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Page history last edited by Joanna Zylinska 13 years, 7 months ago

Future books: a Wikipedia model?


Liquid Author1


On Liquid Reading
Joanna Zylinska, On Liquid Reading II, 2010

This short essay is an experiment in producing academic knowledge differently. It was written in a collaborative manner by a group of nineteen people (MA and PhD students from Goldsmiths, and their tutor). Starting as a series of blog entries, the text has now been rewritten to adhere to the conventions of an academic article. However, through its varied style and recurrent thematic motifs, it is supposed to reflect the philosophy of the Liquid Reader and the Liquid Books series -- of which it is part.  

Preserving the past

It is often claimed that, in the age of Web 2.0, we have all become media producers. This assertion refers to phenomena as diverse as the rise of ‘citizen journalism’ via blogging platforms such as Posterous and Tumblr, the emergence of independent music networks via MySpace, or the construction of whole universes via fan fiction websites, virtual game worlds and Second Life. Rather than embrace or challenge this rather grandiose idea, this collaboratively written essay takes it as a provocation. We want to do so in order to explore the ongoing transformation that one of the most established but also perhaps most mundane media -- the medium of the book -- is undergoing in the digital environment.

This transformation finds itself iterated in the Liquid Books project initiated by Gary Hall and Clare Birchall (of which this essay is part). Hall and Birchall define liquid books as experimental digital texts which are published under conditions of open editing and free content. Open editing software allows Internet users to write and edit books and other kinds of texts via websites known as wikis, websites which facilitate fast, open and collaborative editing, usually through the interface of a simple text editor. Many of the advantages and disadvantages of wiki-editing are similar to those encountered in the process of creating and distributing other media. For example, the immediacy that is available to an editor can result in the published text having the same rapidity and instantaneity as a text message, but one broadcast to a much wider audience.

However, the brevity of a text message remains in sharp contrast to the size of an open text, such as Wikipedia. Indeed, Wikipedia is a rather large database of information, which is constantly being added to and edited. Its main aim is to function as an encyclopaedia. The original idea of the ‘encyclopaedia’, as envisaged by Denis Diderot (the author, with d’Alembert, of the first encyclopaedia, in 1751), was for it to be primarily concerned with the transmission of knowledge to those who will come after us. One of the main differences between Wikipedia and its predecessor lies in the process of selection. In case of an encyclopaedia as conceived by Diderot and d’Alembert, the selection process was rather strict: only what was deemed worth being passed on to the next generation, i.e., only what was being already considered to count as valuable and legitimate knowledge about the world, deserved to be saved. It is generally easy, however, to have a new entry accepted for Wikipedia.

Instead of applying a Wikipedia model to book writing and editing, perhaps it would be more interesting here to do exactly the opposite: to work collectively on cutting, summarising and changing the text in order to save only what is necessary to ‘the next generation’ (which can actually be just the next reader)? Diderot and d’Alembert acknowledged the importance of a censor: someone who makes decisions about what goes in and what stays out. The problem with censorship is therefore not its very existence -- as that is inevitable and indeed necessary if we are to give shape to knowledge about the world -- but rather its location in the hands of a single person, or a single political entity. Within the project of an open, liquid book perhaps we can finally achieve what the two French philosophers believed could be the ideal solution: to distribute the task of selection among ‘a society of men of letters and artists, dispersed, each concerned with his own division, and joined together only by the general interest of humankind, and by a feeling of mutual beneficence’ (2002: non-pag.).

Liquid knowledge production

Certainly, people from different geopolitical locations and different cultural and intellectual traditions can take part in writing and editing such an open, liquid book, thus sharing their knowledge, and ways of interpreting of what counts as ‘knowledge’, with one another. Like the Internet itself, a liquid book arguably has the potential to succeed as an interactive educational platform. The model allows university and college students, for example, to work against the one-way closed form of knowledge traditionally passed on in tertiary education, and to become more involved in, and reflexive about, the process of knowledge formation.

Just as with Wikipedia, knowledge here can be shared and exchanged between contributors. People with different cultural, social and educational backgrounds, and with different interests, can thus contribute information on the same topic, which generates an environment of continuous brainstorming. New perspectives can be opened up in this way, and it is also possible to perceive one topic or issue from various viewpoints. Liquid books have what Deleuze and Guattari would call a rhizomatic structure (Deleuze & Guattari, 2004), which means that readers and contributors can enter them at any point. They can simply pick a topic that interests them and read about it, or add a piece they find relevant to it. Moreover, in the process of editing, interesting social phenomena can take place, leading to the emergence of a virtual community which shares an interest in a certain topic.

Yet this inevitably raises questions about the quality of such liquid books, since the plurality or diversity of sources of knowledge does not always correlate with ‘better’ knowledge. As we have seen it many times with Wikipedia, there is the possibility that this platform could be misused, with contributors willingly uploading false news or articles in order to confuse readers -- as a prank, or in order to accomplish their own tendentious or even pernicious aims. Another source of such ‘misinformation’ (if we are prepared to use this term, given that we have not yet established what counts as ‘correct’ information) could lie with the potential contributors’ lack of adequate knowledge on the subject, which can result in them reporting news they believe to be true, when in fact it is not. This situation could be avoided if there was a moderator who would approve what can go online and what cannot. Yet on what basis would we grant such power and authority to someone? With what legitimacy? And who would legislate the legislators, to repeat the dilemma outlined by Jean-François Lyotard’s in The Postmodern Condition (1986)?

Misuses, abuses and hoaxes

Another way in which we could possibly avoid such ‘misuses’ of knowledge and information would be to restrict the number of contributors to a relatively small group of users. In this way, a Foucauldian form of control would be established, with the liquid book itself functioning as a kind of panopticon. Students and professors would need to legitimate themselves extensively (via the system of passwords, permissions and external validations) before uploading their contributions, knowing that someone they are ‘connected’ to will read and potentially edit, delete or challenge what they have posted, and thus being aware of the mutual surveillance in the act.

It seems from the above that a completely open liquid book can never be achieved, and that some limitations, decisions, interventions and cuts have to be made to its ‘openness’. The following question then presents itself: how do we ensure that we do not foreclose on this openness too early and too quickly? Perhaps liquid editing is also a question of time, then; of managing time responsibly and prudently. It must surely also involve the need to acknowledge that, since at the moment potentially anyone can edit a liquid book, the quality of its content cannot be guaranteed, at least in the traditional sense of knowledge guarantees. (Similarly, Wikipedia frequently lacks accurate references for the information provided.) As we have seen, contributors to a liquid book may manifest individual or even shared blind spots with regard to specific areas of knowledge, which means the content produced may end up being misinformed and misleading. It may even be a hoax.

This possibility regarding falsification also needs to be taken into account when consuming information from a wiki type of book. Tracking down the credibility of a source can be an added time stealer. A story of falsification that took place around the ‘fake interview’ with Fidel Castro broadcast by the TF1 channel provides an interesting reference point for us here. This is how Jacques Derrida comments on the issue in The Echographies of Television, in response to Bernard Stiegler’s question about the responsibility of those who edit media material. (Stiegler is actually referring to ‘journalists’, but, as suggested earlier, in the age of Web 2.0 this term needs to be extended beyond its earlier professional connotations.) Derrida says:

The problem is ... what in common, everyday language would be called a ‘lie’: falsification, false witness, or perjury. Someone presented as an interview, framed as such, something he knew had taken place and been uttered at another time and in another setting. With reference to the most solidly accredited definition of the lie, I would say that there was a lie, not simply because someone said something that wasn’t true (for it is possible to say something false or erroneous without lying), but because this someone knew it wasn’t true and wanted to make people believe it was, because he wanted to deceive the addressee. In short, he sold consumers one product in another’s packaging. Given the fact that there is an at least implicit contract between manufacturer, merchant, and consumer, this kind of falsification is grounds for legal action, as are any damaged or doctored goods. Once we’ve said this, which is hardly contestable, I think, but a bit rough, such a case of falsification can serve as an index for tracking every less spectacular mystification. Here, there is as it were a case of blatant or quasi-blatant violation [quasi flagrant délit]. But wherever there is editing, cutting, recontextualization, incomplete citation in the press, on the radio or on television, there is falsification in progress. We should not try to hide this.  (Derrida & Stiegler, 2002: 49-50)

Derrida seems to be suggesting here not only that falsification is inevitable as soon as the process of editing is initiated, but also that it can open up some intriguing possibilities for our traditional understanding of the ideas of the author, editor, text and medium. Can we therefore go so far as to say that an act of editing is always at the same time an act of falsification (which is by no means the same thing as a lie)?

Can you still call it a book?

The question of legitimation and falsification is inevitably tied in with the question of authority, and with ways of upholding authority in a given culture and society. For example, unlike their online equivalents, print-on-paper books cannot be edited or changed, which makes them appear as a more trustful and authoritative source of information and referencing. Yet the book has always been a rather unstable object, with Shakespeare’s folio, for example, including over six hundred typefaces and many inconsistencies with regard to spelling, punctuation and page configuration. As Gary Hall explains in Digitize This Book!,

Early in the history of the printed book ... readers were involved in forming judgments around questions of authority and legitimacy: concerning what a book is and what it means to be an author, a reader, a publisher, and a distributor. The development and spread of the concept of the author, along with mass printing techniques, uniform multiple-copy editions, copyright, established publishing houses, editors, and so forth meant that many of these ideas subsequently began to appear ‘fixed’. (2008: 161)

The moderation, supervision, distribution and ownership of such a liquid book constitute a dense and complicated network of communication and control. Due to this control, and the potentially panopticon-like aspect of the project discussed earlier, is a liquid book thus really inherently more democratic and more accessible than a print-on-paper book? But supervision and quality control are of course already features of traditional publishing, with academic peer-review procedures perhaps not being that different from the panopticon-like methods exerted by online moderation. If this is indeed the case, is an online moderator just another name for the editor function? Or is it actually counter-productive to try and understand a wiki-based project in the same terms we understand a traditional book? Perhaps in an online environment the term ‘book’ should be dropped altogether?

Yet before we throw our bookish baby out with the bath water of the liquid editing project, we should consider whether there are certain kinds of books for which a wiki platform would be particularly appropriate and useful. For instance, if the book is used for general education or for discussing some open questions, using a wiki to edit it amounts to creating a platform for people to share information, knowledge and their respective positions on the issue. Its interactivity will no doubt be a bonus in this context, as will the ability to update the knowledge and information promptly and correct or revise the notes of the previous editor. If, in turn, the books are being edited for the sake of the presentation of some original historical facts or scientific axioms, the multiple channels of sources feeding into them are likely to result in inaccuracy and confusion. However, the very distinction between areas of knowledge which are open to debate and those which are fixed and axiomatic is surely not completely fixed, as many instances of historical reinterpretation or scientific revisionism demonstrate.

Given the fact that a liquid book is never finished, and that new resources can always be added to it, it can prove difficult for a reader to distinguish between the information that is relevant to his or her interests and the information that is not. The issue of relevance becomes particularly significant if there are no prior or external regulations dictating what can and cannot be added. This can result in contributors which include tangential pieces of writing -- the consequences of which can be rather disruptive and time consuming for a reader searching for specific information. On the other hand, this could take a given project in a really interesting and unique direction, one that defies original expectations.

The authority of the liquid author

In his essay ‘The Death of the Author’, Roland Barthes criticises the attachment of importance given to the author in considering a text. Barthes suggests the author is ‘a modern figure of our society’ (Barthes, 1977: 142). Excessively focusing on the figure of the author in a reading of a text would mean imposing limitations on this text (147). Barthes writes: ‘The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions’ (143). While we can pin the success of the text upon the author, we can also pin its failures on him or her. But, to consider a text in this way, through the perspective of the author, would mean to fail that text, i.e., not to read it properly, attentively, respectfully, or even dutifully. This is what Barthes means when he proclaims that a text is not ‘a line of words realising a single theological meaning, (the message of the Author God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings more of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture’ (146). In allowing a multitude of interpretations of a text -- which, as we know from Barthes as much as from Derrida, not to mention many Internet authors, are always already forms of its production -- we are perhaps actualising Barthes’ conclusion: ‘The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author’ (148). In the Wikipedia style of book editing are we thus witnessing a point where the affiliation between the author and the text is disappearing?

Although the application of the Wikipedia model to writing and editing books can certainly benefit from the wealth of knowledge from multiple sources, such a book has the potential to remain perpetually experimental. The majority of traditional books are written from the perspective of the limited few, allowing the author(s) the flexibility to negotiate their viewpoint. Depending on the ultimate aim of the ‘author’ of the liquid book, is it possible to authenticate the identity and veracity of every person’s contribution? Perhaps, in order to ensure the quality and success of liquid books, it will be necessary to establish certain criteria for users with the qualifications and merits to include meaningful contributions, thus eradicating superfluous or detrimental information from being included. Admittedly, determining such merits or qualifications of users could prove to be an arbitrary task in itself.

All that is solid becomes liquid

It is also important to look at the environment in which the liquid book is embedded. A Wikipedia-like model of dispersed authorship that lacks the tangibility of the book is not something most scholars are likely to invest their time in. It seems, however, that the alternative mode of publishing evinced by the open-access movement ‘has reignited discussions of ethics, norms, and method’ (Kelty, 2008: 310). Christopher Kelty suggests that the Mertonian norms governing science -- disinterestedness, communalism, organised scepticism, objectivity -- ‘have in fact become the more or less explicit goals in practice of scientists, engineers, and geeks in the wake of Free Software’ (2008: 271), of which the Liquid Books project is a modulation. The application of the wiki paradigm to editing academic publications in particular is interesting insofar as it becomes a sandbox for different approaches to the creative process. The value of the Connexions modular textbook project described by Kelty lies in the robustness and applicability of the concept, rather than in the theoretical ideas behind it. Time will tell whether the approach chosen here will yield interesting results.

Such a project no doubt raises questions of ownership and authority. It is not easy to identify ownership where there are several authors of a book which is written on the basis of the Wikipedia model, which in turn challenges the conventional concepts of copyright and intellectual property. Is the person who conceived the idea for a liquid book considered the owner, or is it simply the person who contributed the most who possesses ownership? Can the traditional, liberal notion of ownership be retained at all in this framework, and -- if we were to forgo it -- what would it mean for our established ideas of social exchange, economy, property, profit-making, and capitalism itself? Naturally, this raises a number of serious political and ethical questions that -- utopian as it may sound -- have the potential to reshape the very socio-political order in which we operate.

The democratic paradox

As with other models of Web 2.0 delivery, liquid publishing can provide a more creative and more interactive way of writing and editing books. Another advantage is that this model can lower the bar which has so far made it impossible for many to be an author in the conventional system of book publishing -- not always due to their lack of talent or ability. However, in its emphasis on providing ‘fluid open access’ and being ‘free across media community locally, nationally and internationally’, the argument for liquid books may sound like an espousal of technological determinism, with technology itself seen as opening up social barriers. This is why we also need to consider the question of the ownership, distribution and accessibility of the technology itself. Even though one would assume that students using and editing liquid books have access to the technology via their educational institutions, on a broader scale accessibility would be an issue that could potentially negate any democratic advantages of this model.

To say this is to raise questions for, if not entirely challenge, the oft-espoused notion that the Internet brings about a new democracy, or even a new idea of democracy. It is said to be a democratising force because every user has the potential to become an author, a journalist, a presenter and a creator of content. The relatively uncomplicated access to the participative process not only offers a platform to almost any individual to present his or her position, but it can be seen as leading to the kind of society from which exclusion as such disappears. This new form of (non)regulation challenges the established notion of authority, since the sense of equality among the separate writers undermines the exclusive and often totalitarian power of a single author’s voice. Additionally, the possibility to remain anonymous, disguise or alter his or her online identity can be experienced as a form of liberation, creating a feeling of disentanglement from the bonds of professionalism and authority, of there being an overall ‘right’ or ‘correct’ opinion that one has to adhere to at all times.

The editing model as used by Wikipedia, amongst others, thus creates a forum for ideas of various parties to be presented in a collaborative, dialogic and sometimes agonistic manner (as shown, for example, by the use of Wikipedia by Israeli and Palestinian groups), thus instituting a democratic platform for open contributions and rapid access. However, any attempt to introduce scrutinised checking of information and data in such open access, open source projects -- inevitable as it may be -- will end up constraining the free flow of information which many hail as one of the benefits of the Internet culture. But is this culture really all that ‘free’? Operating in a globalised networked system of our highly-mediated world, the Internet cannot be portrayed as a neutral medium, as its architecture and operation is subject to a number of stringent rules that ought to be followed (for example, the protocol of a website address, as Alexander Galloway has pointed out, 2004). The form of governance used in Wikipedia, whereby controversial content can be blocked and their contributors banned, without offering a possibility of resolving or working through the conflict, therefore raises serious question for the alleged democratic potential of this model. Yet at the same time it does perhaps open up the possibility for understanding democracy beyond its liberal consensus as a communicative resolution of a dispute between equal (and equally equipped on a communicative level) opponents, and towards what Chantal Mouffe has called an agonistic model of democracy (2000).

The madness of the crowd?

The wiki model of writing, editing and publishing needs to be understood in a wider context of the environment in which it occurs, i.e. the so-called Web 2.0. Many, such as Lawrence Lessig, hail the enhanced possibilities of creative collaboration the web brings about. A quick glance at the case studies section on the Creative Commons website allows us to see that the Internet does indeed facilitate the sharing of knowledge and the forging communities of interest in a way that would not be possible or even imaginable offline. Thanks to collective efforts one can come across material and links he or she simply would not see otherwise. On the other hand, as Andrew Keen somewhat theatrically bemoans in his book, The Cult of the Amateur, ‘on the Web where everyone has an equal voice, the words of the wise man count for no more than the mutterings of a fool’ (2007: 24). This might not be true in the case of the Liquid Reader project or similar academic initiatives. However, there are many wikis online with plenty of writing by numerous authors which are of a rather questionable standard -- although it needs to be acknowledged at this point that our idea of ‘the standard’ here refers to Enlightenment-inspired political and intellectual values embodied by education and human betterment, values that we may want to subject to a critique but which we may not be prepared to dismiss all too quickly. The multitude of writings may also lead to what Alvin Toffler has described as information overload, which in turn brings us to questions of choice, selection, decision-making and judgement. (And we are back again to those Enlightenment values...)

Considering all the concerns that arise around authoring a liquid book, it seems amazing that contributors forge ahead and participate in projects of this kind. It certainly requires an investment of time and energy. Yet the pleasure of reinventing the old models, of seeing a new project grow, and of being able to trace unforeseen structures and patterns that emerge can perhaps be compared with shared passions experienced in putting together a yearbook or a zine: a material record of affective traces, as much as an archive of information and knowledge.

There is an old Latin adage which says: ‘Verba volant, scripta manet’ (Words fly away; written letters remain). The idea of a liquid book with multiple authors defies this ancient concept of the immutability of the written word. It raises questions of who wrote it, when, and for whom. The answer keeps changing every time there is a new entry. A liquid book thus seems to be not just a product of a digital revolution, but also a sign of postmodern times, where time, labour, connections and relations have all become, to cite Zygmunt Bauman, more ‘liquid’.2 Yet this is not a new idea for, as Jorge Luis Borges says in the ‘Poem of the Gifts’:

Something that surely cannot be called
As mere chance must rule these things;
The other has also received in other gloomy
afternoons the many books and the dark.

As I err through the slow galleries
I grow to feel with a kind of holy dread
That I am the other, the dead one, who must
Have followed the same steps in the same days.

Which of us two is writing now these lines
About a plural self and a single gloom?
What does it matter what word is my name
If the anathema is indivisibly the same?

(Trans. Harold Morland)

So who is writing the liquid book?



1. Ewa Balazinska, Joanna Baxter, Safia Benoauda, Iulia Botar, Gabriela Méndez Cota, Bolin Cui, Jeannine Escobar, Wojciech Franke, Jihyun Lee, Ying Li, Kasia Jaworska, Laura Lotti, Pantelis Mavrommatis, Viviana Miliaresi, Rebecca Miller, Marina Peluffo, Paolo Ruffino, Richard Webster, Joanna Zylinska, the Borgesian ‘other in me’ (more than one) 


2. See Z. Bauman (2000) Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity; Z. Bauman (2003) Liquid Love. Cambridge: Polity; Z. Bauman (2005) Liquid Life. Cambridge: Polity; Z. Bauman (2006) Liquid Fear. Cambridge: Polity; Z. Bauman (2006) Liquid Times. Cambridge: Polity.



Barthes, R. (1977) Image, Music, Text. London: Fontana Press.

Deleuze, G. & Guattari, F. (2004) A Thousand Plateaus. London and New York: Continuum.

Derrida, J. & Stiegler, B. (2002) Echographies of Television. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Diderot, D. (2002) ‘Encyclopedia’. The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Trans. by P. Stewart. Ann Arbor: Scholarly Publishing Office of the University of Michigan Library.

Galloway, A. R. (2004) Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Hall, G. (2008) Digitize This Book!: The Politics of New Media, or Why We Need Open Access Now. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Keen, A. (2007). The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture. New York: Doubleday.

Kelty, C. M. (2008) Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software and the Internet. Durham: Duke University Press.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1986) The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Mouffe, C. (2000) The Democratic Paradox. London and New York: Verso.

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