An interview conducted by the french tech magazine Regard Sur Les Numérique(RSLN) with Bernard Stiegler in March 2011 after a workshop on the reflection of the phenomenon of open data. Some of the terms are not clear, for example, Stiegler’s idea of the economy of contribution, the idea of pollination from Yann Moulier Boutang, but it is a good introduction to the politics of metadata.
RSLN : What represents the development of open data in the grand adventure of digital technology?
Bernard Stiegler : It is the culmination of a major rupture already on its way, and which has nothing to do with the previous ones. All the technologies monopolised by the culture industry, in a broad sense, for a century, are now at the mid of passing into the hands of the citizens.
It is an event of amplitude comparable to the appearance of alphabet which like the technique of publication, that is to say ‘made public’ (rendu public), is at the base of res publica, all like what has taken place after Gutenberg and the Reformation allowed access to printed words and knowledge.
At present, all the industrial, cultural and scientific activities leave a digital trace that everyone can exploit thanks to the tools that are more and more accessible. It is a major issue: that is an epochal change. And for thinking the phenomena of open data in a singular aspect, one must reflect on metadata: they are what render data active.
RSLN : Open data is only one link of this revolution…
Bernard Stiegler : Everyone between us not only utilizes the digital tools but also participates to traverse their practice of the production of metadata. Now, metadata plays a determining role in the human destiny since the early history; we have discovered in nineteenth and twentieth centuries the clay tablets covered with cuneiform writing, which described the content of other tablets—they are the first known system of indexation: the first metadata.
He who masters the production of metadata can exert power on the collective memory: he can condition the public debate and the apprenticeship. With the digital, this production which was used to be top-down become bottom-up, what modifies the production and the diffusion of knowledge is no longer the privilege of the constituted powers (political, religious, industrial…)—the typical example of this transition is Wikipedia.
Of course, the movement is very disordered and again lack of analysis, furthermore, if some of the metadata are created in conscious ways, many people do it without realizing that they are done via cookies “settled” in their computer (browsers) or in the auto-indexing on the web via facebook or on their blogs.
RSLN : How can this disorder become virtuous?
Bernard Stiegler : The destiny of tomorrow’s society depends on making awareness of the importance of this phenomenon. If it is insufficient, we may expose ourselves to a true robotization of the society in which only a few people would be the masters. One must therefore absolutely deliberate to do so in public and reasoned fashion.
It is in this context of a new democratic possibility that open data is inscribed. Some power hold the data which they don’t want to abandon because their power is also based on this retention of information. In the same time, we know that secrete may be necessary—from the one that protects private life, or the one that can avoid wars, and that inscribes in the real time decision a different time which is also one of reflection.
Still, democracy is always linked to a process of publication—that is to say ‘made public’—that render possible a public space; alphabet, printing, audio visual, digital. The advanced critique by Plato on the use of writing by the sophists shows us that this also possesses dangers.
It is a total reorganization of the public things that must proceed, and here, one must not let this happen to be the sole initiative of the economic world, that is to say the mere private interests, which the economic crisis shows us that they never coincide with the public good.
RSLN : The birth of the movement of open data however seems respond to the objectives and also the ideologies sometimes quite different?
Bernard Stiegler : That is true. Therefore, for Barack Obama and Al Gore who advice it, it is a matter without doubt of reconstituting the critical power inspired by the Enlightenment and the ‘founding fathers’ against the hegemony of culture industry. While in spirit of the neoliberal David Cameron in Great Britain, the objective consists rather of short-circuiting the public services.
RSLN : To be exact, the development of the Open data can resist the demands of profitability that are not obvious in the short term?
Bernard Stiegler : I defend the model of the economy of contribution that takes into accounts of what the economists call the positive externalities, where it is a matter of valorising the activities that are exercised outside the market and that also carries out the developments of empowerment in the sense Amartya Sen talks about it. During the period of the baby boom, the educational work of the mother who exercised outside of the economic sphere was perfectly taken into consideration—and I don’t believe that we could monetize this activity by making them ‘services’.
The collective intelligence has become the principal economic value. The better ideas are born in these fertile soils and the common knowledge that generally don’t have the immediately profitable model and pertain to ‘pollination’.
The result is much more interesting than what the Jacobin state or the big enterprises can impose on us, of which the intelligence should be put to serve the valorisation of all these new growing plants. The role of the public power is, without doubt in the frame of public-private partnership, of favouring the creation of space capable of promoting the processes of valorisation.