Monthly Archives: May 2008

There are many things to be said about Clay Shirky’s recent book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations” and a lot has already been said. The book is part of an every growing pile of Web 2.0 literature that could be qualified as “popular science” – easily digestible titles, generally written by scholars or science journalists, which are generally declaring the advent of a new age where old concepts no longer apply and everything is profoundly transformed (knowledge, education, the economy, thinking, wisdom, organization, culture, journalism, etc.). The genre has been pioneered by people like Alvin Toffler and Jeremy Rifkin and it does now dominate much of the debate on the social, cultural and political “effects” of recent developments in ICT. There is of course merit to a larger debate on technology and the sensationalist baseline is perhaps needed to create the audience for such a debate. At the same time, I cannot help feeling a little bit unsettled by the scope the phenomenon has taken and the grip these books seem to have on academic discourse. Here are a couple of reasons why:

  1. There are actually very few thoughts and arguments in the whole “Web 2.0 literature” that have not already been phrased in Tim O’Reilly’s original essay. Granted, the piece was quite seminal but shouldn’t academia be able to come up with a stronger conceptual viewpoint?
  2. The books in question are really lightweight when it comes to anchoring their thoughts in previous scholarly effort. A lot of room is given to metaphorical coupling with the natural sciences (some keywords: swarms, ecologies, auto-organization, percolation, critical thresholds, chaos, etc.) but although most of these books talk about the future of work (prosumers performing collective wisdom, in short), there is very little interaction with the sociology of labor or economic theory. Sure, a deeper examination of these topics would be difficult, but without some grounding in established work, the whole purpose of scholarship as a collective endeavor is meaningless – which is especially ironic given the celebration of cooperation one can find in Web 2.0 literature
  3. As I’ve already written in another post, I find the idea that “participation” and “leveling of hierarchies” equates democracy deeply troubling. Richard Sennett’s argument that stable social organization and work relations are necessary prerequisites for true political discourse – politics that go beyond the flash mob activism often presented as prove for the new, more democratic age that is upon us – is ringing louder than ever.
  4. Much of the Web 2.0 literature is basically antithetical to the purpose of this blog. Shirky’s idea that the new social tools allow for “organizing without organizations” is largely ignoring the political power that is transferred to the 21st century tool maker and the companies that he or she works for. I’m not advocating paranoia here, but the fact that many of the tools that power mass sociability online are produced and controlled by firms that are accountable to their shareholders only (or the people that got them venture capital) is at least worth mentioning. But the problem really goes beyond that: the tools we currently have incite people to gather around common interests, creating and activating issue publics than can indeed take influence on political matters. But politics is much more than the totality of policy decisions. The rise of issue publics has coincided with the demise of popular parties and while this may look like a good thing to many people, parties have historically been the laboratories for the development of politics beyond policy. Europe’s social market economies are unthinkable without the various socialist parties that worked over decades to make societies more just. One does not have to be a left winger to recognize that the loss of the stable and accountable forum that is the political party would be at least ambiguous.
  5. While Web 2.0 literature is light on politics and serious political theory it is not stingy with morals. The identification of “good” and “bad” effects that 2.0 ICT will have on society often seems really at the core of many of the texts published over the last few years. But as point 4 might have shown, the idea of “good” and “bad” is really meaningless outside of a particular political (or religious) ontology. What actually happens is the understatement of a vague political consensus that takes a position antithetical to the premises of critical sociology, i.e. that conflict is constitutive to society.
  6. An essay stretched over 250 pages does not make a book. (I know, that’s a little mean – but also a little true, no?)

Don’t get me wrong, many of the books I’m referring to have actually been quite interesting to read. What worries me is the lack of more scholarly and conceptually demanding works but perhaps I’m just impatient. In a sense, “Digital Formations” by Robert Latham and Saskia Sassen already shows how sophisticated Internet Research could be if we switch off that prophet gene.

This is a very general question and there is no way to answer it in a rigorous way. But after reading many of the books and articles on “participatory culture” I cannot shake the feeling that the idea of non-organized organization will very soon be confronted with a series of limits and problems inherent to auto-organized social aggregation – inequality, intercultural strife, visibility of minority opinion, etc. – that will be difficult to ignore.

But there is a more practical reason why I ask myself this very question. Pierre Lévy actually used to work at my department and my laboratory has recently stuck up a cooperation with his research unit in Ottawa. We’ve been organizing a little seminar here in Paris where Lévy will be giving a talk later this month. When Lévy wrote “L’intelligence collective” in 1994, many people saw his proposals as sheer blue-eyed utopia and dismissed it rather quickly. The American reading of that text has since then become something like the bible of research on participatory culture, user-generated content movements, and so on. Interestingly, Lévy himself has been pretty silent on all of this, leaving the exegesis of his thoughts to Henry Jenkins and others. Why? Because Lévy probably never imagined collective intelligence as photo-sharing on Flikr or Harry Potter fanfiction. What he envisioned is in fact exemplified by his work over the last couple of years, which was centered on the development of IEML – Information Economy Meta Language:

IEML (Information Economy Meta Language) is an artificial language designed to be simultaneously: a) optimally manipulable by computers; and b) capable of expressing the semantic and pragmatic nuances of natural languages. The design of IEML responds to three interdependent problems: the semantic addressing of cyberspace data; the coordination of research in the humanities and social sciences; and the distributed governance of collective intelligence in the service of human development.

IEML is not another syntax proposal for a semantic web like RDF or OWL. It is a philosopher’s creation of a new language that allows mainly two things: facilitate the processing of data tagged with IEML sentences and help cross-language and intercultural reasoning. This page gives a short overview. Against the usual understanding of collective intelligence, IEML is really a top-down endeavor. Lévy came up with the basic syntax and vocabulary and the proposal explicitly states the need for experts in helping with formalization and translation. I must admit that I have been very skeptical of the whole thing, but after reading Clay Shirky’s “Here comes Everybody” (which I found interesting but also seriously lacking – I’ll get to that in another post though) there is a feeling creeping up on me that Lévy might yet again be five years ahead of everybody else. In my view, the mindset of large parts of research on participation has adopted the ontology and ethics of American-brand Protestantism which, among other things, identifies liberty and democracy with community rather than with the state and which imagines social process as a matter of developing collective morals and practices much more than the outcome of power struggles mediated by political institutions. This view idealizes the “common man” and shuns expert culture as “elitist”. Equality is phrased less in socio-economic terms, as “equal opportunity” (the continental tradition), but in mostly in cultural terms, as “equal recognition”. (Footnote: this is, in my view, why political struggle in the US has been, for many decades now, mostly about the recognition of minority groups while on the European continent – especially in catholic countries – “class struggle” still is a common political vector) In this mindset, meritocracy is therefore necessarily seen as ambiguous.

I believe that the most interesting projects in the whole “amateur” sector are the ones that organize around meritocratic principles and consequently built hierarchy; open source software is the best example but Wikipedia works in a similar fashion. The trick is to keep meritocracy from turning into hegemony. But I digress.

Lévy’s bet is that collective intelligence, if it wants to be more than pop culture, will need experts (and expert tools) for a series of semantic tasks ranging from cartography to translation. His vision is indeed much more ambitious than most of the things we have seen to this day. The idea is that with the proper (semantic) tools, we could tackle problems collectively that are currently very much out of reach; and this in a truly global fashion, without bringing everybody into the rather impoverished linguistic umbrella of globish. Also, in order to make search more pluralistic and less “all visibility to the mainstream” as it currently is, we will need to get closer to the semantic level. I don’t believe that IEML, in its current iteration at least, can really do all these things. But I believe that yet again, Lévy has the right intuition: if collective forms of “problem solving” are to go beyond what they currently do, they will have to find modes of organization that are more sophisticated than the platforms we currently have. These modes will also have to negociate a balance between “equal opportunity” and “equal representation” and make it’s peace with instituionalization.