December 15, 2006 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on December 15, 2006.
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A new book published by C&F éditions is intriguing as much for its procedures as for its substance:
Le Document : à la lumière du numérique [=The Document,
in the Digital Era] by Roger T. Pédauque (Caen : C&F
éditions, 2006) ISBN 2-915825-04-1 ; http://cfeditions.com
The author, "Roger T. Pédauque", is a "collective name"... Several folks contributed, here, and they did so largely online. This is a new phenomenon for the Internet, although it is a practice which has a long cultural history in France.
The substance of the book's discussion should be of interest to anyone working in digital information -- or trying to, beneath the increasing weight of "information overload" -- the document, in light of the digital, what difference do the new media really make?
Jean-Michel Salaün and the many with whom he worked on this project make interesting points, about documents and documentation in the modern era. The book offers three cooperatively-written essays:
"Pédauque 1" ; the document as form, sign, and medium ; reformulations wrought by the digital era -- various propositions regarding the various roles of documents, from various points of view...
"Pédauque 2" ; the text in play ; permanence, and the transformations of the document -- how documents work, the background, the text, the variorum edition idea and its war with change, of Semantic Webs, of Mediation, and of the ontology and "neutrality" of technique... aka is there anything "wertfrei", about "the document"...
"Pédauque 3" ; the document in the Modern World -- deconstruction -- the meanings, and semiotics, of things like "media", and differences "the digital" can make...
It is a bold undertaking. The writers here proceed systematically through several of the leading issues of modern thought. Over 3 1/2 years, the at-least-175 researchers officially involved, "and perhaps others", debated and discussed ideas which have interested many of us.
The approach which emerges postulates "definitions", poses questions about them, discusses them. In the discussion of texts, the notable "OSI 7 Layer Model" interestingly re-emerges from its past tangles with TCP/IP, in the 7-layered "cake" of the W3 Consortium's "Semantic Web", and "Basic English" works it way, inexorably if painfully, towards "Global English".
The idea of Mediated text, too, is posed, the question being -- as it has been since Luther at least -- the cultural constraints, and other baggage, which might accompany such "mediation"...
And the idea of change, particularly in the media -- now that we have digitization, and we have made that electronic -- is discussed in some detail. iPods, ebooks: are these "media" a new form of "mediation"; is there a new "public space" to which they appeal; is there a Darwinism, or something else, which is going to govern documents and their use and their relations to their users, in all of that?
Interesting questions... all the more interesting because of the cooperative and relatively-unmediated nature of their discussion, here, or at least of the claim to same...
For it is the procedure of this book -- of the individuals and groups, who and which participated electronically, in the formulation of the three texts, which became the documents assembled in this printed medium artifact -- just being exact... -- which is the most interesting thing to me personally, here.
There is a great deal of mere punditry available to be read now, online and in print, on all of the subjects addressed in these three texts. But in few places can one find true "discussion" of them, yet: the ideas are too new, perhaps, and still are busy "getting out there" -- this book and the online discussions which preceded it are one of the first instances I myself have seen of such ideas not just being put forward but truly being tossed back and forth, by groups, and really being talked about.
If so... if the procedures followed really did do this...
Jean-Michel Salaün includes a fascinating appendix (p. 213) on the methodology of the project:
"...the objective, of having the author here be a collective pseudonym, was a double one. On the one hand, to attenuate the cult of personality and the active role-playing present in the scientific world... On the other to build a community effort, of reflection upon digital documents, which has not existed before and still remains to be constructed, one with an inter-disciplinary perspective..."
So it came down to the editing, maybe: over 60 people, says Salaün, worked hard at this... and in his notes he offers the URLs where the various versions and revisions may be found and examined to prove this -- to prove that here, indeed, is the work of, "un auteur collectif, fictif et numérique".
As Salaün says, the inter-disciplinary approach of this work is one of its first advantages. Going beyond the individual pundits, each of whom seems to be addressing no one else but herself or himself alone, is an initial task in any such controversial and ground-breaking effort.
"What is the impact of the latest technology upon our most fundamental beliefs and cultural practices?..." : personal opinions abound, but too few go any further than the expression of merely individual views -- ideas are too new, individual ignorance too profound -- so perhaps this is precisely the most fertile ground, for the "collective wisdom" approach embodied in "Roger T. Pédauque"...
At least since CP Snow's 1959 look at "The Two Cultures", suspicion has lain heavily upon the modern tendency to specialize: during the last century, academic disciplines which had been "humanistic" only a century before became rigorously "scientific", or at least they began to make that claim. Snow wondered, scientist and fiction-writer that he simultaneously was, whether the two tendencies would diverge and never meet again.
Wordsworth as far back as 1799 favored a more synthetic approach, warning against analytics,
"...that false secondary power by which
In weakness we create distinctions, then
Believe our puny boundaries are things
Which we perceive, and not which we have made."
-- when we come to any set of very new ideas, then, such as those presented to us now by our very new Digital Era, an approach more "holistic" than normal may be necessary -- one more all-encompassing, at any rate, than our traditional science has been. The collective-wisdom approach of a project such as that of "Roger T. Pédauque" represents this need, perhaps...
Perhaps using the new digital media themselves -- thus ensuring at least that those contributing to and discussing such ideas are familiar personally with the new techniques -- then subjecting that to more traditional "editorial" procedures, and finally producing here a traditional-format "printed" book for the convenient use of those who may or may not be familiar, is the best way to broach and discuss these subjects. As vs. hiding the discussion in some academic nook where only the "elect" with access thereto may gain entrance, and a hearing.
If the goal here is to maximize access and inter-disciplinarity, as stated, then the novel "procedures" adopted would seem to favor that: that way lies success -- traditions may not work.
But Michel Melot describes the greatest risk in all of this well, in his Préface to the book: there he thoughtfully warns (p. 14),
"The economy of the media has replaced the economy of the message. Tools for reconfiguration, motorized research, access for whomever, all are being sold. But we have a new situation forcing us to think outside of the mold.
"On the one hand a global medium spanning all geographic frontiers, all linguistic frontiers (with Unicode the machine can read all that is written), but not our economic and social frontiers, which are the real frontiers; on the other, a medium which draws its advantage from its abilities at atomization, at the breaking-up of things into insignificant bits.
"One hopes, then, that this radical normalization of communication is to become a universal language. But this language is mute, and until it can be made to speak it is Babel which we are reconstructing."
So there are several books, here.
* There are the texts of Jean-Michel Salaün and his collaborators, assembled and presented as the work of their "auteur collectif, fictif et numérique", "Roger T. Pédauque". The idea of collective and anonymous / pseudonymous authorship is not new in France: throughout French history, any time there has been controversy or, as here, novelty -- one thinks of the famous pamphlets and tracts and feuilletons of political and religious controversy, and of the journals and encyclopédies of philosophic and scientific advance -- such "collective pseudonym" presentation has been resorted to, and has turned out to be a very useful technique. Here once again, then, France is proposing the approach, to subjects which are "new": the use of the technique in this instance being perhaps less notable than the need for it -- so we are in a burst of creativity, maybe, or even perhaps as Melot suggests an emergency, and we have need for new approaches.
* The book also presents the striking graphics of Nicolas Taffin -- "avec la complicité de Zuzana Licko... et de Jim Lyles" -- in-tune with the text, as book graphics not always are, and innovative and evocative in their own right. Familiar portraits, but ingeniously depicted here in the QWERTY / "ASCII-art" characters of our own Digital Era keyboards, portraits of the Ur-text architects of our new digital synthesis: Wittgenstein, Tim Berners-Lee, Diderot, and -- on the book cover -- one "Johann Gensfleich, dit Gutenberg".
* In addition to texts and graphics, though, the book -- the entire effort -- presents, too, the notion of collectivity, of "collective name", "collective authorship", "collective pseudonym", "collective wisdom" -- of the effort being made to break down traditional barriers and to enlist the assistance and the opinions of many, many more among us than ever before...
Wikipedia does all this too: imperfectly, although fabulously successfully -- 1.5 million "articles", now, and millions upon millions, too many to count, of daily users logging in from all over the planet... And modern scientific research does the same, with its "publish or perish" and "peer review" processes, which have blossomed into great globalized industrialized publishing efforts, since the more modest early years of the French and British "academies" and "learned societies", all now fully and emphatically "online", some even "in realtime"... The general idea being to broaden discussion, in tackling a new or very difficult subject, even at some risk of depth: although "science" has the depth but becomes too narrow in its "disciplines" -- and Wikipedia sacrifices depth to breadth, too often still...
But how else can this effort to broaden discussion be made, and made better? By using the new digital media as "Roger T. Pédauque" has here, perhaps... Examination of this methodology, and consideration of its contribution to the result, ought to be the obligation of every student of information science and of any interested researcher. There is much frustrated effort under way in any lab or think-tank, nowadays, which might benefit from a reading of this book, studying both its procedure and its substance.
Mitchell Kapor coined the term which best expresses the general concept: "massively distributed collaboration" --
-- how else, to avoid the insularity of our technical and scientific discussions, and the limitations of the "puny boundaries" we have inherited from others, to consider some of the more global ramifications of our brave new digital world?
Or we could just "let it happen", and then per Melot's warning risk ending up with Babel. Of course that might be interesting...
Jack Kessler, firstname.lastname@example.org
p.s. Recently we've re-pulverized the old one, just down the road from Baghdad, for neither the first nor the last time I suppose: in our current era of Universal Language fantasies, though, perhaps we need to commemorate it, instead -- or we "shall be condemned to repeat it", as Santayana's saying goes...
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