Umberto Eco: the risks of the eternal present

Absence of critical comparison, flattening of the present, lack of adequate filters to the excess of information. These are the critical points of the web according to Umberto Eco, who is indeed "apocalyptic", but not completely. In fact, there is a "cure": to pass from speaking out indiscriminately to a conscious "awareness" of memory

Critical and confident. Enthusiastic and catastrophic. Fifty years after the publication of “Apocalittici e integrati” (“Apocalyptic and Integrated Intellectuals”), the successful formula introduced by Umberto Eco in the '60s to describe the opposing attitudes towards mass culture is still effective when it comes to the web and its consequences, in particular with respect to memory, both individual and collective, which is likely to be crushed in a sort of perpetual simultaneity.
This is what comes through the words of the author in the interview that follows, out in full on the next issue of ICS Magzine and made during the commemorating seminar (see video excerpt) dedicated by the University of Bologna to the anniversary of the book’s first edition.
Apocalyptic and integrated: a successful and more than ever contemporary dichotomy. On the web, where confrontation has been moved, the integrated ones seem to succeed. There is a tendency to regard as intrinsically good concepts of participation and sharing related to digital and social. How do you consider this great metaphor of the sharing that seems to dominate us?

The function of every culture is to favour collective growth. In cultures where freedom of expression is present, this growth has always been accompanied by continuous criticism of the freedom of speaking one’s mind. Or rather, culture is a continuous alternation between the freedom to speak out and the criticism of this freedom. This trend is linked to an ideal model of education, of school. What is happening with the Web, however, is that there is a worshiping of the ideal itself of the freedom to speak out, without any control by others. And the result is that others in turn feel free to speak out, which does not lead to any critical comparison. Likely to decline, as a consequence, is the fundamental premise of democracy, in particular the assumption that not everything that is said is fine. Those who theorize the opposite, advocating the freedom of speaking out as the only form of democracy, have in fact given up on democracy - and therefore democratic culture - to criticize opinions.

It is not a case if one of the apocalyptic attitudes regarding the web is related to the consequences that digital environment will have on the cognitive abilities of its "natives", memory in the first place. How do you judge this attitude? Are we really immersed in a "prevailing simultaneity"?

The problem is that we are witnessing a crisis of collective memory. One recent example is the one of four young competitors in a quiz show that, when asked about an episode in the life of Mussolini, did not know how to place it into a time frame. An important difference compared to generations who may not have known the exact date of the death of Napoleon, but at least knew the period in which Garibaldi’s expedition had taken place! The point however is that collective memory is in crisis because also the pleasure of individual memory is. Those who do not know when Mussolini died are probably not interested in remembering what they did last summer. And not even to listen to the memories of their parents or grandparents. The risk is thus the birth of a generation interested in knowing only about the present.

Don’t you believe, however, that Internet can also be considered an endless reservoir of memory available to those young people who instead want to rediscover the past?

Yes, in order not to be forcedly apocalyptic, we can certainly say that you can use Internet to cultivate collective memory. The problem, however, is the way information is drawn from this “reservoir”. In every culture there has always been an elite who had access to the collective memory, thus to culture and knowledge, while masses were excluded. Today, we have a new elite, which also uses critical information tools, which cultivates memory and knows the past, and a mass that does not do it, not because it has been excluded from access to knowledge, but because it has been given too much and badly organized information. So once again the masses will be the ones to bear, this time because of an excess of democracy.



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