist sense - the nomenklatura are just as likely to be inner-city hackers as rich executives. But they will have one thing in common: the knowledge that brings control. We have to create a nomenklatura of the masses. We know that state-of-the art modems, an ISDN connection and up-to-date hardware are beyond the means of most potential users - especially when you need to upgrade every six months. So let's give people access free, or at least for the price of the necessary phone connection.

Why not just leave the democratisation of the Net to the market - I mean, to the falling prices ushered in by robust competition?

Look at it this way: when Benz and others invented the automobile, they had no idea that one day the mass market would be opened up by Henry Ford's Model T - that came only 40 years later. So how do you persuade people to start using a means of transport that was beyond the means of all but the very rich? Easy - you rent by the minute, with a driver, and you call the result a taxi. It was this which gave people access to the new technology, but it was also this which allowed the industry to expand to the point where the Model T Ford was conceivable. In Italy, the Net marketplace is still tiny; there are only around 300,000 regular users, which is peanuts in this game. But if you have a network of municipal access points - each of which has a commitment to provide the most powerful, up-to-date systems for its users - then you're talking about a respectable turnover, which can be ploughed back into giving the masses Model T hardware and bandwidth.

But do you seriously believe that mechanics and housewives are going to pour into Multimedia Arcade?

No, not straight away. When Gutenberg invented his printing press, the working classes did not immediately sign up for copies of the 42-line Bible; but they were reading it a century later. And don't forget Luther. Despite widespread illiteracy, his translation of the New Testament circulated through all sections of 16th-century German society. What we need is a Luther of the Net.

But what's so special about Multimedia Arcade? Isn't it just a state-run cybercafe?

You don't want to turn the whole thing into the waiting-room of an Italian government ministry, that's for sure. But we have the advantage here of being in the Mediterranean. The Anglo-Saxon cybercafe is a peep-show experience because the Anglo-Saxon bar is a place where people go to nurse their own solitude in the company of others. In New York you might say "Hi! Lovely day!" to the person on the next bar stool - but then you go back to brooding over the woman who just left you. The model for Multimedia Arcade, on the other hand, is that of the Mediterranean osteria. This should be reflected by the structure of the place; it would be nice to have a giant communal screen, for example, where the individual navigators could post interesting sites that they've just discovered.

I don't see the point of having 80 million people online if all they are doing in the end is talking to ghosts in the suburbs. This will be one of the main functions of Multimedia Arcade: to get people out of the house and - why not? - even into each other's arms. Perhaps we could call it "Plug 'n Fuck" instead of "Multimedia Arcade".

Doesn't this vision violate the "one user, one computer" principle?

I'm a user and I own eight computers. So you see that there are exceptions to the rule. In Leonardo's day, remember, the rule was one user, one painting. Ditto when the first gramophones were produced. Are we short of communal opportunities to look at paintings today, or to listen to recorded music? Give it time.

In the US there's this idea that the modem is a point of entry into a new phase of civilisation. Europeans seem to see it more as a desirable household appliance, on a level with the dishwasher or the electric razor. There's an "enthusiasm gap" between the two continents. Who's right on this one? Are Americans doing their usual thing of assuming everyone plays baseball, or are Europeans being so cool and ironic that they're going to end up missing out on the Net phenomenon?

The same thing happened with television, which reached a critical mass in the States a good few years before it took off over here. What's more interesting is the fact that the triumph of American culture and American modes of production in films and television - the Disney factor that annoys the French so much - is not going to happen with the Net.

Up to a year ago, there were very few non-English sites. Now whenever I start a search, AltaVista comes up with Norwegian sites, Polish sites, even Lithuanian sites.

This is going to have a curious effect. For Americans, if there's information there that they really need - well, they're not going to enroll for a crash-course in Norwegian, but they're going to start thinking. It's going to start sensitising them to the need to embrace other cultures, other points of view. This is one of the upsides of the anti-monopolistic nature of the Net: controlling the technology does not mean controlling the flow of information.

As for the "enthusiasm gap", I'm not even sure there is one. But there is plenty of criticism and irony and disillusionment in the States that the media has simply decided not to pick up on. The problem is that we only get to hear Negroponte and the other ayatollahs of the Net.

In 1967 you wrote an influential essay called "Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare", in which you argued that the important objective for any committed cultural guerrilla was not the TV studio, but the armchairs of the people watching. In other words, if you can give people tools that help them to criticise the messages they are receiving, these messages lose their potency as subliminal political levers.

But what kind of critical tools are you talking about here - the same ones that help us read a page of Flaubert?

We're talking about a range of simple skills. After years of practice, I can walk into a bookstore and understand its layout in a few seconds. I can glance at the spine of a book and make a good guess at its content from a number of signs. If I see the words "Harvard University Press" I know it's probably not going to be a cheap romance. I go into the Net and I don't have those skills.

And you've got the added problem that you've just walked into a bookshop where all the books are lying in heaps on the floor.

Exactly. So how do I make sense of the mess? I try to learn some basic labels. But there are problems here too. If I click on a URL that ends with .indiana.edu, I think, "Ah, this must have something to do with the University of Indiana." Like hell it does; the signpost is deceptive, since there are people using that domain to post all kinds of stuff, most of which has little or nothing to do with education. You have to grope your way through the signs. You have to recycle the semiological skills which allow you to distinguish a pastoral poem from a satirical skit, and apply them to the problem, for example, of weeding out the serious philosophical sites from the lunatic ravings.

I was looking through neo-Nazi sites the other day. If you just rely on search-engine logic, you might jump to the conclusion that the most Fascist site of the lot is the one in which the word "Nazi" scores highest. But in fact this turns out to belong to an anti-Fascist watchdog group.

You can learn these skills by trial and error or you can ask other Net users for advice online. But the quickest and most effective method is to be in a place surrounded by other people, each with different levels of competence, each with different experiences which they can pool. It's like the freshman who turns up on day one. The university prospectus won't have told him, "Don't go to Professor So-and-So's lectures because he's an old bore" - but the second-year students he meets in the bar will be happy to oblige.

Modernism seems to have ground to a halt - in the novel at least. Are people getting their experimental kicks from other sources, such as the Net? Maybe if Joyce had been able to surf the Web he would have written Gone with the Wind rather than Finnegan's Wake?

No, I see it the other way round. If Margaret Mitchell had been able to surf the Web, she would probably have written Finnegan's Wake. And in any case, Joyce was always online. He never came off.

Hasn't the experience of writing changed in the age of hypertext, though? Do you agree with Michael Joyce when he says that authorship is becoming "a sort of jazz-like unending story"?

Not really. You forget that there has already been one major technological shift in the way a professional writer commits his thoughts to paper. I mean, would you be able to tell me which of the great modern writers had used a typewriter and which wrote by hand, purely by analysing their style?

So how, then, do you assimilate the idea that word processing is altering our approach to the written word, making us less anxious about the finished product, encouraging us to rearrange our ideas on the screen, at one remove from the brain?

I've written lots on this - on the effect which cut-and-paste will have on the syntax of Latin languages, on the psychological relations between the pen and the computer as writing tools, on the influence the computer is likely to have on comparative philology.

If you were to use a computer to generate your next novel, how would you go about it?

The best way to answer that is to quote from an essay I wrote recently for the anthology Come si scrive un romanzo (How to write a novel), published by Bompiani:

I would scan into the computer around a hundred novels, as many scientific texts, the Bible, the Koran, a few telephone directories (great for names). Say around a hundred, a hundred and twenty thousand pages. Then I'd use a simple, random program to mix them all up, and make a few changes - such as taking all the As out. That way I'd have a novel which was also a lipogram. Next step would be to print it all out and read it through carefully a few times, underlining the important passages. Then I'd load it all onto a truck and take it to the nearest incinerator. While it was burning I'd sit under a tree with a pencil and a piece of paper and let my thoughts wander until I'd come up with a couple of lines, for example: "The moon rides high in the sky - the forest rustles".

At first, of course, it wouldn't be a novel so much as a haiku. But that doesn't matter. The important thing is to make a start.

What's your take on Marshall McLuhan? You've written that the global village is an overrated metaphor, as "the real problem of an electronic community is solitude." Do you feel that McLuhan's philosophy is too lightweight to justify the cult that has been dedicated to him?

McLuhan wasn't a philosopher - he was a sociologist with a flair for trend-spotting. If he were alive today he would probably be writing books contradicting what he said 30 or 40 years ago. As it was he came up with the global village prophecy, which has turned out to be at least partly true; the "end of the book" prophecy, which has turned out to be totally false; and a great slogan - "the medium is the message" - which works a lot better for television than it does for the Internet.

OK, maybe at the beginning you play around, you use your search engine to look for "shit" and then for "Aquinas" and then for "shit AND Aquinas" and in that case the medium certainly is the message. But when you start to use the Net seriously, it does not reduce everything to the fact of its own existence, as television tends to. There is an objective difference between downloading the works of Chaucer and goggling at the Playmate of the Month.

It comes down to a question of attention. It's difficult to use the Net distractedly, unlike the television or the radio. I can zap among Web sites, but I'm not going to do it as casually as I do with the television, simply because it takes a lot longer to get back to where I was before, and I'm paying for the delay.

In your closing address to a recent symposium on the future of the book you pointed out that McLuhan's "end of the Gutenberg galaxy" is a restatement of the doom-laden prophecy in Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame when, comparing a book to his beloved cathedral, Frollo says "Ceci tuera cela" - this will kill that, the book will kill the cathedral, the alphabet will kill the icon. Did it?

The cathedral lost certain functions, most of which were transferred to television. But it has taken on others. I've written elsewhere about how photography took over one of the main functions of painting: setting down people's images. But it certainly didn't kill painting - far from it. It freed it up, allowed it to take risks. And painters can still do portraits if they want.

Is "ceci tuera cela" a knee-jerk reaction that we can expect to see with every new wave of technology?

It's a bad habit that people will probably never shake. It's like the old cliché about the end of a century being a time of decadence and the beginning signalling a rebirth. It's just a way of organising history to fit a story we want to tell.

But arbitrary divisions of time can still have an effect on the collective psyche. You've studied the fear of the end that pervaded the 10th century. Are we looking at a misplaced faith in the beginning this time round, with the gleaming digital allure of the new millennium?

Centuries and millennia are always arbitrary; you don't need to be a medievalist to know that. However, it's true that syndromes of decadence or rebirth can form around such symbolic divisions of time. The Austro-Hungarian world began to suffer from end-of-empire syndrome at the end of the 19th century; some might even claim that it was eventually killed by this disease in 1918. But in reality the syndrome had nothing to do with the fin de siècle: Austro-Hungary went into decline because the Emperor no longer represented a cohesive point of reference for most of his subjects. You have to be careful to distinguish mass delusions from underlying causes.

And how about your own sense of time? If you had the chance to travel in time, would you go backwards or forwards - and by how many years?

And you, sir, if you had the chance to ask someone else that question, who would you ask? Joking aside, I already travel in the past - haven't you read my novels? And as for the future - haven't you read this interview?

Lee Marshall lives in Rome and writes about the Net, museums, Italien food, and, well, the Pope.