Monthly Archives: mai 2015

Open access et connaissance partagée. Contre Google.

Je ne serais pas étonné que les statistiques des fréquentations genevoises de connaissent ces jours un peak mérité. Invité par l’Université de Genève à l’occasion du lancement du Bodmer Lab, le directeur de la Bibliothèque d’Harvard, Robert Darnton a présenté  jeudi soir à l’Université de Genève une conférence exceptionnelle sur  la Digital Public Library of America, un projet d’une ambition et d’une qualité exceptionnelles. A deux titres: le premier est de développer à terme une arborescence du savoir et de la connaissance à travers la mise en réseau de toutes les bibliothèques des Etats-Unis et de mettre ces matières gratuitement à disposition de tous. L’autre ambition, politique, est de résister à toutes les entraves mises aujourd’hui à l’accès universel et gratuit à la connaissance. Un projet que Roger Darnton a ainsi décrit comme « utopique et pragmatique ». Utopique puisqu’il reprend et défend un concept menacé, né des Lumières, soit le développement d’un savoir universel démocratisé; pragmatique puisqu’il se développe dans l’action, par la fédération d’acteurs partageant les mêmes valeurs. « Numériser et démocratiser » tel est en effet le projet, par opposition bien sûr à ce qui anime Google et qui pourrait se résumer à « numériser puis vendre ». Je n’entends pas ici négliger l’extraordinaire contribution de Google dans le partage des connaissances et du savoir, mais force est de constater que le projet de départ de ses fondateurs s’est très sensiblement transformé avec les années. Avec celles écrites par Darnton lui-même, parmi les pages les plus avisées à lire à ce sujet, malheureusement encore inaccessibles en français, celle de Siva Vaidhyanathan dans son livre « The Gogglization of Everything: And Why We Should Worry »  qui décrit cette transformation et cartographie ses effets néfastes sur l’accès libre à la connaissance.

En prenant l’exemple des éditeurs et prestataires d’information académique et scientifique, Darnton a fort bien et fort simplement illustré le danger en prenant l’exemple de l’augmentation massive du coût de l’abonnement aux revues scientifiques, c’est assez édifiant. Afin d’être certain de mes chiffres, je ne reprends pas mes notes mais l’extrait de l’un de ses articles de la NYRB au sujet de la DPLA:    » Consider the cost of scientific periodicals, most of which are published exclusively online. It has increased at four times the rate of inflation since 1986. The average price of a year’s subscription to a chemistry journal is now $4,044. In 1970 it was $33. A subscription to the Journal of Comparative Neurology cost $30,860 in 2012—the equivalent of six hundred monographs. Three giant publishers—Reed Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, and Springer—publish 42 percent of all academic articles, and they make giant profits from them. In 2013 Elsevier turned a 39 percent profit on an income of £2.1 billion from its science, technical, and medical journals. »

Dans ce contexte, il a salué l’initiative du recteur de l’Université de Liège qui impose comme condition à tout promotion de professeur que l’ensemble des articles académiques soit publié en libre accès. Une pratique, a indiqué Margareta Badelley, sa vice-rectrice, que pratique également l’Université de Genève sans toutefois en faire une condition à la promotion de ses professeurs.






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Attempt to retire a word

In their science-based fiction  « The Collapse of Western Civilisation », American scientists Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway suggest discarding a few words that in their view clutter the debate about climate change by perpetuating an adherence to obsolete concepts. In a different way, in 1881, Flaubert proposed  » Le dictionnaire des idées reçues  » in its unfinished satirical text « Bouvard et Pécuchet », hoping society would rise to a more demanding level of conversation.

Here is, for instance, what Oreskes and Conway write under « Capitalism », an entry sandwiched between « Bridge to Renewables » and « Carbon-Combustion Complex »:  » A form of socioeconomic organization that dominated Western Europe and North America from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, in which  the means of production and distribution of goods and services were owned either by individuals or by government – chartered legal entities called  » corporations ». (…) The separation of work from ownership produced a concentration of wealth amongst a tiny elite, who could then purchase more favorable laws and regulations from their host governments. One popular notion about capitalism of the period was that it operated through a process of creative destruction. Ultimately, capitalism was paralyzed in the face of the rapid climate destabilization it drove, destroying itself. »

In the same vein, following the French cultural theorist Pierre Levy, may I modestly suggest we basically retire the word « internet » and replace it with  » the algorithmic medium » so we can always, in a kind of in your face way, remind ourselves of what is currently at play in our connected economy. I emphasise the word economy here rather than society to stress the point that the « big data » generated today by the global network forms a large part of the fuel of our current « capitalism ».

Thus, à la Oreskes and Conway, my paragraph on the Internet would read:

 » Internet: a physical network of networks created in the early nineteen sixties to freely share academic, scientific and military research between universities and government organizations organized in a completely decentralized structure and with no formal governance. The early internet was founded on self-accepted rules of behavior, values in other words. Aside a « savoir-faire » of civility, codified in what was called « netiquette, » strong not for profit, noncommercial ethics was underlying the entire project. A late internet era, loosely referred to as « Web 2.0 » saw the expansion and the democratization of the Internet; the number of people connected to the network reached billions, all accepting willingly to share their most intimate thoughts. Thus « big data » was created, lots of it as this visualisation shows.  The amount of data carried grew exponentially at such a rate that it could only be processed by algorithms initially developed by small start-up companies that quickly became enormous conglomerate concentrating in a few hands an amount of wealth and power unprecedented in the history of mankind. The particularity of the system was that the data was supplied for free by the users of the Internet while it was sold by private the companies, some of them so large and powerful that they often negotiated directly with governments.The promise of empowerment at the core of the invention of the personal computer, leading to a more equal society was sneered at as naïve. Massive unauthorized surveillance by governments in the name on the war on terror finished the job of completely debasing the fundamentals of the early internet.  The Internet as an experiment of decentralization of power, economic and political, thus died.  It was replaced by the « algorithmic medium » which today defines our digital condition. »

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I spent most of my Saturday evening watching the live stream of « Seven on Seven » at the New Museum on the Bowery from my home in Geneva. The name of the event comes from the curated pairing of fourteen artists and technologists. Their task was to produce *something*, I am quoting the organizers, over a period of about twenty-four hours. As usual with such innovative formats, productions were unequal, some pairs being more inspired than others. Or maybe it was that their respective interests turned out to better match for each other, so they ended up unveiling something that went beyond a hastily hatched concept. In any case, the entire event was extraordinarily stimulating. The « clou » was probably meant to be Laura Poitras documenting in Beijing, where it took place, the creative encounter between Chinese dissident artist Ai Wei Wei and Jacob Appelbaum of Wikileaks’ fame. It turned out to be undoubtedly inspiring given the stature of all involved yet I could not help but sense it was infused with a touch of complacency largely absent from the other presentations. Stardom at play! The Wei Wei – Appelbaum might have been a better fit for another forum, although thanks to Wei Wei there was, of course, a very significant artistic component in it. I happened to find the other interventions more relevant to the current art vs. technology conversation.

It is not a new debate, but it is obviously taking place in completely different circumstances than before, largely because of the extreme sophistication of today’s « machines », or rather their algorithmic brains. As it happened, and by pure coincidence, during the lunch pause, I opened Saul Bellow’s newly released collections of essays, « There Is Simply To Much To Think About » – isn’t it? – and jumped right into a 1970 piece titled « Machines and Storybooks: Literature in the Age of Technology. » In it, Bellow bemoans the interest shown for technology by younger writers, a theme he came back to in his 1976 Nobel Prize lecture. « Now as power-minded theoreticians see it  » writes Bellow in his essay, « the struggle between old art and new technology has ended in the power of technology. » Bellow goes on quoting Arthur C. Clarke: »It has often been suggested that art is a compensation for the deficiencies of the real world; as our knowledge, our power and above all our maturity increase, we will have less and less need for it. If this is true, the ultra-intelligent machine would have no use for it at all. Even if art turns out to be a dead end, there remain science. » Bellow calls the statement « silly » and proceeds to eviscerate it in his essay. But the question stays in his mind. A few years later, as he receives his prize in Stockholm, at the conclusion of a spirited defense of the novel, this is what he says: « What is at the center now? At the moment, neither art nor science but mankind determining, in confusion and obscurity, whether it will endure or go under. » (…) What (Joseph) Conrad said was true. Art attempts to find in the universe, in matter as well as in the facts of life, what is fundamental, enduring, essential. »

And that is precisely what the wonderful stimulating  participants to « Seven on Seven » did on a Saturday afternoon in New York.

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