Category Archives: enlightenment

wikipedia not safe for work

encyclopedie.jpg Stacy Schiff takes a long, hard look at Wikipedia in a thoughtful essay in the latest New Yorker. She begins with a little historical perspective on encyclopedias, fitting Wikipedia into a distinguished, centuries-long lineage of subversion that includes, most famously, the Encyclopédie of 1780, composed by leading French philosophes of the day such as Diderot, Rousseau and Voltaire. Far from being the crusty, conservative genre we generally take it to be, the encyclopedia has long served as an arena for the redeployment of knowledge power:

In its seminal Western incarnation, the encyclopedia had been a dangerous book. The Encyclopédie muscled aside religious institutions and orthodoxies to install human reason at the center of the universe–and, for that muscling, briefly earned the book’s publisher a place in the Bastille. As the historian Robert Darnton pointed out, the entry in the Encyclopédie on cannibalism ends with the cross-reference “See Eucharist.”

But the dust kicked up by revolution eventually settles. Heir to the radical Encyclopédie are the stolid, dependable reference works we have today, like Britannica, geared not at provoking questions, but at providing trustworthy answers.
Wikipedia’s radicalism is its wresting of authority away from the established venues — away from the very secular humanist elite that produced works like the Encyclopédie and sparked the Enlightenment. Away from these and toward a new networked class of amateur knowledge workers. The question, then, and this is the question we should all be asking, especially Wikipedia’s advocates, is where does this latest revolution point? Will this relocation of knowledge production away from accredited experts to volunteer collectives — collectives that aspire no less toward expertise, but in the aggregate performance rather than as individuals — lead to a new enlightening, or to a dark, muddled decline?
Or both? All great ideas contain their opposites. Reason, the flame at the heart of the Enlightenment, contained, as Max Horkheimer famously explained, the seeds of its own descent into modern, mechanistic barbarism. The open source movement, applied first to software, and now, through Wikipedia, to public knowledge, could just as easily descend into a morass of ignorance and distortion, especially as new economies rise up around collaborative peer production and begin to alter the incentives for participation. But it also could be leading us somewhere more vital than our received cultural forms — more vital and better suited to help us confront the ills of our time, many of them the result of the unbridled advance of that glorious 18th century culture of reason, science and progress that shot the Encyclopédie like a cork out of a bottle of radical spirits.
Which is all the more reason that we should learn how to read Wikipedia in the fullest way: by exploring the discussion pages and revision histories that contextualize each article, and to get involved ourselves as writers and editors. Take a look at the page on global warming, and then pop over to its editorial discussion, with over a dozen archived pages going back to December, 2001. Dense as hell, full of struggle. Observe how this new technology, the Internet, through the dynamics of social networks and easy publishing tools, enables a truer instance of that most Enlightenment of ideas: a reading public.
All of which led me to ponder an obvious but crucial notion: that a book’s power is derived not solely from its ideas and language, but also from the nature of its production — how and by whom it is produced, our awareness of that process, and our understanding of where the work as a whole stands within the contemporary arena of ideology and politics. It’s true, Britannica and its ilk are descendants of a powerful reordering of human knowledge, but they have become an established order of their own. What Wikipedia does is tap a long-mounting impulse toward a new reordering. Schiff quotes Charles Van Doren, who served as an editor at Britannica:

Because the world is radically new, the ideal encyclopedia should be radical, too…. It should stop being safe–in politics, in philosophy, in science.

The accuracy of this or that article is not what is at issue here, but rather the method by which the articles are written, and what that tells us. Wikipedia is a personal reeducation, a medium that is its own message. To roam its pages is to be in contact, whether directly or subliminally, with a powerful new idea of how information gets made. And it’s far from safe.
Where this takes us is unclear. In the end, after having explored many of the possible dangers, Schiff acknowledges, in a lovely closing paragraph, that the change is occurring whether we like it or not. Moreover, she implies — and this is really important — that the technology itself is not the cause, but simply an agent interacting with preexisting social forces. What exactly those forces are — that’s something to discuss.

As was the Encyclopédie, Wikipedia is a combination of manifesto and reference work. Peer review, the mainstream media, and government agencies have landed us in a ditch. Not only are we impatient with the authorities but we are in a mood to talk back. Wikipedia offers endless opportunities for self-expression. It is the love child of reading groups and chat rooms, a second home for anyone who has written an Amazon review. This is not the first time that encyclopedia-makers have snatched control from an élite, or cast a harsh light on certitude. Jimmy Wales may or may not be the new Henry Ford, yet he has sent us tooling down the interstate, with but a squint back at the railroad. We’re on the open road now, without conductors and timetables. We’re free to chart our own course, also free to get gloriously, recklessly lost.

sharing goes mainstream

sharing.gif Ben’s post on the Google book project mentioned a fundamental tenet of the Institute: the network is the environment for the future of reading and writing, and that’s why we care about network-related issues. While the goal of the network isn’t reducable to a single purpose, if you could say it was any one thing it would be: sharing. It’s why Tim Berners-Lee created it in the first place—to share scientific research. It’s why people put their lives on blogs, their photos on flickr, their movies on YouTube. And it is why the people who want to sell things are so anxious about putting their goods online. The bottom line is this: the ‘net is about sharing, that’s what it’s for.
Time magazine had an article in the March 20th issue on open-source and innovation-at-the-edges (by Lev Grossman). Those aren’t new ideas around office, but when I saw the phrase the “authorship of innovation is shifting from the Few to the Many” I realized that, for the larger public, they are still slightly foreign, that the distant intellectual altruism of the Enlightenment is being recast as the open-source movement, and that the notion of an intellectual commons is being rejuvenated in the public consciousness. True, Grossman puts out the idea of shared innovation as a curiosity—it’s a testament to the momentum of our contemporary notions of copyright that the cultural environment is antagonistic to giving away ideas—but I applaud any injection of the open-source ideal into the mainstream. Especially ideas like this:

Admittedly, it’s counterintuitive: until now the value of a piece of intellectual property has been defined by how few people possess it. In the future the value will be defined by how many people possess it.

I hope the article will seed the public mind with intimations of a world where the benefits of intellectual openness and sharing are assumed, rather than challenged.
Raising the public consciousness around issues of openness and sharing is one of the goals of the Institute. We’re happy to have help from a magazine with Time’s circulation, but most of all, I’m happy that the article is turning public attention in the direction of an open network, shared content, and a rich digital commons.

thinking about blogging 2: democracy

Banning books may be easy, but banning blogs is an exhausting game of Whack-a-Mole for politically repressive regimes like China and Iran.

andishe no1.jpg

Farid Pouya, recapping recent noteworthy posts from the Iranian blogosphere last week on Global Voices, refers to one blogger’s observations on the chilled information climate under president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

Andishe No (means New Thought) fears that country was pushed back to pre Khatami’s period concerning censorship. He believes that even if many books get banned in twenty first century, government can not stop people getting information. Government wants to control weblogs in Iran and put them in a guideline.

Unlike the fleas that swarm American media and politics, Iran’s cyber-dissidents frequently are the sole conduit for uncensored information — an underground army of chiseler’s, typing away at the barricades. Here we see the blog as a building block for civil society. Electronic samizdat. Basic life forms in a free media ecology, instilling new habits in both writers and readers: habits of questioning, of digging deeper. Individual sites may get shut down, individual bloggers may be jailed but the information finds a way.
Though the situation in Iran is far from enviable, there is something attractive about the moral clarity of its dissident blogging. If one wants the truth, one must find alternatives — it’s that simple. But with alternative media in the United States — where the media ecology is highly developed and corruption more subtle — it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Political blogs in America may resound with outrage and indignation, but it’s the kind that comes from a life of abundance. All too often, political discourse is not something that points toward action, but an idle picking at the carcass of liberty.
Sure, we’ve seen blogs make a difference in politics (Swift Boats, Rathergate, Trent Lott — 2004 was the “year of the blog”), but generally as a furtherance of partisan aims — a way of mobilizing the groundtroops within a core constituency that has already decided what it believes.

a map of the political blogosphere

When one looks at this map (admittedly a year old) of the American political blogosphere, one notes with dismay that there are in fact two spheres, mapping out all too cleanly to the polarized reality on the ground. One begins to suspect that America’s political blogs are merely a pressure valve for a population that, though ill at ease, is still ultimately paralyzed.

can there be a compromise on copyright?

The following is a response to a comment made by Karen Schneider on my Monday post on libraries and DRM. I originally wrote this as just another comment, but as you can see, it’s kind of taken on a life of its own. At any rate, it seemed to make sense to give it its own space, if for no other reason than that it temporarily sidelined something else I was writing for today. It also has a few good quotes that might be of interest. So, Karen said:

I would turn back to you and ask how authors and publishers can continue to be compensated for their work if a library that would buy ten copies of a book could now buy one. I’m not being reactive, just asking the question–as a librarian, and as a writer.

This is a big question, perhaps the biggest since economics will define the parameters of much that is being discussed here. How do we move from an old economy of knowledge based on the trafficking of intellectual commodities to a new economy where value is placed not on individual copies of things that, as a result of new technologies are effortlessly copiable, but rather on access to networks of content and the quality of those networks? The question is brought into particularly stark relief when we talk about libraries, which (correct me if I’m wrong) have always been more concerned with the pure pursuit and dissemination of knowledge than with the economics of publishing.
library xerox.jpg Consider, as an example, the photocopier — in many ways a predecessor of the world wide web in that it is designed to deconstruct and multiply documents. Photocopiers have been unbundling books in libraries long before there was any such thing as Google Book Search, helping users break through the commodified shell to get at the fruit within.
I know there are some countries in Europe that funnel a share of proceeds from library photocopiers back to the publishers, and this seems to be a reasonably fair compromise. But the role of the photocopier in most libraries of the world is more subversive, gently repudiating, with its low hum, sweeping light, and clackety trays, the idea that there can really be such a thing as intellectual property.
That being said, few would dispute the right of an author to benefit economically from his or her intellectual labor; we just have to ask whether the current system is really serving in the authors’ interest, let alone the public interest. New technologies have released intellectual works from the restraints of tangible property, making them easily accessible, eminently exchangable and never out of print. This should, in principle, elicit a hallelujah from authors, or at least the many who have written works that, while possessed of intrinsic value, have not succeeded in their role as commodities.
But utopian visions of an intellecutal gift economy will ultimately fail to nourish writers who must survive in the here and now of a commercial market. Though peer-to-peer gift economies might turn out in the long run to be financially lucrative, and in unexpected ways, we can’t realistically expect everyone to hold their breath and wait for that to happen. So we find ourselves at a crossroads where we must soon choose as a society either to clamp down (to preserve existing business models), liberalize (to clear the field for new ones), or compromise.
In her essay “Books in Time,” Berkeley historian Carla Hesse gives a wonderful overview of a similar debate over intellectual property that took place in 18th Century France, when liberal-minded philosophes — most notably Condorcet — railed against the state-sanctioned Paris printing monopolies, demanding universal access to knowledge for all humanity. To Condorcet, freedom of the press meant not only freedom from censorship but freedom from commerce, since ideas arise not from men but through men from nature (how can you sell something that is universally owned?). Things finally settled down in France after the revolution and the country (and the West) embarked on a historic compromise that laid the foundations for what Hesse calls “the modern literary system”:

The modern “civilization of the book” that emerged from the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth century was in effect a regulatory compromise among competing social ideals: the notion of the right-bearing and accountable individual author, the value of democratic access to useful knowledge, and faith in free market competition as the most effective mechanism of public exchange.

Barriers to knowledge were lowered. A system of limited intellectual property rights was put in place that incentivized production and elevated the status of writers. And by and large, the world of ideas flourished within a commercial market. But the question remains: can we reach an equivalent compromise today? And if so, what would it look like? stallman.jpg Creative Commons has begun to nibble around the edges of the problem, but love it as we may, it does not fundamentally alter the status quo, focusing as it does primarily on giving creators more options within the existing copyright system.
Which is why free software guru Richard Stallman announced in an interview the other day his unqualified opposition to the Creative Commons movement, explaining that while some of its licenses meet the standards of open source, others are overly conservative, rendering the project bunk as a whole. For Stallman, ever the iconoclast, it’s all or nothing.
But returning to our theme of compromise, I’m struck again by this idea of a tax on photocopiers, which suggests a kind of micro-economy where payments are made automatically and seamlessly in proportion to a work’s use. Someone who has done a great dealing of thinking about such a solution (though on a much more ambitious scale than library photocopiers) is Terry Fisher, an intellectual property scholar at Harvard who has written extensively on practicable alternative copyright models for the music and film industries (Ray and I first encountered Fisher’s work when we heard him speak at the Economics of Open Content Symposium at MIT last month).
FisherPhoto6.jpg The following is an excerpt from Fisher’s 2004 book, “Promises to Keep: Technology, Law, and the Future of Entertainment”, that paints a relatively detailed picture of what one alternative copyright scheme might look like. It’s a bit long, and as I mentioned, deals specifically with the recording and movie industries, but it’s worth reading in light of this discussion since it seems it could just as easily apply to electronic books:

….we should consider a fundamental change in approach…. replace major portions of the copyright and encryption-reinforcement models with a variant of….a governmentally administered reward system. In brief, here’s how such a system would work. A creator who wished to collect revenue when his or her song or film was heard or watched would register it with the Copyright Office. With registration would come a unique file name, which would be used to track transmissions of digital copies of the work. The government would raise, through taxes, sufficient money to compensate registrants for making their works available to the public. Using techniques pioneered by American and European performing rights organizations and television rating services, a government agency would estimate the frequency with which each song and film was heard or watched by consumers. Each registrant would then periodically be paid by the agency a share of the tax revenues proportional to the relative popularity of his or her creation. Once this system were in place, we would modify copyright law to eliminate most of the current prohibitions on unauthorized reproduction, distribution, adaptation, and performance of audio and video recordings. Music and films would thus be readily available, legally, for free.
Painting with a very broad brush…., here would be the advantages of such a system. Consumers would pay less for more entertainment. Artists would be fairly compensated. The set of artists who made their creations available to the world at large–and consequently the range of entertainment products available to consumers–would increase. Musicians would be less dependent on record companies, and filmmakers would be less dependent on studios, for the distribution of their creations. Both consumers and artists would enjoy greater freedom to modify and redistribute audio and video recordings. Although the prices of consumer electronic equipment and broadband access would increase somewhat, demand for them would rise, thus benefiting the suppliers of those goods and services. Finally, society at large would benefit from a sharp reduction in litigation and other transaction costs.

While I’m uncomfortable with the idea of any top-down, governmental solution, this certainly provides food for thought.

DRM and the damage done to libraries

New York Public Library

A recent BBC article draws attention to widespread concerns among UK librarians (concerns I know are shared by librarians and educators on this side of the Atlantic) regarding the potentially disastrous impact of digital rights management on the long-term viability of electronic collections. At present, when downloads represent only a tiny fraction of most libraries’ circulation, DRM is more of a nuisance than a threat. At the New York Public library, for instance, only one “copy” of each downloadable ebook or audio book title can be “checked out” at a time — a frustrating policy that all but cancels out the value of its modest digital collection. But the implications further down the road, when an increasing portion of library holdings will be non-physical, are far more grave.
What these restrictions in effect do is place locks on books, journals and other publications — locks for which there are generally no keys. What happens, for example, when a work passes into the public domain but its code restrictions remain intact? Or when materials must be converted to newer formats but can’t be extracted from their original files? The question we must ask is: how can librarians, now or in the future, be expected to effectively manage, preserve and update their collections in such straightjacketed conditions?
This is another example of how the prevailing copyright fundamentalism threatens to constrict the flow and preservation of knowledge for future generations. I say “fundamentalism” because the current copyright regime in this country is radical and unprecedented in its scope, yet traces its roots back to the initially sound concept of limited intellectual property rights as an incentive to production, which, in turn, stemmed from the Enlightenment idea of an author’s natural rights. What was originally granted (hesitantly) as a temporary, statutory limitation on the public domain has spun out of control into a full-blown culture of intellectual control that chokes the flow of ideas through society — the very thing copyright was supposed to promote in the first place.
If we don’t come to our senses, we seem destined for a new dark age where every utterance must be sanctioned by some rights holder or licensing agent. Free thought isn’t possible, after all, when every thought is taxed. In his “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” Kant condemns as criminal any contract that compromises the potential of future generations to advance their knowledge. He’s talking about the church, but this can just as easily be applied to the information monopolists of our times and their new tool, DRM, which, in its insidious way, is a kind of contract (though one that is by definition non-negotiable since enforced by a machine):

But would a society of pastors, perhaps a church assembly or venerable presbytery (as those among the Dutch call themselves), not be justified in binding itself by oath to a certain unalterable symbol in order to secure a constant guardianship over each of its members and through them over the people, and this for all time: I say that this is wholly impossible. Such a contract, whose intention is to preclude forever all further enlightenment of the human race, is absolutely null and void, even if it should be ratified by the supreme power, by parliaments, and by the most solemn peace treaties. One age cannot bind itself, and thus conspire, to place a succeeding one in a condition whereby it would be impossible for the later age to expand its knowledge (particularly where it is so very important), to rid itself of errors, and generally to increase its enlightenment. That would be a crime against human nature, whose essential destiny lies precisely in such progress; subsequent generations are thus completely justified in dismissing such agreements as unauthorized and criminal.

We can only hope that subsequent generations prove more enlightened than those presently in charge.

podcast: discussing neil postman’s “building a bridge to the 18th century”

book_building_a_bridge.jpg (Annotated audio recordings of this discussion appear further down.)
On the dedication page of “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century,” Neil Postman quotes the poet Randall Jarrell:

Soon we shall know everything the 18th century didn’t know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us.

Though often failing to provide satisfying answers, Postman asks the kind of first-order questions one hears all too infrequently at a time when technology’s impact on our social, political and intellectual lives grows ever more profound. Postman has been accused of deep reactionism toward technology, and indeed, his hostility toward computers and telecommunications betrays an elitism that discredits some of his larger, and quite compelling observations.
In spite of this, Postman’s diagnosis is persuasive: that the idea of technological progress bequeathed by the Enlightenment has detached from reason and become a runaway train, that we are unquestioningly embracing new technologies that unleash massive change on our family and communal life, our democracy, and our capacity to think critically. We have stopped asking the single most important question that should be applied to all new technological innovations: does this technology solve a problem? If so, then at what cost? To whose benefit? And at whose expense?
Postman portrays the contemporary West as a culture without a narrative, littered with the shards of broken ideologies – depressed, unmotivated, and therefore uncritical of the new technologies that are foisted upon it by a rapacious capitalist system. The culprit, as he sees it, is postmodernism, which he lambasts (rather simplistically) as a corrosive intellectual trend, picking at the corpse of the Enlightenment, and instilling torpor and malaise at all levels of culture through its distrust of language and dogged refusal to accept one truth over another. This kind of thinking, Postman argues, is seductive, but it starves humans of their inspiration and sense of purpose.
To be saved, he goes on, and to build a better future, we would do well to look back to the philosophes of 18th century Europe, who, in the face of surging industrialization, defined a new idea of universal rational humanism – one that allowed for various interpretations within its fold, was rigorously suspicious of religious or any other kind of dogma, and yet gave the world a sense of moral uplift and progress. Postman does not suggest that we copy the 18th century, but rather give it careful study in order to draw inspiration for a new positive narrative, and for a reinvigoration of our critical outlook. This, Postman insists, offers us the best chance of surviving our future.
Postman’s note of alarm, if at times shrill, is nonetheless a refreshing antidote to the techno-optimism that pervades contemporary culture. And his recognition of our “crisis in narrative” – a formulation borrowed from Vaclav Havel – is dead on.
September 19: Bob, Dan, Kim, and Ben discuss Postman’s book at our new Brooklyn office (special prize if you pick out the sound of the ice cream truck passing by).
1. Bob’s preface – thoughts about how we do business at the institute (1:56) (download)

2. Ben’s first impressions – childhood under threat… Dan’s first impressions into discussion – a Clinton-era book, sets up a rather straw man caricature with the postmodernists, but society’s need for a narrative is compelling – why the Christian right has done so well… Postman seems to be assuming that progress is a law, that there is a directed narrative to history – problems with how he treats evolution. (6:43) (download)

3. Bob: Postman is much better at identifying problems than at coming up with solutions. Which is what makes him compelling. His stance is courageous. People assume with technology that just because something can be done it should be done. This is a tremendous problem – an affliction. If you could go back in time and be the inventor of the automobile, would you do it? People get angry at the responsibility this question imputes to them. How can we put these big questions at the center of our work? (13:34) (download)

4. Another big question… “An electronic community is only a simulation of a real community”? Flickr, Friendster, Howard Dean campaign? What is the vehicle for talking about this? What format is best for engaging these questions? Looking for new forms that illuminate or activate the questions. (15:43) (download)

5. Where/who are the public intellectuals today? [The ice cream truck passes by.] Strange bifurcation of the intellectual elite – many of the best-educated people most able to deal with abstraction make their living producing popular media that controls society. (10:07) (download)

6. Is capitalism the problem? Postman’s bias: written language will never be surpassed in its power to deal with abstract thought and cultivation of ideas. But we are arguably past the primacy of print. What is our attitude toward this? (9:39) (download)

7. What opportunities for reflection do different media afford? Films on DVD can be read and reread like a book – the viewer controls, rather than being controlled – a possibility for reflection not available in broadcast. What is the proper venue for discussing this? Capitalism is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. How do we create, if not a mass agitation, then at least a mass discussion? Tie it to the larger pressing problems of the world and how they will be better addressed by certain forms of discourse and reflection. Averting ecological catastrophe as one possible narrative – an inspiring motivator that will get people moving. How do find our way back into history? (10:09) (download)

8. What should we read next as counterpoint/antidote to Postman? The Matrix – are we headed that way? (12:33) (download)

9. How do we organize new kinds of debates about technology and society? Other issues to be addressed – class, race and gender inequality. (11:26) (download)