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17 juin 2008

Looking backwards into the future

Classé dans : Progrès, Sciences, techniques — Miklos @ 15:03

“She said: What is history?
And he said: History is an angel
being blown backwards into the future.
He said: History is a pile of debris
And the angel wants to go back and fix things
To repair the things that have been broken.
But there is a storm blowing from Paradise
And the storm keeps blowing the angel
backwards into the future.
And this storm,
this storm is called Progress.”
— Laurie Anderson, The Dream Before (for Walter Benjamin)

In his recent FYI France newsletter dedicated to “Wikipedia gone global”, Jack Kessler speaks of “Some very interesting comments [on two mailing lists, Biblio-FR and COLLIB-L], too, both pro and con plus an emerging majority of muddled-middle, are appearing in the current discussions, where there was only passion back when we all started out on this.” It is worth remembering that the discussion about Wikipedia had started, in the French-speaking librarians’ list (Biblio-FR), in 2004 with a few messages which were, then as now, about (i) its participatory nature, (ii) the volume of its contents, and (iii) the quality of its contents (accuracy and coverage). In that context, I had quoted Hiawatha Bray’s article which had already raised the issue of a “formal editorial process”, even of an “editorial board staffed with experts in various fields” needed to achieve better accuracy.

All things considered, the discussions haven’t changed much, as Wikipedia hasn’t really changed much in the way it operates, for better or for worse, depending on one’s opinions. More interesting to me is the fact that, as a result, an increasing number of “established” encyclopaedias went online, and provided one with more affordable, even free, access. This won’t “kill” the Wikipedia1 – it would be preposterous to call for this – but it will provide a much-needed alternative.

It is also interesting to make a parallel with Google, regarding its all-encompassing goals (we remember Jack Kessler’s report of its shareholders’ meeting in May 2005) and its relation to advertising. Regarding the latter: as Nick Carr – whose illuminating articles about both these phenomena are worth reading – had reminded us in December 2005, Google’s founders had “called into question whether ads were compatible with effective, unbiased search”, quoting them to have written:

“We expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers”.

The rest is history.

Wikipedia had had an uneasy relation with advertising as well. Following a public seminar held last January at Sciences Po (the degree-granting French Institute for Political Sciences) with the authors of a book written about Wikipedia, Florence Nibart-Devouard, the current Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation, commented on an article I had written about this seminar2 by saying (my translation) that “Wikipedia never used advertising (…)”. Yet she failed to mention the October 2005 partnership agreement between Anwers.com and the Wikimedia Foundation, according to which “Answers will create a software-based co-branded version of Answers.com to be called 1-Click Answers, Wikipedia Edition, from which advertising revenues will be split with The Wikimedia Foundation. Wikipedia will create a Tools page on its English-language site to promote useful tools that access Wikipedia, and 1-Click Answers, Wikipedia Edition, will receive charter placement on that page.” It is worth noting that in her 2004 candidacy she had written: “The products are to be provided to the public free of charge and with no advertising”, while in 2005 she seemed to have subtly shifted her position, when she wrote “I generally do not support use of advertisement”. A year later, the inclusion of the logo of Virgin Unite (the charity arm of Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin brand, which had donated money to the Wikimedia Foundation) on WP had raised opinionated and endless discussions.

Let us all remember what Ms. Nibart-Devouard’s predecessor, Jim Wales, had written as early as in 2001: “Someday, there will be advertising on Wikipedia. Either that, or we will have to find some other way to raise money, but I can’t think of any. This is not coming soon. As of today, November 9, 2001, I would say that this is at least 6 months to (more likely) 1 year away.” Never too late.

Both Google and WP are social and economic phenomena which also address the shifting meanings of democracy vs. mediocracy, of the (imagined?) increased freedom of the individual from constraints in the Polis and the resulting loosening of the social fabric, coupled with the (not imagined) increased traceability of the individual in the networked digital worlds (internet, cell phone, RFID, credit cards and others) which is becoming denser with every technological innovation, and the subjection of taste and knowledge to statistics and mass behavior. But this is not new: it is worth (re)reading Jacques Ellul3 (on technology and society) and Joseph Schumpeter4 (on economy and democracy), and, more recently, Philippe Breton (on the utopia of communication).

1 Some observers note interesting trends in its evolution.
2 Which no one from WP attended, despite the fact it had been publically announced and was open to the public (that’s how I attended).
3 La technique ou l’enjeu du siècle, Armand Colin, 1954 (republished 1990). In English: The Technological Society, Knopf, 1964.
4 See e.g., Joseph Schumpeter: Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1942, or Lucien-Pierre Bouchard: Schumpeter – La Démocracie désenchantée, Michalon, 2000.

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