« Web 2.0 is the first and only Marxist revolution to have ever succeeded »

This is how Eric Scherer – director, forecasting and new media at France Television – begins his presentation on how the production of information and knowledge is un

dergoing its worst crisis since Gutenberg invented the printing press in the 15th century. In fact, Scherer strongly believes that, with the democratization of the means of information production, « everyone becomes a media producer ». Some may find it amusing, hardcore communists might find such a comparison appalling, but most will admit that the Internet as it stands today is becoming essentially more than a « neutral » technological infrastructure : it seems to be gaining ground as a vehicle capable of provoking an irreversible paradigm shift, a new coherent vision of the world, that will affect societies and citizens throughout the world.

In terms of economic theory, one could say that the barriers to entry in the formerly oligopolistic world of news production have crumbled. « Launching a daily newspaper does not require printing works, nor trucks. A blog may be opened immediately. You may all launch your own radio stations using podcasts », says Scherer. In May 2011, The Huffington Post, a pure Internet media player, rose above the New York Times’ website in terms of daily visits. The site had been launched on 9 May 2005 with a small team and one million dollars in seed capital.

In the background is the publication of Scherer’s latest book (so far available in French only): « Do we still need journalists? A manifesto for ‘augmented journalism’« . His talk, mostly based on the contents of the book, is highly interactive. Scherer argues that the participatory nature of Internet technologies, driven mostly by the astronomic rise in social media penetration, has completely transformed how we perceive, consume and produce information. More precisely, contemporary media are confronted with a reversal of the values that drove them until recently and thus sit as victims of their « decadent ideology », unable to perform under the new regime. Indeed, for the first time in recent history, the next generation will not be following in their parents’ footsteps in terms of media consumption because, in contrast, they will be increasingly forced to subscribe to interfaces which their children forged and mastered the codes and languages for: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, LinkedIn…

As in Gutenberg’s time, today’s copyist monks work in traditional editorial offices. They wear suits and ties and seek, just as their predecessors did five centuries ago: to undermine the ongoing transformation. While some seek to question the legitimacy of its foundations, the bulldozer of Internet-based media seems unstoppable. At best, journalists and their academic counterparts are hesitant. Faced with this tsunami, they go on, business-as-usual, waiting. A shame, one could say, for people whose trade « is based on vigilance in times of great change » writes the French writer Erik Orsenna. Most do not see, or rather refuse to see, the opportunities within their reach.

There are numerous implications to this reversal, particularly for an industry that, until recently, had its owns habits, ways and margins. « It is annoying for media to be disintermediated », says Scherer, « when the traditional role of media was precisely to serve as an intermediary ». Indeed, Internet-based media – so called « pure players » -, associated with a plethora of contributive and collaborative tools, seem to be successful at achieving what centuries of violent uprisings and attacks on property were not able to do: take away power from political and economic elites to dictate the stakes, select the contents and manipulate the popular conscience.

The consequence of this mass appropriation of the means of production is that « the competition does not come from competitors any longer »: everybody is a potential competitor. Attempting to avoid the bottomless trap in which the musical industry has set foot – criminalizing, fearing and scorning its customers – some information media are striving to adapt, to change. The revolution is ongoing and brings with it a succession of euphoric democratic moments, the truthfulness of which is hard to measure without sufficient hindsight. One day maybe, all candidates will be Internet-savvy Obamas; opening wide the doors of participation, accompanied by the means of retroaction, focalisation and localisation necessary for 21st century citizenship.

Many centuries after Gutenberg invented the printing press, the democratization of publication tools is promising. Such novelty trickles down to everyone, creating the potential for innovation and creation formerly reserved to economic, academic and cultural elites. We must accept this movement as a step in the right direction, which is not to say that we must not ask difficult questions concerning issues such as authority, neutrality and governance. If done, the democratic and social value of the Internet will stop being disregarded as an epiphenomenon. And Karl Marx may at last find eternal peace.