TOC The flow of eliteracy Your Turn

August 16, 2011

During summer vacation, take stock. Back at the office, go with the flow. Many human activities are so structured by stocks and flows.

Last week in London for instance, riots flowed fast and furious, "fuelled by a mix of disaffected youth and modern mobile communications", in Bob Sherwood's words (*). Meanwhile, as Jonathan Foreman tells us (**), the police took silent stock, knowing "that (thanks to CCTV) most of the looters would be caught". For those whose property was destroyed, the rising power of the flows over the stocks has been made painfully obvious.

In Europe, "an idea has taken hold - individuals should have a "right to be forgotten" on the Web", writes Suzanne Daley (***). "Viviane Reding, the European Union's justice commissioner [...] cannot accept that individuals have no say over their data once it is launched into cyberspace".

Her heart is in the right place but why put King Midas' privacy before ours? Why propose in priority to grant relief to fools and convicted felons who want to be forgotten? Shouldn't she try first to grant full personal data ownership to ordinary citizens wishing to escape economic exploitation?

Down with all privileges. Prevent Amazon, Apple and Google to record my every move. Force Facebook to free my data from bondage. To better fight pollution, stop it at the source rather than wait and decontaminate the ground where it accumulates as its flow comes to rest.

Still I admit personal data is but one of the many sides of the larger Information Revolution of our Age. Why not, at least temporarily, go with the flow, leave our privacy beat and take stock of how other types of content are created and consumed?

As piracy affects traditional content as much as consumer profiles, old ways do not fare well. Farewell indeed to journalists, writers, restaurant recommenders, all and sundry professional experts. They have become a luxury publishers can no longer afford. Unless they succeed as live entertainers, they will soon depend on the patronage of wealthy corporations seeking to burnish their brand.

New ways are not lacking, but can we tell which ones will prosper? Perhaps we should study the last information revolution. Mind, not Gutenberg's. For a true equivalent to today's profound changes, I contend one must look to the dying days of the oral tradition. For a source, I recommend Milman Parry (1), whose close and methodical study of Homer's epics revealed they were composed before the Greeks regained literacy.

Our current tradition emphasizes the material stock which collects our written thoughts. Able to work asynchronously over his story, the writer weaves sentences from words in complex patterns which can be judged for their originality. As an author, his calling is first to add to the global stock. The more readers can access this stock, the less they value artless repetition and hold plagiarism to be thievery plain and pure.

Reciting from plastic memories, oral poets stress the live flow of spoken words. As their audiences listen, they weave stories from conventional formulae as required, thereby increasing the harmony of the delivery as well as better matching their listeners' expectations. The more performances the latter hear, the more they value the fluency, the depth, the breadth with which bards treat the collective repertoire of common tales.

Introduce writing into an illiterate society and euphonious formulae become mere stock phrases, skilled recitations turn into exposed exercises of unreliable memories. Dickens may have charmed audiences during his lecture tours, but he was reading from his own books.

Doesn't eliteracy reestablish the primacy of the flow over the stock? Indeed, once it has been digitized, copying rapidly robs the stock of its value. Today we praise sharing and immediacy. Eliterate people prefer a flow of tweets above a well researched paper. Logically content producers will be measured more and more by the number of their eliterate followers than by the refined appreciation of expert colleagues and talented amateurs.

What lessons then should we draw? Here are two modest suggestions to which my readers may add their own. The future will show who's right.

First it would be logical to try to build a bridge between oral to digital traditions. When he criticizes Wikipedia for its crimped citation policy which ignores "whole cultures [...] that have little or no printed material to cite as proof", Achal Prabhala makes a similar point. According to Noham Cohen's reporting (****), "[his] most challenging argument is that by being text-focused [...] Wikipedia risks being behind the times." Indeed.

Wikipedia should not abandon its goal to achieve a high level of authoritative truth. Unlike maths demonstrations, truth is rarely self-evident and past beliefs in self-correction have shown their limits. But nothing prevent Wikipedia from welcoming pages with no properly vetted written sources, as long as it flags those contributions as such and uses its past experience to develop a robust process for readers to bear judgement.

Second one should rethink the relationship between producer and consumer as far as intellectual content is concerned. Even without any economic value, the written record will continue to render most oral performances moot when not interpreting music, poems and plays. Some students for example would rather study by themselves and do not want to pay for entertaining teaching, even if great teachers can captivate their audience live.

Short of an entertaining value, intellectual productions must therefore cash on their originality, the intrinsic value acquired during the written tradition, in the digital one. To bypass piracy, authors need only to be paid like performers, before delivery. As Carl Wilkinson mentions (*****), "in the UK, the Unbound project is publishing books by pitching ideas direct to readers who then stump up the funding for the ones they want to read. When an idea has received 100 per cent of the financing needed, the writer starts work and "investors" receive a copy of the finished product".

If this can satisfy authors, disappointed readers may resent it as but a clever trick. The digital medium calls for far more. By giving rendez-vous with one's audience, the author should also be ready to interact with it in a way the oral tradition could hardly conceived. A good radio talk show host gets selected listeners online to contribute to his program. Wouldn't paying good money for the privilege increase the low average quality of today's online comments? Couldn't access to recommended comments be priced as an option, whose proceeds would be shared with the contributors?

In a world which values flow over stock however, the first to propose an idea will be found less original than the one able to get his followers to turn it into a meme (2). Like Homer for the oral tradition, the best authors will do both but it may take a while for their new art to fully mature.

Before the digital tradition flowers, the flow of time will have long carried me away together with the existing stock of literate people of my ilk..

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ......... Alienation and communication fuelled unrest, by Bob Sherwood (Financial Times) - Aug 10, 2011
  • (**) ....... Time to abandon Britain's CCTV policing , by Jonathan Foreman (Financial Times) - Aug 11, 2011
  • (***) ..... On Its Own, Europe Backs Web Privacy Fights, by Suzanne Daley (New York Times) - Aug 10, 2011
  • (****) ... When Knowledge Isn't Written, Does It Still Count, by Noham Cohen (New York Times) - Aug 8, 2011
  • (*****) . Light reading , by Carl Wilkinson (Financial Times) - Aug 13, 2011
  • (1) for more details, see Milman Parry in the wikipedia.
  • (2) for this neologism, see meme in the wikipedia.
August 2011
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