How Umberto Eco’s internet prophecy came true

Like the hikers who found Otzi half-buried in ice years ago, the other day I was wandering peacefully through the web when I chanced upon this interview between Lee Marshall and Umberto Eco, published in March 1997 on Wired. It was called “The world according to Eco,” and it is a prophecy — pretty much spot on — of how the world would be revolutionized by the Internet.

It all starts with the Multimedia Arcade, a name that today reminds me of a penny arcade where I went as a child in Marina di Ravenna, but in Eco’s imagination was the library of the future, a place in which citizens could use Internet stations to navigate, send emails, consult and borrow books and multimedia. The first Multimedia Arcade opened in Bologna in late 1997 (later merging into the Biblioteca Salaborsa). For Eco, it was a necessary step to guarantee a horizontal distribution of digital knowledge, which otherwise could have turned into an Orwellian tool for controlling the masses.

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.

At the time there were only 300,000 regular Internet users in Italy, by Eco’s count. Today, there are 38 million Italians connected to the Internet, according to the estimates of Audiweb, wifi is (slowly) conquering apartments and public squares, and smartphones and tablets are turning us into hyperconnected and web-dependent creatures.

When Marshall asked Eco: “Do you seriously believe that mechanics and housewives are going to pour into Multimedia Arcade?” Eco responded that it would only be a matter of time. He was right. Seventeen years later, mechanics and housewives — but also football players, pensioners and my 4-year-old nephew — may not frequent the Multimedia Arcade, but they are connected to the Internet nearly everywhere: at home, at work, in cafes, under the blankets even. But we all agree about that. It’s on another aspect of the web that Eco’s prophecy seems to falter.

The Anglo-Saxon cybercafé 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 barstool — 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.

Two things to note here. First, Eco thought that the emerging Internet culture would have geographical connotations, which is to say that Anglo-Saxon, Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern, Subsaharan cultures would evolve separately, to access and interact with online content in different ways. And they would create geolocalized content, in an irreversible process in which the English-speaking world would quickly lose its reign over the net.

Up to a year ago, there were very few non-English sites. Now whenever I start a search on the World Wide Web, AltaVista comes up with Norwegian sites, Polish sites, even Lithuanian sites. And 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 sensitizing them to the need to embrace other cultures, other points of view.

Seventeen years later, the reality is somewhat different, and not only because AltaVista has disappeared. In 2011, according to a search of W3Tech, 55% of websites in the world were in English, with German in second place at only 6%, and Italian with little more than 2%. Today, the top four sites most visited in the world are controlled by US businesses, even if according to this map, China, Palestine, Russia, Belarus, South Korea and Kazakhstan still resist US imperialism. Looking at the Internet cafes cited by Eco, the AngloSaxon model appears to have colonized the rest of the world. The exceptions seem to flourish, rather than on a geographic or cultural basis, on the difference of buying power and access: see for instance the struggling Japanese who sleep in Internet cafes, or the Google bus that carries a connection to Bangladeshi campuses.

The second thing to consider about the Multimedia Arcade project is that, imagining a web osteria, Eco actually foresaw the Web 2.0, a way of navigating in which we would share the information that interested us the most — which is what many of us do everyday on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etcetera — and in which the most expert users would explain to less expert users the secrets of navigation, which happens regularly on online forums. He also hoped that shared content would appear on a big screen fixed in the center of a room, to provoke amusing comments and indignant reactions among the customers — and not only on the chat window of some unknown guy. In fact, the idea really disturbed him.

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.

And that’s it: With “Plug ‘n Fuck” Eco guessed right. With its ten million daily users and a higher valuation than the rest of the online dating industry, Tinder today does exactly that: it connects people who are looking for sex. Even if that coupling is based on physical appearance rather than on each other’s browser chronology, as the author of In the Name of the Rose imagined it.

Today, 38 million Italians and three billion human beings are connected to the Internet, doing mostly what Eco feared: Speaking to “ghosts,” even if sometimes they do it only to convince them to come play soccer or meet in the square for the next revolution. And we’re even doing what Eco thought nearly impossible.

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.

With our fast connections and the spread of digital literacy, the time it takes to go from one site to another has diminished vertiginously. And the price of navigation, now that we have flat fees and wifi in public spaces, is basically negligible. In fact, we routinely use the web in a distracted way, as evidenced by the ten applications and eleven browser windows that are open right now on my computer.

To not take advantage of your distraction, I’ll leave to the really curious the task of reading the whole interview, which also discusses writing in the era of hypertext, the legacy of Marshall McLuhan, and the hunchback of Notre Dame. True, imperfect, or wrongheaded as they seem today, Eco’s predictions described a golden digital future in which the Internet would become a public good, a plurality of content would prevail over monolithic tech corporations, and web navigation would bring people together. Almost twenty years later, this is still the Internet that we should be fighting for.

Originally published in Wired Italia in January 2015. Then syndicated, translated and published by in February 2016.

Freelance Writer and Editor, Design teacher. Former Executive Editor at @colorsmagazine, Writing Department Coordinator at @fabrica.