congress / reading room

Wiki-Renaissance

Mirosław Filiciak, Alek Tarkowski

Now is the time for us to envision the future development of culture. It would be better to err on the side of utopia than to regress to the Dark Ages.

In the ten years of its existence, Wikipedia has managed to win over the skeptics and prove that knowledge can be produced as a community effort, and that the results of the venture can easily rival the work of professional and commercial publications. File-sharing networks brought about a similar disruption of existing hierarchies by demonstrating that the distribution of books, music, movies, and other content is possible without the help of traditional intermediaries. Access to culture — both in terms of creation and consumption — is easier now than it has ever been before. These changes have challenged our personal paradigms of cultural activity, our paradigms of cultural selection and evaluation, as well as the business and legal paradigms which, until recently, served as the indispensable infrastructure for the distribution of culture. Can “wiki” and “anarchy” — two elements of the same equation, represented by a networked, community-driven encyclopedia, and enormous informal file-sharing networks, respectively — be reconciled with these paradigms?

File culture

Until recently, cultural content such as writing, movies, and music was inextricably chained to the physical media on which it was stored. Culture and the institutions erected around it functioned in an environment of permanent scarcity. Their key task was to provide access to a limited amount of content: books, tapes, records, etc. The copying and distribution of this content involved non-trivial costs. Then, suddenly, these obstacles vanished. Files circulating in distribution networks (official and otherwise) became available at the click of a mouse, at no cost to the user. In a culture of excess, access to content is both cheap and easy. If these same files were to fall from the sky, we would surely proclaim it a miracle. And yet we have grown accustomed to the fact that files can appear in our computers. But the internet is not the technological equivalent of “heaven.” For traditional structures tasked with regulating culture, the online world can just as well be considered hell.
The capabilities of new media have made it trivial to copy, transform, and transmit culture, which — at the technological level — is now an array of files (although, from the point of view of today’s teenagers, “new” isn’t quite the right word to describe cellphones and the internet). The hitherto exclusive role of the critic and curator has been replaced by the ubiquitous filter present in every page of search engine results and every recommendation from friends on social networks. The order upon which culture has been based since the dawn of print has been turned on its head. The technological layer has changed culture and thus rendered obsolete many of the topics debated by the cultural milieu over the past century. While offering the users new possibilities, technology has also challenged the status quo.

We have had hundreds of years of experience in dealing with scarcity of culture. Now, when excess is the problem, the individual is instead faced with the new challenge of selection.

Meanwhile, cultural institutions — or the middlemen who previously served as dispatchers of culture — must come to terms with having become obsolete to many people. There can be no balance in the new state of affairs. This is not to suggest that the new order is one of complete anarchy. But on the cultural scene, traditional institutions are giving way to new, increasingly powerful actors. For the most part, these new actors are the consumers of culture, whose autonomy and independence from cultural institutions is greater than it has ever been before. They are the ones who decide what content they consume, where they do it, and according to whose rules. Whether or not they choose to pay for it is also up to them. They are free to assume the role of creator, critic, and publisher, reaching large audiences while cutting out the middlemen, who have lost their historic role as regulators of culture.

The new middlemen

This is not suggest that middlemen are disappearing. They are simply being replaced by new intermediaries. Decisions made by users are often filtered through software. Search engines, web 2.0 sites, and social networks all rely on algorithms designed by computer scientists and architects. These algorithms influence the choices made by computer users, including their choice of cultural content. But more often than not, this software is designed to cater to the needs of business, not the end user. The influence business exerted over “analog” culture was significant, but it has since grown with the coming of the internet and digital culture. The flip-side is the waning role played by the state. Its hierarchical institutions and regulatory instruments, such as legislation, have lost much of their relevance in our interconnected world.

Opinion-forming groups have suffered a similar drop in significance. The canon is a thing of the past, simply because the cultural order has changed. The media, along with culture, have splintered. We are now witnessing a balkanization of consumers, their attention, and the content they consume. The media no longer serve as a forum for popular debate, and must instead vie for our attention along with myriad competitors.

That’s right: the grassroots mechanisms of the wiki are competing with anarchy.

While they offer no hope for order, complete chaos would ensue without them.
While splintering culture into innumerable channels and decentralized entities, digital technology also sustains the connections between them. The most successful innovations spread across the globe with uncanny ease thanks to the open nature of internet protocols. Napster and its successors — Craigslist and Facebook, to name but two — are examples of how the work of an individual can be used by millions. More importantly, these masses are not passive consumers of top-down content, but are instead co-creators of the site and a crucial source of its value.

Theoreticians long considered the hyperlink to be a symbol of the non-linear nature of new forms of culture — the author losing control over the reception of his hypertextual work. But in the cultural practice of the internet, the hyperlink is just as likely to bind content together into a larger yet comprehensible whole. In his early vision of networks, Vannevar Bush assumed that the user would create basic units of knowledge not by recording bits of information, but by tracing a path between connected facts. The internet can thus be a tool for the co-creation of common cultural goods. When we compare Wikipedia and Facebook, however, it becomes apparent that the same cognitive input can be used to create a common good just as well as to boost the market value of a commercial website.

Online institutions

The internet’s potential for openness and cooperation should not be taken for granted — it is a project that demands implementation. The project is a civic effort at the moment, and is realized via the grassroots institutions of internet culture. While some describe internet democracy in overly optimistic colors, we cannot be certain how resilient this culture will be — even though it certainly is vigorous. The fact that commercial middlemen control vast swaths of internet culture and public debate online makes this concern all the more valid. Given the situation, we believe that it is important to strengthen the role of public institutions as well as individual consumers of culture — entities driven by motivations other than profit.
There’s nothing wrong with making money off of culture, but profit cannot be its sole motivation. The new role of public institutions will thus be to join in and support the project of creating common internet goods, in keeping with the very mission these institutions are intended to fulfill. This can only succeed if public institutions learn to adapt to new conditions and quickly change their perspective, before it’s too late.

In order to influence new culture, institutions needs to come in contact with it. A website, even one with multimedia components, doesn’t automatically turn a cultural institution into an online institution.

The difference between tradition institutions and online institutions lies in the logic of how they function and whether they are open and brave enough to think outside the box in their search for allies. These may include Wikipedia, and even the successors of Napster: peer-to-peer networks.

The first — and perhaps most challenging — step is to accept the existence of a new network topology where traditional institutions are no longer the center of gravity, no longer the axes around which culture revolves, and no longer castles full of treasure sought by consumers of culture, to use Paul Keller’s metaphor. Today, it is the internet, along with the network platforms built within it, that constitutes our cultural center of gravity. It is a virtual edifice that is set to take the place of every museum, library, and cultural center. Old institutions must learn to live inside it, even if they find its architecture alien and uninviting. The traditional middlemen should assume yet another role: that of the hosts and caretakers of this new cultural space. A shift of this magnitude will require some humility, considering that from the perspective of new culture, analog culture — with its middlemen and hierarchical distribution system — is still stuck in the Dark Ages. Lawrence Lessig described pre-internet culture as just that, arguing that creativity and innovation had been stifled before the dawn of the internet.

“Wiki-participation”

New culture also poses a challenge to internet users, for whom new opportunities come with the newfound responsibility of being at once creators and middlemen. It is up to them to make sure that online anarchy — which is often destructive to existing cultural mechanisms — produces new mechanisms, and to secure existing, valuable products of culture.

The rules of the “wiki” should thus be regarded as a new form of cultural and civic participation.

It can even be built upon the digitized resources of traditional institutions. Digitized heritage constitutes a significant public contribution to online content. The EU’s Comité des Sages has just published a report on digitization, meaningfully titled “The New Renaissance.” The committee regards the digitization of culture and its online availability as not just a challenge, but a hope — a hope for the equalization of opportunities and the exploration of untapped creativity; an opportunity to breath new life into artifacts by using them in new contexts; a hope for even deeper integration between culture and everyday life; a hope for improved quality of life and the development of common goods. But in order for this to become a reality, the digitization of content must be followed by the birth of new cultural practices, legal models, and institutional forms that will take full advantage of the opportunities offered by digital and online culture. And even if the vision of the New Renaissance is overly optimistic, it most definitely is not useless. Now is the time for us to envision the future development of culture. It would be better to err on the side of utopia than to regress to the Dark Ages.