Social media philosophy blog
Wednesday December 13th 2017

As minds go by

“The author is dead”, argued French poststructuralist Jacques Derrida in the 1960s. As with many philosophical and sociological ideas, this one makes more sense with the coming of cyberspace. Derrida argued that each text was dependent on other texts, in turn building on earlier writings and so on. As a consequence, the seemingly original ideas of the individual author could always be deconstructed into a number of distinct influences. Today, we find that this is the basic rational for the Creative Commons, signalling why intellectual property rights becomes such a difficult legal instrument. An extension of this argument is that thinking is not only a property of a mind. Thinking always includes ideas taken from other people.

Poor Jacques Derrida struggled to visualise how ideas actually built on earlier ideas through a strategy of writing books with several voices. He would have loved the hyperlinks of the World Wide Web! As humans continue to explore the possibilities of the digital text, we become increasingly aware of the restrictions of information on paper. It is dangerously strict and lacking in dynamic features. We also become aware of the power of the printer: mass production. The gatekeeping functions connected to mass production and distribution, allowing only elite professionals access, were so important when information on paper was the only game in town. That’s gone. Connected to this dated structure is the emphasis of authorship. It used to be so important to us who was creating what. Whose genius, credibility, perspective, money or experience was in play in that work of art, scientific article or commercial promotion. The idea of a collective piece of art has been so abhorrent to us that we have chosen to view motion pictures as the distinct intellectual output from one person, the director.

How can we understand a well polished Wikipedia article? After thousands of edits, authorship has been obliterated. It is in the truest sense of the word, a collective document, the kind of “we-think” that was impossible on paper. Seemingly, such a carefully well crafted piece is an abomination in the eyes of science. On the face of it, the Wikipedia article bows down to the authority and methodology of research. References are vital and scientific articles are the premier sources. Furthermore, the art of collective writing is well-established in the research community. But beyond that, there is a challenge. The research article follows the conventions of paper. It is fixated strictly both in form and time. Wikipedia articles are always drafts in progress. That was not a possibility when we only had information on paper and the trusty old publishing press. As Wikipedia, contrary to the scientific article, utilises the benefits of digital information, it seizes the upper hand in this quite important area. This is not trivial, since time is on Wikipedia’s side. The scientific article is doomed to become dated, eventually growing old and wittering away. Contrary to this, the Wikipedia article is like a fairytale elf, eternally fresh and updated. The Wikipedia article is the collective mind, aggregating from all these peculiar fixed publications. In the process, authorship is gently stripped of power.

Collective authorship is fresh and exciting. It will help us develop as a species since the expression of knowledge becomes more a matter of meeting and working with different minds. While the practice of research typically is bound by the paradigms of the individual disciplines, Wikipedia negotiations toward a neutral point of view allows scholarly minded people to argue across traditional boundaries. Furthermore, as thinking always builds on other people’s thinking, there is much to be won by actually writing texts on digital arenas where many minds meet. Thinking outside your head can then lead to better results than thinking inside. Still, the authors are not really dead. Some of them have turned to the collective. But most of them, they are only startled by the turn of events. They are bound to catch on. And grow.

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