Monday, September 17, 2007

Designing Horses

Here's a question for the man on the street: Who is the Librarian of Congress? Don't know? The answer is Cold Warrior James Billington! In contrast, I was amazed at the number of regular French citizens who had heard of the man who had famously led their national library, a diverse group which included engineers, waiters, mothers of autistic children, toy designers, hotel clerks, and grad students in computer science. I doubt such a diverse cross section of the American public would know the name of our librarian-in-chief.

I interviewed Jean-Noël Jeanneney, famed Google critic and former head of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in his unassuming offices at Europartenaires for the chapter on digital libraries for my upcoming Virtualpolitik book from MIT Press. Of course, I think it's an issue that more Americans should care about, given the monetary value, cultural capital, and life-or-death difference that information can make in our daily lives. If I had a film crew, I'd want to do a muckracking comparative documentary on the subject, à la Michael Moore's Sicko, rather than an academic book, to show why citizens of other countries are willing to devote more of their taxpayer dollars to digitization efforts and debate digitization choices.

For a man who once presided over the four looming ultra-modern towers of the BNF and its prison-like impersonal reading rooms, it was strange to sit down at a table with Jeanneney, after being let to his office past a kitchen, in a building full of modest flats near the city's main mosque.

The title of this posting comes from Jeanneney's definition of a "camel" as a "horse designed by committee." Known for his executive authority leading France's efforts to build a massive digital library and some might say his autocratic style, I found him to be a remarkably engaged and energetic participant, in which he comes off as much younger than his sixty-five years, in the debate about what Siva Vaidhyanathan has called "The Googlization of Everything." Jeanneney's own book on the subject, which appears in English under the title Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge, has also been translated into Arabic, Portuguese, Chinese, German, Japanese, and Spanish and will shortly be out in paperback. Ironically, I discovered that the very first hit on Google for the book is this one.

In short, Jeanneney argues that the Mountain View, California company is benefiting from "the philosophy of American capitalism" combined with oligarchical tendencies that date back to "old Greece" when "wealthy people" were in charge of "defining culture." In contrast, Jeanneney argues that consumers must pay for their culture somehow, a message that goes back to his time heading France's public broadcasting network, when he argued that "no radio is free," and that of the "two systems of financing culture" it was better to go with the publicly financed one in which metamedia is seen as part of the public interest.

It was an extended discussion about national resources, intellectual property, social media, the public good, and other fundamental questions about ethics and epistemology. At one point he gave me a copy of his rhetorically fascinating farewell letter to the staff of the BNF, entitled Lettre aux personnels de la Bibliothèque nationale de France au moment de leur dire adieu, a seventy-eight page printed document in which he tries to have the last word in a contentious debate about archival policies.

Although he's known as a Google-critic or as he says "not a Googlist," Jeanneney also admitted to relying on the search engine, like most academics, as Berkeley researcher Diane Harley has shown. He was not aware, however, that the BNF had a prominently displayed Google search interface on its web page, even during the time of his tenure, according to the Internet Archive. (See above.) He also said that there was a certain "ambivalence" created by the heroic narrative of the "birth of Google," although he believed that the limits of their idealism could be clearly seen just in schemes to alter page ranking to suit the highest bidder. Like Ted Nelson, earlier this week at the ACM Hypertext Conference, he also pointed to Google's mortality, and the fact that it was a "fragile giant." He even expresses some perverse gratitude toward the company, because he claimed that it encouraged Europe to mobilize.

As to the cultural politics of France, he had some choice words after his forced retirement from the BNF. He also said that it was too early in the Sarkozy administration to judge the strength of what he characterized as a "laziness of feeling" about strategic planning for mass digitization that he thought could be a feature of both the political right and left. He pointed out the irony of the scale of the cost, when the eight million euros he was requesting would be comparable to the cost os a "big apartment in the sixteenth district." (I stayed in the 17th during my visit.)

I asked him about his praise for the Library of Congress in his book, particularly of the American Memory Collection, which I find to be incoherent in its historical vision and riddled with troubling incursions of private interest, the most obvious of which is the archive devoted to Coca Cola advertisements, which was paid for by guess who. At this he indicated that I might me "more anti-American" than he was, although he explained that much of this was a rhetorical move aimed to assuage cultural conflicts between the two countries linked to the Iraq war. He also seemed less focused on the linguistic politics of the Internet in our interview, which was largely conducted in English, than I had expected, given that so much of the book was about resisting English hegemony.

Since I had just spoken with librarians at the British Library who demonstrated the machines involved in their corporate partnership with Microsoft, I asked him if he thought that the paradigm there was really as different from the Google model, as they had claimed. He seemed skeptical about Great Britain's commitment to digitization and warned of the danger of "seduction" by the private sector, although he felt that they had moved toward a greater European cultural identity in recent years. (And, just so you can feel like you've learned another piece of cocktail party trivia from this column, I will add in the fact that the head of the British Library in Lynn Brinley.)

Despite his ambitious digital information infrastructure-building goals, Jeanneney is skeptical about Internet utopianism. Later in the week, his essay in Le Débat about the concept of "gratuité" was slated to appear in which Jeanneney questions the ideology of "free culture." He has also been critical of Wikipedia of late: in Le Point in "Wikipédia, une encyclopédie pas si Net," which translates as "Wikipedia, a not so nice encyclopedia," he argued that that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" and that the notion of collective intelligence represented faith in a "mysterious alchemy" by which the sum of individuals would produce a superior rather than an average intellectual output.

To his credit, Jeanneney also recognized the importance of archiving "born digital" materials early on by using "les robots" to "augment," "harvest," and "collect" digital ephemera, which in the French case -- like many other countries -- first involved saving web pages relevant to the 2002 elections. He also said that he had bought materials from Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive to improve the nation's digital collections.

At the end of the nearly two-hour-long interview he showed me a framed print of one of the wonderful globes that the BNF has put on display, next to his current window on the world. If you speak French, you can check out the podcasts of Jeanneney's popular radio show, Concordance des temps, here, in which he brings on an historian to discuss then-and-now historical parallels on subjects such as high profile poisonings (Ukranian presidential candidates and medieval political challengers) and reforming politicos (Sarkozy and Napoleon III).

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