27 November 2007

Truth or Dare

Yesterday, at the New Industrial World Forum, taking place at the Centre Pompidou, I attended the talk of Florence Devouard, president of the Wikimedia Foundation, in charge of managing and running Wikipedia.
The relationship between a tool, its aesthetics and the content created never seemed more obvious to me than when I heard her describe the many stakes of Wikipedia. As the service has been under the harsh fire of many critics for years, notably in the academic and media fields, the discourse of its representant was expectedly defensive. And I did agree with most of her arguments, it's hard to stand against Wikipedia when it's been so useful, simple to access and so open on the collective knowledge.
But one of her points was strongly worrying. As she described what was for her a great aspect of the tool - the openness on languages and cultures of the world (as in not everybody speaks English, Spanish and French and live in the Western world) - she supported her reasoning by saying that indeed every subject has many truths and that Wikipedia allows them all to be voiced. And then that's when it stroke me that the design of the Wikipedia tool and service was indeed supporting in its core that assertion. So in order to make her point, she used a specific example, underlying how Wikipedia can be used to offer a balance of views on a given subject, in particular when for instance French people have a say more easily than African people. In substance her quote was "I look forward to reading African francophones expressing themselves on Wikipedia, for instance on subjects like feminine circumcision and western Sahara" (implying that their opinions would be different than those of the French). Now with the 1st problem with this statement: there's an insinuation here that a point of view on a subject is submitted to nationality or ethnic belonging. Well, if all French people or all the African francophones would think one way and agree on everything, that'd be some piece of news! But more seriously, the way she phrased her reasoning could be easily understood that she meant that as a French person, I would voice arguments against feminine circumcision while an African person would advocate for it. Fortunately, we know it's not that binary.
The second subtext is even more problematic: one would tend to think that any opinion can be said on a subject - in itself, a reasonable point - and that they're all worthy and even necessary. Indeed, in the name of freedom of expression, and a currently trendy relativism, all "truths" are equal, all points of view are valuable and they all worth a space of expression. This is for me where the danger is. I don't believe you can wipe out historical context, experience and critical analysis.
Ironically, I think a part of the academic world, in order to play it very 2.0, is trying to get back in the race of demagogy: the recent invitation of the Balliol College of Oxford University made to the negationist David Irving, many times condemned in Germany and Austria, in a debate on the limits of freedom of expression is very revealing in that matter.
No, there aren't always many truths. It's not a science dissertation, where you could keep on questioning even that aluminium is a metal. I believe in making sense as you write an essay, and somewhat educating your audience towards an awareness of oneself as a human being responsible for others and for the ecosystem he's part of.
It's funny that in a forum addressing the "digitalization of design" in the light of the new uses of technology, the organizers didn't plan a time for questions from the audience, which in a way was an interesting echo to another of Florence Devouard's observation, that it's very frustrating for active Internet users if they're in a situation where they can't give a feedback (to what they read in the media for instance). So I went to find her at the end of the session to exchange thoughts on what seemed to me a big issue. She was quite receptive in general - a lot of people came to talk to her, sometimes passionately, about other things. I waited for my turn and exposed the problem I saw in her talk, we talked a bit and I like to think that she realized that some of her phrasing was inappropriate. Wikipedia has many great challenges, at the level of its ambitions. She told me for instance that one of the current problem she was facing was that in some articles, edits by women were systematically rejected by the male users. Now, how do you solve that?

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