Tuesday , 7 February 2023
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How Umberto Eco’s internet prophecy came true

his article originally appeared in Italian on Wired Italy as La profezia avverata di Umberto Eco on Jan. 7, 2015. It has been translated here for Quartz to mark the influential Italian semiotician’s death at 84 yesterday, Feb. 19.

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 inEco’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.