Stiegler – Open data and the economy of contribution

I recently came across an interesting interview with Bernard Stiegler on the ‘Views on the digital’ (Regards sur le Numerique)  blog by Microsoft France, from 2011. The interview focusses on the rise of open data, as a movement and a phenomenon.

Stiegler suggests that ‘open data’ is a singular and important aspect of a ‘change of epoch’ taking place through the sociotechnical capacities of internetworked digital technologies. It is the capacities for making information public and sharable that we realise with and through digital technologies that are making possible a social and political shift. This is, of course, not without risk — in Stiegler’s terms these new capacities for becoming (or in his terminology – transindividuation) are pharmacological, the particular ways in which they play out in the world can be both a ‘poison’ and a ‘cure’ (following Plato’s argument that writing is a pharmakon). Elsewhere, Stiegler argues that such an economy of ‘pharmka’ is a therapeutic — it is possible to resolve the poison/cure relation either way — that is not dialectical (i.e. an opposition) but rather a composition of tendencies that emerge in the relations of a milieu.

Open data, as ‘grammatised’ (discrete) forms of externalised memory (or hypomnemata), are compositional not least because of their ‘openness’ to use and reuse. Metadata, as the organisational forms that facilitate the composition of complex structures of information, generate the possibility of new organisational forms (a new ‘organology’ in Stiegler’s terms) that facilitate the ‘pollination’ of new ideas through forms of collective intelligence. These are the bases for what Stiegler considers to be the positive economic (therapeutic) model that he describes as the economy of contribution.

An economy of contribution facilitates a ‘de-proletarianisation’ of those contributing to the economy by maximally recognising their contributions, above and beyond the short-term imperative for financial profitability. This enables all of us to re-engage of capacities for critical knowledge, our life skills (savoir vivre), our practical capacities and techniques (savoir faire), and ultimately our care for one another and for our shared world. It is through (open) metadata and clever digital systems that such recognition of ‘positive externalities’, Stiegler argues, can be achieved. All of this is not easy, as the activitist association that Stiegler heads-up, Ars Industrialis, acknowledge in their manifesto, but that doesn’t mean to say its not worth pursuing…

Readers may also find of interest two other interviews with Stiegler I have translated: Bernard Stiegler: “We are entering an era of contributory work” and Overconsumption and the economy of contribution.

I hope this is of interest to people. It is a fairly quick translation so it may need a little more work and, as usual, I’ve added some clarifications in square brackets. All of the emphasis is original.

Bernard Stiegler: Open data is “an event of a magnitude comparable to the appearance of the alphabet”.

To accompany the reflective workshop concerning the phenomenon of open data that we organised for the 17th of March [2011], we are sharing a series of articles, reports and analyses around the question of the liberation of data. We offer to you here an interview with Bernard Stiegler, philosopher and director of the Institute for Research and Innovation (IRI, Pompidou Centre) concerning the values of the open data movement.

RSLN: What does the development of open data represent in the great adventure of the digital?

Bernard Stiegler: This is the culmination of a major rupture already well under way, and which has never been previously seen. All of the technologies monopolised by the culture industry, in the broadest sense of the term, for a century, are now moving into the hands of the citizens.

It is an event of a magnitude comparable to the appearance of the alphabet which, as a technics of publication, which is to say that which renders public, is the basis of the res publica, just like what took place after Gutenberg and the Reformation, generalising access to the printed word and knowledge.

Today, all industrial, cultural and scientific digital activities leave a digital trace that everyone can use thanks to tools which are becoming increasingly accessible. This is more than a major issue: this is a change of epoch. And to think about the phenomenon of open data, which is a singular aspect of this change, it is necessary to consider metadata: which is what makes data active.

RSLN: Open data is only part of this revolution…

Bernard Stiegler: Every one of us now is not only using digital tools, but participates through their practices in the production of metadata. However, metadata have played an important role in human destiny since prehistory: in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries clay tablets were discovered that were covered with cuneiform that describes the content of other tablets – these are the first known index systems: the first metadata.

Whoever masters the production of metadata has a power over collective memory: it can condition public debate and learning. With the digital, what was once top down production becomes bottom up, which changes the production and dissemination of knowledge, which is no longer the sole preserve of established powers (political, religious, industrial…) – the typical example of this transfer [of agency] being Wikipedia.

Of course, the movement is very disorganised and remains little analysed, furthermore, while some [people] consciously create metadata, many do not realize that they are made the objects of calculation via the cookies that “deposit” themselves on their computers or [they] self-index themselves on the web via Facebook or their blogs.

Different ideologies

RSLN: How can this disorder become virtuous?

Bernard Stiegler: The design of the society of tomorrow will depend on recognising the importance of this phenomenon. If this is insufficient, we will lay ourselves open to a veritable automation of society, in which only a few have control. It is therefore imperative to deliberate in a public and reasoned way.

It is in the context of this new democratic possibility that open data is constructed. A large number of powers hold data that they do not want to give up because their power is based on the retention of that very same information. At the same time, we know that secrecy may be necessary – whether protecting private life, or enabling the avoidance of war, and inscribing in the real-time of decision-making a time of delay which allows a moment of reflection.

Nevertheless, democracy is always linked to a process of publication – which is to say a rendering public – which makes possible a public space: of letters, print, broadcast, digital. The critique put forward by Plato of the use of writing by the Sophists shows us that this equally brings dangers.

A total re-establishment of public affairs will have to take place – and here we must not let this take place at the sole initiative of the economic world, which is to say only by private interests, the recent economic crisis shows us that they never coincide with the public good.

RSLN: The nascent open data movement nevertheless seems to meet very different objectives and sometimes even very different ideologies?

Bernard Stiegler: That is true. So, for Barack Obama and Al Gore, who advises him, it undoubtedly leads to the reconstruction of a critical power inspired by the Enlightenment and the “founding fathers” against the hegemony of the cultural industries. While in the neo-liberal spirit of David Cameron in Great Britain, the aim is instead to bypass the public services.

RSLN: Indeed, can the development of Open Data withstand the demand for profitability, which is not evident in the short term?

Bernard Stiegler: I have put forward the model of an economy of contribution, which takes into account what economists call positive externalities, where we come to value activities that take place outside of the market, and which also lead to development and empowerment, in the sense of Amartaya Sen. [For example,] During the baby boom period, the educational work of mothers which was conducted outside of the economic sphere was fully taken into account – and I do not think we can monetize this activity by turning it into a “service”.

Collective intelligence has become the main economic value. The best ideas are born in the fertile soil and common knowledge that are not generally in the model of immediate profitability but are a kind of “pollination.”

The result is much more interesting than what we can impose through a Jacobin state [a centralised republic] or large corporations, whose intelligence should [instead] be in the service of valuing and supporting new ‘green shoots’. The role of public power is, especially in the realm of public-private partnerships, to foster the creation of spaces that can support the recovery process.

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