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Giovedì, 13 Settembre 2012 00:00

Piero Tortola su internet, governo e il progetto Quattrogatti

Segnaliamo una recente intervista della ONG serba iSerbia a Piero Tortola di L'intervista e' stata realizzata in vista della partecipazione di Piero a una conferenza su ruolo del web in politica ed economia che si terra' a Belgrado a meta' ottobre. In quell'occasione Piero presentera' il progetto e alcuni degli ultimi lavori apparsi sul sito--uno dei quali e' stato riproposto sul sito di iSerbia.

Qui il testo dell'intervista in serbo-croato e qui sotto la traduzione in inglese. 



In your opinion, what are the consequences of the internet on governments today?

From a purely conceptual point of view I would be tempted to say that, as any new technology, the internet is a neutral means which can produce good or bad results as far as the relationship between governments and citizens is concerned. From simple observation, however, it seems to me that on balance the web so far has had a positive effect on the quality of government. For one thing, by speeding up communications the web can and does make public administration more efficient and user friendly. (Of course, the flip side of the coin here is that government are now more than ever able to store and access huge amounts of data and information, which raises issues of privacy). For another, the internet has multiplied the ways, speed and sources of democratic control on government and, more generally, production of information. Again, one should not underestimate the negative effects that this multiplication of voices can have on society, in the first place because the web gives 'good' and 'bad' information the same sort of access and ability to capture an audience. But it is quite evident that the more mature the internet becomes the more able it is to develop 'antibodies' and mechanisms to separate quality information from 'rubbish'. The 'wiki' way, which delegates policing of its entries to users, is one example. Another is the existence of a number of information websites, blogs, etc.--among which have succeeded in building a reputation for good work over the years.


What is the role of academics and high education in this new context and how do you try to fulfil it? 

Academics, and more generally intellectuals, have a crucial role in this context for they have the power and responsibility to mediate between the quick and simple information obtainable from the web on one side, and on the other side the sort of deeper knowledge which is built over years of study and should be at the heart of quality information. Needless to say, this mediation is all the more important the more complex, and hence obscure, government becomes. Take the example of fiscal policy: in principle it should be a simple thing to determine, say, whether a government has raised or lowered taxes. In practice it is not, given the wide array of types and levels of taxation a modern government can act on, the combination of which determines the true weight of taxation on citizens. As a result, the layperson is often unable to determine whether our prime minister or president is telling the truth when she claims that her government has lowered taxes without the help of someone who has the resources and ability to read a state budget and keep the bigger picture in mind. In this sense the web as a communication tool and human capital as the source of content are complementary to one another. Clearly, this is not to say that all academics are always right or disinterested. But judging form what I can see I would say that all in all the internet has done more to increase the role and relevance of honest and well-intentioned intellectuals than it has given an audience to fraudulent ones. This mediation between different types of information and knowledge is exactly what aims to achieve. I think we are particularly well placed to fulfil this function not just because of the sort of instruments we use--videos, presentations, infographics--which allow us to take very complex information and turn it into very simple language, but also because we are filling a very visible gap in the Italian information landscape. 


What was the driving power, the principle motive to establish Quattrogatti?

Generally speaking, it was the desire to provide clear, concise and accessible information on certain issues that are important for the social, economic and political life of Italy but on which little reliable information was available in the traditional outlets like newspapers and the tv. More specifically, was founded in 2008 by three postgraduate economics students with the aim to evaluate/clarify the economic and financial situation of the country and the platforms of the two rival political coalition on the occasion of the 2008 parliamentary elections. From there the project has gradually expanded in its team ( has now six editors, two video-makers and a large number of authors and other collaborators), types of products, and topics: we now work on political and social issues in addition to economic ones.


Often intellectuals believe “the more complicated the better” and thus remain outside the public sphere, incomprehensible and ineffectual. Quattrogatti is trying to change that. How did Italians react when you first started with work?

We have always had a very good response from our audience. And the bigger both our project and audience become, the more positive this response is! We take feedback very seriously: we read each and every email we receive and respond to all the clarification requests and comments. Of course, we do get the occasional critical message. But even these are more often than not constructive. I believe that this response is all the more remarkable in the Italian context, where quality factual information is rather scarce (especially on politically sensitive topics) and public discourse tends to be structured along factions, each with its own official truth. The enthusiasm generated by our project is very encouraging for the future of information in the country. Another important feature of is that we always encourage our reader to get involved and collaborate with us. Over the years we have built quite a large network of people who help us in many capacities. Our success in getting people actively involved in our project is one of the strengths of


The line between activism and business is very thin nowadays. Did you strive for Quattrogatti to develop into an internet business or is it something that caught you off guard?

We have always had a general idea of transitioning to a more professional way of working at some point. In a way, this is physiological when one starts making ever better and more sophisticated products, which require certain professional figures, abilities, and greater time and energies which make pure voluntarism unsustainable after a while. What was, and is, less clear, however, are the terms of this transition: the external ones (how we want to interact with the outside world) and the internal ones (whether and how we should restructure our organisation). Being a completely new type of project, we are breaking new ground and learning by doing every day in these respects, but thus far we have managed all our transformations quite smoothly, and I predict we will continue to do so in the future.


What is it about infographics and animated videos that facilitates the transfer of knowledge to a greater number of people?

I would say it is three things: a) these instruments are just nicer to look at, and hence more attractive; b) they allow transmitting a great amount of information very simply and in little space/time--an image is often worth a thousand  words; c) they require less effort on the part of who watches/reads. Now, the down side of this mode of communication is to diminish the incentive to look for more complex information. To some extent, one can say this is our objective--to 'digest' concepts and ideas and make them simple and accessible to everybody. But it is important to stress that in no way do we intend to encourage intellectual laziness: on the contrary, we always try encourage our audience to dig deeper into the topics we cover, whether through bibliographies, notes and links, or with richer follow-up posts on our website. This latter aspect, in particular, will be expanded in our new website, which will be up this Autumn.

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