Tag Archives: social contract

Another Point for Wikipedia: Rousseau’s Citizenship

Compare the following two articles on Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau — Britannica Online Encyclopedia
Jean-Jacques Rousseau – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

At the onset of the first entry, Rousseau is described unequivocally as a “French philosopher.” In the second entry, Rousseau is first described through his contributions to philosophy, literature, and music. The beginning of the biography section of that second entry contains a clear, straightforward, and useful statement about Rousseau’s citizenship. As this Wikipedia entry explains, and is clear in Rousseau’s work, the well-known French-speaking thinker considered himself a citizen of Geneva throughout his life (which ended during the Old Swiss Confederacy, before Geneva became a Canton of Switzerland). While Rousseau’s connections to France are clearly mentioned, nowhere in the body of this Wikipedia article is Rousseau himself called “French.” The article has been classified in diverse Wikipedia categories which do contain the word “French,” but this association is fairly indirect. Though it may sound like the same thing, there’s a huge difference between putting Rousseau in a list of “French philosophers” or “French memoirists” and describing Rousseau as a “French philosopher.” In fact, Rousseau is also listed among “Swiss educationists” and “Swiss music theorists.” These classifications aren’t  inaccurate as classifications. They wouldn’t be very precise as descriptions.

As a dual Swiss/Canadian citizen myself, I easily react to this type of imprecision, especially in formal contexts.

The Encyclopædia Britannica carries quite a bit of prestige and one would expect such issues as citizenship to be treated with caution. Seeing Rousseau mentioned in the “On This Day” bulletin, I accessed the Britannica entry on Rousseau via a single click. The first word of this entry was “French,” which did seem quite inappropriate, to me. In fact, I hoped that the rest of the entry would contain an explanation of this choice. Maybe I had missed the fact that Rousseau became a naturalized French citizen, at some point. Or maybe they just mean “French-speaker.” Or the descriptor was meant as a connection to philosophical trends associated with France…

Nope! Nothing like that.

Instead, a narrative on Rousseau’s life with lots of anecdotes, a few links to other entries, and some “peacock terms.” But no explanation of what is meant by “French philosopher.” This isn’t about accuracy as an absolute. The description could be accurate if it had been explained. But it wasn’t. Oh, there are some mentions of Rousseau’s “rights as a citizen” of Geneva, in connection with The Social Contract. But these statements are rather confusing, especially in the artificial context of an encyclopedia entry.

The Britannica entry was written by the late British economist Maurice Cranston. Given the fact that Cranston died in 1993, one is led to believe that the Britannica entry on Rousseau has been left unmodified in the past 15 years. The Wikipedia version has been modified hundreds of time in the last year. Now, many of these modifications were probably trivial, some are likely to have been inappropriate, and (without looking at the details of the changes) there’s no guarantee that the current version is the best possible one. The point here isn’t about the rate of change. It’s about the opportunities for modifying an encyclopedia entry. One would think that, during the last fifteen years, the brilliant people at Britannica may have had the time to include a clarification as to Rousseau’s citizenship. In fact, one might expect that a good deal of research on Rousseau’s work has happened in the meantime and it would make sense to say that the Britannica entry on the scholar could integrate some elements of that research.

Notice that I’m not, in fact, talking about factual accuracy as an abstract concept. I’m referring to the effects of encyclopedia entries on people’s understanding. In my mind, the Wikipedia entry on Jean-Jacques Rousseau makes it easy for readers to exercise their critical thinking. The Britannica entry on the same person makes it sound as though everything which could be said about Jean-Jacques Rousseau can be contained in a single narrative.

My guess is, Rousseau and his «Encyclopédistes» friends would probably prefer Wikipedia over Britannica.

But that’s just a guess.


Obvious Concept: Confidentiality (Draft)

In response to Émilie Pelletier, who replied to my previous post on “intimacy.” That previous post of mine wasn’t  well thought out and I hesitated before pushing the “Publish” button. But given Émilie’s thoughtful response, I’m glad I posted it. It makes for a somewhat more “interactive conversation” (!)  than the typical blogging session.

What seems in what I describe is that “social media” are about managing the way “content” is transmitted (on Twitter, YouTube, del.icio.us, Facebook, BitTorrent, LinkedIn…). In this sense, “social media” are quite easy to understand, even though the diversity of “social media” systems  available obscures this simplicity. Hence the cyclical discussions about what constitutes “Web 2.0” and what is coming next.

The “obvious concept” I was trying to describe in my previous is a simplified version of the concept of “intimacy” we all seem to have in mind. Émilie did a good job at describing important dimensions of intimacy in social life and I should address those later. Admittedly, my use of the term “intimacy” was quite confusing and not at all obvious. The concept I tried to describe seems to me rather obvious but it doesn’t make it easy to describe or name. I know, some people might jump at this and say that what is easy to understand must be easy to explain. Yet many concepts are rather easy to grasp and quite hard to explain, especially in a “one-way conversation” such as a blogpost.

Anyhoo.

“Intimacy” isn’t such a good word for what I meant. I didn’t want to use “privacy” because it’s being used for slightly different purposes, in those social media. I could have worked to define “privacy” more precisely but I thought the term itself would have prevented further discussion since “privacy” is so well-known, in “social media.” Again, I agree with Émilie that “intimacy” isn’t more accurate, but it seems to have worked in making people think. Nice!

Come to think of it, “confidentiality” would possibly work better. In these same social media (e.g, Facebook), «confidentialité» is the translation of “privacy” but there are differences between the two concepts. Putting “trust” and “confidant” in relation to “confidentiality” gets closer to the slightly more subtle transmission management I had in mind. Some items are shared “in private” based on a level of trust that nothing will leak out, neither the content nor the fact that content was transmitted. Other items can be shared through controlled (semi-private) channels with the intention of “spreading out” the item and making the transmission known. Quite frequently, such transmission is more effective at “becoming viral” because content is properly contextualized. The “contract” of any transmission of information has such rules embedded in them and “sharing content online” is simple enough a process to be formalized in these ways.
The other dimension we tend to embed in “online content transmission” is what’s often called “reputation” or “authority” in those same “social media.” Again, very simplified versions of what happens in communication broadly, but the simple social models work well in those simplified “social media.” The “receiver” of the content may trust the “sender” based on a series of simple criteria. Trained to think that we should never “trust information” based on the sender, I used to (and still) react negatively to notions of “trust,” “authority,” or “reputation.” Slashdot’s concept of “karma” seemed somewhat better at the time because it sets apart the social capital from a notion of “blind faith.” I now understand more clearly what role trust might play in receiving content, especially in preventing malware to spread or managing our concentration. Simplified, this concept of trust is only indirectly about the value of the content itself. It’s more about assessing the risks involved in the content transmission event. In other words, we should only open email attachments from  people we trust and, even then, we know there are risks involved in opening attachments.

So, going back to the obvious concept I’m circling around. What Facebook just did in terms of privacy controls  does seem to connect with what I have in mind. Not only can we group contacts but we can finally use these groups to manage how widely some content may be distributed. Neat and rather easy. But some dimensions could be added to make content transmission approximate a bit better the sophistication of social life. For instance, there could be ways to make intermediate receivers understand how widely the content can be “redistributed.” Is it “for your eyes only” or is it “please distribute to all like-minded people?” An easy step to take, here, would be to add a type of license-control reminiscent of Creative Commons, on user-generated content. There could be something about the original creator of the content (“I’m only posting this because I like, I don’t claim ownership”). Ratings, which are so common in “social media” could be added and fleshed out so that a creator could key her/his work in the right frame.

Ok, I’m rambling even more now than before. So I’ll leave this post as-is and see what happens.

No, I won’t even replace all those quotation marks or correct my mistakes. RERO.

Do with this post as you want. I’m just thinking out loud.  And laughing on the inside.