Interview with Umberto Eco

Da Wikinotizie, le notizie a contenuto aperto
logo Wiki@Home

Wikimedia Italia in cerca di segnali dal mondo
intervista a cura di staff Wiki@Home

logo

martedì 11 maggio 2010

Umberto Eco photographed in his living room by the reporter of Wiki@Home.

Wiki@Home is pleased to present an interview with Umberto Eco. Professor Eco received wikimedian Aubrey in his home in Milan for a chat about Wikipedia, the Internet, collaboration, and of course books. The interview took place in Milan on April 24, 2010.

[modifica]

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgThank you very much for the opportunity you gave us. Our community really wanted to interview you, especially since you are one of the very few important exponents of the Italian cultural world who approached Wikipedia without bias, describing and criticizing it, but nevertheless using it. You wrote several articles about it, the latest in 2009 if I recall correctly. Could you try to re-explain your views about Wikipedia?

Eco: I am a compulsive user of Wikipedia, also for arthritic reasons: the more my back hurts, the more it costs me to get up and go to check the Treccani, so if I may find someone's birthday on Wikipedia it's all the better.

I am a car user and could not live without them, but this does not prevent me from stating all the defects and troubles of cars.

I once made a distinction between things good for the poor and things good for the rich, where rich and poor have no immediate connotation in terms of money, but in terms, say, of cultural evolution ... A graduate is rich, an illiterate is poor. There can obviously be a big entrepreneur who is poor and a little clerk who is rich.

Television thus is good for the poor and bad for the rich: it taught the poor to speak Italian, it is good for old women who sit alone in the house. And it harms the rich because it prevents him from going out and seeing things more beautiful at the cinema; it restricts his ideas.

The computer in general, and the Internet in particular, is good for the rich and bad for the poor. That is, Wikipedia is good for me, because I am able to find the information I need; I do not trust it, because everyone knows that as Wikipedia grows, the errors also grow. I found steep follies written about me, and if no-one had pointed me to them, they would be there still.

The rich are grown-up people, they can compare the information. I look at the Italian Wikipedia; I'm not sure that the news is correct, so I go to check the English version, then yet another source, and if all three tell me that this gentleman died in 371 AD, then I begin to believe it.

The poor picks the first piece of data he gets, and that's all folks. So Wikipedia, like the whole Internet, has the problem of filtering the news. It keeps both false and real news; but the rich know filtering techniques at least for the areas they know how to check. If I have to do a search on Plato, I have no problem immediately identifying the sites written by madmen, but if I am researching stem cells it's not certain that I can identify the wrong sites.

So there's this huge problem of filtering. Collective filtering is useless, since it could be subject to fluctuations. I noticed that in a certain period of Berlusconi's triumph people went looking for information about me in right-wing books and placed it in Wikipedia: as propriety prevents me from changing it directly, I left it. But obviously it was an entry made by the winners of the moment.

Collective control is therefore useful up to a certain point: it is conceivable that if one gives a false length of the equator, sooner or later someone will come along and fix it, but correction of more subtle and difficult issues is more complicated.

And it seems to me that the internal control is minimal, that is, it cannot control the millions of new changes flowing in. At most, it can check if a madman wrote that Napoleon is a racehorse, but there's not too much it can do.

[modifica]

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgThere is a particular filter. The community organizes itself in groups of people who spontaneously look at the list of "Recent Changes" and try to pay attention to serious errors, vandalism, people who delete paragraphs, etc. There are various quantitative software tools that help.

Eco: There's assistance in case of insults, right. But those are the big things.

[modifica]

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgYou are right, they are the easiest ones. Dealing with subtler things is much more complicated. Some research supports the finding that the more there is a community of people (a group of people) interested in a topic, the better. Indeed, such people save pages in a personal favorite list (watchlist, as they are called in Wikipedia jargon). For example, if I have your page in my watchlist I get a report when someone changes it, and I can check what happened: through a diff mechanism, a sort of collation, I see what has changed and I can see if it is correct or not.
The principle of Wikipedia, in a certain sense, is that the more people there are, the more they are interested, the better the work is done. This is a bit of a paradox. There has been some research on it, the last I remember was in February 2007, from HP Labs in Palo Alto. It was purely quantitative and statistical, based on the English Wikipedia; it found out that the pages with more changes are on average those with the highest quality. The more people there are, the better it is. Then there's the actual problem of the long tail. There are so many pages just fairly important or problematic or debatable. The page about you, for example, may fall into this set of pages, and besides it's a biography. Biographies of living persons are the most problematic, because of recentism (adding useless tidbits which happened just now), identification of the sources, etc. All biographies are generally a problem, although in the case of historical figures there is more agreement. I find it interesting to look at the discussion pages which in theory should be the most problematic, on topics such as creationism, or intelligent design. In the English-language Wikipedia they are abysmally long, because people often quarrel not just over whole paragraphs, but over individual words, or the starting sentence. It's better to have more eyes, like the "wisdom of crowds" theory by Surowiecki, that says that when there are 4 parameters (independence, diversity of opinion, aggregation, decentralization), on average, judging by a crowd is better than that of the experts.

Eco: I don't quite agree with this. I am a disciple of Peirce, who argues that scientific truths are, ultimately, approved by the community. The slow work of the community, through revisions and errors, as he put it in the nineteenth century, carries out "the torch of truth". The problem is the definition of truth.

If I were forced to replace "truth" with "crowd", I would not agree. If you make a statistical analysis of the 6 billion inhabitants of the globe, the majority believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth, there's nothing you can do. The crowd would be prepared to endorse the wrong answer. This also happens in a democracy: we are noticing it these days, the crowd votes for Bossi. To carry on his coup d'état, Napoleon III broadened out the electorate and included the peasants, because the crowd of the countryside was more reactionary than the crowd of the cities.

We must therefore find another criterion, which I think is the motivated crowds. People who work on Wikipedia are not just an aristocracy, just professors, but they are not the indiscriminate crowd either: they are the part of the crowd who feels motivated to work with Wikipedia. Here it is: I'd replace the theory of the "wisdom of the crowd" with the theory of the "wisdom of the motivated crowds." The general crowd says we should not pay taxes; the motivated crowd says that it's fair to pay them. In fact, it's not the ditch diggers or illiterates who contribute to Wikipedia, but people who already belong to a cultural crowd for the very fact they're using a computer.

[modifica]

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgI found very interesting the sentence you quoted from Peirce, which you used also in an article from the newspaper "Unità". You said you should switch the word "truth" with "crowd"; I'd rather think about definition of "community". Who's the "community"?

Eco: Peirce was thinking of the scientific community, of course; especially in his time, it was definitely separated from the common crowd.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgI think that in a world like ours it's more difficult to discriminate between "real" experts: often a degree does not make a real expert from an expert. Maybe there are some hardcore fans who have more expertise on a topic than the alleged experts. There has been on Wikipedia, at least at its beginning, a shift of the meaning of authoritative, from mighty to influential. The Wikipedia community is much "flatter" compared with the academic or scientific hierarchy, there is no hierarchical authority like we are used to. What "you" say at one time in a given context, and everything you said before, vouches for "your" authority. Many times people listen to the content of a message, without looking at the sender. In such a sense, this can lead to a different mechanism that carries on the torch of truth. A mechanism where we look at the information, at the message, not at those who sent it. Even in science and the scientific community there are fashions, forces (think of our leaders ): in fact, we study the sociology of science. In this sense, Wikipedia perhaps led, or perhaps gave some glimmer of something new. I do not know if you agree with this.

Eco: Wikipedia has two unrelated functions in my opinion. The first one is to allow quick searches for information, and it is just an extension of Garzantine [a popular Italian series of compact encyclopedias], period. The other, and this is what we are talking about now, is whether the control from below can be many times more successful than the control from above. Since the world is full of expert idiots, certainly it can be.

Just an example: some days ago I was correcting an essay about Benedetto Croce. Croce, building on his authority, spread false ideas for 50 years in Italy, and everyone in Italy had accepted them, without considering that he knew nothing about art. He was the aesthetics master for two or three generations without having understood anything about art. So you see, sometimes the authority... Responses of artists, children, students would have been really more useful. This control by the mass can, produce a development in the long run, as Peirce said.

But I keep saying that I am increasingly exposed to the risk of my inability to filter the news. Lately I started writing down some false information, some errors that one can find in Wikipedia. In the same article, for example, there were two contradictory reports, a sign that there had been an amalgam.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgSo you don't edit the pages of Wikipedia?

Eco: Not in that case. I don't edit pages, except for the page about me when I found it written that I married the daughter of my publisher, since as a matter of fact I didn't. Poor soul, she ran such a risk! [laughs] Another time I was described as the eldest of 13 brothers.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgThat was your father, right?

Eco: Yes. If the error was made by another person, I don't see why I should waste my time to correct it. I am not the Red Cross. [laughs, N.d.R]

Thus, I actually noticed that there was a contradiction, within the same article. The problem is that I'm good, I can notice the error, because that's my job; another person, less competent, could read just half of it and take the first version.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgI just wanted to understand if you did not edit and correct errors for a matter of time, or if there was another reason. Maybe you did not want to be recognized...

Eco: Of course, it's a matter of time. When I write, I consult Wikipedia 30–40 times a day, because it is really helpful. When I write, I don't remember if someone was born in the 6th century or the 7th; or maybe how many n's are in "Goldmann"... Just a few years ago, for this kind of thing you could waste a lot of time. Nowadays, with Wikipedia and Babylon, which checks the spelling, you can save a lot.

[modifica]

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgAccording to you, how much is the wiki model "exportable"? Here the term wiki is indicating a strong collaboration, in which there is collaborative editing. That means having a text that is collectively edited.

Furthermore, this often implies that the text itself is free, meaning released with a free license. This mechanism is obviously related to several issues: the issue of filtering, the issue of bottom up vs. top-down process, as well as the issue of having a community of peers with different values and motivations than a scholar community.

The wiki world developed different projects: for example, Wikiquote, a free quote compendium (many are yours), or Wikisource, a wiki digital library.

In your opinion, is this experience exportable to other writing mechanisms not aimed to collective knowledge production, as Wikipedia is?

Wikipedia, in fact, was born as an encyclopaedia developed within a wiki, a specific software, and has been a great success, against all odds. People have tried several times to build similar projects: the Los Angeles Times, once, tried to aggregate collective editorials, it was a failure. Thus, it seems that some projects can be collaboratively developed, meanwhile some others can't.

Eco: You are now talking about collective collaboration. Well, there are a few things that the Internet provides: the first are mere data, as the train schedule that no one can correct. Another is encyclopaedic information, which can always be corrected, because the author could be wrong or simply has not said everything yet. The third ones are texts: should I edit other's texts? Moreover, there is the whole universe of blogs and Facebook; but it doesn't matter right now, they are people talking to each other, conversing.

In these very days I had to debate on Hypatia: I looked for some information on the Internet, and I found interesting and less interesting texts. But they are texts. The Internet provides us classical and contemporary texts, but if they are wrong or I do not agree with them I surely don't edit them. I cannot say "Your opinion on Aristotle is wrong".

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgSure. So I correct myself: someone's interpretation is his own, and it has a value of its own.

Eco: More, it is signed. In fact I found many interesting documents that are not signed, I never understood why.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgI had this idea, regarding texts. It is what in the scholar environment are called collaboratory digital library, namely digital libraries for philologists, Italian and Middle Age studies scholars...

Eco: Do you mean bibliographies?

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgNot necessarily. For example, I was thinking at the Perseus Project, a Tufts University project. The scholar community is provided with tools to work on ancient Greek texts, as linguistic analysis tools, collations, statistical analysis. A project where people collaborate together for a critical edition...

Eco: I stumbled upon some of them. Actually regarding Hypatia, I found a project where different scholars collaborate to translate a text from the 10th century.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgWhat is your opinion about scholarly collaboration in the humanities?

Eco: This is yet another topic. Congresses were made by textual critics to investigate this topic. These are truly auto-controlled communities.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgCommunities of practice.

Eco: Yes, but where we know that a single scholar belongs to a single university, we know where he comes from. In this case, it happens something similar to when people used to collaborate in writing a book, and they needed to take the train once a week to meet and discuss. It is collaborative team work that is controlled by someone. It is not the wisdom of the crowds. It is simply the scaling and the simplification of the collective research work that once required filthy travels and nowadays it can be done online daily... I'd rather call them uncontrollable and controlled communities.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgIt is very interesting when these controlled communities (which are granted and comes from determined institutions) do not have a hierarchy or a chief, but they auto-control themselves.

For example, I was thinking of a project for the Italian studies community, which could be granted from institutions and still let the community free to auto-control itself.

In your opinion, is this auto-organization also possible in these scholarly communities?

Eco: I recall a conference in Bologna, about textual criticism studies, that was dedicated mainly to digital humanities projects and text research environments and functionalities. Evidently, this was a leaderless community, auto-controlled and leaderless. But "leaderless" is a phrase: because in scientific communities which self-legitimate there's always someone who gains more authority: if an important philologist propose an interpretation, the others will follow.

Therefore [online collaboration within scholarly projects] it is not the same thing of Wikipedia.

[modifica]

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgSo you make it a question of limits, that more organized and less organized communities exist. The difference of the Wikipedian community is that it contains both university professors and teenagers.

Eco: Let's take as an example the magazine Nature. In the scientific world, if a paper appears on Nature - where a peer review has been carried out and there's a wide control - it's taken seriously. It's anyway possible that Nature can make a mistake and reject a brilliant paper: nonetheless Nature is considered a center of reliability, with fringed boundaries. Because an error, or a small academic revenge, can always happen...

Now take me as an example: with my age and my body overweight I entered the high-glycaemia phase of a type II diabetes. Once, the limit for defining glycaemia "high" was 140, today it's 110: we all know that this new limit has been set by the pharmaceutical companies for selling their products. So, 140 is risky, maybe 110 is too low, one can get along with, say, 120. Maybe in a decade the limit will be adjusted to 120, or they'll decide that 110 is good in terms of preventive medicine [laughs]. We realized that swine flu was partly rubbish, spiced up by the vaccine manufacturers. We realized it too late, after billions had been spent; we realized that far fewer people than expected died, that they maybe overstated it.

In one way or another things fall into place: these are the controlled communities, not anarchical, but with a fringed authority. That has nothing to do with Wikipedia, where the anarchy is bigger.

[modifica]

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgThis difference of fringes, limits and, in a sense, also of scale is very interesting. In one type of community the collaboration is truly anarchical, in the other there's an adjustment...

Eco: There is an adjustment. Galileo, Tycho Brahe and Kepler in the end agreed that Kepler was right. Infinitesimal calculus has been discovered both by Newton and Leibniz but in the end everybody agreed with Leibniz. [he laughs]

They might have been the wrong choices, but they've been made that way.

There wasn't any authority, the emperor, who decided it. It's been a collection of habits and applications.

[modifica]

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgIn your opinion there is a difference between hard and soft sciences in approach towards collaboration

Eco: Right now, yes, We all know this. In hard sciences there is measurability of data that is absent in soft sciences, unless soft sciences are a parody of hard sciences, as in analytic philosophy.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgTalking about the collaboration, before, you said "this is fabulously interesting, but not surprising."

Eco: Sure. The Accademia del Cimento began first! And without the Internet. [he laughs]

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgBut now the scale is different.

Eco: First there was a few of them in Florence, then a few more at the Royal Society; now it's a crowd.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgA crowd that can collaborate with Thai people, with American people, in a synchronous or asynchronous way, in a ubiquitous place like the internet. The possibilities are different.

Back to the previous point, in Wikipedia also we can notice a cultural difference between the articles about technology, science, maths, physics and the articles about humanistic topics. Humanistic articles are much less (philosophy, history, literature).

This in Wikipedia. Within the academic communities, in a similar way, there's a different impulse to the collaboration. In the "soft" sciences, the authorship, the authoritativeness and even the interpretation, matter more.

Eco: For what are soft sciences, there is absolutely less impulse to collaboration. There is much more interest to be the main character of an idea, than being just a "water carrier".

That's for sure. A scientist in these cases is used to not being mentioned and to know that however is carrying forward a fundamental research. In soft sciences, this happens only to the exploited student who is sent to gather data that the professor will sign and profit by.

That's an old story, there's no escape from that...

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgIt would be important to understand that this is a "natural" or cultural consequence. Could this humanities approach really change?

Eco: I don't believe so. Think about ancient Greece. Plato and Aristotle, one being the other's disciple, developed two opposite philosophies. On the other hand, Euclid came and it is still discussed, his fifth postulate survived for two thousand years.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svg Thus it's a natural issue. Right?

Eco: Science is cumulative-destructive, it stores what it needs and throw away what it doesn't require. Humanities are totally cumulative, they don't throw away anything: in fact, there is always a return to the past.

On the other hand, they are totally destructive in the way, as Maritain stated regarding to Descartes, "a philosopher is a novice in the Absolute". For Descartes, everything that philosophy stated before him was false. If a mathematician did that, it would be the end of mathematics.

[modifica]

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgBack to the theme of the "strongly collaborative" projects, where there's collaborative editing, what do you think of the authorship, of recognizing the intellectual property?

In volunteer-based projects like Wikipedia, the problem matters less, but given that the scientific world is moving toward more and more intense collaboration (and the humanistic world as well, although more slowly) we have to face the fundamental question of copyright.

In Wikipedia it's been solved by adopting free licenses, and the culture of the nicknames - or no names - helps; in the academic and scientific world the culture of the name, related to important things such as a personal career, leads us to a complex problem of recognition of the intellectual property.

Eco: This is certainly coming out, also in the world of books; I think that in 50 years we'll have a very deep mutation. We'll probably have a cultural situation similar to the one in the Middle Ages, where comments and comments were produced, and the authoriality was lost. Then, from the Romanticism on, the authoriality became excessive.

But I cannot say up to which point we can reach a total anonymity. Although it can look democratic, total anonymity gives the idea that just one and only one truth exists. Can we have a moment in a future where Wikipedia itself, on certain articles (not the one about the multiplication table, of course), can open sections called "Conflicts" where - signed - different theses can appear in opposition?

In spite of the always present denying madman, we're certain that Napoleon died in Saint Helena. That Pius XII did the right thing during the Holocaust, it's an open debate. What does Wikipedia do? It says that Pius XII did not do enough (irritating millions of catholics)? It says he did (irritating millions of non-believers)? Or does it open an appendix in which a series of authors, each assuming responsibility for their words, expose in twenty lines the conflict of interpretation?

[modifica]

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svg(Unfortunately without the internet we cannot check the article about Pius XII and the Holocaust), Wikipedia, that is following the principle of the neutral point of view, which is not the truth, but an unbiased point of view that can always be perfected, usually publishes a version of an article that includes the critics to that version. Following a principle of synthesis there are - unsigned - sections that might embody what you just said. As an example, the page about Silvio Berlusconi is problematic.

Eco: I never went to see it.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgIt's almost always semi-protected, it often being a theatre of quarrels. Anyway, we try to report both the positions. Of course there's a hierarchy: there's always a dominant position, introduced first, but followed by the second one. An example coming to my mind is the article about Beppe Grillo, where there's his biography and then a section of critics, with the sources duly cited. The aim, then, is to report and synthesize on a page (or more, should it grow too much) what other people said. Wikipedia integrates, it's a being that feeds from the outside, because it's a tertiary source, not a primary source, and this is often forgotten. I don't know whether a traditional encyclopaedia defines itself as primary or tertiary. For Wikipedia the sources are somewhere else, we just take from them. We cite them; if they say wrong things, we just cited them. There's always bias in the choice of what to cite, where to cite and how to cite but, at the end, Wikipedia tries to report - with all its limits - the reality as faceted by the other sources. The problem of the hierarchy of the page is still present, and the fact that "there are no fact, but only interpretations". In this sense there's a very evident and aware temporariness.

Eco: Of course, everything can change tomorrow.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgWikipedia guidelines say that "A final version does not exist". An article is always amendable. Culturally, maybe a Treccani doesn't see its work this way.

Eco: No, because Treccani has many signed articles. The article "Fascismo", written by Gentile, cannot be modified; either you delete it and substitute it, or you leave it like it is.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgArticle that, besides, was affected by its context: today, after seventy years, we'd say that the Treccani was biased.

Eco: Yes, that's why it remains and is not modifiable, because that is the article and is not reprinted. They create an appendix, of course. The destiny of the Treccani is to wikipedize itself.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgDo you think they'll do it?

Eco: With the current speed of renewal of the culture, if an encyclopedia doesn't go online for being updated month by month, it is doomed forever. Even when it talks about Parmenides, because even tomorrow a book casting a new light on him can be published... but never mind of Parmenides. Take "Aeroplane", as example: who knows what the article about the "Concorde" said before the Concorde crashed.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgBesides, Treccani tried to "wikipedize" itself. They opened some articles, asking the users to send some edits in...

Eco: It's a proposal for the Dizionario degli Italiani [a collection of biographies], but it's being withdrawn. Since writing articles is too expensive, they asked the readers to "donate" some, not considering that revising those donations takes such a group of editors that the costs are higher than simply paying for the articles.

[modifica]

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgIt doesn't look easy at all to find a solution to join a traditional model (authors, publishers, redactions) with something as anarchical as Wikipedia. One survives because it takes all: it always has an input from the users, because it picks everything up. And it's free, for everybody: for those who make it and for those who read it. The other has a traditional model that cannot quantitatively stand the comparison and is hardly looking for an equilibrium, taking external contributions (without motivation, taking them and giving back absolutely nothing). Wikipedia is all for free, it's a mutual donation, there's a strong ethic thrust. The clash between these two worlds is not at all a banal question. Changing topic, I found it interesting that the process of "classification" did not have a big success in the collaborative environments. Except for the folksonomies, with people tagging sites and photos, on Wikipedia as well the categorization of topics is definitely incoherent and incomplete. It's noteworthy that a process as important as the classification/categorization tends to be authorial, personal. In the internet I find few examples of complex categorizations done with a collaborative approach.

Eco: I'm not sure I understood well what you said, but if I did, all of this depends on the fact that - apart of botanic and zoologic taxonomies - a global classification does not exist, but only a local one does. In my last book "From the tree to the labyrinth", I wrote a 100-page essay exactly about the history of the classification, from Porphirius' tree to what we today dumbly call "ontologies".

The problem here is that centuries have been spent in trying to make a total classification, but it's impossible, it's always local and in perspective. Consequently, it can be authorial and not collective. It's a goal attainable in certain fields only, for example animals and trees, as they are universes somehow finite. And it leaves anyway big problems in the classification of the insects. And there's the famous example of the ornithorhynchus, for which it took them eighty years, but they found an agreement, all together.

Animals then are finite and - one way or another - can be categorized. In those cases where elements are more disparate, instead, total and collective categorization is impossible.

[modifica]

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgBack to something more trivial, in "Sei passeggiate nei boschi narrativi", you talk about the book "Sylvie" by Nerval as a sort of destiny book, that you studied hundreds of times. The idea that one book corresponds to one person is very striking. Do you still believe in it?

Eco: Yes, although probably there's more than one book for each person. Yes, I do. But this question is like "Why did you care about the Middle Ages?", that it's like asking "Why did you marry that one and not another?" [he laughs] If you're interested, I made the translation of that book and talked about it in a collection of essays about literature... but this has nothing to do with the question.

[modifica]

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgDo you know about free licenses? They were created in the '80s and allow re-using, sharing, also editing of the content; very important characteristics in the digital world. Wikipedia too was born within this world and releases its content under a free license. How do you see the world of intellectual property today, in the age of the internet?

Eco: I am very empirical. I make my living on the gains of intellectual property, but every time I've been an object of piracy I got off cheaply. It happened that my American publisher sued a university for having made thirty copies of a book of mine, and I protested. It's fine for me like this, at least 3 or 4 of my books can be downloaded through eMule... Why am I so careless about this? Considering that I live with that, I should be worried. One answer might be that I'm earning enough this way, the other is that I am a good democrat.

Let me make an example. When the newspaper La Repubblica decided to distribute books with the paper, they began with Il nome della Rosa, giving me a modest flat sum. And then they sold two million copies that day. I decided not to mind, I didn't earn anything but it was all right. Six months later I checked the reports of my publisher and the sale of the paperback hadn't changed at all. That is, those two million people were people that would never have bought my book in a bookstore. I didn't lose a sale. This means that the "space" is so big that [the piracy] doesn't look like a tragedy to me. It's the author that sells a thousand copies that gets angry if a hundred of them are bootlegged.

Up to the 17th and 18th centuries, a writer made his living from a benefactor's will. Maybe we'll return there, we won't be paid by the audience, but by a patron. Ariosto got off well, why shouldn't I? [he laughs]

They got off even before. Then the 18th century revolution - when the storyteller went around selling his own books - gave birth to the rights. In a sense, this democratize that work, because the writer and the philosopher did not have to lick the benefactor's ass any longer.

Well, nothing changed that much between the way that Ariosto licked the Estensi's ass and the way a lot of people lick everybody's ass. [he laughs] Ariosto doesn't interest us less because he writes two ottava rima to thank the Estensi.

[modifica]

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgAbout books and rights, it's Google Books that has recently received much attention.

Eco: I don't understand all these protests against Google Books. Honestly, I get angry because I can see two pages and I cannot buy the book. The publishers should be enthusiastic, I don't understand. It's like the pedestrian areas: when you close a road to the cars, all the shopkeepers protest, although it's scientifically demonstrated that such an action increases sales.

[modifica]

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgIt's a theme entwined with the one about the public domain. Both in US and in Europe there are pressures to lengthen copyright terms, reducing the "area of the public domain". There's much fuss and much fear about the intellectual property.

Eco: Each writer lives a conflict about this: on one hand he's happy that his book is read, on the other he's sorry that his grandchildren won't earn anything from the rights. Now, my publisher said he'll give the rights of Il nome della rosa for making an eBook for the Kindle, I think. The percentage is much lower than for normal books, but it's all right. I personally don't believe in it, I think that people still want paper for reading a book, but I have no problems, it's correct that people asking for an electronic version might have it. It doesn't look complicated, they pay for the rights, although less because the eBook is cheaper. Either it'll be a smash and you'll sell millions, or you'll sell few copies, and it'll be all right anyway.

I think that everybody is overreacting, just like the publishers against Google. Google Books is for selling books, not for selling less books. It plays the same role a bookshop does, when you go to browse the books. You can buy them, or just read a couple of pages, or read the index. Just as with Google.

And there's the trend to give more and more things for free. I cannot stand Adobe, that every year asks me to pay for reading the PDFs. In a few minutes I found programs that do the same for free. I don't understand where's the return for the developers...

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgOften, nothing. Open-source software is often written by people for personal use (maybe people that didn't want to pay Adobe's license like you) and freely released. And if someone makes it better, the creator itself has a return. It's a virtuous circle.

Eco: There's also OOorg, that substitutes Word. It's very good and it works very well.

W@H waves left.svgW@HW@H waves right.svgBesides, Wikipedia comes right from the open-source world, that over the years is developing its own philosophy about the free culture. They are linked.

References[modifica]