Interview with Alan N. Shapiro

by Juliana Brunello

Could you tell me more about your interest in Wikipedia as a topic?

I studied European Intellectual History with Dominick LaCapra at Cornell University, and I am interested in ambitious systems of knowledge classification in the West starting from the French Encyclopédistes in the 18th century and scientific positivism in the 19th century. I think that Wikipedia is a very valuable resource, and I cite Wikipedia articles often in my writings, for example in my work on the “New Computer Science” or in philosophical-sociological essays in my upcoming book “Betting on Longshots.” However, like a lot of people, I think that Wikipedia could be improved. Community consensus about what constitutes legitimate-established knowledge is important, but so are the original insights of the individual scholar who has worked more deeply and insightfully on a particular subject than anyone else. A more sophisticated model for balancing these two contributory streams needs to be developed. This won’t be easy. Right now consensus is tending to suppress the understanding of the really advanced scholar. Many Wikipedia articles are reproducing accepted clichés. This is related also to the tendency to make a fetish of information as opposed to knowledge. What is mere information and what is real knowledge? To get beyond the clichés, we need something like a renewed Marxist ideology critique. Gustave Flaubert did this very well about 140 years ago in his “Dictionary of Accepted Ideas.” We don’t need to compile a new “Dictionary of Accepted Ideas,” because Wikipedia, considering one major element of its complex cultural constellation, already is such a dictionary. The best way to support my argument is to provide concrete examples, which I will do in my talk at the conference. Finally, I think that an improvement in the Wikipedia knowledge model can run parallel to a breakthrough in our conception and implementation of what a database is, so this work is related to my work with Alexis Clancy in inventing the “New Computer Science.” What are the real potentials of contemporary “New Media” and “New Technology” for improved repositories of knowledge?
How can the structure of the database as technological artefact be upgraded to a relationship of pattern, similarity, or resonance between database element and software executable, as opposed to the combinatorial and reductionist set theory relationship of today. How can we move from static information to dynamic knowledge?

What caught your attention first? Was it Gustave Flaubert’s critique that led you to Wikipedia, or did Wikipedia led you to Gustave Flaubert’s critique?

I was invited by Geert Lovink to speak at the conference, and then I thought about what I could uniquely contribute. Flaubert was a great sociologist of knowledge, and I have been reading his books for a very long time. I studied French literature long before becoming a computer scientist and programmer. That’s what eventually led me to becoming quite well known as a Baudrillard scholar. Flaubert’s novels Sentimental Education and Bouvard and Pécuchet are also great critiques of the pretensions of knowledge compilation systems, but I will only mention these essential works in passing.

Are you a Wikipedian yourself? (I assume so, as I found your User-Page there.)

Yes, I am a Wikipedian, in the same sense that I am a Trekker. I have developed a unique vision for Star Trek and its future, somewhat outside of the mainstream, so I would develop something similar for Wikipedia.

Have you contributed to any Wikipedia articles, bots or software improvement? Which one(s)?

I contributed to the Jean Baudrillard article, and to some of the Star Trek articles. Also some things in bioArt, and in the area of art and technology.

Do you believe Wikipedia to be an example of utopia, since it is mostly based on unpaid collaboration?

I have never understood why unpaid work of any kind, from housework to programming, could be regarded by anyone as utopian. Money is a reality, it’s based on a rational system, albeit an economic system that needs to be radically improved. Artists, creators, intellectuals, nurses, dancers, activists, under-employed academics and scientists, down-and-outers, we all need to get paid. Let’s focus our efforts on figuring out how to fight for our rights to prosperity, not accept poverty. Live long and prosper, Spock said. To voluntarily work without pay is a system of self-exploitation and self-surveillance. I love the book The Simulation of Surveillance by William Bogard. We need to go beyond Foucault-, Orwell-, and Huxley-inspired models of how contemporary quasi-totalitarian systems of social control work. Individual freedom right now is in big trouble. American hyper-reality, hyper-work, hyper-consumerism, hyper-communication, and hyper-eating today strike me in so many aspects as being systems of mutual- and self-surveillance. Ask anyone in authority or performing any official job anywhere in America any question, and you will always get a no before you get a yes. The current system of ubiquitous cell phones is also a system of mutual- and self-surveillance. My friends, family, and co-workers want me to permanently account for myself. Where am I, what am I doing, and what am I thinking? And I’m asking myself the same disciplinary questions. We don’t need Big Brother anymore, since we are all keeping tabs on ourselves and each other. The TV show “The Prisoner” contains some great ideas about this.

Do you think we can learn something from Wikipedia as an example of community? More specifically, do you use anything you’ve learned from Wikipedia in you new project of Shapiro Technologies?

Of course we can learn from Wikipedia as an example of community. It is a great collaborative project. Regarding Wikipedia and Shapiro Technologies, I’ll have to do some thinking about your excellent question, because I don’t have anything to say about it right now. So far, Shapiro Technologies is more a dream than a reality. We had a group in Frankfurt am Main that existed for half-a-year, and has just dissolved. We are now starting to reflect on what we need to do differently to move forward with the implementation and realization of the idea of the pragmatic-utopian high-tech enterprise. This is a “big idea,” I think, because it is an entirely new version of Marxism. As a thinker, I am also trying to build a bridge between Marxism and Buddhism, because I think that Buddhism is also fundamentally about the question of happiness, and we who are working ourselves to death in the West are not happy.

Anything else you would like to add? Comments, ideas, thoughts?

I would like to mention the work of my brother, Fred Shapiro, who created the Yale Dictionary of Quotations, which has now eclipsed Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations as an American reference work that is the most definitive collection of general quotations.