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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


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, an image and a sound per day. An essential, elegant, soft and deep zen exercise of precision.

Best website and webby idea: 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!

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Age of Reputation

This is my 2009 answer to the annual EDGE question. This year's question was WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING? Easy, don't you think? Do not quote without permission.


When asked about what will change our future, the most straightforward reply that comes to mind is, of course, the Internet. But how the Internet will change things that it has not already changed, what is the next revolution ahead on the net, this is a harder matter. The Internet is a complex geography of information technology, networking, multimedia content and telecommunication. This powerful alliance of different technologies has provided not only a brand new way of producing, storing and retrieving information, but a giant network of ranking and rating systems in which information is valued as long as it has been already filtered by other people.

My prediction for the Big Change is that the Information Age is being replaced by a Reputation Age in which the reputation of an item — that is how others value and rate the item — will be the only way we have to extract information about it. This passion of ranking is a central feature of our contemporary practices of filtering information, in and out of the net (take as two different examples of it — one inside and the other outside the net - and the recent financial crisis).

The next revolution will be a consequence of the impact of reputation on our practices of information gathering. Notice that this won’t mean a world of collective ignorance in which everyone has no other chances to know something than to rely on the judgment of someone else, in a sort of infinite chain of blind trust where nobody seems to know anything for sure anymore: The age of reputation will be a new age of knowledge gathering guided by new rules and principles. This is possible now thanks to the tremendous potential of the social web in aggregating individual preferences and choices to produce intelligent outcomes. Let me explain how more precisely.

One of the main revolution of Internet technologies has been the introduction by Google of the « PageRank » algorithm for retrieving information, that is, an algorithm that bases its search for relevant information on the structure of the links on the Web. Algorithms such as these extract the cultural information contained in each preference users express by putting a link from a page to another with a mathematical cocktail of formulas that gives a special weight to each of these connections. This determines which pages are going to be in the first positions of a search result.

Fears about these tools are obviously many, because our control on the design of the algorithms, on the way the weights are assigned to determine the rank is very poor, nearly inexistent. But let us imagine a new generation of search engines whose ranking procedures are simply generated by the aggregation of individual preferences expressed on these pages: no big calculations, no secret weights: the results of a query are organized just according to the « grades » each of these pages has received by the users that have crossed that page at least once and taken the time to rank it.

A social search engine based on the power of the « soft » social computing, will be able to take advantage of the reputation each site and page has cumulated simply by the votes users have expressed on it. The new algorithms for extracting information will exploit the power of the judgments of the many to produce their result. This softer Web, more controlled by human experiences than complex formulas, will change our interaction with the net, as well as our fears and hopes about it. The potential of social filtering of information is that of a new way of extracting information by relying on the previous judgments of others.

Hegel thought that universal history was made by universal judgments: our history will be written from now on in the language of « good » and « bad », that is, in terms of the judgments people express on things and events around them, that will become the more and more crucial for each of us to extract information about these events. According to Frederick Hayek, Civilization rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge we do not possess: that’s exactly the kind of civilized cyber-world that will be made possible by social tools of aggregating judgments on the Web.