Monthly Archives: April 2006

on appropriation

The Tate Triennial 2006, showcasing new British Art, brings together thirty-six artists who explore the reuse and reshaping of cultural material. Curated by Beatrix Ruf, director of the Kunsthalle in Zurich, the exhibition includes artists from different generations who explore reprocessing and repetition through painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, film, installations and live work.


Marc Camille Chaimowicz
Here and There… 1979-2006

Historically, the appropriation of images and other cultural matter has been practiced by societies as the reiteration, reshuffling, and eventual transformation of artistic and intellectual human manifestations. It covers a vast range from tribute to pastiche. When visual codes are combined, the end product is either a cohesive whole where influences connect into new and very personal languages, or disparate combinations where influences compete and clash. In today’s art, the different guises of repetition, from collage and montage to file sharing and digital reproduction highlight the existing codes or reveal the artificiality of the object. Today’s combination of codes alludes to a collective sense of memory in a moment when memories have become literally photographic.
One comes out of this exhibition thinking about Duchamp‘s “readymades,” Rauschenberg’s “combines,” and other forms of conceptual “gluing,” (the literal meaning of the word “collage,”) as precursors and/or manifestations of the postmodern condition. This show is a perfect representation of our moment. As Beatrix Ruf says in the catalogue: “Artists today are forging new ways of making sense of reality, reworking ideas of authenticity, directness and social relevance, looking again into art practices that emerged in the previous century.”

monk tate.jpg

Jonathan Monk
Twelve Angry Women, 2005

We have artists like Michael Fullerton, who paints contemporary figures in the style of Gainsborough, or Luke Fowler‘s use of archive material to explore the history of Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra. Repetition goes beyond inter-referentiality in the work of Marc Camille Chaimowicz, who combines works he made in the 70s with projected images of himself as a young man and as an adult, within a space where a vase of flowers set on a Marcel Breuer’ table and a pendulum swinging back and forth position the images of the past solidly in the present. In “Twelve Angry Women,” Jonathan Monk affixes to the wall twelve found drawings by an unknown artist from the 20s, using different colored pins that work as earrings. Mark Leckey uses Jeff Koons’ silver bunny as a mirror into his studio in the way 17th century masters painted theirs. Liam Gillick creates sculptures of hanging texts made out of factory signage.
Art itself is cumulative. Different generations build upon previous ones in a game of action and reaction. One interesting development in art today is the collective. Groups of artists coming together in couples, teams, or cyberspace communities, sometimes under the identity of a single person, sometimes a single person assuming a multiple identity. Collectives seem to be a new phenomenon, but their roots go back to the concept of workshops in antiquity where artistic collaboration and copying from casts of sculptural masterpieces was the norm. The notion of the individual artist producing radically new and original art belongs to modernity. The return to collectives in the second part of the 20th century, and again now, has a lot to do with the nature of representation, with the desire to go beyond the limits of artistic mimesis or individual interpretation.

gillick tate.jpg

Liam Gillick
Övningskörning (Driving Practice), 2004

On the other hand, appropriation as a form of artistic expression is a postmodern phenomenon. Appropriation is the language of today. Never before the advent of the Internet had people appropriated knowledge, spaces, concepts, and images as we do today. To cite, to copy, to remix, to modify are part of our everyday communication. The difference between appropriation in the 70s and 80s and today resides in the historical moment. As Jean Verwoert says in the Triennial 2006 catalogue:

The standstill of history at the height of the Cold War had, in a sense, collapsed the temporal axis and narrowed the historical horizon to the timeless presence of material culture, a presence that was exacerbated by the imminent prospect that the bomb could wipe everything out at any time. To appropriate the fetishes of material culture, then, is like looting empty shops at the eve of destruction. It is the final party before doomsday. Today, on the contrary, the temporal axis has sprung up again, but this time a whole series of temporal axes cross global space at irregular intervals. Historical time is again of the essence, but this historical time is not the linear or unified timeline of steady progress imagined by modernity: it is a multitude of competing and overlapping temporalities born from the local conflicts that the unresolved predicaments of the modern regimes still produce.

Today, the challenge is to rethink the meaning of appropriation in a moment when capitalist commodity culture has become the determinant of our daily lives. The Internet is perhaps our potential Utopia (though “dystopian” seems to be the adjective of choice now.) But, can it be called upon to fulfill the unfulfilled promises of 20th century’s utopias? To appropriate is to resist the notion of ownership, to appropriate the products of today’s culture is to expose the unresolved questions of a world shaped by the information era. The disparities between those who are entering the technology era and those forced to stay in the times of early industrialization are more pronounced than ever. As opposed to the Cold War, where history was at a standstill, we live in a time of extreme historicity. Permanence is constantly challenged, how to grasp it all continues to be the elusive task.

how people read online

There’s a series of recent posts (1, 2, 3, 4) up at Ron Silliman’s blog where he analyzes a recent study (by Simmons B. Buntin of of how people read and write poetry online. This is of interest even to those uninterested in poetry: Silliman is doing some very careful work in scrutinizing how and why people read online. In doing so, he’s touching on a number of things we’re interested in here, not least the roles of reputation, legitimization, and distribution in electronic reading and writing.

The study Silliman’s looking at was mostly answered by those who write as well as read poetry, so there’s a certain amount of bias in the responses he’s looking at. But this selective skew provides a useful look at cutting edge attitudes. While respondents read a wide variety on online poetry and criticism, word of mouth remains a primary method of finding new things to read: social interaction seems to be critical. Of particular interest is the different roles he sees assigned to print and online publication: most respondents found no difference in quality between print and online work, although there was the perception that online work took more risks and was generally more experimental (there seem to be broader extremes in online publication).

What do people like about publishing online? First (by a wide margin) the accessibility that it affords; second, the possibility of real-time interaction. Cost comes in third: it’s interesting that again the perception of the need for social interaction shows itself. It’s also interesting (and not tremendously surprising) that the efforts on which the most money has been spent (Poetry, which recently received an enormous bequest, has sunk $100 million into their website) don’t seem to be the most influential – blogs and forums, which are more interaction-based, come out ahead.

What doesn’t work about online publishing? The look & feel of online work, as well as poorly-designed websites, was the most frequent complaint. The ephemerality of the web is another issue: many websites seem to disappear as soon as they spring up, and Silliman suggests the need for archiving online work is a problem that needs to be resolved. A number of respondents complained about devices, arguing that it’s not as pleasant to read on a screen than on a page – which Silliman, who’s done a fair amount of reading on a Palm Pilot, qualifies by arguing that this seems to be more a software problem than a hardware problem.

an interview with bruno pellegrini

Last week I posted about Le mie elezioni, a film about the recent Italian elections constructed from footage shot by the general public, mostly part of Italy’s videoblogging community. Le mie elezioni will be released on the 15th of May: according to an article in Il manifesto more than 150 videobloggers have submitted more than 50 hours of materials which are being furiously edited right now. You can watch a rough cut of the trailer here.

res415.jpgThe footage is being put together into an hour-long film by the website Nessuno.TV a portal for Italian videobloggers, which is run by Bruno Pellegrini, who also teaches the sociology of communications at the Universitá di Architettura in Rome. I sent him an email asking about the project; while Bruno happened to be in the U.S. last week, but his (and our) travel schedule didn’t allow him to stop by the Institute. Nonetheless, we conducted an interview, via email. My questions are in bold; his responses are indented.

Can you describe how the project came about?

It was born in a very natural way, as some of the vloggers who already participated at BlogTV (the first ever TV station broadcasting user-generated content) suggested covering the election together. Then the idea of the movie came up.

Is this project part of a larger Italian web response to media consolidation? How widely do people share your belief that the perception that big media has failed to cover things it should be covering?

I do not think this project is specific to Italy. Although the situation in my country is embarrassing I believe it is only a little ahead compared to what is going on abroad. Big media has failed (sometimes deliberately) to cover things all over the world for the last decades and the web has given people a chance to re-balance the power. Whereever and whenever there are major needs for a democracy, you can be sure something is going to happen . . . With regards to people, only a small part is conscious about what is going on, and the others are not helped by mass information . . . In general there is a common sense of distrust of politics, media and power.

In the U.S., the 2004 elections brought out – for the first time – a huge number of political bloggers; this seemed to be the first time that the blogosphere registered in the mainstream media, and there’s the perception that the U.S. blogosphere exploded at that point. Have these elections done the same thing in Italy? Or did people turn to the Internet earlier?

Not at all, unfortunately. The Italian blogosphere is not as mature as it is in the U.S. We still lack a common identity and, most of all, consciousness of the power of being media . . . Hopefully this will happen in the next political campaign, and I suspect it will come out not from the classic political separation (left and right) but from an increasing fight between young and old people with the latter trying to keep their undeserved priviledges . . .

How big is the videoblogging community in Italy? We periodically look in on it in the U.S., and while everyone loves Rocketboom, it doesn’t really seem to have taken off here as much as everyone expected (although maybe things like YouTube and Google Video are changing that). Did you find people getting interested in videoblogging because of the project, or was there already a vibrant community?

Vibrant is not exactly the right word, maybe promising would be more appropriate. I think it is a matter of critical mass and once reached it will grow exponentially like all the network related trends.

The question of copyright. Watching the clips, I couldn’t help but notice the music – songs by the Arctic Monkeys & Caparezza playing in the background, as well as video clips from the news and I think a couple of press photographs. In the U.S. documentary film makers increasingly have problems with clearance issues – the owners of the songs charge thousands of dollars for the rights to use even a few seconds of them. We’ve been covering this issue of fair use rather closely because it seems to figure in many of the things you can do with multimedia. I’m curious how much of a problem it is in Italy – is this something you worry about there?

So far it is not a problem at all and we can deal with the fair use regulation. I believe the majors will play harder in the future, especially with music and movies, but there are already good open access libraries and the Creative Commons movement is getting stronger in Italy too.

Many thanks to Bruno Pellegrini for being so generous with his time. If people have more questions about this project, don’t hesitate to leave them in the comments section.

questions on libraries, books and more

Last week, Vince Mallardi contacted me to get some commentary for a program he is developing for the Library Binding Institute in May. I suggested that he send me some questions, and I would take a pass at them, and post them on the blog. My hope that is, Vince, as well as our colleagues and readers will comment upon my admittedly rough thoughts I have sketched out, in response to his rather interesting questions.
1. What is your vision of the library of the future if there will be libraries?
Needless to say, I love libraries, and have been an avid user of both academic and public libraries since the time I could read. Libraries will be in existence for a long time. If one looks at the various missions of a library, including the archiving, categorization, and sharing of information, these themes will only be more relevant in the digital age for both print and digital text. There is text whose meaning is fundamentally tied to its medium. Therefore, the creation and thus preservation of physical books (and not just its digitization) is still important. Of course, libraries will look and function in a very different way from how we conceptualize libraries today.
As much as, I love walking through library stacks, I realize that it is a luxury of the North, which was made more clear to me at the recent Access to Knowledge conference my colleague and I were fortunate enough to attend. In the economic global divide of the North and South, the importance of access to knowledge supersedes my affinity for paper books. I realize that in the South, digital libraries are a much efficient use of resources to promote sustainable knowledge, and hopefully economic, growth.
2. How much will self-publishing benefit book manufacturers, indeed save them?
Recently, I have been very intrigued with the notion of Print On Demand (POD) of books. My hope is that the stigma will be removed from the so-called “vanity press.” Start-up ventures, such as, have the potential to allow voices to flourish, where in the past they lacked access to traditional book publishing and manufacturing.
Looking at the often cited observation that 57% of Amazon book sales comes from books in the Long Tail (here defined as the catalogue not typically available in the 100,000 books found in a B&N superstore,) I wonder if the same economic effect could be reaped in the publishing side of books. Increasing efficiency of digital production, communication, and storage, relieve economic pressures of the small run printing of books. With print on demand, costs such as maintaining inventory are removed, as well, the risk involved in estimating the demand for first runs is reduced. Similarly, as I stated in my first response, the landscape of book manufacturing will have to adapt as well. However, I do see potential for the creation of more books rather than less.
3. What co-existence do you foresee between the printed and electronic book, as co-packaged, interactive via barcodes or steganography? etc.
Paper based books will still have its role in communication in the future. Paper is still a great technology for communication. For centuries, paper and books were the dominate medium because that was the best technology available. However, with film, television, radio and now digital forms, it is not longer always true. Thus the use of print text must be based upon the decision by the author that paper is the best medium for her creative purposes. Moving books into the digital allows for forms that cannot exist as a paper book, for instance the inclusion of audio and video. I can easily see a time when an extended analysis of a Hitchcock movie will be an annotated movie, with voice over commentary, text annotation and visual overlays. These features cannot be reproduced in traditional paper books.
Rather, that try to predict specific applications, products or outcomes, I would prefer to open the discussion to a question of form. There is fertile ground to explore the relationship between paper and digital books, however it is too early for me to state exactly what that will entail. I look forward to seeing what creative interplay of print text and digital text authors will produce in the future. The co-existence between the print and electronic book in a co-packaged form will only be useful and relevant, if the author consciously writes and designs her work to require both forms. Creating a pdf of Proust’s Swann Way’s is not going to replace the print version. Likewise, printing out Moulthrop’s Victory Garden do not make sense either.
4. Can there be literacy without print? To the McLuhan Gutenberg Galaxy proposition.
Print will not fade out of existence, so the question is a theoretical one. Although, I’m not an expert in McLuhan, I feel that literacy will still be as vital in the digital age as it is today, if not more so. The difference between the pre-movable type age and the electronic age, is that we will still have the advantages of mass reproduction and storage that people did not have in an oral culture. In fact, because the marginal cost of digital reproduction is basically zero, the amount of information we will be subjected to will only increase. This massive amount of information which we will need to process and understand will only heighten the need for not only literacy, but media literacy as well.

a2k wrap-up

Access to knowledge means that the right policies for information and knowledge production can increase both the total production of information and knowledge goods, and can distribute them in a more equitable fashion.
Jack Balkin, from opening plenary

I’m back from the A2K conference. The conference focused on intellectual property regimes and international development issues associated with access to medical, health, science, and technology information. Many of the plenary panels dealt specifically with the international IP regime, currently enshrined in several treaties: WIPO, TRIPS, Berne Convention, (and a few more. More from Ray on those). But many others, instead of relying on the language in the treaties, focused developing new language for advocacy, based on human rights: access to knowledge as an issue of justice and human dignity, not just an issue of intellectual property or infrastructure. The Institute is an advocate of open access, transparency, and sharing, so we have the same mentality as most of the participants, even if we choose to assail the status quo from a grassroots level, rather than the high halls of policy. Most of the discussions and presentations about international IP law were generally outside of the scope of our work, but many of the smaller panels dealt with issues that, for me, illuminated our work in a new light.
In the Peer Production and Education panel, two organizations caught my attention: Taking IT Global and the International Institute for Communication and Development (IICD). Taking IT Global is an international youth community site, notable for its success with cross-cultural projects, and for the fact that it has been translated into seven languages—by volunteers. The IICD trains trainers in Africa. These trainers then go on to help others learn the technological skills necessary to obtain basic information and to empower them to participate in creating information to share.

“What I’m talking about is the fact that ‘global peripheries’ are using technologies to produce their own cultural products and become completely independent from ‘cultural industries.'”
—Ronaldo Lemos

The ideology of empowerment ran thick in the plenary panels. Ronaldo Lemos, in the Political Economy of A2K, dropped a few figures that showed just how powerful communities outside the scope and target of traditional development can be. He talked about communities at the edge, peripheries, that are using technology to transform cultural production. He dropped a few figures that staggered the crowd: last year Hollywood produced 611 films. But Nigeria, a country with only ONE movie theater (in the whole nation!) released 1200 films. To answer the question of how? No copyright law, inexpensive technology, and low budgets (to say the least). He also mentioned the music industry in Brazil, where cultural production through mainstream corporations is about 52 CDs of Brazilian artists in all genres. In the favelas they are releasing about 400 albums a year. It’s cheaper, and it’s what they want to hear (mostly baile funk).
We also heard the empowerment theme and A2K as “a demand of justice” from Jack Balkin, Yochai Benkler, Nagla Rizk, from Egypt, and from John Howkins, who framed the A2K movement as primarily an issue of freedom to be creative.
The panel on Wireless ICT’s (and the accompanying wiki page) made it abundantly obvious that access isn’t only abut IP law and treaties: it’s also about physical access, computing capacity, and training. This was a continuation of the Network Neutrality panel, and carried through later with a rousing presentation by Onno W. Purbo, on how he has been teaching people to “steal” the last mile infrastructure from the frequencies in the air.
Finally, I went to the Role of Libraries in A2K panel. The panelists spoke on several different topics which were familiar territory for us at the Institute: the role of commercialized information intermediaries (Google, Amazon), fair use exemptions for digital media (including video and audio), the need for Open Access (we only have 15% of peer-reviewed journals available openly), ways to advocate for increased access, better archiving, and enabling A2K in developing countries through libraries.

Human rights call on us to ensure that everyone can create, access, use and share information and knowledge, enabling individuals, communities and societies to achieve their full potential.
The Adelphi Charter

The name of the movement, Access to Knowledge, was chosen because, at the highest levels of international politics, it was the one phrase that everyone supported and no one opposed. It is an undeniable umbrella movement, under which different channels of activism, across multiple disciplines, can marshal their strength. The panelists raised important issues about development and capacity, but with a focus on human rights, justice, and dignity through participation. It was challenging, but reinvigorating, to hear some of our own rhetoric at the Institute repeated in the context of this much larger movement. We at the Institute are concerned with the uses of technology whether that is in the US or internationally, and we’ll continue, in our own way, to embrace development with the goal of creating a future where technology serves to enable human dignity, creativity, and participation.

access to the a2k conference 2006

Jesse and I have just arrived at the Yale University to police barricades, blocked of streets, bus loads of demonstrators, and general confusion. I wish I could say that it was in support of protecting open and accessible knowledge, as we are here to attend the Access 2 Knowledge conference. However, the crowds of Falun Gong supporters (with a few Free Tibet activists in the mix) were protesting the arrival of President Hu Jintao from China. Wandering the streets of New Haven to find an unblocked entrance to the law school, Jesse and I reflected a bit on the irony of the difficulty of physically “accessing” the building where we will hear current thinking and planning on the making knowledge accessible.
The conference’s stated goal is to “bring together leading thinkers and activists on access to knowledge policy from North and South, in order to generate concrete research agendas and policy solutions for the next decade…The A2K Conference aims to help build an intellectual framework that will protect access to knowledge both as the basis for sustainable human development and to safeguard human rights.” Sessions will cover peer production, economics of a2k, copyright, access to science and medicine, network neutrality and privacy.
We very excited to be here, as presenters include some of our favorite IP / Copyright / Open Content thinkers: Yochai Benkler, Eric Von Hippel, Susan Crawford, and Terry Fisher. We’re sure that by Sunday, we’ll have more to add to the list.
Stay tuned for more.

google scholar

Google announced a new change to Google Scholar to improve the results of a search. The results can now be ordered by a confluence of citations, date of publication, and keyword relevance, instead of just the latter. From the Official Google Blog:

It’s not just a plain sort by date, but rather we try to rank recent papers the way researchers do, by looking at the prominence of the author’s and journal’s previous papers, how many citations it already has, when it was written, and so on. Look for the new link on the upper right for “Recent articles” — or switch to “All articles” for the full list.

Another feature, which I wasn’t aware of, is the “group of X”, located just at the end of the line. It points to papers that are very similar in topic. Researchers can use this feature to delve deeper into a topic, as opposed to skipping across the surface of a topic. This reflects the deep user-centered thinking that went into the design of the results, which is broken down in more detail here.
Though many professors lament the use of Google as students first and last research resource, the continual improvements of Google Scholar and the Google Book project (when combined with access rights afforded by a university library) provide an increasingly potent research environment. Google Scholar, by displaying the citation count, provides a significant piece of secondary data that improves decision making dramatically compared to unguided topic searches in the library. By selecting uncredited quotations and searching for them in Google Book project, students can get information on the primary text, read a little of the additional context, and decide whether or not to procure the book from the library. I feel like I’m overselling Google, but my real point has nothing to do with any specific corporation. The real point is: in the future, all the value is in the network.

da vinci, copyright of non-fiction, and intelligent search

Two of the authors of “Holy Blood, Holy Grail,” recently lost their copyright infringement suit against genre thriller author, Dan Brown, for his book the “Da Vinci Code.” Brown heavily relied on the theories of the secret lineage of Jesus found in Holy Blood (a best seller in its own time.) Both books were published by Random House, but that did not stop Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh from suing their own publisher for copyright infringement. A judge found that Baigent and Leigh could not prove (or even define) the central themes of their book were stolen and further did not think it was a good idea to have authors of “pretend historical books” scour over fiction works looking for stolen ideas.
Mark Stephens, a media lawyer for the losing side lawyer stated:
“Whilst the decision shows that he didn’t infringe copyright, his moral behavior is more, in my view, open to question. It’s clear that he used the fundamental themes and ideas of ‘Holy Blood, Holy Grail,’ and many people will think that morally, Dan Brown owes a debt to Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln.”
Of course, Dan Brown owes a “creative” debt to the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Just like all fiction authors who use non-fiction (and in this case, I’m using the word loosely), own a debt to the research they do. Claims for compensation for it goes against the centuries old traditions of how culture is created.
Aside note: In my original search, for my post on the Da Vinci code, I mistyped “Devinci Code” in the search, and come up with this:
The article search engine couldn’t find anything. Amusingly, it suggested I was searching for “deviancy code.” Maybe it knows something I do not. And of course, the related sponsor ads on the top and right hand side, showed correctly identified and relevant links.

learning to read

Two Girls Reading in a Garden by RenoirSomebody interviewed Bob for a documentary a few months ago. I don’t remember who this was, because I was in the other room busy with something else, but I was half-listening to what was being discussed: how the book is changing, what precisely the Institute does, in short, what we discuss from day to day on this blog. One statement captured my ear: Bob offhandedly declared that “we don’t really know how to read Wikipedia yet”. I made a note of it at the time; since then I’ve been periodically pulling his statement out at idle moments and rolling it over and over in my mind like a pebble in my pocket, trying to decide exactly what it could mean.

There’s something appealing to me about the flatness of the statement: “We don’t really know how to read Wikipedia yet.” It’s obvious but revelatory: the reason that we find the Wikipedia frustrating is that we need to learn how to read it. (By we I mean the reading public as a whole. Perhaps you have; judging from the arguments that fly back and forth, it would seem that the majority of us haven’t.) The problem is, of course, that so few people actually bother to state this sort of thing directly and then to unpack the repercussions of it.

What’s there to learn in reading the Wikipedia? Let’s start with a sample sentence from the entry on Marcel Proust:

In addition to the grief that attended his mother’s death, Proust’s life changed due to a very large inheritance (in today’s terms, a principal of about $6 million, with a monthly income of about $15,000).

Criticizing the Wikipedia for being poorly written is like shooting fish in a barrel, but bear with my lack of sportsmanship for a second. Imagine that you found the above sentence in a printed reference work. A printed reference book that seems to be written in the voice of a sixth grade student deeply interested in matters financial might worry you. It would worry me. It’s worried many critics of the Wikipedia, who point out that this clearly isn’t the sort of manicured prose we’re used to reading in books and magazines.

But this prose is also conceptually different. A Wikipedia article is not constructed in the same way that a magazine article is written. Nor is the content of a Wikipedia article at one particular instant in time – content that has probably been different, and might certainly change – analogous to the content of a print magazine article, which is always, from the moment of printing, exactly the same. If we are to keep using the Wikipedia, we’ll have to get used to the solecisms endemic there; we’ll also need to readjust they way we give credence to media. (Right now I’m going to tiptoe around the issue of text and authority, which is of course an enormous can of worms that I’d prefer not to open right now.) But there’s a reason that the above quotation shouldn’t be that worrying: it’s entirely possible, and increasingly probable as time goes on, that when you click the link above, you won’t be able to find the sentence I quoted.

This faith in the long run isn’t an easy thing, however. When we read Wikipedia we tend to apply to it the standards of judgment that we would apply to a book or magazine, and it often fails by these standards, as might be expected. When we’re judging Wikipedia this way, we presuppose that we know what it is formally: that it’s the same sort of thing as the texts we know. This seems arrogant: why should we assume that we already know how to read something that clearly behaves differently from the text we’re used to? We shouldn’t, though we do: it’s a human response to compare something new to something we already know, but often when we do this, we miss major formal differences.

Horseless Carriage Land, 1961This isn’t the best way to read something new. It’s akin to the “horseless carriage” analogy that Ben’s used: when you think of a car as a carriage without a horse, you miss whatever it is that makes a car special. But there’s a problem with that metaphor, in that it carries with it ideas of displacement. Evolution is often perceived as being transformative: one thing turns into, and is then replaced by, another, as the horse was replaced by the car for purposes of transportation. But it’s usually more of a splitting: there’s a new species as well as the old species from which it sprung. The old species may go extinct, or it may not. To finish that example: we still have horses.

Figuratively, what’s happened with the Wikipedia is that a new species of text has arisen and we’re still wondering why it won’t eat the apples we’re proffering it. The Wikipedia hasn’t replaced print encyclopedias; in all probability, the two will coexist for a while. But I don’t think we yet know how to read Wikipedia. We judge it by what we’re used to, and everyone loses. Were you to judge a car by a horse’s attributes, you wouldn’t expect to have an oil crisis in a century.

Perhaps a useful way to think about this: a few paragraphs of Proust, found on a trip through In Search of Lost Time with Bob’s statement bouncing around my head. The Guermantes Way, the third part of the book, feels like the longest: much of this volume is about failing to recognize how things really are. Proust’s hapless narrator alternately recognizes his own mistakes of judgment and makes new ones for six hundred pages, with occasional flashes of insight, like this reflection:

Thieves in the Night by Fromentin. . . . There was a time when people recognized things easily when they were depicted by Fromentin and failed to recognize them at all when they were painted by Renoir.

Today people of taste tell us that Renoir is a great eighteenth-century painter. But when they say this they forget Time, and that it took a great deal of time, even in the middle of the nineteenth century, for Renoir to be hailed as a great artist. To gain this sort of recognition, an original painter or an original writer follows the path of the occultist. His painting or his prose acts upon us like a course of treatment that is not always agreeable. When it is over, the practitioner says to us, “Now look.” And at this point the world (which was not created once and for all, but as often as an original artist is born) appears utterly different from the one we knew, but perfectly clear. Women pass in the street, different from those we used to see, because they are Renoirs, the same Renoirs we once refused to see as women. The carriages are also Renoirs, and the water, and the sky: we want to go for a walk in a forest like the one that, when we first saw it, was anything but a forest – more like a tapestry, for instance, with innumerable shades of color but lacking precisely the colors appropriate to forests. Such is the new and perishable universe that has just been created. It will last until the next geological catastrophe unleashed by a new painter or writer with an original view of the world.

(The Guermantes Way, pp.323–325, trans. Mark Treharne.) There’s an obvious comparison to be made here, which I won’t belabor. Wikipedia isn’t Renoir, and its entry for poor Eugène Fromentin, whose paintings are probably better left forgotten, is cribbed from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. But like the gallery-goers who needed to learn to look at Renoir, we need to learn to read Wikipedia, to read it as a new form that certainly inherits some traits from what we’re used to reading, but one that differs in fundamental ways. That’s a process that’s going to take time.