Pablo Boczkowski
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When I was a kid one of the games I liked the most was to dive under the water and see for how long I could hold my breath. It was usually about 10 to 15 seconds. Sometimes, 30 seconds. And when I could reach 40 seconds I would feel like an amphibious superhero! But, obviously, I would always come back to the surface to breathe. These days I feel I do something similar with my cellphone. I play not to look at it, just like when I held my breath. Of course, it's not some seconds, neither some minutes. It's for a few hours. When I go on vacation, it can even be for a couple of days. But eventually I go back and look at it. And I go back to my cellphone, the social networks and the Web not only because they are tools, but for they have become the channel through which we breathe digital oxygen. This digital oxygen is the air we need to inhabit a virtual context — and by no means less real — where a big part of our lives takes place: the digital environment.

The emergence of this digital environment is a fundamental historical change. For thousands of years humans beings were nomads. We survived thanks to hunting, fishing and gathering. We lived conditioned mostly by natural phenomena, such as rains or snowfalls. About 10,000 years ago we began to develop agriculture and became sedentary. And with the emergence of urban civilization about 5,000 years ago our life began to depend not only on the natural environment but also on the urban environment, like for example the state of traffic or if there was a power outage. I have been working for 20 years on studying how we inform ourselves. Until very recently it was very common to listen in research interviews people telling me that one of the first things they did when waking up was to turn on the TV or the radio and swiftly check on the state of the weather and the traffic. That is, having a screenshot of the natural and the urban environment before starting the day. A few years ago, they started adding more and more often, grabbing the cellphone — which is usually on the bedside table — and see how many new messages there are WhatsApp and what's new in their Facebook Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram accounts. Since they went to sleep. That is, more and more we start our day with a screenshot of the three environments where our life happens: the natural, the urban and the digital environment. During the day we look to our cellphone an average of about 80 times before going to sleep. If we add to that the amount of time we spend with our computers or with our tablets, it's really hard to find a moment when we are not connected. It's not just a matter of time, but also of emotional intensity. It's very common to hear that cellphones have become a part of our bodies. An extra hand which, clearly, becomes difficult to get rid of. For a research that we did with colleagues in Argentina a couple of years ago we interviewed more than one hundred people in different parts of the country. One of them told us that on a trip, going from one province to another, upon arrival they realized they had forgotten their cellphone. A relative said, "don't worry, I'll bring it to you in a couple of days." Now, this person reported in the interview that even when she knew it was only two days of absence, she felt like dying without her cellphone. She felt like dying because what she missed was more than the cellphone, it was digital oxygen. This digital oxygen is different from that we breathe with our lungs. A key difference is that digital oxygen allows us to breathe in multiple and diverse atmospheres at the same time. Like when we take part in many interactions with different groups of people who live in different places and all this through different social networks. It's like we're permanently seeing and being seen. There is a double expectation. On the one hand we feel that we have an almost permanent access — as an open window, to the life of others; to what they do, what they say, even to what they feel. On the other hand, of course, there is the inverse expectation. And our contacts many times feel they have a right to have a window almost permanently open to our lives. Like a voyeur running into an exhibitionist. This much visibility attracts but also exhausts us at the same time. Our sociability multiplies and we feel it's very difficult to disconnect. And the younger you are, the harder this disconnection is. One winter night this year, walking down Corrientes Avenue, in the heart of Buenos Aires, I saw something that struck me. It was sadly an old and modern scene at the same time. There was a boy and girl, both really young, living on the street, out in the open at the mercy of natural phenomena like thousands of years ago. They were sitting in a couple of rickety chairs. They had a big cardboard box turned upside down in front of them that served as a table, while many other boxes stacked on both sides delimited in some way their semi-private space on public space. They were having dinner, together. And while they were eating they looked at a cellphone. They were young homeless people, but connected to the digital environment. This scene sums up one of the important findings of our research: Belonging to an age group, our age, is usually more important to understanding and explaining how we inhabit the digital environment than gender or socioeconomic level. And this somehow marks the passage from the 20th to the 21st century. Now, that this happens in a country where three out of ten people live below the poverty line is a remarkable sociological phenomenon. The passage of time is something that never stops. Every day we grow old. What was once a novelty it will stop being it. And the generational change is inexorable. Then, if the passage of time, if age, is what organizes how we inhabit the digital environment that means we live in a society in movement where change is perhaps the only constant. This creates uncertainty. Sometimes we worry. Other times it even gives us anxiety. How will the future be? Why if I'm used to something is it possibly going to change? And this is why, at least in part, I think that many times people talk about the digital environment evoking apocalyptic scenarios. For example, the storm of false news that will destroy the building of Democracy. But a society in movement is a society in which it is also more possible to live changes, social transformations, that were much less likely before. Voices that were historically marginalized and that didn't have a place either in traditional media have recently not only managed to be heard but also boost important collective reforms. Three years ago a tweet was the kickstarter of the movement "Ni Una Menos". Since then, the activists have made the digital environment their own to organize, to make their claims visible and empower important parts of society. It's not because of networks that this social movement exists. Nor it exists only in networks, obviously. But without the digital environment it would be much harder to imagine its existence and its strength. This doesn't mean that fake news don't go viral in the networks. Indeed, many times they go viral. But it means that these negative tendencies exist along with the possibilities of social reform that we see in such hopeful cases as "Ni Una Menos". And it's in the fight between these negative and positive trends that much of the future of the digital environment is played. And maybe that of society as a whole. Today we read in the history books how the emergence of urban civilization unfolded. And its evolution through the centuries. And many times, because of these readings we ask ourselves: what would have happened to our society if the cities were designed and built in different ways? But we are the pioneers of the digital environment. It is our descendants who they will read in books yet to be written how these fundamental years impacted the creation of the digital environment. And possibly they'll make pretty similar questions to those we make ourselves when we read the history of cities. What would you like that your granddaughters, your great-grandchildren, your great-great-granddaughters, would read about the beginnings of the digital environment? And what place would you like to have? As subjects and main characters not just as spectators, in writing this story of the future? Thank you. (Applause)