Hitler, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and the fading legitimacy of academic institutions

By Antonio A. Casilli (Centre Edgar-Morin, EHESS) [1]

Another day, another Hitler parody video. This one (courtesy of http://criticalcommons.org) is a rant about the rise of digital scholarship –  a subjet I cherish and occasionally deal with in my seminar. The German dictator, now reborn as a grotesque Internet meme, highlights the existing cultural divide between the up-and-coming Internet-savvy “junior” scholars and the ageing generation of paper-intensive, book-prone professors and researchers. Bitterly, he claims academic teaching is “a dying profession” (why he’s not the only one: check here and here).

“We were great once”, cries Hitler, voicing the disappointment of old time academics. “A proud institution. We controlled knowledge: we told everyone what and how to think. Now (…) we spend our time propping up our fading legitimacy”.

The turning point in the video seems to be when, with trembling hand, the Führer removes his glasses and hisses: “Anyone who has ever consulted the Wikipedia, leave the room, now!”. There, a line is drawn between traditional scientific  institutions and digital ones. The online encyclopedia, for better or for worse, epitomizes the spirit of open knowledge that is slowly digging a ditch around academic ivory towers.

A personal anecdote might help further develop this point. On November 3rd, 2009, 3:34 PM, via a French mailing list, I received an email from the president of the EHESS, the academic institution I happen to work for. The email stated that, aged 100, “our colleague, Claude Lévi-Strauss” died. Assuming that the news was first hand, appealing to the larger public and coming from a reliable source, I decided to put it on Wikipedia France. So I edited the page Claude Lévi-Strauss introducing the date of decease. I usually contribute to the English-speaking part of Wikipedia, so  this time I didn’t bother logging in. I was assuming my IP address (I was writing from my office) would somehow vouch for me. This move ended up backfiring.

As soon as I clicked on Save changes, a message popped up on my screen warning that my IP address was recognized as one of the EHESS and was thus considered suspicious. An editor would have to validate my changes. And the editor did not: he or she dismissed the piece of information as unsubstantiated and the edit didn’t even hit the  revision history log. The “appeal to authority” (me writing from the very same institution where Claude Lévi-Strauss had taught) didn’t seem to count. Of course the page was eventually modified soon afterwards by somebody who made the correct link to the newswire of the Agence France Press.

This anecdote makes for a compelling example of how intellectual authority is reshaped in online environments. For better or worse, again. The academic ex-cathedra (in this case we might say the “ex-IP address”) attitude is questioned, in a healthful and productive way. Unfortunately, too often it is replaced by a media-ridden viral logic as a new source of intelligence. What is at stake here is not only the status of academics today as intellectual authorities, but the way objective knowledge is validated. Again, the Claude Lévi-Stauss article in Wikipedia is a good example. As of today, no clear consensus has been reached on the exact date of his death – somewhere between October 30th and November 3rd. Who do we trust? Insiders are, in this case unreliable, because they are colleagues of the deceased anthropologist, academics used since their prime to “hide” knowledge from the populace. Outsiders, are probably not close enough to Lévi-Strauss’s friends and  family, but are more reliable as to the way they collect information, as well as to the way they deliver it. They log in, modify the page without messing up with the code, explain the edits they introduced, take part to the conversation, and so on. (From this point of view I am somewhere halfway, I’m afraid ;-(

Both the Hitler parody and the Claude Lévi-Strauss Wikipedia anecdote point towards a reconfiguration of the “two cultures” controversy as outlined by C. P. Snow. If, back in the 1950s, the cultural divide put natural sciences and humanities on the opposite sides of the knowledge spectrum, nowadays – with government and industry increasing demand for transdisciplinary research – this intellectual chasm is progressively replaced by a technological one.

Like for many other things digital, I don’t believe that the dialectic between academics who publish in journals and academics who post on blogs should be described as a conflict. It rather adds a new dimension to the production of knowledge – a dimension that to some looks like a useless complication, and that some others welcome like a solution to the limitations and shortcomings of contemporary cultural institutions.