The academic, the wikipedian, the vandal [Full version, updated 05.11.2012]

The French translation of this essay is available on OWNI (part 1 and part 2), as installments of my column Addicted To Bad Ideas.

With the new academic year kicking in, my colleagues and I have decided to add a little wiki twist to a couple of courses we teach at Telecom ParisTech. I started a Wikispace for my digital culture class, and with Isabelle Garron and Valérie Beaudouin we’ve made compulsory for first year students to try and edit and discuss at least one Wikipedia page, as part of their initiation to online writing.

Sure, Wikipedia has been used as teaching tool in academia for some years now, to say nothing about its increasing popularity as a research topic. But the main rationale for using it in the classroom is that it has become the one-stop-shop for bibliographical research and fact-checking.

Challenging the Academic Mindframe

Think about your own online information habits. What do you do when you don’t know the first thing about a given topic? You probably google it, and the first occurrence is most likely a page from Jimbo Wales’s brainchild. You do it, we do it, our students do it. So we have to incorporate Wikipedia in our academic activity, not because it’s a cool gadget, but because otherwise it will create a dangerous blind spot.

[Don’t panic… Ok, panic]

And yet, admitting to this without panicking is not simple. At least here in continental Europe, ill informed judgments about the allegedly poor quality of Wikipedia articles are still commonplace in higher education. Some – like the French high-school teacher Loys Bonod, who had his 15 minutes of fame earlier this year – go as far as to add false and misleading information to Wikipedia, just to demonstrate to their students that it… contains false and misleading information.

Such paradoxical reactions are a case in point. Wikipedia is just as accurate and insightful as its contributions. Hence, the need to encourage its users to relinquish their passive stance and participate, by writing about and discussing relevant topics. Of course, one might say, when it comes to Wikipedia the Internet iron law of 90–9–1 participation applies: for 90 simple readers of any article, there will be only 9 who will make the effort to click on the “modify” tab to actually write something in it, and maybe just 1 motivated enough to click on the “discussion” tab and start a dialogue with other wikipedians.

Social scientists can come up with many explanations for this situation. The claims about the dawn of online participatory culture might have been largely exaggerated. Or maybe the encyclopaedic form tends to recreate cultural dynamics that are more coherent with an “author vs. reader” dichotomy than with many-to-many communication. Or maybe Wikipedia editors tend to intimidate other users in an effort to increase their own social status by implementing specific barriers to entry.

Try starting a new article. In all probability, its relevance will be challenged by some editor. Try starting the biography of a living public figure. Chances are that a discussion will ensue, focussing not on the public figure in question, but on the private qualities of the biographer. Is the author just an IP-based anonymous, or a legit logged-in user with a recognized contribution track record?


The struggle for recognition in technological cultures: an anthology of “engineer’s laments”

Engineers have a lot of reasons to be miserable. I mean, they spend their precious time designing sophisticated and super-clever technological solutions to problems faced by people who hardly ever grant them the recognition they deserve. Take this piece of poetry, posted in a display case at Bletchley Park military research facility – the place where artificial intelligence pioneer Alan Turing and colleagues created Colossus, the very first electronic computer.

Most likely inspired by pre-existing seamen’s ballads written by ‘marine engineers’ operating ships and cargos, this lament was first published by Henry Jennings, a post office engineer, in the Bedford Telephone Area newsletter in 1950. Of course there’s a lot to be said about recognition. Philosopher Axel Honneth maintains mutual acknowledgement of the existence of social actors is what makes society work (cf. his seminal essay The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, Polity Press, 1996).

Quite understandably engineers want to be appreciated for what they do. Problem is, when a system works, engineers’ activity becomes invisible. And when it becomes visible again, it’s usually because something’s gone wrong… There’s a lot of interesting books about this ‘vanishing effect’ of engineering, from Bruno Latour’s Paris: Invisible City (La Découverte, 1998) to Stephen Graham’s Disrupted Cities: When Infrastructure Fails (Routledge, 2009) – although they mostly deal with civil engineering.


One of the greatest comedians of our time: Slavoj Žižek

I’m serious: the marxiste célèbre and #Occupy Wall Street avuncular philosopher Slavoj Žižek is really a funny man. Case in point, this excellent coffee table book containing a collection of the jokes he spices up his impenetrable prose with (complete with references to the original texts).

Žižek employs jokes like Plato resorted to myths as heuristic devices designed to convey a logical meaning. Thus, they are used iteratively — the Marx Brother one-liners about self-identity or refusal of choice, the Rabinovitch anecdote about realism, the skeptical paradox about the fiancée who’s late for a rendez-vous…

Find a selection of the best scanned pages on the publisher’s website, and discover the maieutic value of laughter. (Also discover that this is a project of the Mickey Mouse Club ft. the norwegian artist Audun Mortensen, and that the book is actually printed in a very limited edition of 1…) (more…)

The sociology of Chatroulette

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

By now, you might have heard of Chatroulette, if you are hip and tech-savvy if those two things at the sides of your face are your ears. By the way, I hope you did not click on the link. It’s not safe for work. And by that I mean you will be sucked into a world of sheer immorality which will challenge all your values and potentially wreck civilisation. Or (but this is simply my own guess) it will lead you to yet another overhyped internet chat service designed to put you in touch via webcam with random strangers.

Of course, "random" may be synonymous with "dressed like an idiot".

A few facts

So, bottom line, Chatroulette goes something like: you log in, you bump into someone, you evaluate, you click on “next”. Basically, each time you connect you have to ask yourself “Do I like this person?”. If you do, just go on chatting. If you don’t, just “next”  him/her and the service puts you in contact with someone else, anybody else. It might be a teenage boy making faces, or a beautiful girl with a generous cleavage, or an old pervert doing whatever it is that perverts do on-screen. (more…)

Slides séminaire "Quelle amitié en réseaux ?" Institut Télécom

Un autre jour, un autre séminaire. Cette fois-ci c’est à l’Institut Télécom (Télécom & Management SudParis) d’Evry, et il s’agit d’une variation sur le thème  de l’amitié en ligne (le friending dont parle danah boyd), que j’ai déjà développé ici et ici. Enjoy !

"Why is there art rather than nothing?": new book by French art critic Raphael Cuir now out

Between 1999 and 2002, French historian and art critic Raphael Cuir hosted a web-TV show called Memoires Actives on Canalweb. His guests were prominent personalities of European art – curators, philosophers, writers and artists. Each of them was invited to answer this simple yet “monumental” question : “Why is there art rather than nothing?”

The answers are now collected in a volume going by the same title (Pourquoi y a-t-il de l’art plutôt que rien?, Paris,  Archibooks + sautereau éditeur, 2009). The book is, of course, in French, as is this short video-interview with the author:

“All in all”, Cuir writes in his introduction to the book, “by rephrasing the famous question, the ultimate metaphysical question, I asked the art world the question that Leibniz, for instance, posed to the world as a whole: ‘why is there anything rather than nothing?’ and Heidegger to existence itself: “Why is there the being instead of nothing?'”

The diverse and stimulating contributions to this book range from claims of the nihilistic nature of art (J. Baudrillard) or of art as a manifestations of the void (C. Millet), to meditations on art as the innermost essence of humankind (G. Lista) which at the same time transcends human existence (T. Todorov) and paradoxically escapes nothingness by creating value out of “almost nothing” (Orlan). Despite the seriousness of Cuir’s enquiry, the book manages to strike – thanks to its aphoristic format – the right balance between readability and depth.

Support Prof. Horacio Potel!, or a portrait of the philosopher as a pirate

Addendum, Nov 14, 2009: As of today, we salute the recent decision of the Argentinian court dropping the charges against Prof Potel. Read more about this here (in English). Download court’s sentence here (in Spanish).

Argentinean professor charged criminally for promoting access to knowledge
By the CopySouth Research Group

A philosophy professor in Argentina, Horacio Potel, is facing criminal charges for maintaining a website devoted to translations of works by French philosopher Jacques Derrida. His alleged crime:  copyright infringement. Here is Professor Potel’s sad story.

Prof. Potel usually wears a pirate eye patch while lecturing in philosophy

Prof. Potel usually puts his pirate patch on *before* lecturing in philosophy at UNLA

“I was fascinated at the unlimited possibilities offered by the internet for knowledge exchange”, explains Horacio Potel, a Professor of Philosophy at the Universidad Nacional de Lanús in Buenos Aires. In 1999, he set up a personal website to collect essays and other works of some well-known philosophers, starting with the German Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Potel’s websites – Nietzsche in Spanish, Heidegger in Spanish, and Derrida in Spanish – eventually developed into growing online libraries of freely downloadable philosophical texts. Nietzsche in Spanish alone has already received more than four million visitors.


Hidden track #2: Cartoon philosopher fustigates reductionism

It’s a sad, sad world, one where we have to rely on Richard Linklater’s innocuous films to express unpopular opinions. Like for instance this one:

“Believing that biology and physics can explain all of human behavior is nothing short of a reductionistic fallacy, as they do not take into account culture, individual choices – and ultimately free will”.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is a short excerpt from Linklater’s movie Waking Life (2001), where philosopher David Sosa (University of Texas, Austin) discusses determinism in a…ehm, cartoon interview.