Tuesday, July 10. 2012
I miss you unendingly
But what hurts still more
is that your life has ended.
That you can never again
wake to a painless day.
It's not about me.
I shall never know
if I ended your days
If I have committed
sin of sins
is punishment enough
not even if Pascal's Hell splits into an infinity of Infernos
my soul searing in every one of them,
Sunday, June 20. 2010
Message virtuel de J.E. à G.O.E., mars 1977: Tu sais que tu es la personne que j'aime le plus au monde. Tu sais aussi que depuis longtemps je dis que si jamais les conditions de vie deviendront insupportables, j'y mets fin. Ma condition médicale vient de devenir insupportable. La seule chose qui m'empêcherait de faire comme je souhaiterais serait que tu me dise que ça te ferait plus de peine que ça m'en épargnerait. J'attends ta décision, mais je crois que je la sais déjà.
Wednesday, December 2. 2009
Saturday, November 14. 2009
Re: Shlomo Sand "The Invention of the Jewish People."
I have not read SS's book. These reflections are based solely on what I (quickly) found online -- reviews, synopses, interviews, youtube.
First, what would be my own conclusion: It is of no relevance whatsoever to the underlying question -- which, I take it, has something to do with whether those people who are of [immediate] Jewish origin today ought to be able to emigrate to and live in Israel as a Jewish state -- whether contemporary Jewry's remote ancestors were or were not (a) of a genetically homogenous origin or (b) all or mostly descended from people who were forcibly exiled from Israel.
The only relevant factor is that there existed (and exist) on this planet, a "community of fate" (not necessarily or relevantly of "faith," nor of "race") that suffered severe discrimination and recurrent bouts of brutal persecution in their status as vulnerable local minorities dispersed throughout Christian Europe and, to perhaps a lesser degree, also throughout the Muslim world, for at least the last millennium and a half. Pogroms and pogrom-like assaults have been the relentless sign-posts of this distributed, global vulnerability to discrimination, and the Shoah or Holocaust was its most recent and monstrous manifestation.
Jews (defining themselves as Jews, and defined as such by the local majorities, sometimes ethnic, sometimes national, sometimes, religious amongst which they lived), regardless of their distal origins or their genetic homogeneity, have been a continuous, ubiquitous, and mostly oppressed minority on earth for many centuries.
Ironically, what really is an "invention" is not this oppressed community of fate, but their oppressors -- the "gentiles" or "goyim" -- who are defined merely as "non-Jews."
In reality, there is no intrinsic, homogeneous population of "goyim": If Jews are Earth's ubiquitous local minority, then goyim are merely their equally ubiquitous local majority, namely, humanity, with its human nature, ever ready to mistreat its minorities (as, indeed, the Jews in Israel themselves are proving ready to be -- though under rather special tragic [but not therefore exculpatory] circumstances, being themselves the recent victims of both a collective, understandable post-traumatic stress disorder as well as a probably-irremediable "demographic problem," because their own current local minority in Israel (indigenous Palestinian Arabs) is in fact part of a much larger surrounding local majority, some of them driven into exile by the "returning" Jews in much the same way -- though not for the same reason -- that whatever fragment of Jewish ancestry was indeed historically Jewish and living at the origins of the Diaspora were themselves driven into exile in Roman times.
From the first few Google fragments I gleaned, SS seems to be of an ideologically (and morally) driven (and troubled) temperament, himself scarred by the holocaust, something of a misfit even amongst others like himself, who first turned to Marxism and anti-imperialism for closure; but this ideology could not retain his conviction or give him solace; then he had (perhaps) some problems of rebellion and social alienation, partly because of his experience in the Israeli military; soothed awhile by academia (specializing in a remote and perhaps somewhat hermeneutics-prone sub-domain consisting of the history of a French Marxist), he then researched and wrote this [apparently amateur] book, which has some grains of -- familiar -- truth plus a lot of ideologically and hermeneutically driven almost-conspiracy theory to the effect that both Jews and their origins in exile are invented.
Back to the conclusion: The premise is irrelevant. It is neither the genetic homogeneity of the Jews nor their historical origins in acts of Roman deportation and dispersal that are, or ever were, at issue. It is the continuous existence of a dispersed and persecuted minority on our planet who -- partly because of our species' relentless and equally ubiquitous human tendency to persecute our minorities -- identified themselves (and were obligingly identified by their local oppressors) as one and the same continuous community of fate (the faith and race being only incidental to their state and status of stateless minority).
The result (rather than the cause) was also a larger than usual degree of inwardness, inbreeding and ghettoization that made this dispersed community rather more genetically homogenous than they might otherwise have been. (The Cavalli-Sforza genetic studies -- I am not sure about their empirical status today -- had claimed to have found Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews, geographically separated for millennia, to be genetically closer to one another than to the respective local geographic populations amongst which they had been living during those millennia -- but this too, like SS's racial and origins questions, is completely irrelevant to the moral conclusions SS wishes to draw from his argument that Jews were invented.)
So let me close with the intended consequence of the book: Jews and their origins in Roman dispersal are an invention, therefore Israel should be a non-Zionist democracy, with identical status and rights for all, even if it makes Jews a minority again in Israel too (since it is not their true place of origin, and they are not the true historical Jews anyway, the Palestinians are).
The gist here -- that Israel should be a non-Zionist democracy, with no special rights or status for Jewish citizens, even if it makes them a minority again in Israel too -- is completely correct, morally (and is probably the best outcome everyone can hope for -- whereas the actual outcome is likely to be far, far worse, for all concerned).
But this sad moral conclusion (for this unfortunate community of fate) is (and was) the correct one entirely independent of the nonsense about Jews being an invention! They are no more nor less an invention than any other human community that sees itself and is seen and treated by others as being a community and kind. And the result -- for century upon century of those who saw themselves and were seen and treated as Jews wherever they were -- has been relentless persecution that culminated in the most barbaric abomination of all.
That is the sole rationale and justification for this blighted minority's equally ill-fated attempt to salvage its future generations from continuing persecution, by returning to what they felt was their historic home, as a majority again, at last. Unfortunately -- both for the Jews and the Palestinians -- their home was occupied, and had been for millennia, by its current residents (as well as a succession of distal invaders). So the only way to try to put an end to the historic injustices that had been done against the Jews, as the ubiquitous planetary minority, was to do a similar injustice to the indigenous inhabitants that had been the majority in "Israel" throughout the Diaspora (though no doubt there was a good deal of geographic and genetic flux there too, likewise completely irrelevant: only facts within living experience and memory are relevant).
I, for one, think that doing such an injustice to another people, even in the interests of self-preservation and the protection of future generations -- at the cost of doing unto others anything that is even faintly like what has been done unto you -- is a far, far worse dishonor to the victims and memory of the Shoah than the other (bitter, but bloodless) alternative that is now more open to Jews than ever in their historical past, namely, to give up their identity within this dispersed historical community of fate, and simply assimilate into their local national majorities.
I say this, but (being myself a member of this community of fate), I know and feel also what it means: It means that the millennia of collective clinging to their identities as Jews (regardless of its true genetic or historic basis) at the cost of relentless persecution has all been in vain. In trying to protect their own kin and kind from the depredations of the "goyim" -- to the point of ghettoization and the ejection and exiling of those of their own who "married out," because it meant mixing their own blood with that of their immediate oppressors, and the oppressors of their parents and grandparents, because it meant breeding the future oppressors of their progeny, a dreadful prospect fully comprehensible only to the Jews, this ubiquitous minority, this community of fate -- in all these past efforts to protect and preserve their kin and kind, they had actually been preserving their vulnerability, as the ubiquitous minority, to ever more of the same.
I have made no mention of religious beliefs in any of this, because -- although they, like any beliefs, played a causal role too -- I insist on treating them as the nonsense they all are and always were, whether the beliefs were Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Hindu. Voodoo is no justification for continuing to expose future generations to persecution, any more than genes or ancient history are a justification for grabbing land from indigenous people.
The Jews are a tragic community of (historical) fate. Was their fate self-imposed (not in the sense of persecuting themselves, but in persisting in remaining Jews even at the risk of continuing persecution)? I think not. I think all human communities try to preserve their identities (and their existence), especially when they are under assault. It was simply the historical (sic) fate of Jews (sic) to be the ubiquitous manifestation of this human tendency in place after place and time after time, as the earth's ubiquitous minority (for the past two millennia).
SS's selective and somewhat conspiratorial analysis of racial homogeneity and historical origins (with its vestiges of Marxist Manichaeism and hermeneutic humbug) seems to me to miss the fundamental point of the Jewish historic tragedy completely -- a tragedy that is hardly one of its victims' invention. (And one has to be a holocaust-denier -- which SS certainly is not -- to see it otherwise. SS and his strained historiographic apologetics are merely another, abstract manifestation of this tragedy: He is too ideologically conflicted to see straight, although his desideratum -- a non-Zionist democracy -- is unquestionably the just one.)
Harnad, S. (2007) Spare Me the Complements: An Immoderate Proposal for Eliminating the "We/They" Category Boundary. In: Vilarroya, Oscar & Forn, Francesc (2007), Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition. Editions Rodopi, Amsterdam/New York
Harnad, S. (2007) Evan. In: Vilarroya, Oscar & Forn, Francesc (2007), Social Brain Matters: Stances on the Neurobiology of Social Cognition. Editions Rodopi, Amsterdam/New York
Friday, August 21. 2009
Képes Figyelő 1945 October 13 (originally June 1945)
Why Did You Let Them?
by Nelly Kotányi
It was six years ago that I saw her first, on a warm summer afternoon in a flowering schoolyard in Szekszard. The municipal music school had invited me to serve as an outside examiner that year. We were hearing the well-prepared pupils in the auditorium of the renowned Garay Gimnazium. A diminutive little girl was announced: seven years old, but hardly looking even that.
Anny Engel was my cousin; her mother, Rozsika, from Kalocsa, my mother's sister. Nelly Kotanyi was Anny's piano teacher.
My mother learned what became of them in June 1945, the month of my birth, from a slightly earlier and longer (but suppressed and apparently lost) version of this article.
This version was retrieved for me after some searching (at my request) by a friend in Hungary in May 2000.
Hat ev elott lattam eloszor, meleg nyari delelotton a szekszardi gimnazium viragos udvaran. Abban az evben vizsgabiztosnak hivott meg az ottani varosi zeneiskola. A nagyhiru Garay-gimnazium tantermeben hallgattuk a novendekek szepen betanult jatekat. Beszolitottak egy pottomnyi kisleanyt. Het eves volt de annyinak sem latszott.
Saturday, November 24. 2007
Anonymous correspondent: "Peer review is elitist and oligarchic; adding a web-based post-hoc system would be democratic. It is often non-specialists, or Pro-Ams, who expose quackery.On peer review: I agree completely that adding a web-based post-hoc system would not only be democratic but a dramatic, powerful new safeguard on validity. Don't forget that post-hoc commentary is and has been my bandwagon all along: it's what motivated "scholarly skywriting" and drew me into Open Access!
But the critical point is that it is post-hoc. It is not a competitor to peer review but a complement ("not a substitute but a supplement"). It is when people propose post-hoc commentary as a substitute for (rather than just a supplement to) the advance correction and filtration by answerable, qualified experts provided by peer review that I (appear to) go into opposition to the very thing I am fighting for -- post-hoc skywriting -- (but that is a misunderstanding).
Nothing is lost, and everything is gained, in putting a global, open commentary system at the tail end of expert-vetted work. But when it comes to medical treatment for my loved ones, I don't want their medicine to be administered on the basis of a net-based straw poll or free-for-all alone. You see how rumour and ignorance and superficiality also propagate on the Web. A prior phase of closed, answerable vetting by qualified specialists is essential, otherwise we may as well treat patients on the basis of the latest in wikipedia. (And science and scholarship are surely not that much less important than health!) Entrusting all that to populist polling and vigilantism is a form of gaussian roulette.
On expertise: To put it another way: I really think we need to re-think, or think through, exactly what we mean by "elitist" and "oligarchic" in this sense: Is it elitist to have certified cardiologists decide what should be published as being a safe healthy operation to perform, rather than having it voted on by a Gallup Poll or swayed by persuasive blogsters? Is it oligarchical (to put it even more luridly) to keep hobbyists out of the operating theatre?
On specialised division of labour: I pick these melodramatic examples only to bring out the fact that there really is something at stake, and that it's commonsensical: We cannot, in the modern world (of the past tens of thousands of years of civilization!) each be self-sufficient jacks of all trades. We rely on division of labor, and division of expertise, for everything from our food and shelter to our health and security. Our cumulative, collective knowledge and expertise (our "Creative Commons") is also dependent on this distributed, complementary expertise.
So I ask: is that division into complementary expertise "elitist"? Is reliance on it "oligarchical"? Should we (like our failing education system) declare everyone equally expert as a matter of birthright, and cede judgment to democratic opinion polls in all matters instead?
On re-thinking "elitism": Without for a moment denying that qualified expert judgment is fallible too (but recognizing also that mass inexpert judgment is no remedy for that, just a useful check/balance), I really think the rhetorical buzzword "elitism" needs a serious rethink -- especially where it is in fact referring to specialized expertise, skill, knowledge that a minority have, and have worked hard to attain, whereas the majority have not...
In a sense, representative democracy involves something like this division of labour too: It is only that the tyranny of the daily opinion poll is sadly constraining the work of our elected representatives. Democracy, too, used to be "post hoc": We would vote for those we considered to be provisionally best qualified to represent our interests (alas not always noble interests, but that's another matter) and then let them do their job, until it's time to vote again on whether they deserve re-election.
On mass micro-management: But now, with pervasive media and instantaneous polling, we hardly let them exercise any expertise they may have, or may have acquired on the job (for we hardly vote for experts either, preferring ignoramuses like ourselves, as more flattering and congenial!): we look over their shoulders daily, not only at their sex lives and their expense accounts, but at their daily professional judgments. We insist on a day-to-day participatory democracy, and we get what we insist on: a fashion show of trends and opinions: capital punishment ok today, not ok tomorrow, abortion yes, no, veils in schools, on, off, etc. etc.
Since many of these are matters of opinion anyway, perhaps it doesn't matter if it is the winds of fashion or rumor rather than the wisdom of trusted electees that decides. But sometimes it does matter. And the catastrophic "popular" (at the time!) Iraqi war is one such result. The rest seems now to be putting out daily forest fires (still on the basis of day-to-day public opinion).
We not only blindly trust "populism" (and condemn "elitism") -- thereby ceding judgment to the vagaries of the "normal distribution" ("bell curve"), which, at best, guarantees regression on the mean; but at worst, or meanest, it is the occasional but inevitable burst of noise, or worse, closer to the tail end [the extreme] of the distribution, which sometimes manages to appeal to the mean, and become mainstream.
On more sinister background forces we also trust: Today we are also blindly trusting another unquestioned "force," rather akin to the ponderous inertial mass of populism, and that is the inexorable march of capitalism: global military-industrial interests being inexorably -- indeed psychopathically, as the excellent movie The Corporation, showed -- pursued in the background (the Cheneys behind the Bushes).
It is as unfashionable today to be anti-capitalist (in anything) as it is to be anti-populist (in anything). It is axiomatic that what is good for the market is good, and good for everybody, and what is judged good by the majority is good, and good for everybody.
On the wisdom of time: I beg to differ; and to be allowed the time to show that what appears momentarily to be right either to prevailing public opinion or to the corporate bottom-line, may not be right at all. It's all a matter of time, after all. What allegedly sets our species apart is our capability of deferring gratification and deferring judgment, even deferring to the judgment of those who may be better qualified to judge. Yes, let's have post-hoc controls on all that, but let them be "post" enough to give experts the chance to do what they are best qualified to do...
On Aristotle on collective wisdom: As to Aristotle on the latent collective ("whole is better than the sum of its parts") wisdom, morality and ethics of mobs -- that might be true of the audience of Hellenic Theatre, it might occasionally coalesce in the conscientiousness of juries (though one thinks of OJ Simpson) , but it hardly seems true when it comes to lynch mobs, Danish cartoon hysteria, or American voting patterns! Nor, for that matter, the mean value on which pop music has regressed, with the extinction of connoisseur elites (there, you can pillory me on that one!).
Aristotle may feel at ease facing a crowd, and deferring to its judgment. I am terrified; utterly terrified. Only demagogues can "reason" with crowds, particularly online, in real time.
I cannot share the feeling of many that the accolade "most popular" is synonymous (or even remotely related) to "best quality." My own default reaction (sometimes wrong, I admit, but born of experience, not native conviction!) is the exact opposite: Most popular? Then chances are it is rather superficial, uninformed, and trashy...
Saturday, September 29. 2007
It is fashionable today for those who need not worry about protecting anyone from anything (except fair, careful reflection) to moralize and sensationalize, idly and mischievously, about torture. Is it ever justified? Would our side ever do it?
Fair enough. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and torture is no idle matter. But consider where this eager Schadenfreude can lead, if given its head in hysterical times, when rumor and innuendo carry far, far more weight than sober analysis and answerability. Just as the terrorist need only succeed once, whereas his intended victims remain eternally vulnerable, so smears need only besmirch once, and thenceforward all the burden is ever on the victim to try free himself from the foul spot; all the better if the victim is already deceased and interred.
D.O. Hebb was the greatest research psychologist of the 20th century. (I say "research" to distinguish him from the armchair/couch kind of psychologist with which his work had about as much affinity as with a geologist's or a gardener's.) Hebb's contributions spanned the full spectrum of human (and animal) experience, from behavior to brain function, from childhood to old age, from biological nature to cultural environment, from sensory deprivation to sensory enrichment -- and the overarching theme of his life's work was how experience affects the brain.
Now we are told that Hebb's secret research taught the CIA how to torture at Abu Graibh. First, there was nothing secret about Hebb's research. Generations of undergraduates have learned how his experiments discovered the disastrous effects of sensory deprivation (as well as the remarkable benefits of sensory enrichment). He had been investigating those factors long before the Canadian Defense Research Board (DRB) funded a portion of his research, and it is undoubtedly the case that they funded his research because of its possible interest to the DRB rather than that he did the research because the DRB was interested in it. That is transparent, because the implications of Hebb's research for the DRB are a one-liner -- sensory deprivation has disastrous effects, hence it's a good potential form of torture -- whereas their implications for Hebb's life work on how experience affects the brain (positively and negatively) constitute the foundations of modern cognitive neuroscience.
That sensory deprivation is a good potential form of torture was what drew the DRB to Hebb's work in the first place, and they did not learn anything from funding it that they would not have learned if someone else had funded it, and they had merely read it when it was published in a journal (as the DRB tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent him from doing). We must not forget that the the military, with its deep pockets, has funded an awful lot of research, a lot of it awfully trivial, and some (like the psychic research they funded to get people to divert nuclear missiles by telepathy), frankly absurd. Researchers, with far shallower pockets, must alas take their research funding where they get it -- but that does not mean taking their research where their funder wants it to go.
D.O. Hebb was a great scientist, with a grand vision, who left a lasting legacy in our understanding of how behavior is organized in our brains; the DRB was and is thinking at about the scale and depth of the journalists who are now seeing in these banal and empty facts about some of the sources of his research funding the germs of a sinister conspiratorial theory of how Hebb's work is behind the abuses pictured in those lurid hooded photos we've been seeing in the papers. Perhaps we should look more closely at the funding history of Faraday too, to see whether we can attribute some of the other abominations at Guantanomo to the father of electricity.
Thursday, September 20. 2007
In infants, the sense of entitlement is no doubt a healthy instinct. The illusion that our parents exist only to minister to our needs and wants is adaptive; it makes our childhoods feel secure. But we are best weaned of it, sooner or later, because, if it is allowed to generalize to the sense that the world's raison d'être is our welfare, it becomes self-contradictory, an evolutionarily unstable strategy, breeding generations that expect only to take, with no one left with the inclination to give -- except perhaps to their own children.
Your child is entitled to protection from such a rude awakening too.
Saturday, August 4. 2007
Ethics of Biomedical Open Access to Biomedical Research: Just a Special Case of the Ethics of Open Access to Research
(1) All peer-reviewed research articles are written for the purpose of being accessed, used, applied and built upon by all their potential users, everywhere, not in order to generate royalty income for their author (or their publisher). (This is not true of writing in general, e.g., newspaper and magazine articles by journalists, or books. It is only true, without exception, of peer-reviewed research journal articles, and it is true in all disciplines, without exception.)
(2) Research productivity and progress, and hence researchers' careers, salary, research funding, reputation, and prizes all depend on the usage and application of their research findings ("research impact"). This is enshrined in the academic mandate to "publish or perish," and in the reward system of academic research.
(3) The reason the academic reward system is set up that way is that that is also how research institutions and research funders benefit from the research input they produce and fund: by maximizing its usage and impact. That is also how the cumulative research cycle itself progresses and grows, along with the benefits it provides for society, the public that funds it: In order to be used, applied, and built upon, research needs to be accessible to all its potential users (and not only to those that can afford access to the journals in which the research happens to be published.).
(4) Open Access (OA) -- free online access -- has been demonstrated to increase research usage and impact by 25%-250% or more. This "OA Advantage" has been found in all fields: natural sciences, biomedical sciences, engineering, social sciences, and humanities.
(5) Hence it is true, without exception, in all fields, that the potential research benefit is there, if only the research is made OA.
(6) OA has only become possible since the onset of the online era.
(7) Research can be made OA in two ways:
(7a) Research can be made "Gold OA" by publishing it in an OA journal that makes it free online (with some OA journals, but not all, covering their costs by charging the author-institution for publishing it rather than by charging the user-institution for accessing it; many Gold OA journals today still continue to cover their costs via subscriptions to the paper edition).(8) Despite its benefits to research, researchers, their institutions, their funders, the R&D industry, and the tax-paying public that funds the research, only about 15% of researchers are spontaneously self-archiving their research today (Green OA). (A somewhat lower percentage is publishing in Gold OA journals, deterred in part by the cost.)
(9) Only Green OA is entirely within the hands of the research community. Researchers' funders and institutions cannot (hence should not) mandate Gold OA; but they can mandate Green OA, as a natural extension of their "publish or perish" mandate, to maximize research usage and impact in the online era. Institutions and funders are now actually beginning to adopt Green OA mandates especially in the UK, and also in Europe and Australia; the US is only beginning to propose Green OA mandates.
(10) Some publishers are lobbying against Green OA self-archiving mandates, claiming it will destroy peer review and publishing. All existing evidence is contrary to this. (In the few fields where Green OA already reached 100% some years ago, the journals are still not being canceled.) Moreover, it is quite clear that even if and when 100% Green OA should ever lead to unsustainable subscription cancellations, journals will simply convert to Gold OA and institutions will then cover their own outgoing Gold OA publishing costs by redirecting their own windfall subscription cancellation savings on incoming journal articles to cover instead the Gold OA publishing costs for their own outgoing journal article output. The net cost will also be much lower, as it will only need to pay for peer review and its certification by the journal-name, as the distributed network of OA Institutional Repositories will be the online access-providers and archivers (and the paper edition will be obsolete).
(11) One of the ways the OA movement is countering the lobbying of publishers against Green OA mandates is by forming the "Alliance for Taxpayer Access." This lobbying group is focusing mainly on biomedicine, and the potential health benefits of tax-payer access to biomedical research. This is definitely a valid ethical and practical rationale for OA, but it is definitely not the sole rationale, nor the primary one.
(12) The primary, fundamental and universal rationale for OA and OA mandates, in all disciplines, including biomedicine, is researcher-to-researcher access, not public access (nor even educational access). The vast majority of peer-reviewed research in all disciplines is not of direct interest to the lay public (nor even to students, other than graduate students, who are already researchers). And even in biomedical research, what provides the greatest public benefit is the potential research progress (leading to eventual applications that benefit the public) that arises from maximizing researcher-to-researcher access. Direct public access of course comes with the OA territory. But it is not the sole or primary ethical justification for OA, even in biomedical research.
(13) The general ethical rationale and justification for OA is that research is funded, conducted and published in order to be used and applied, not in order to generate revenue for the journal publishing industry. In the paper era, the only way to achieve the former was by allowing access to be restricted to those researchers whose institutions could afford to subscribe to the paper edition. That was the only way the true and sizable costs of peer-reviewed research publishing could be covered at all, then.
(14) But in the online era this is no longer true. Hence it is time for the institutions and funders who employ the researchers and fund the research to mandate that the resulting journal articles be made (Green) OA, to the benefit of the entire research community, the vast R&D industry, and the tax-paying public. (This may or may not eventually lead to a transition to Gold OA.)
(15) It is unethical for the publishing tail to be allowed to continue to wag the research dog. The dysfunctionality of the status quo is especially apparent when it is public health that is being compromised by needless access restrictions, but the situation is much the same for all scientific and technological research, and for scholarship too, inasmuch as we see and fund scholarly research as a public good, and not a subsidy to the peer-reviewed journal industry.
American Scientist Open Access Forum
Thursday, March 16. 2006
Sky-Writing(Submitted to and rejected by New York Times Op Ed Page, 1987)
I want to report a thoroughly (perhaps surreally) modern experience I had recently. First a little context. I've always been a zealous scholarly letter-writer (to the point of once being cited in print as "personal communication, pp. 14 - 20"). These days few share my epistolary penchant, which is dismissed as a doomed anachronism. Scholars don't have the time. Inquiry is racing forward much too rapidly for such genteel dawdling -- forward toward, among other things, due credit in print for one's every minute effort. So I too had resigned myself to the slower turnaround but surer rewards of conventional scholarly publication. Until I came upon electronic mail: almost as rapid and direct and spontaneous as a telephone call, but with the added discipline and permanence of the written medium. I quickly became addicted, "logging on" to check my e-mail at all hours of the day and night and accumulating files of intellectual exchanges with similarly inclined e-epistoleans, files that rapidly approached book-length.
And then I discovered sky-writing -- a new medium that has since made my e-mailing seem as remote and obsolete as illuminated manuscripts. The principle is the same as e-mail, except that your contribution is "posted" to a global electronic network, consisting currently of most of the universities and research institutions in America and Europe and growing portions of the rest of the scholarly and scientific world. I'm not entirely clear on how "the Net," as it is called, is implemented and funded, but if you have an account at any of its "nodes," you can do skywriting too.
The transformation was complete. The radically new medium seemed to me a worthy successor in that series of revolutions in the advancement of ideas that began with the advent of speech, then writing, then print; and now, skywriting. All my creative and communicative faculties were focused on the lively international, interdisciplinary scholarly interactions I was having on the issues of intellectual interest to me at the time (which happened to arise from Searle's "Chinese Room Argument" and eventually came to be called the "symbol grounding problem"). Who needs conventional publication when, within a few hours, the "article" you post on the Net is already available to thousands and thousands of scholars (including, potentially, all of your intended conventional audience), who may already be posting back e-responses of their own? I was in the dizzying Platonic thrall of sky-writing and only too happy to leave the snail-like scope and pace of the old epistolary technology far below me.
But then something quite unexpected happened. With hindsight I can now see that there had already been some hints that not all was as it should be. First, veteran e-mailers and skywriters had warned me that I ought to restrict my contributions to the "moderated" groups. (Most of the subjects discussed on the Net -- including physics, mathematics, philosophy, language, artificial intelligence, and so on -- have, respectively, both a moderated and an unmoderated group.) I ignored these warnings because postings to the moderated groups are first filtered through a moderator, who reads all the candidate articles and then posts only those he judges to be of value. I reasoned that I could make that judgment for myself -- one keystroke will jettison any piece of skywriting that does not interest you -- and that "moderation" certainly isn't worth the huge backward step toward the old technology that the delays and bottle-necking would entail. And indeed the moderated groups carry much less material and their exchanges are a good deal more sluggish than the unmoderated ones, which seem to be as "live" and spontaneous as direct e-mail (but with the added virtue of appearing in the sky for all to see and contribute to).
Apart from the warnings of the veterans, other harbingers of cloudier horizons had been the low quality of many of the responses to my postings, and the undeniable fact that some of them were distinctly unscholarly, in fact, downright rude. No matter. I'm thick-skinned, I reasoned, and perfectly able and willing to exercise my own selectivity solo, in exchange for the vast potential of unmoderated skywriting.
Then it happened. In response to a rather minor posting of mine, joining what was apparently a long-standing exchange (on whether or not linguistic gender plays a causal role in social discrimination), there suddenly appeared such an astonishing string of coprolalic abuse (the lion's share not directed at me, but at some other poor unfortunate who had contributed to earlier phases of the exchange) that I was convinced some disturbed or malicious individual had gained illicit access to someone else's computer account. I posted a stately response about how steps must be taken to prevent such abuses of the Net and, much to my surprise, the reaction was a torrent of echo-coprolalia from all directions, posted (it's hard to judge in this medium whether it was with a straight face) under the guise of defending free speech. For several weeks the Net looked like a global graffiti board, with my name in the center.
The veteran fliers told me they'd told me so; that the Net was in reality a haven for student pranksters and borderline personalities, motherboard-bred, for whom the completely unconstrained nature of the unmoderated groups represents an irresistible medium for acting out. Moreover, certain technical problems -- chief among which was the unsolved "authentication" problem, namely, that there is no way to determine for sure who posted what, where -- had made the Net not only virtually unregulable, but also, apparently, immune to defamation and libel laws.
My penchant for skywriting has taken quite a dive since this incident. I don't relish what's been happening with my name, for example, but I suppose the only way to have prevented it would have been to have stayed away from the Net altogether, hoping it might never occur to anyone to bring me up spontaneously. There's an element of Gaussian Roulette in exposure to any of the media these days, no doubt. But before I wrote it all off as one of the ineluctable technological hazards of the age of Marshall McLunacy, I thought I'd post it with the old, land-based technology, to see whether anyone has any ideas about how to prevent the vast intellectual potential of skywriting from being done in by noise from the tail end of the normal distribution. If the Wright brothers' invention were at stake, or Gutenberg's, what would we do?
Stevan Harnad (c. 1987)
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