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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Vertige du numérique : Qui lit quoi ?


Au moment où le Kindle d’Amazon débarque dans cent pays et Google annonce à Francfort la création de Google Editions, Umberto Eco choisit comme thème d’un cycle des conférences au Louvre - et de son dernier ouvrage - la liste, le catalogue, comme forme fondamentale de représentation culturelle (cf. U. Eco, Vertige de la liste, Flammarion, 2009). Ce penseur éclectique, qui sait si bien articuler son érudition avec les obsessions du présent, n’aurait pas pu choisir meilleur sujet : l’angoisse qui accompagne le basculement au numérique de notre culture écrite est très étroitement liée à un sentiment de perte de contrôle sur l’ordre des choses, à une expropriation d’un droit inaliénable que chaque civilisation ressent comme justification même de sa propre existence, à savoir le droit d’imposer une hiérarchie, une catégorisation à ce qu’il faut savoir et ne pas savoir, aimer ou ne pas aimer, retenir dans la mémoire collective ou oublier.

Au delà des risques d’exploitation commerciale du patrimoine culturel, mis bien en évidence par l’article de Roger Chartier dans Le Monde du 26.10.09 (L’avenir numérique du livre), ce qu’on craint du catalogue de 360 000 titres d’Amazon et des millions de livres de Google books qui seront mis en vente par les nouvelles éditions Google, c’est qu’ils se présentent comme des listes globales, des collections universelles d’objets culturels dont la logique nous échappe pour plusieurs raisons. Prenons le cas de Kindle : sur quelle base Amazon a sélectionné - parmi les millions de livres dans sa bibliothèque - les 360 000 titres téléchargeables ? Une note du service commercial sur la page web de vente du Kindle est censée nous rassurer : « Nous avons de la chance car nous disposons de millions de clients Amazon, et, comme résultat, nous savons quels livres vous aimez lire et rendrons disponibles ceux-ci en priorité ». Voilà la logique du catalogue : grâce au système filtrage collaboratif mis à disposition par Amazon, celui qui produit les recommandations du type : « Les internautes qui ont acheté ce livre ont acheté aussi… », le catalogue s’élargit en prenant en compte les préférences de lecture des consommateurs. Mais pour les consommateurs à venir, pour nos enfants qui commenceront leur expérience de lecture directement sur Kindle, ce catalogue sera le seul canon culturel à leur disposition.

Voyons alors comment Google procède dans sa création des listes : eh bien, ici on est encore plus dans l’arbitraire : les livres qui sont tombés facilement dans la numérisation « sauvage » de Google books, se retrouvent ensemble car ils partagent les propriétés intéressantes de ne pas avoir de lecteur, d’être hors commerce ou d’appartenir à une maison d’édition qui a conclut un accord inconnu avec Google. Des critères qui ne relèvent pas exactement de la bibliothéconomie la plus sophistiquée…

Ce qu’on craint d’un monde de listes universelles, générées par les nouveaux algorithmes sociaux ou par le hasard des accords commerciaux, c’est de s’égarer, de perdre le sens même du pourquoi on lit. Certes, ces nouveaux créateurs de canons défendront la démocratisation de leurs sélections par rapport aux filtrages de la tradition imposés par le haut. Et n’oublions pas que les sélections d’information produites par chaque tradition culturelle sont elles-mêmes le fruit des choix parfois arbitraires, des caprices de l’histoire et des relations de pouvoir qu’on a pas toujours d’intérêt à maintenir. Mais, comme le dit bien un bloggeur sur slashdot.org : If everyone has a voice, no one really has a voice… c’est à dire, un monde sans autorité culturelle a l’air, tout simplement, d’un monde sans culture.

Mais laissons le temps à ces nouvelles listes et classifications du monde : c’est l’usage qui imposera des nouvelles stratégies de filtrage intelligible : peut être il faudra abandonner l’unité de mesure du livre, ou de l’article pour donner du sens à notre lecture : peut être le tri entre ce qui mérite d’être lu et ce qui est à oublier se fera de manière « liquide », dans le flux d’un seul texte universel qu’on peut parcourir et réassembler à l’infini grâce aux recherches ciblées. Il y a un espace de sens à construire, comme lecteurs responsables, entre les autorités culturelles traditionnelles et les catégorisations imposées par les robots de Google, un espace que chaque appropriation des textes, pour le plaisir, l’enseignement, la diffusion, contribue à créer si elle laisse une trace à l’intérieur et à l’extérieur du Web qui nous rappelle le pourquoi de ce choix.

Un livre dans cette culture liquéfiée ne sera alors ni plus ni moins qu’une unité minimale de sens qui vaut la peine d’être préservée, transmise, mis à jour et diffusée génération après génération : une place dans une liste qui gardera une certaine stabilité de sens et non pas de format, d’une génération à l’autre.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Le désintéressement. Review of Jon Elster


(Jon Elster has just published (in French) the first volume of a trilogy: Le désintéressement : Traité critique de l'homme économique Tome 1 (Paris, Le Seuil, 2009). I wrote a review in Italian for the peer-reviewed journal IRIDE, published by Il Mulino. Here is an English version translated by Dan Sperber for the Cognition and Culture blog.

In one of his perfect narratives, Heinrich Von Kleist tells the sad story of two secret lovers separated and condemned to death just before the earthquake that was to destroyelster
Santiago de Chile in 1647. Having miraculously survived, they enjoy for a few days the mercy of an enchanted social atmosphere. Their judges and executioners, transformed by the tragedy and the ensuing chaos, multiply gestures of altruism and generosity. The blissful mood persists for a short while, but soon the rules and norms of civil life are being reinstated and a Mass is celebrated during which the crime of the two poor lovers is denounced as the cause of all the evil. The lovers, unable to escape the fury of collective condemnation, are clubbed to death. The reciprocal altruism and the disinterested society that the cataclysm had spawned turns out to be ephemeral, unnatural, as if the ferocious end were a way to compensate for the uncanny sense of self that the people had experienced when acting in such a disinterested manner.

Jon Elster’s latest book (Le désintéressement, Paris, Seuil, 2009, 377 pp.), based on his Collège de France lectures in 2006-2007, discusses the very possibility of disinterested action. Is it possible for a human being to act in a truly disinterested manner? Do disinterested actions have a psychological unity or are they the mere product of circumstances? Is disinterestedness an individual or a collective phenomenon? From a strictly rational point of view, that of the kind of utilitarian economic rationality, to the critique of which Elster had devoted an important part of his work, disinterestedness looks irrational. It violates the rules of maximisation of utility. As if human action without the kind of rational and interested motivation that optimise the individual utility was bereft of justification, irrational or at least a-rational. Elster’s aim, in this first volume of a trilogy that will be dedicated to the critique of the classical theory of Homo Oeconomicus, is precisely to combine a critique of the motivational model of interest with a methodological individualistic approach, and not to go along with holistic explanation in terms of superstructure characteristic of other social science traditions such as Marxism and structuralism. Pierre Bourdieu for instance reduces the possibility of disinterested action to the social mechanics of distinction, assuming that it only occurs as a means of increasing one’s symbolic capital in an economy where not all exchanges are material. Elster, on the contrary, seeks individual motivations for disinterested acts, disinterested reasons to act that are moreover independent of the social superstructure.


There are two defining features of Homo Oeconomicus that disinterested actions may undermine: rationality and interested motivation. Elster's approach saves rationality at the expense of interested motivation. Actually, if classical economic theory insists on the univocity of interested motivation, it is first and foremost for reasons of simplicity and elegance. Leaving out interest, the theory gets lost in thousand directions since, writes Elster paraphrasing Tolstoy, "if all interested agents are interested in the same manner, disinterested agents are so each in its own way." Still, rational choice theory is so equipped that, while it could not do without the presupposition of rationality, it could do without interested motivation.

So Elster, equally familiar with French XVIIth century moralists and with current experimental research in behavioural economics, gives up on a univocal explanation and sketches a taxonomy of disinterested motivations that are, all the same, rational. Altruistic and disinterested action is typically suspected of, in fact, having other motivation: self-pride, desire for the approval of others, awareness of the benefits of a good reputation. To these essentially ‘allocentric' social motivations that could be reduced to a form of indirect egoism, Elster adds motivations that are not egoistic but that may be ‘egocentric', for instance, 1) disinterested consideration for others' welfare (altruism, egalitarianism, everyday Kantianism), and 2) internal approval of disinterestedness, that is, the desire we have to appear in our own eyes, rather than in the eyes of others, as motivated by disinterested consideration of the interest of others. For Elster, these motivations are independent of the mechanisms of social recognition and intrinsically disinterested.
A series of case studies complements conceptual analysis: the mechanisms of disinterest are being brought to light in behavioural economics experiments on cooperation and reciprocity and people are shown not to maximize their own utility in exchanges, in intergenerational donations, in reparation among countries, in decision processes in assemblies, and in the motivation of kamikaze terrorists, all cases that Elster had analysed in previous work.

The width of the array of phenomena analysed and of explanations is typical of Elster's style, who, to reductionist social sciences that aim at being "exact", opposes a model of vectorial explanation that proceeds by articulating a variety of causal mechanisms. There remains a doubt regarding the unity of the phenomenon: if so many forms of disinterestedness are possible, and so many different motivations may underlie it, are we still talking about one and the same thing? Is there then a unitary theory, a mechanism that explains in an integrated way this "ivresse du désintéressement," and that provides the phenomenology of this ecstatic freedom from our egoistic drives, that Kleist illustrated so clearly with a few strokes?

Thursday, October 01, 2009

On the Epistemic Value of Reputation. The place of ratings and reputational tools in knowledge organization





Submission for the Eleventh International ISKO Conference 2010

Paradigms and conceptual systems in KO
February 23, 2010 – February 26, 2010

by Gloria Origgi and Judith Simon


Abstract: In this paper we want to explore the epistemological relevance and value of reputation understood as evaluative social information. Using reputation to classify and assess an agent or an item can be epistemologically useful in the absence or - as is especially relevant today - overabundance of information. However, in order to be and remain epistemically useful and ethically just it has to be open to constant scrutiny and revision. We will introduce a model of rational consensus as an example for the rational use of reputation for epistemic purpose before analyzing different reputational tools on the web. We will conclude our paper with a critical comment on the potential danger of using social information to evaluate information and knowledge claims, resp. to warn from epistemic injustices on the web and elsewhere.

1: Introduction

What is that scarlet piece of tissue in the shape of an A sewn on Hester Prynne's gown in Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece The Scarlet Letter? Is it a symbol of her sin, a "badge of shame", an indelible sign of her community's contempt? Is it a cruel reminder of her past, a succinct history of her misdeeds? Imagine that in the same colonial New England village, you do not have just a badge for the poor Hester, but each member of the community wears a letter that represents some past records of its owner. We can also imagine sets of identical badges worn by members of the community who have similar records: sinners, heroes, drunkards....Imagine that the elders of the community have the right to attach these labels to the villagers. Their judgments, based on their purported wisdom, become an easy way for the villagers to dispose of a basic classification of social types within the community that will allow them to manage their relations with others, to make inferences and predictions about their behavior, that is, construct a basic "social map" that will help them orient in their society. Morally this may be questionable, but epistemologically it can be useful.
We want to explore in this paper, the epistemic value of this type of social information, that is, reputation, while being aware of the ethical and political problems that might come with using it for epistemic purpose. Using the judgment on past records to classify an agent or an item can be epistemologically useful in the absence or - as is especially relevant today - overabundance of information. But it has to be and remain open to constant scrutiny and revision to be epistemically useful and ethically just.

2: Reputation as Evaluative Social Information

Reputation is a special kind of social information: it is social information about the value of people, systems and processes that release information. We want to explore here the relationship between this special form of social information - that implies an evaluative stance - and the processes of knowledge organization and evaluation. More precisely, we want to argue not only that (1) we make use of other people's reputations to evaluate information, but also (2) within systems, like the Web, that make possible the easy and dynamic organization and re-organization of knowledge, our own rankings may determine new content and generate new categories.

Reputation is the informational track of our past actions, it is the credibility that an agent or an item earn through repeated interactions. We would like to defend an epistemological perspective according to which relying on reputational cues is an efficient way of shaping the too rich informational landscape around us by creating new relevant categories. Experts and authorities not only bloom where information is scanty, but also, and most crucially, in an information-dense world in which filtering out relevant information is our prominent cognitive activity. The epistemological enquiry we are advocating here implies that reputation and rating systems are an essential ingredient of collective processes of knowledge and play a cognitive role in extracting information. In an information-dense environment, where sources are in constant competition to get attention and the option of the direct verification of the information is often simply not available at reasonable costs, evaluation and rankings are epistemic tools and cognitive practices that provide an inevitable shortcut to information. We assume that there is no ideal knowledge that we can adjudicate without the access to previous evaluations and adjudications of others. No Robinson Crusoe’s minds that investigate and manipulate the world in a perfect solitude. Our modest epistemological prediction is that the higher is the uncertainty on the content of information, the stronger is the weight of the opinions of others in order to establish the quality of this content.
Of course, this opens the epistemological question of the epistemic value of these rankings and reputation mechanism, that it, to what extent their production and use by a community changes the ratio between truths and falsities produced by that community and, individually, how an awareness of rankings should affect a person’s beliefs. After all, rankings introduce a bias in judgment and the epistemic superiority of a biased judgment is in need of justification.

3: Rational Model for the Epistemic Use of Social Information

To illustrate how reputation understood as social information that comes with an evaluative stance can rationally be used for epistemic purpose, we introduce a formal model of rational consensus. In “Rational Consensus in Science and Society” Keith Lehrer and Carl Wagner develop their formal theory of consensus that rests upon the employment of consensual probabilities, utilities and weights and is meant to provide a model for rational decision making processes in science and society more generally ((Lehrer and Wagner 1981))). To our mind, this model is actually a model of how to quantify and use reputation for epistemic purpose.
Lehrer & Wagner argue that for decision making processes to be rational, it is central that all relevant information for the topic of concern has to be used ((Lehrer and Wagner 1981)). However, this spectrum of available information - for instance concerning disputes on scientific theories - is not limited to experimental information, but should also include the opinions of experts on other experts in the field. Lehrer calls this second type of information social information ((Lehrer 1990)) – and we call it reputation, i.e. social information that comes with an evaluative stance.
To illustrate how this social information might be used for epistemic purposes, Lehrer uses the so-called “expert dilemma” as a scenario. The expert dilemma describes the frequently encountered situation in which a decision has to be made despite the fact that evidence for answering a question is inconsistent and different experts recommend different options. An example would be whether or not to release a new medication or vaccine before all clinical trials are completed when facing the threat of an epidemic. The basic question of Lehrer & Wagner ((Lehrer and Wagner 1981)) is the following: If scientific dissent is prevailing, but suspension of judgment is not an option, how should the conflicting information be used to reach a consensual conclusion? “Consent on the reputation of the experts in order to decide on the issue” could be the motto of their approach. Social information is used here as a crucial factor to decide on content information.
Using reputation as a decisive factor for factual matter rests upon the assumption that each expert in a certain community might be more or less reliable or competent with respect to the specific question at stake. If that is the case, it would most rational to include each expert’s answer weighted by his competence regarding the issue. And the best way to assess the competence of each expert would be to use the aggregated reputation judgment of all other experts because they are most likely in the best position to judge the competence of their peers.
Lehrer & Wagner develop a quite complex mathematical model that describes an iterative and collective process to reach quantitative values for the reputation of each scientist ((Lehrer and Wagner 1981)). The basic idea however, is quite simple. The first step in this model consists in each expert giving a weight to all other experts summarizing all his information about the other’s expertise and reliability concerning the issue at stake, in other words: he gives a quantitative indicator of what he considers to be the reputation of the scientist with respect to topic at hand. In a second step, the average reputation values for each scientist are calculated with a specific algorithm and then laid open. Then in the second round, each expert has to reassess the reputation value he has given to all other members of the community, i.e. she has the chance to revise his or her judgment taking into account the average weights which the other members of the community have given to their fellows. Similarly to Delphi-studies in the social sciences, this process is then ideally repeated until finally a consensual weight for each member of a community is achieved ((Linestone and Turoff 2002)).
The idea is that, if you are less secure about the reputation of a certain researcher, you might tend more towards the group average in your second vote. If you are very sure about the reputation of someone, however, you will not let yourself be influenced by this average. If everyone acts this way, that is considered to be most rational, then the consensus that is finally achieved is considered to be the most rational consensus. Crucially, once these consensual weights are achieved, they can be applied to answering the question of concern by weighting each member’s vote on the issue with their consensual personal weight of reputation.
So, what should be obvious is that reputational cues, i.e. social information about other people that is evaluative, are being used – and that they are useful. Clearly, not all epistemic usage of reputation cues has to follow such a formal method. Quite on the contrary, ratings and other reputational tools might be used in a variety of different ways on the Web and our everyday life more generally. Nonetheless, Lehrer & Wagner’s model delivers a clear example of the potential that reputation understood as social information from an evaluative stance, can have for epistemic tasks ((Lehrer and Wagner 1981)).

4: Reputational Tools on the Web

What the Web makes possible today is an algorithmic treatment of methods of gathering social information to extract knowledge. Ratings and rankings on the Web are the result of collective human registered activities with artificial devices. However, the control of the heuristics and techniques that underlie this dynamics of information may be out of sight or incomprehensible for the users who find themselves in the very vulnerable position of relying on external sources of information through a dynamic, machine-based channel of communication whose heuristics and biases are not under their control. Thus, the reputational tools that are proliferating on the Web should be scrutinized by epistemically responsible users who do not want to accept too naïvely the outcome of a process they do not control.
The role of these reputational tools to filter information is getting more and more central in our Web-based epistemic practices ((Origgi 2009), (Origgi 2007)). And even more explicitly, we state that those systems that embody an access to others’ judgments and rankings are rapidly outperforming, in terms of reliability, the random aggregation of multiple judgments and preferences on which many systems were based, as it is shown by the growing impact of the Web 2.0 on our epistemic practices. A growing number of examples of architectures on the Web show how these rankings work to produce new arrangements of information.
The Web 2.0 has provided the underlying networking structure to share ranked preferences. If you take the Web of the early years of 2000, one of the main feature that attracted much attention and criticism was the possibility to "customize" information for each user in order to fit each one's special needs and purposes of navigation. The endless potential of re-organization of the new, dynamic, information architectures based on the aggregation of chunks of contents according to specific rules (in contrast with the rigid tree-structures of the first-generation of web pages) opened the opportunity to create and organize "content on demand". News websites, online stores, search-engines, etc thus started to provide "My-" features to the users, that is, easily arranged customized pages with targeted news and other information for the users, personalized lists of products, personalized recommendations etc. This gave rise to a series of positive expectations and negative warnings, such as the risk of neglecting other people's points of views and perspectives by concentrating only on personally relevant information (cf. (Sunstein 2002)). Now, thanks to the social Web, these systems are evolving into systems of shared preferences, in which people can rely on someone else's preferences and ranking to construct their own categorization of information. Examples of this preferences-sharing are website such as Del.icio.us in which you can share your bookmarks with other people, or Flickr, in which, for each uploaded photo, not only you can see who uploaded it, but also who are the profiles that added it among their favorite pictures. Combining information about who comments on an image, who adds it as favorite, who tags it and how, Flickr now provides a new feature for browsing images: interestingness, http://www.flickr.com/explore/interesting/ which is an example of preference-based tools of categorization. As a Flickr user, I can decide to generate new categories of contents on the basis of an interestingness scale. A new category of the most interesting images on Flickr today is thus generated by sorting others' preferences. The success of this "fluid" way of constructing concepts and categories may depend also on the fact that it matches our cognitive capacities: it has been shown by cognitive psychologists (cf. (Barsalou 1995)) that concepts and mental categories are flexibly constructed in context.
In this perspective, the EC project LiquidPublication, (http://project.liquidpub.org/) in which both authors are involved, aims at developing "liquid" architectures for producing, accessing and gathering scholarly information on the Web. Take for example the very concept of an academic journal: it is a selection of content based on a series of criteria of categorization: ISBN number, date of issue, etc. What we are working at in this project is a model of "Liquid Journal" which easily allows people to create selections of papers, articles, blog entries as a "My-journal" and then share them on the Web. One can imagine that, with the diffusion of such a model, the very category of "academic journal", or "journal issue" will be re-created by this particular form of information sharing, in which a user X can "conceptualize" a journal issue as for example: "all the content that the user Y is selecting in her journal". Here again, preferences of a user can be used by other people to re-organize information in a creative way. Virological examples of information diffusion based on a Twitter-logic of followers and leaders may be another example worth mentioning of reputational tools that create new categories of information.
Although the information-dense environment provided by the Web is the obvious locus in which examples bloom, we do not think that our analysis should be restricted to the case of the Web: in many other domains where information about the items at stake is very costly or difficult to obtain, reputational cues become an unavoidable way of organizing knowledge. Different cultural domains such as wine labeling systems and academic citation systems are based on rating devices that classify the underlying information by evaluating it (see (Origgi 2007), (Origgi 2009)).
5: Epistemic Injustices: On the Dangers of Using Social Information for Epistemic Purposes
The model of rational consensus as well as the Web applications that we have introduced are clearly examples of how reputation can be used to decide on content information, resp. on how social and content information might be productively merged to achieve better epistemic results. However, where there is use, there also is potential misuse. And in the case of reputational cues, these dangers might be inherent in the very concept of reputation as the “recognition by other people of some characteristic or ability” ((Merriam-Webster-Online-Dictionary 2009)).
More precisely there are two threats. First of all, the use of reputation to assess content can be epistemically beneficial while being morally questionable. This problem already becomes obvious in the first example we chose to open this article: Hawthorne’s A-shaped scarlet piece of tissue. Although classifying someone as a sinner, hero or drunkard – or as an expert, layperson or lobbyist - based on some cues might prove epistemically useful in certain situations, we would have to decide whether we are willing to pay the moral price of possible discrimination that comes with such stereotypical evaluation. More generally, once social information is taken into account to rate the quality of content, the door is open for social biases, prejudices and discrimination, which are as prevalent on the Web as in the societies that have developed and maintained it. These problems are not new and have long been identified for science and other epistemic fields by feminist epistemologists. In addition to raising awareness about these problems, various scholars have also developed tools and strategies to counter these epistemic injustices ((Fricker 2007), (Scheman 2001), (Alcoff 2001)). Miranda Fricker for instance distinguishes between testimonial and hermeneutic injustices as two instances in which someone is wronged in his capacity as a knower based on his social position. According to her “testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word, whereas hermeneutic injustice “[...] occurs at a prior stage, when a gap in collective interpretative resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experience” ((Fricker 2007) 1). Clearly, both forms of injustice are easily conceivable when reputational cues and their epistemic usage are not critically reflected upon and kept open for constant scrutiny and revision.
The second problem concerns the limits of the epistemic usefulness of this type of information itself. The first question is how you calculate the reputation of someone else in the first place, resp. which proxies you use. Do you use the person’s academic development, his institutional background, some form of communal evaluation, such as ratings or recommendations that he has received from other people as a cue to assess someone’s reputation? Do you rely on your own experience with her? On some indicator of the quality of his former research? On her track record of different academic achievements? Her H-index or impact factor? Which of these proxies are valid and which are not? The second crucial questions concerns the stability of reputation, resp. the way you deal with evidence that supports or contradicts your view on the reputation of others. When, under which conditions and up to which point of counter-evidence or you warranted in keeping your reputation value for someone or something? Clearly, these issues as crucial as they are cannot be answered given the brevity of this paper. However, if we want to explore the utility of reputation for epistemic purposes, we have to analyze the potentials and possible dangers very carefully. That reputation is used to assess information and epistemic claims goes without saying – and it comes with benefits as much as with problems. So the question should be less how to avoid using reputation as epistemic tools, but rather how to use them wisely.
6: Conclusion
Our preliminary analyses indicate that ratings and reputational tools in knowledge organization have epistemological, cognitive, practical as well as ethical implications. From an epistemological point of view, a priority of rating tools and reputational scales over classification leads to a re-conceptualization of the “facts/values” dichotomy. Another epistemologically pressing question concerns the validity of reputation mechanism as epistemological tools. How epistemically warranted is the use of these tools? Is it just based on blind and imperfect heuristics that have a serendipitous effect on our search of information, or is it possible to conceive second order epistemic criteria that allow us to pry apart “good” and “bad” practices of trust and reliance on these reputational metrics?
For cognition, this implies to take into account a pragmatically oriented way of creating concepts and categories (i.e. the most “valued”, items preferred by “x”), as it has already been argued in some works in cognitive psychology (cf. (Barsalou 1995)). From a practical point of view, this perspective may help to rethink the bottom up/top down distinction in designing categories by suggesting ways in which rating systems can serve as middle-ground categorizations that are neither imposed from above, not completely generated from spontaneous tagging. Rather they are user-driven meta-categorizations that inform the users.
The ethical and political aspects become obvious when taking feminist critique concerning the danger of epistemic injustices into account. Miranda Fricker’s emphasis of the danger of testimonial and hermeneutic injustices are particularly pressing when reputational cues are used uncritically. It is especially when reputation mechanisms become automatized in algorithms, there is a clear danger that epistemic injustices are inscribed in and reinforced by technology. Such an entanglement between ethics and epistemology in information design has been shown for trust-aware recommender systems((Simon 2008; Simon 2009)). Different trust metrics not only yield to different search results, but that they also correspond to different views concerning the organization as well as even more fundamentally the very concept of knowledge. Moreover, different trust metrics value different people differently and depending on the algorithm, some users are automatically silenced and “sorted out” ((Bowker and Star 1999)), while others “count”. Thus, when developing reputational tools, the possibility of injustices has to be accounted for.
This example suggest that a purely epistemological or cognitive analysis of using reputation for epistemic purposes will not suffice for knowledge organization: the goals and standards for knowledge organization and epistemic practices have to be discussed and decided upon taking political and ethical considerations into account. Reputational tools open up new possibilities for knowledge organization, but they also bring with them their own problems. Raising awareness for the values as well as the dangers of using reputational cues for epistemic assessment will be the major goal of our talk.

References

Alcoff, L. M. (2001). On Judging Epistemic Credibility: Is Social Identity Relevant? Engendering Rationalities. N. Tuana and S. Morgen. Albany, SUNY Press: 53-80.
Barsalou, L. (1995). Flexibility, structure and linguistic vagary in concepts. Theories of Memory. A. F. Collins, S. E. Gathercole, M. A. Conway and P. E. Morris, Psychology Press, Taylor and Francis.
Bowker, G. C. and S. L. Star (1999). Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences. Cambridge, MIT Press.
Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic Injustice. Power and the Ethics of Knowing. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Lehrer, K. (1990). Metamind. Oxford, Claredon Press.
Lehrer, K. and C. Wagner (1981). Rational Consensus in Science and Society. Dordrecht, Reidel.
Linestone, H. A. and M. Turoff (2002). The Delphi Method: Techniques and Applications, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.
Merriam-Webster-Online-Dictionary (2009). Reputation. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.
Origgi, G. (2007). Wine epistemology: The role of reputational and rating systems in the world of wine. Questions of Taste. B. Smith. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 183-197.
Origgi, G. (2009). Designing wisdom through the web. The passion of ranking. Collective Wisdom. J. Elster and H. Landermore. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Scheman, N. (2001). Epistemology Resuscitated: Objectivity as Trustworthiness. Engendering Rationalities. N. Tuana and S. Morgen. Albany, SUNY Press: 23-52.
Simon, J. (2008). Knowledge and Trust in Epistemology and Social Software/ Knowledge Technologies. Culture and identity in knowledge organization: Proceedings of the Tenth International ISKO Conference. C. Arsenault and J. T. Tennis. Montréal, Canada, Würzburg: Ergon: 216-221.
Simon, J. (2009). MyChoice & Traffic Lights of Trustworthiness: Where Epistemology Meets Ethics in Developing Tools for Empowerment and Reflexivity. Proceedings of the 8th International Conference of Computer Ethics, Corfu, Nomiki Bibliothiki.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Robinson 2009 - Perché è davvero difficile scomparire


Tutti i diritti riservati. Scritto per il supplemento Robinson 2009 - Il Sole 24 Ore


Fuggire, godersi la calma del non essere per qualche tempo, come fare, cosa c’è di veramente difficile nel lasciarsi dimenticare ? Chiedete a qualsiasi pensionato, a qualsiasi puerpera incarcerata in casa dal lattante, a qualsiasi malato costretto al letto per mesi, di come in realtà sia facile cadere nell’oblio, essere piano piano dimenticati non solo dagli altri esseri umani, ma anche dalle macchine.


Mi riconnetto dopo mesi sul mio blog e scopro che la procedura di connessione è cambiata. Vado sul sito della banca, e, a causa della mia lunga assenza, la password non è più valida : devo chiederne un’altra per lettera e aspettare la risposta cartacea. Apro la posta elettronica e scopro che l’operatore del mio cellulare è stato acquisito da un altro. Ora devo cambiare i codici, altrimenti il mio abbonamento non varrà più. Esausta, cerco di connettermi al mio sito preferito di social networking per riprendere i contatti con gli amici. Ma il sito non c’è più : si è trasformato in un servizio di vendita online, i miei contatti sono stati inglobati nel database insieme agli altri, anonima lista a cui inviare promozioni…


Insomma, la nostra presenza forzata al mondo è caduca : le nostre tracce virtuali incerte, abbozzate ed eliminabili molto più facilmente di quanto crediamo. Se non ci pensiamo noi a farlo, ci pensa comunque la mano invisibile del ciberspazio e le spietate leggi del mercato.


Cosa c’è di così complicato allora nello scomparire ? In un romanzo di Pascal Quignard, Villa Amalia, da cui il regista Benoît Jacquot ha tratto l’anno scorso un bel film omonimo con Isabelle Huppert e Maya Sansa, la protagonista, Ann Hidden, decide di far perdere le sue tracce. Pianista e compositrice di successo, con una vita apparentemente riuscita a Parigi, Ann organizza con molta determinazione la sua fuga: mette rapidamente in vendita la sua casa, annulla i concerti, chiude i conti in banca, apre una casella postale a nome di un vecchio amico di scuola, ritrovato per caso proprio la sera della sua risoluzione a scomparire. Parte in treno, getta via il telefonino, studia un percorso tortuoso, attraverso diversi paesi d’Europa. Sbarca così a Ischia, dopo molto girovagare, già assuefatta a quella nuova vita, al silenzio opaco di quel mondo estraneo che non la riconosce più, affitta una casa isolata, con una meravigliosa vista sul mare, ricomincia pian piano ad essere, a tessere una tela intorno a sé nuova, diversa, ma anche più umana e sincera, come se quella rottura di sé, quel desiderio di fuga repentino e inspiegabile, sia stato un modo di riscoprirsi, di scendere a patti infine con un’autenticità di sé stessa che nella sua vita parigina ormai regolata dalle aspettative degli altri le era irraggiungibile. Ann Hidden, nascondendosi si ritrova e si apre a sé stessa. Il suo coraggio, il coraggio di qualsiasi Robinson, è trovare la forza di rompere lo specchio in cui gli altri ci riflettono, disattendere le aspettative routinarie, le lente e rassicuranti induzioni che il mondo intorno a noi ci getta addosso sottoforma di richieste di fiducia.


Tradire la fiducia di essere domani la stessa persona di oggi agli occhi degli altri è il vero passo difficile per ogni Robinson, come lo fu per quel signor Stevenson, fatto di sogni, che dalla sua fredda Scozia ritrovò il tesoro di sé stesso a Samoa.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Tréma, dieresi.. .. .. ..



.. .. .. .. .. ..

Petite histoire du tréma, à usage exclusif de mon fils Raphaël

Piccola storia della dieresi, a uso esclusivo di mio figlio Raphaël

A short story of the tréma, for Raphaël


Cos’è quel cosino sospeso sopra la e del tuo nome, Raphaël ? Come fa a restare lì a mezz’aria, come un moschino, una farfalla che gironzola inquieta attorno al pistillo di un fiore ? Oppure è il tuo nome che è sospeso a quel cosino ? O non possono fare a meno uno dell’altro, come quegli animali simbiotici che vivono appresso uno all’altro per farsi del bene reciproco.. Sai che nelle barriere coralline ci sono gamberetti piccolissimi che puliscono e lucidano i pesci che passano? Mangiano quel che trovano sulle squame dei pesci, e quelli tutti contenti attraversano i coralli e si ritrovano dall’altra parte della barriera belli e lucenti, come nuovi. O mi hanno detto di certi uccellini coraggiosi che si posano su lunghissimi coccodrilli, per pulire i loro denti affilati : si mangiano i resti del pasto del coccodrillo, e quel bestione si ritrova contento, pacificato e con i denti luccicanti. Quei due puntini sulla tua ë fanno un po’ così : si fanno dare un passaggio dal tuo nome e in cambio lo fanno vibrare, tremare come un sonaglio, gli dànno un suono differente. Quel cosino è una dieresi, si dice tréma in francese, è un piccolo segno, un segno diacritico direbbero i maestri, il che vuol dire un qualcosa che non è nelle parole, ma come uno spiritello dell’aria permette di dare alle parole delle piccole scosse, di separarne le lettere, insomma un folletto alato che si intrufola tra le lettere e detta un suono speciale al tuo nome. Quei due occhietti furbi che fanno capolino sopra la tua ë scostano la a del tuo nome dalla e, dividono quelle due vocali per impedire loro di fondersi in un dittongo. Bisogna quindi dire ra-pha-ël, tre sillabe differenti, la a e la e ben distinte, tenute separate dalla dieresi che agisce come una calamita al contrario, che stacca invece di attaccare. La dieresi in italiano si usa pochissimo. In francese invece, ci sono tante parole con il tréma sospeso sopra, canoë, foëne, maërl, moëre, Azraël, Gaël, Ismaël, Israël, Joël, Judicaël, Michaël, Nathanaël, Noël, Raphaël, Staël, aïeul, ambiguïté, amuïssement, stoïle, naïf, païen, pagaïe, baïonnette, coïncider, stoïque, archaïque, haïr, ouïe, ouïr, astéroïde, maïs, voltaïque, laïc, Loïc…


E’ nel Medioevo, verso il XII secolo, che gli instancabili monaci anglo-normanni cominciarono a usare il tréma sulle parole, prima nella forma di due piccoli accenti acuti, poi stilizzati in due puntini. Le parole, così scosse, come quando scuoti un albero carico di frutta, diventano musica, traballano e prendono ritmo, proprio come in quei primi manoscritti musicali nello stesso periodo, in cui le note sono solo accenti, virgole, svolazzi, segni che servono solo a guidare il suono, non a fissarlo.

Mi raccomando : non confondere la tua dieresi con un altro segno, la umlaut, che si scrive uguale, ma che ha degli altri poteri sulle parole : la umlaut serve per cambiare il modo in cui una vocale viene pronunciata, non per separare un dittongo : allora ü sarà diverso da u, la prima modificata dalla umlaut sarà più acuta, chiusa, acida, come certe u del dialetto di Milano. Ma la storia della umlaut è tutta un’altra : non lasciare mai nessuno dire che sul tuo nome c’è una umlaut !! E’ una dieresi, un tréma e basta !!


Quel tréma sul tuo nome, che ti accompagnerà tutta la vita, ti dice che la lingua è viva, che i nomi servono per parlare, non per fissare con il piombo eterne identità, che quel che è scritto è solo un manuale d’istruzioni per l’uso di ciò che è detto, che i nomi sono solo suoni che svolazzano liberi nell’aria, senza peso, leggeri e delicati come piume, come i richiami degli animali, gli strilli degli uccelli la mattina sugli alberi, i miagolii vellutati dei micini che cercano la mamma. Come i tuoi strilli aerei e rochi che mi svegliano la notte, che mi fanno alzare dal letto e venire a prenderti tra le mie braccia.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Raphaël

Mon fils Raphaël Ottavio Colonomos est né le 16 Août 2009. Evviva.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Obama's mama


Do not quote without permission This is the English version of an article appeared in Italian on Micromega and in French on La vie des idées

Translated into English by Stash Luczkiw

The American presidential election was won by a woman: Stanley Ann Dunham. Born in 1942, she died of cancer in 1995, shortly after turning 52, and thus without having seen her visionary dream realized: the election of her son, Barack Hussein Obama, as 44th President of the United States. The male name was imposed on her by Stanley Dunham, her father, who would have preferred a boy. As the only child of Stanley and his wife Madelyn Payne, Stanley Ann was nonconformist young girl and a solitary mother, convinced that she could raise her children in a way that would prepare them for a new world, globalized and multicultural, a world that certainly didn’t exist in her daily life as a middle-class girl in an anonymous little town in Kansas. Barack – or Barry, as she called him – is her creation, the fruit of a patient, attentive and loving education that was the commitment of her life, as she saw in her two racially mixed children the reflection of a better future, one in which the warm commingling of blood pacifies the false oppositions and odious attachments, the “unreal loyalties,” as Virginia Woolf called them, that reassure us in the desperate need for social identity to which our species falls prey.

When Barack Obama was born on August 4, 1961, he was still considered in half the American states the criminal product of miscegenation, or the interbreeding of races, a heinous biological hybrid whose existence simply wasn’t taken into consideration while those who committed it were punished with incarceration. Today it is a hard-to-pronounce word that was coined in the United States in 1863, with a specious Latin etymology, from miscere (mix) and genus (race), to indicate the supposed genetic difference between whites and blacks. The question of miscegenation became crucial during the Civil War and subsequent emancipation of the slaves. It was fine to grant civil rights to non-whites, but to allow intimate relations between whites and blacks was another story. The term appeared for the first time in the title of a pamphlet published in New York, Miscegenation: The Theory of Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro, in which the anonymous author promoted the idea of racial mixing as the project of the Republican Party, which supported the abolition of slavery. By encouraging the interbreeding of whites and blacks, racial differences would be progressively attenuated until they disappeared altogether. It was soon discovered that the pamphlet had been created by the Democrats in order to frighten American citizens faced with the intolerable Republican project of encouraging racial mixing. The crime of miscegenation was definitively abolished in 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the anti-miscegenation laws to be unconstitutional in response to Loving vs. Virginia, a case in which a racially mixed married couple was sentenced to a year in prison – with the sentence suspended for 25 years on condition that the couple leave the state of Virginia – for having been found in bed together under the same roof. The marriage certificate hanging above the nuptial bed wasn’t considered valid by the police – who, armed with rifles, broke down the entry door and beat the humiliated couple – because it was obtained in another county, one in which miscegenation wasn’t illegal. This occurred in 1959, and the couple had to wait eight years for the moral indecency of their ordeal and their own innocence to be recognized.

One must try to imagine that America in order to understand the courage of Stanley Ann, who was 18 years old and 4 months pregnant when she married the brilliant young Kenyan student Barack Obama Sr., the first African to be admitted to the University of Hawaii. He was 25. He’d arrived in Hawaii in 1959 thanks to a scholarship from the Kenyan government, which was also sponsored by the United States to help some of the more gifted African students get an education at an American University so they could return to their native country and become part of a new, competent, modern elite.

Stanley Ann was a shy, studious girl with dreams. She was born in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where her father served in the military. Her parents, both Kansans, met in Wichita, the state’s largest city, in 1940. His mother came from a respectable family, folks who never lost their jobs, not even during the Great Depression, and lived decently thanks to a concession on their land given to an oil company. The father came from a more problematic and economically modest family. Raised by his grandparents, he had become a particularly rebellious and impetuous adolescent because of his mother’s suicide. The tough character stayed with him forever. He was strict and sarcastic with Stanley Ann, who detached from him early on and began displaying intolerance with regard to his severe, overly rough manners, his excessive intellectual simplicity, and his sometimes obtuse, sexist way of relating with the family. Stanley Ann’s childhood was full of moves: from Kansas her parents went to California, then back to Kansas, then to various places in Texas, then to Seattle, where she spent her adolescent years, and finally to Honolulu, where they decided to stay. Her father had gotten into businesses of various kinds, alternating successes and failures, to finally sell furniture in Hawaii. Her mother always worked in banking, and in Honolulu she became a branch manager. The couple didn’t have much interest in religion, even if the father tried to enroll his wife Toot, as he called her, into the Unitarian Universalist congregation, a religious group that mixed the scriptures of five different religions, arguing from an economic standpoint: “It’s like having five religions for the price of one!” But his wife was not persuaded, saying that religion was not like a supermarket. The numerous moves had turned Stanley Ann’s parents into typical “ordinary outsiders,” normal people who move for financial reasons; they feel profoundly American in their values, while not feeling rooted to any particular place. They were nevertheless a tolerant couple; the father considered himself a bohemian because he listened to jazz, wrote poetry on Sundays, and wasn’t afraid to count a few Jews among his dearest friends. The racial question never came up in their lives. The lives of blacks and whites in the cities they encountered in their peregrinations were so segregated that for them, as for most Americans of that generation, it was a non-existent problem.



Stanley Ann grew up solitary, spending entire afternoons reading books borrowed from the neighborhood library. She loved foreign languages and European novels.
At 12 she had her first traumatic experience of social intolerance. Having arrived in a small town in Texas, she became friends with a black girl who lived next door. Stanley Ann’s parents didn’t object, but her schoolmates began making fun of her. The derision increased until she was marginalized. Toot, Obama’s grandmother, remembered the time when she had found the two girls lying in the yard, staring at the sky, while the neighborhood kids stood behind the fence calling them all sorts of names, insulting them. They called Stanley Ann a “nigger lover,” insinuating that their friendship had sexual overtones – the only reason to be attracted to someone different, as if contact with a black person could only represent some sexual fantasy, a wild alterity and a repressed desire latent in America’s 1950s WASP Puritanism.

Her parents didn’t like the conformist, intolerant and violent atmosphere of Texas either, and they decided to move to Seattle, the new economic frontier of America’s Far West. The city was more open and welcoming, and Stanley Ann went to high school there. Marine Box, her best friend at the time, remembers her as the brightest student, not so much for her grades, but for her ability to think on her own and not buckle under the clichés and conformism of her country. Once, she declared herself to be an atheist, for example, scandalizing her classmates.

When her parents moved to Hawaii, Stanley Ann registered at the University of Hawaii Manoa. Notwithstanding her father’s severity, her relationship with Barack Obama Sr. wasn’t hindered by her parents. They invited him to dinner immediately, thinking that the young man must have been lonely living so far from home. Obviously there were many gaffes – not surprising since they’d had such little interaction with black people. For example, her father asked him right away if he could sing or dance, and her mother said he looked so much like Harry Belafonte. But Barrack Sr. didn’t allow himself to be intimidated. In fact, one night at a party he sang in front of everyone, despite not having a great voice; but his self-assuredness and charisma were noticed by all. He was a man proud of his African origins, the son of a chief, who had never been subjected to the humiliations black Americans had had to deal with; he didn’t feel the weight of the color of his skin in that violent, segregated America – though still naïve with regard to racial questions, an America which hadn’t yet confronted the Black Panthers and other revolutionary movements that helped build the African-American identity.

Shortly after the birth of Obama Hussein, his father was accepted into the best American universities and chose to study at Harvard. Stanley Ann didn’t want to follow him to Massachusetts; she was happy with her baby, fully satisfied, but she couldn’t see herself as the wife of a Kenyan politician. She knew that her husband’s fate was sealed, that he would return to Kenya because his success in the United States would be an example for the entire nation, which was why he was sent to study in America. They decided to separate amicably. Barack Sr. came from a polygamous culture, so she knew that his life as a husband and father would not end with her. Stanley Ann was self-confident and happy enough with her mulatto baby that she returned to Honolulu without any complexes in order to continue her studies. She managed to get a degree Mathematics and a Master in Anthropology. That same year she met another foreign student, Lolo Soetoro, a small, dark and kind Indonesian young man, and he began coming over to Dunham’s house. Toot, Stanley Ann’s mother, would play chess with him every evening and kid him about his name, Lolo, which meant “crazy” in Hawaiian. But there was nothing crazy about this young man; he was extremely courteous, affectionate with little Barry, and decidedly in love with the young, extravagant and adventurous woman. He asked her to marry him and to move to Jakarta with him. Stanley Ann accepted and went with her son to Indonesia at the end of 1967, during the years of Suharto’s unstoppable climb to power and the attendant purges and decline of Sukarno, the old president and founder of the state. Stanley Ann found work at the American Embassy, where she often brought her child with her; he would spend his days in the library reading Life magazine. She talked to him about politics, geography, and international relations. Lolo told Barry the stories of Indonesian mythology, about the great Hanuman, the invincible monkey-god demon-slaying warrior. The Sukarno government’s atheistic communism would soon be supplanted by a new religious wave under Suharto. At school, Islam was studied, since Indonesia was (and still is) the world’s most populous Muslim nation. Barry was exposed to all these influences and all these cultures. He had no problems with regard to racial belonging. He had no race. Rather, he was a citizen of the world, curious like his mother, interested in differences, self-confident and completely at ease in the ordinary everyday life of the multiethnic clan that was his family. His sister Maya Kassandra Soetoro was born in 1970. He went to school, but the alarm clock rang at three in the morning, when his mother would enter the room to the music of Mahalia Jackson, or read him the biography of Malcolm X, or make him listen to the Reverend Martin Luther King. She was forcibly inculcating him with a sense of belonging to the African-American culture gaining traction in the United States, taking a political shape, with a common identity and language. Barry had to know how to be everything: American, black, white, cosmopolitan – because this was his future, the recklessly audacious and visionary dream of his mother. When her marriage to Lolo began to waver, Barry was sent back to his grandparents in Hawaii. It was she who left Lolo because he wanted to have more children. Soon Stanley Ann and Maya would return to Honolulu, and the family was put back together, minus any husband, with two children and the Dunham grandparents. Stanley Ann’s parents dedicated themselves with love to Barry, but contrary to what could be read in the newspapers, they weren’t the ones to educate him; his mother looked after his education. And as soon as she got back to Hawaii, she continued her own studies in order to work on a doctorate that she would complete in 1992, at the age of 50. Her field of research was rural Indonesian society, which gave her the opportunity to return often to Indonesia so that Maya could see her father, with whom she still had a friendly relationship. In 1977 she decided to go on a longer trip for research, but she only took Maya with her because Barry preferred to finish up high school in the United States.

Meanwhile, Stanley Ann’s career developed in a new direction. She began to deal with rural development and microcredit projects aimed at Indonesian woman for various agencies and international banks. Her life, her experience as a woman and mother of two children became the ground for her intellectual growth; they allowed her to understand things she would otherwise not have been able to see about social and cultural differences, about the condition of women and ethnic minorities. Her field of experimentation was her own life; she was at once an observer and protagonist in the world that was transforming and globalizing. But her enthusiasm and career would be cut short by ovarian cancer, which eventually killed her in 1995; she was 53.

One must ask how much of this independent, authoritative and courageous woman there was in the Obamamania that gripped the whole world during the American elections. What is new is not just his dark skin, but also his profound ability to understand and reconcile oppositions in a way that only a man who has accepted the example and authority of a woman could. Obama is of a new generation because he’s the son of an intellectually authoritative woman, because he was able to have a woman as an example instead of a father, because he was steeped in the feminine values of tolerance and communion. Obama is the product of this woman, and that’s his greatest success. Of course, during the electoral campaign it was better to keep the memory of Stanley Ann far from the spotlight and tell the story of this black boy raised by his Kansan grandparents. But now that Obama is president, there will finally be the opportunity to honor the creator of this perfect son, the woman who brought him up and molded him into the icon of a world to come, a world she won’t see.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Ranking che passione

Copyright Micromega 2009. Do not quote or reproduce without permission.


Uno spettro si aggira per l’Europa: lo spettro delle misure oggettive di valutazione della ricerca. Liste, classifiche, agenzie di valutazione, sistemi bibliometrici prolificano, si incrociano, si accumulano in un mosaico complesso di indici, voti, tassonomie da far girare la testa al povero professor Vaccadamus che nient’altro aveva fatto finora che stare seduto dietro alla scrivania, munito di pantofole, sciarpa, carta e penna, a scrivere spensierato pagine su pagine per il solo bene della conoscenza o dei suoi affezionatissimi studenti. Finita la libertà, finita l’ingenuità dello studioso isolato dal mondo: la macchina razionale ha investito anche noi poveri accademici, la modernità non perdona, il processo di razionalizzazione delle pratiche umane, nel quale Max Weber vedeva l’essenza stessa della modernità, travolge al suo passaggio le vecchie abitudini, i rituali e le piccole usanze dei mondi antichi, in un cieco tendere verso un optimum universale, condivisibile e razionale.

E ben venga. Perché le vecchie abitudini, i rituali e le usanze del mondo antico accademico nascondono, e neanche tanto bene, il peggio dei pubblici vizi: nepotismo, assenza di selezione nel vagliare il corpo docenti, mancanza di incentivi alla produzione scientifica di qualità, relazioni baronali con gli studenti, meschinerie, mediocrità, pubblicazioni vanitose a zero valore scientifico distribuite da misteriose case editrici accademiche locali, le varie Copli, Clupi, Clop, Cbup, praticamente pubblicazioni in conto autore, libri che non circoleranno mai al di fuori dei commissari del concorso accademico destinato all’autore e dei familiari fieri del figlio eruditissimo che mostreranno il volume agli amici nella biblioteca del salotto. E poi l’impunità: non c’è errore, sgarro, mancanza che non possa essere perdonato dall’inerzia del sistema. Concorsi truccati senza conseguenze, plagio nelle pubblicazioni senza che questo scalfisca neanche di un graffio il pomposo e localissimo prestigio del plagiario: uno dei casi più spettacolari di quest’ultimo vizio tutto italico fu quello dello stimato professor Stefano Zamagni, professore ordinario di Economia all’università di Bologna, il quale, colto a copiare intere pagine del filosofo Robert Nozick - attività che dovrebbe comportare l’esclusione immediata e non ritrattabile dalla comunità accademica - non solo non subì alcuna sanzione da parte della comunità degli economisti italiani, ma anzi, fu difeso da vari colleghi che attaccarono il suo denunciatore, invocando il plagio come pratica normale di diffusione del pensiero, o sulla base di giustificazioni ancora più stravaganti, come quella data da una sua collega bolognese: “Almeno Zamagni copia da buoni autori!”. Caso analogo, più recente, quello del plagio di Umberto Galimberti, che, avendo copiato nel suo libro L’ospite inquietante (Feltrinelli, 2007) intere pagine dal libro di Giulia Sissa, Il piacere e il male. Sesso droga e filosofia, (sempre Feltrinelli 1999), fu difeso da professoroni e intelettuali italiani - tra i quali personaggi del calibro di Gianni Vattimo e Emanuele Severino - sulla base del semplice argomento secondo cui in fondo tutta la storia della filosofia è una storia di scoppiazzature, e dunque, che male c’è??

Bene, la festa è finita, l’Europa ci impone nuovi standard di qualità accademica - conseguenza della dichiarazione di Bologna del 1999 - in vista della costruzione di uno spazio europeo per l’istruzione universitaria con standard parificati: l’Agenzia europea per la garanzia della qualità dell’istruzione universitaria (ENQUA - www.enqua.eu ) associa fondazioni e associazioni nazionali in tutti gli stati europei che realizzano inchieste e valutazioni di qualità nelle università cercando di armonizzarle in uno standard generale. Tra i criteri di qualità più importanti, vi è quello del valore e dello statuto delle pubblicazioni di ricerca prodotte dalle università. Come decidere? Come valutare in un continente multilingue, multitradizione, ciò che è buono e ciò che non lo è? Quali criteri si applicano alla valutazione di un articolo accademico, il famoso paper che assilla la carriera dell’universitario? Il problema non è semplice, ed è ancora più spinoso nel caso delle cosiddette scienze umane. Perché, se per gli scienziati è ancora possibile appellarsi a criteri di qualità “oggettivi” e misurabili quantitativamente (robustezza degli esperimenti, replicabilità, numero di brevetti derivati da una scoperta, etc.) per tutti gli altri questa trasparenza è più difficile da stabilire. Nell’era moderna della produzione accademica anonima e a scala industriale, i linguaggi quantitativi della scienza hanno, al di là del loro valore metodologico oggi sempre più messo in discussione, un valore comunicativo: in un mondo in cui gli scienziati lavorano sugli stessi paradigmi agli antipodi geografici, il formato quantitativo in cui un risultato è espresso ne permette una lettura universale: chiunque padroneggi quel linguaggio tecnico è in grado di decodificare il contenuto delle stringate statistiche che riassumono un complesso esperimento, espresse a volte in non più di 800 parole, formato obbligatorio della rivista Nature, la più autorevole delle riviste scientifiche. Anche se è difficile parlare ingenuamente oggi di “verità” di un risultato scientifico, possiamo comunque dire che il formato quantitativo - la sua comunicabilità e replicabilità - permette di controllare la qualità di ciò che viene detto nella scienza in modo sufficientemente robusto da filtrare nelle riviste l’informa-zione più pertinente per l’avanzamento di un certo campo di conoscenze. Certo, tutto ciò è sottomesso alle irregolarità e tendenze del sistema “scienza”, che nessuno considera più come una torre d’avorio protetta dalle pressioni della società, ma che è soggetta alle influenze detereminate dagli interessi economici, dalle politiche ideologiche, insomma, da tutto l’insieme di forze sociali a cui qualsiasi sistema di produzione sottostà. Ci sono dunque cento pesi e cento misure per ogni disciplina, e i programmi di ricerca che hanno più finanziamenti e più pubblicazioni sono quelli che corrispondono al trend di interessi e di valori stabilito dai grandi organismi di finanziamento nazionali e sovranazionali, come in Europa i programmi quadro (Framework Programmes) della Commissione Europea, i programmi EUROCORES della European Science Foundation, o, negli Stati Uniti, la National Science Foundation (http://www.nsf.gov/). Le neuroscienze e le nanotecnologie per esempio hanno visto un successo senza precedenti nei finanziamenti degli ultimi 10 anni, il che spiega la loro onnipresenza anche mediatica, a scapito di altri programmi, come per esempio l’intelligenza artificiale, che hanno subito una drastica riduzione dei fondi.

Ciò detto, se per le scienze, soprattutto quelle formalizzate, c’è ancora un qualche barlume di senso oggettivo della qualità, la questione è molto più delicata nel mondo degli umanisti e dei cosidetti social scientists. Tutto l’apparato accademico di pubblicazioni, dal riconoscimento scientifico, al sistema di peer-review, è basato sul modello, peraltro molto antico, del paper delle scienze esatte. E come adattare questo modello nelle scienze umane non è evidente. In realtà, non c’è stato grande sforzo di adattamento, solo di trasferimento dei criteri di produzione scientifica da un ambito all’altro, e di formattazione del sapere nelle stesse griglie: un filosofo, uno storico o un esperto di Settecento letterario finlandese, dovranno confezionare articoli con un formato non dissimile a quello dei giornali di fisica - titolo, abstract, parole chiave, ringraziamenti agli organismi finanziatori del progetto, testo e bibliografia - spedire l’articolo al journal accademico, aspettare il giudizio di due colleghi a cui l’articolo viene inviato per referaggio dalla redazione del journal, integrare le eventuali modifiche se l’articolo è stato accettato e aspettare pazienti la pubblicazione. La pubblicazione, se la rivista è referenziata, metterà in circolo l’articolo nei vari sistemi di citazione internazionali, come il Citation Index, e l’articolo acquisirà pian piano una sua reputazione, un suo ranking basato su una semplicissima misura: l’impatto, ossia quante volte l’articolo è citato negli articoli degli altri. A parte quest’ultima fase di messa in circolo automatica grazie al Citation Index, su cui ritornerò presto, i meccanismi di produzione del paper accademico indicato sopra non sono molto diversi da quelli della prima pubblicazione accademica della storia, le Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, che cominciarono a uscire regolarmente nel 1665, circa vent’anni dopo che un gruppo di “filosofi naturali” particolarmente affascinati dalla nuova cultura sperimentale, cominciarono a incontrarsi regolarmente a Londra e a stabilire le nuove regole del gioco della scienza moderna, basate sulla sperimentazione, il disinteresse per il guadagno economico e l’importanza della diffusione dei risultati scientifici nel pubblico dominio. E’ proprio intorno alla Royal Society, con personaggi del calibro di Robert Boyle, John Walkins, Robert Hooke e, successivamente, Issac Newton, che prende corpo una certa concezione della proprietà intellettuale nella scienza, ancora oggi alla base dell’autorevolezza scientifica. In primo luogo, la comunità degli scienziati è una comunità di pari: ci si ritrova tra happy few tutti ben informati sulle discussioni scientifiche in corso, si discutono le nuove idee in circolazione, le quali diventeranno verità scientifiche solo dopo l’approvazione di un numero di colleghi. In secondo luogo, queste verità non possono essere oggetto di proprietà: nessuno scienziato degno di questo nome può acquisire diritti su ciò che scopre, perché si scoprono fatti che riguardano la natura, e la natura è di tutti. Lo scienziato potrà quindi acquisire solo benefici secondari dalla sua scoperta, ossia, il prestigio e il riconoscimento della comunità, e gli eventuali brevetti che possono derivare dalla sua scoperta e che possono dare benefici economici. La storia dell’autorità accademica nasce dunque separata dall’inizio da quella dell’autorità intellettuale: i diritti d’autore, le leggi sul copyright che cominciano a stabilirsi intorno alla prima metà del Settecento in Inghiterra e in Francia, non comprenderanno l’autore scientifico, ma solo l’invenzione, la creazione letteraria. Così, i brevetti proteggeranno l’invenzione tecnologica, ma mai la verità scientifica, che deve restare bene comune dell’umanità. Lo scienziato gentiluomo è dunque un essere disinteressato, che indaga la verità per il bene di tutti, e che mette i suoi risultati a disposizione grazie ai bollettini delle societés savantes, di cui la Royal Society è il primo esempio. Addirittura Robert Boyle incoraggiava la pratica della pubblicazione anonima, perché anche il riconoscimento personale gli sembrava legato al volgare mondo degli interessi contrapposto all’aulico mondo delle idee.

Sebbene il fair-play del filosofo naturale settecentesco si è decisamente perso nel gioco al massacro delle carriere scientifiche contemporanee, dove orde di giovani ambiziosissimi si riducono a lotte al coltello per decidere dell’ordine dei nomi degli autori di un articolo, alcune regole tutte sui generis di questo regime di produzione intellettuale resistono: un giornale accademico è tale solo se è una pubblicazione peer-review, ossia se il contenuto che pubblica è filtrato dalla comunità di pari di una certa disciplina scientifica. La ricerca deve essere giudicata originale dalla comunità di pari. Gli autori che pubblicano su questi giornali non sono pagati per la loro pubblicazione, perché si considera faccia parte del loro lavoro mettere a disposizione della comunità allargata i loro risultati su queste riviste e perché, come per i filosofi naturali, nessuno può avere diritti speciali su un fatto del mondo: i fatti sono di tutti. I benefici di una pubblicazione sono dunque tutti indiretti: impatto, riconoscimento, prestigio, che, se per i filosofi chic del Settecento potevano essere valori in sé, oggi hanno valore soprattutto se si traducono in avanzamento di carriera, migliori stipendi, migliore accesso ai fondi di ricerca.
L’applicazione di questo concetto di autorità scientifica nelle scienze umane e sociali fu un dato di fatto più che una scelta ideologica: l’evoluzione dell’accademia in un dispositivo di organizzazione del sapere in discipline a partire dall’inizio dell’Ottocento - grazie soprattutto al modello organizzativo delle università tedesche - creò pian piano la figura dell’accademico come “funzionario” del sapere, estendibile anche all’erudito oltre che allo scienziato. L’accademico assume così il ruolo di “vestale” di un corpus di conoscenze: deve mantenerlo, farlo evolvere, proteggerlo a volte dalle interferenze esterne, trasmetterlo alla prossima generazione...Così, a partire dall’Ottocento, le sociétés savantes cominciano a proliferare anche nelle discipline letterarie e storiche, con criteri simili a quelli delle società scientifiche; comunità di pari, dedizione alla verità, disinteresse e oggettività. Ma sappiamo bene che l’intellettuale, il letterato o lo studioso di scienza politica è sottoposto a ben altre pressioni oggi che a quelle di fare evolvere il corpus della sua disciplina. Se il modello dell’accademico nella torre d’avorio della sua disciplina si è effettivamente mantenuto soprattutto nelle università americane di oggi, costruite sul modello tedesco, l’intellettuale europeo, e forse anche quello indiano o sudamericano, è più “organico”: il suo riconoscimento passa dalla sua partecipazione alla scena pubblica intellettuale e civile, al suo scrivere sui giornali non accademici, pubblicare nelle case editrici prestigiose, vendere copie dei suoi libri, prendere posizioni politiche pubbliche, insomma, tutto un lavoro che conterà pochissimo per il suo impatto accademico “formale”, ma che sta alla base del suo vero riconoscimento in quanto intellettuale di impatto. E nella società del riconoscimento, delle economies de la grandeur, per usare la bella espressione di Luc Boltanski e Laurent Thévénot , rinunciare all’onore pubblico per il bene dei sistemi di citazione, soprattutto in paesi in cui la buona reputazione accademica non ha nessuna conseguenza sulla carriera, il guadagno e le migliori condizioni di lavoro, è davvero difficile. Eccomi qui, per esempio, a scrivere su una delle più prestigiose riviste culturali italiane, Micromega, la quale, non essendo un giornale peer-reviewed, non aumenterà il mio impatto accademico, benché aumenti molto di più di tante mie pubblicazioni in misteriosi journals, il mio “capitale simbolico” di intellettuale.

Ma davvero c’è una dicotomia tra sistemi razionali e oggettivi e capitale simbolico contingente e storicamente situato, come spesso viene rivendicato da coloro che non vogliono piegarsi alla logica dei sistemi scientometrici? In realtà la questione è più sottile, perché i sistemi cosiddetti “razionali” e oggettivi sono anch’essi dispositivi con una storia, una sociologia e un insieme di tendenze e di influenze che vanno ben al di là del puro calcolo razionale. Non c’è quindi contrapposizione tra oggettività e contesti locali storici: ogni dispositivo che crea un regime di conoscenza è il frutto in parte di una storia accidentale e ne porta le tracce. Per esempio, chi decide quali sono i journals che contano per la carriera accademica? Esistono più di ventimila riviste peer reviewed nel mondo e certo non tutte con lo stesso impatto. La differenza di impatto di un articolo su Nature e di uno sul Journal of Advances in Colloid and Interface Science, anche sullo stesso argomento, è incomparabile, tanto che la maggior parte degli scienziati “top” considera pubblicazioni scientifiche serie solo quelle che escono su Nature e Science, e relega il resto a una variante della vanity press. La maggior parte delle riviste scientifiche hanno pochissima rilevanza, la media dei lettori per articolo sui peer-reviewed journals è di 1,5, ossia un lettore e mezzo compreso l’autore che va a rimirarsi il suo capolavoro nel portale on line della rivista accademica. La storia dei sistemi scientometrici spiega da sola la formazione di un primo “ranking’ di journals, poi ripreso, modificato, razionalizzato negli ultimi vent’anni da comitati, fondazioni, istituzioni che vedevano nella classifica delle pubblicazioni l’unico strumento di categorizzazione del pasticciato universo accademico.

Il Science Citation Index fu inventato nei primi anni Sessanta dal signor Eugene Garfield e dal suo ISI - Institute for Scientific Information, frutto del sogno informatico dell’epoca di poter registrare qualsiasi informazione in potenti database. Fu la creazione, insomma, di un repertorio di riviste accademiche, senza nessun obiettivo di valutazione: le riviste che venivano repertoriate erano quelle che Garfield riusciva a scovare per ogni disciplina, che rispettassero i criteri, storici e intuitivi, del peer-review, della rilevanza per la comunità di pari, etc etc. Molte sfuggirono alla rete di Garfield per pura mancanza di visibilità, e oggi il Citation Index conta circa 5600 riviste repertoriate, ossia, molte meno delle ventimila riviste peer-reviewed. Presto Garfield si accorse che i criteri di accettazione di una rivista di “scienze dure” nel Citation Index non potevano essere completamente uguali a quelli delle riviste umanistiche o di scienze sociali, cosa che lo spinse a costituire un Social Science Citation Index e un Arts and Humanities Citation Index. Il servizio era venduto alle università come un modo alternativo e oggettivo di misurare l’impatto delle pubblicazioni dei propri ricercatori. Ovviamente il servizio era a pagamento, e lo è tutt’ora, ossia il signor Garfield ci teneva a guadagnare con tutto ciò e non semplicemente a dare voti dall’alto della sua saggezza alle pubblicazioni accademiche. Il sistema funziona, come ho detto, calcolando l’impatto: un articolo ha impatto a seconda di quante volte viene citato in altri articoli. Ma la scientometria evolveva, e a partire da questa scarna misura si potevano calcolare molte altre misure, ossia, attribuire un ranking più alto alle riviste che avevano più articoli con più impatto, facendo così risalire l’autore e la rivista in un circolo virtuoso di successo sempre crescente dove chi è famoso rende famoso tutto ciò che tocca: la rivista dove pubblica, i colleghi con cui pubblica, gli argomenti su cui pubblica. Effetto correlato, la rivista, una volta resa famosa dal magico circolo virtuoso, illumina tutti gli autori che vi pubblicano, tutti complicati effetti di sistema, alcuni prevedibili e giustificabili, altri francamente spiacevoli e ben poco razionali, come il famoso Mathiew effect studiato dal sociologo Robert Merton, secondo cui, come nel Vangelo di San Matteo, chi vince piglia tutto e chi ha più citazioni, ha più chances di essere citato nel futuro e di accumulare ancora più credito accademico. Ecco dunque gli effetti di sistema che si accumulavano su un corpus che di per sé non aveva nulla di normativo: addirittura i criteri di ammissione delle riviste accademiche negli Indexes erano spesso confusi e contraddittori, tanto da ritrovare, per esempio, la New York Review of Books tra le pubblicazioni dello Arts and Humanities Citation Index, quando tutti sanno che non è una rivista peer-reviewed, che si pubblica solo su invito del direttore Bob Silvers e che si viene profumatamente pagati (durante un’inchiesta alla IsI sul perché certe riviste non peer-reviewed erano state incluse, gli impiegati rispondevano: “Perché sono riviste che tutti sanno che hanno un grande impatto accademico” !)
Bene, questo gigante di citazioni creato dalla storia di un dispositivo che “gira” da più di quarant’anni, è stato ripreso negli ultimi dieci da varie istituzioni internazionali per creare le liste di riviste considerate “di prestigio” per ogni disciplina, e con questo costruire le griglie di valutazione delle istituzioni e dei ricercatori che tanto ci assillano oggi. Le prime liste europee sono state costituite dalla Commissione Europea e dalla European Science Foundation (www.esf.org). Quest’ultima ha creato una classifica a tre livelli, A, B, C, delle pubblicazioni che contano consultando comitati costituiti da 5 o 6 accademici per disciplina, che stabiliscono non solo la classifica, ma anche i criteri con i quali attribuire i voti. Il motivo per cui un accademico si trova in questi comitati resta opaco, così come le procedure di selezione che l’hanno portato là: faccio l’esempio della disciplina che conosco meglio, la filosofia, per la quale i cinque accademici selezionati dall’ESF provenivano tutti da una sola area della filosofia, la filosofia analitica, riuscendo così a imporre molte A ai giornali di quella branca della filosofia, a scapito di altri giornali. Un criterio enunciato esplicitamente dalla ESF per giustificare la classifica è il numero di lettori, che appare esplicitamente accanto al nome della rivista. Non si spiega però allora perché tra le poche riviste italiane che hanno ricevuto una valutazione A risulti anche l’Annuario della scuola archeologica italiana di Atene e delle missioni italiane in Oriente, che non escludo sia un’ottima pubblicazione, ma il cui valore non è certamente stato calcolato in termini di numero di lettori.

Ora, il problema non è così grave, perché nessun accademico serio è mai stato assunto solamente sulla base del suo ranking dentro a un Citation Index o del calcolo del suo “fattore H”, il fattore di impatto che ormai ci viene chiesto di calcolare, tramite programmi online, come Publish or Perish che estraggono tutta l’informazione esistente sul nostro lavoro e la trasformano in un numerino che ci dice qual è il nostro valore accademico. Le riflessioni sono molto più complesse e tengono conto di ben altri fattori che non possono essere calcolati meccanicamente. Ma il problema può diventare grave perché invece le nuove agenzie promosse a livello europeo per la valutazione della ricerca e dell’università, prendono queste classifiche come oro colato, come classifiche prodotte da una votazione imparziale, da un maestro saggio che sa dire chi è bravo e chi non lo è, e non dai mille accidenti di un dinosauro che accumula informazione da più di quarant’anni. In Francia, l’AERES, agenzia per la valutazione della ricerca e dell’insegnamento superiore, ha costruito le sue classifiche con nuovi, localissimi, comitati che avevano come compito quello di spulciare le classifiche già create dalla ESF e di “personalizzarle” un po’ al caso francese. Su quelle liste, i ricercatori francesi e i loro laboratori si giocano la carriera, come se le liste reificassero il valore di una classifica in realtà stabilita in gran parte dai capricci della storia.

Che fare? Sicuramente è nostra responsabilità epistemica almeno sapere come funzionano questi sistemi, quali sono i loro limiti, per farne buon uso. Inoltre, la cornucopia di misure e di valutazioni che il Web mette a disposizione fa sì che o queste classifiche saranno in grado di evolvere in fretta, o resteranno rigidi strumenti di valutazione da maestrini, superati da sistemi di ranking più efficienti, come per esempio quello gratuito e universale messo a disposizione da Google Scholar. Interessante peraltro notare che i famosi programmi di calcolo del fattore H, come il Publish or Perish, che istituzioni come l’AERES, o la Commissione Europea vi chiedono esplicitamente di usare per classificarvi, sono a loro volta basati sui rankings prodotti da Google Scholar, un bel gatto che si morde la coda, dato che il barocco incrocio di espertoni per compilare le liste di valore dovrebbe essere quello che ci salva dal cieco giudizio delle macchine à la Google.

Insomma, non ci sono né buoni, né cattivi: né vecchi metodi artigianali da difendere, né nuovi criteri perfettamente razionali. C’è solo da usare con la testa questi criteri, spendere qualche ora a capire come funzionano, padroneggiare i dispositivi grazie anche alla tecnologia di facile accesso di cui oggi disponiamo, invece di sentirsi schiacciati da essi. Io credo che in un modo di produzione scientifica più “aperto”, che il Web sta rendendo possibile, i criteri intuitivi e quelli oggettivi di valore piano piano torneranno a mescolarsi, e a rendere un’immagine più pacata e umana della nostra attività di ricerca. Che la ragione non ci faccia perdere di vista la ragionevolezza dei giudizi e delle classifiche, come un’appellazione D.O.C. non deve vincere sulla prova del palato di un vino. Le classifiche sono tante, i criteri molteplici e spesso contrapposti. Non priviamoci di nessuna risorsa per tenere quel che c’è di buono in questa rivoluzione e insieme mantenere vive le nostre sane intuizioni su ciò che vale e ciò che non vale.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

La maman d'Obama

La version française de mon article sur Stanley Ann Dunham publié en italien par Micromega en décembre 2008 est parue dans la revue La vie des idées

Thursday, January 08, 2009

GLORIA'S RANKING 2008


What's in a year? What makes it so special, so different from any other years? Scattered pictures of vacations with friends, dinner parties, children birthdays, ends of schools, Christmas days, give to each year an unforgettable touch, as in a vintage selection, that filters what we will keep in memory for the rest of our life. The value of these precious pictures, lost in some drawers that sometimes we open in the boring winter evenings, is that they produce a selection of instants worth remembering, a ranking of what must be kept in memory and what will be lost in the magmatic confusion of our unconscious past.
Here I'll provide another way of making an year unforgettable, just by giving grades, ranking the days and the experiences in a way that makes it distinguishable in my memory from any other year forever. Ranking is a form of visualization of reality, a way of illustrating a special configuration of the world worth remembering.

Best lunch: Restaurante Porto Santa Maria, on the beach of Cascais, Portugal, with Ariel in a sunny day of January. After a freezing bath in the Ocean, I was incredibly hungry and we ate a giant lobster.

Best dinner: At Gusto restaurant, Rome, piazza Augusto imperatore, end of November, with some friends and my elegant Italian publisher Andrea Gessner after the presentation of my book at the Libreria Fannucci. Lot of laughter about one of my best tirade on the functioning of horn-pipes.

Best friend of the year: Catherine Legallais, a discrete and auratic Paris-based poet and critic, with an outstanding capacity of listening and understanding. I think she's the only person who really understood my way of looking at my childhood in my Italian book, La Figlia della Gallina Nera.

Best philosopher: Akeel Bilgrami. His talks in Paris on liberalism and relativism and, especially, on Gandhi, in March, were a breath of fresh air in the stifling philosophical world.

Best philosophical paper: Akeel Bilgrami's on Gandhi's philosophy of nature.

Best academic talk: Steven Shapin on science as a vocation given at the Jean Nicod Institute in Paris on June 2nd. Perfect voice, timing, rhetoric, facial mimicry, a piece of performance art, sadly neglected by a distracted audience.

Best philosophical conference: Third International Conference on Wine and Philosophy, organized by Nicola Perullo, myself and Barry Smith at the university of Pollenzo, in Southern Piedmont, Italy. Not really for the contents of the conference, but for a special childish atmosphere that reminded me my years in high school, like a delirious conversation about the name of a fellow philosopher while driving from a wine taste to another, almost drunk in a very crowded car.

Best place: St. Jacut de la Mer, in Bretagne, discovered by Dan and Bruno, a beautiful peninsula surrounded by marvelous and colored beaches. Leo, Matteo and myself had also the priviledge of a bath with a seal, a nice seal with big, dark, round eyes and long whiskers, a sort of epiphany from nowhere that gave all of us strange, magic dreams during the night.

Best blog: Ricardo Bloch's Amphibious Andromeda, at http://ricardobloch.com/docs/home.htm, an image and a sound per day. An essential, elegant, soft and deep zen exercise of precision.

Best website and webby idea: www.demotix.com a citizen journalism site run by the genius of geniuses Turi Munthe

Best day: November 4th, my son's 8th birthday and Obama's victory. Sleepless all night watching three computer screens with Dan, then the dinner party for Leo with Yotam and his family, lot of music, laughter, affection and a shy optimism in our gazes.

Best song: Alba Arikha Dans une impasse

Best movie: There will be blood, by Paul Thomas Anderson

Best documentary movie: Nurith Aviv D'une langue à l'autre

Best opera: Actually, the choice is very limited, given that I saw just two, a Wozzeck at La Scala in Milano where I slept almost all the time, and another one in Paris in November. This latter is one of the most beautiful mise-en-scènes I've ever seen in my life: Wagner's Tristan und Isolde illustrated by enourmous yet ephemeral Bill Viola's videos.

Best museum: Louisiane museum, just outside Copenhagen, where I saw the best Bill Viola's video of my life: a variation on the theme of Géricault's Le radeau de la Meduse (The raft).

Best exhibition: Richard Serra at the Grand Palais, June.

Best non-fiction book: Margareth Mead's autobiography, Blackberry winter.

Best fiction book: Well, I know I shouldn't, but, actually, it's true: it's mine: La figlia della gallina nera, 2008, Nottetempo.

Best discovered etymology: Thanks to Guglielmo Brayda, who found it somewhere in one of Pascal Quignard's books, I discovered the special etymology of "desire" which comes from desiderium in Latin, which, itself, is made by the prefix de and sidera, star. Desiderium is thus a deprivation of stars, a feeling of absence of light, a craving for aura.

Best culinary invention: My entrée of carpaccio of coquilles st. jacques slightly cooked in a fry pan just for 10 seconds with butter and lemon and served on a hot trevisana salad, cooked in a pan with oil, garlic, soja sauce, sugar and balsamic vinegar. I've added some sesame seeds on the coquilles in the end and decorated with a leaf of peppermint. Delicious. Served as entrée at a dinner in my place at the Passage on December 31st.

Best hotel: Hotel Locarno in Rome, via della Penna, an "as it should be" old, charming hotel in my favorite block in Rome, a few steps away from Elsa Morante's apartment in via dell'Oca. I've spent a febrile night reading Rilke, Canetti and Sebald and smoking cigarettes - because I had to present 5 books of my choice at the Italian radio the morning after - and feeling for the first time of my life of being a "real" intellectual!