A Conversation on Information
An interview with Umberto Eco, by Patrick Coppock, February, 1995.
A chain-smoking and jovial Umberto Eco receives me in his crowded, untidy but cheerful little office at the Institute for Communication Studies at the University of Bologna. A bay-window opens out onto a tiny balcony overlooking the garden of the villa where the institute has its offices and library. The walls of the office are covered with rows of well-filled bookshelves; a sofa along one wall is full of piles of papers, books and articles, a modest writing desk hidden under even more books and papers. In one corner of the room is an IBM 486 clone with Windows, a new article or book obviously in progress on the screen. Eco offers me a chair in front of his desk.
In advance I had given him a list of some possible issues we might discuss so he would have some idea of what was on my mind: Computer technology, the Internet community and processes of cultural change. I begin by asking:
Professor Eco, you're a man of letters, a writer, philosopher, a historian. On the desk beside you is a computer. Is modern computer technology actually functional for you as an author and literary researcher?
Eco glances over at the computer, smiles, then nods thoughtfully:
Yes, but sometimes the computer can also give paralysing results. I will give you an example: I was invited by Jerusalem University to a symposium whose theme was the image of Jerusalem and the temple as an image through the centuries. I did not know what to do on this particular topic.
Then I said to myself, well OK, I have worked with stuff from the beginning of the Middle Ages; my dissertation was on Thomas Aquinas.
He points to the rows of well-filled bookshelves on my left…
Here I have all the works of Thomas Aquinas with a reasonably good index, and I looked there to see how many times he quoted Jerusalem and tried to say what use he made of the image of Jerusalem. Now, if I only had these books – well, that index is a reasonable index which focuses only on the larger, more intensive treatments of the word “Jerusalem” – I would have found say 10 or 15 tokens of “Jerusalem” which I would have been able to examine. Unfortunately I now have the Aquinas hypertext…
He glances again at the computer in the corner…
And there I found, that there were – well I don't remember the exact number – but there were round 11,000 or so tokens…
Oh my God!
Well at that point I quit!
Yes, that's far too much material at one time, obviously.
Working with 11,000 references is just impossible. That's far too many.
So the system you use doesn't “filter” well enough in other words?
I cannot manage to scan as many as 11,000 tokens. Now, if I had only my old traditional limitations then I would probably have done something more or less reasonable on that particular topic.
That's because the human person who is searching does it in a kind of sensible, intuitive way, whereas the computer just does it in a very mechanical way and just picks out every single example?
My theory is that there is no difference between the Sunday New York Times and the Pravda of the old days. The Sunday New York Times that can have 600 or 700 pages altogether really just contains old news fit to print. But one week is not enough to read a number of the Sunday New York Times. So therefore, the fact that the news items are there is irrelevant, or immaterial, because you cannot retrieve them. So what then is the difference between the Pravda, which didn't give any news, and the New York Times which gives too much? Once upon a time, if I needed a bibliography on Norway and semiotics, I went to a library and probably found four items. I took notes and found other bibliographical references. Now with the Internet I can have 10.000 items. At this point I become paralysed. I simply have to choose another topic.
So information overload and this extreme, non-intuitive selection of information is the main problem?
Yes, we have an excessive retrievability of information. It is neither ironical nor paradoxical, I think, what has happened with Xerox copies.
Eco picks up a pile of papers from the desk in front of him and waves them.
Once I used to go to the library and take notes. I would work a lot, but at the end of my work I had, say, 30 files on a certain subject. Now, when I go into the library – this has happened frequently to me in American libraries – I find a lot of things that I xerox and xerox and xerox in order to have them. When I come home with them all, and I never read them. I never read them at all!
No, same here: you never seem to have the time, do you? Once you know that it is there, you feel reassured, and so you don't read it.
Xeroxing then can paralyse your reading activity? That's another risk?
Sure…That's another risk which is sometimes very real.
Yes, well then, what do you think about the idea of these personal information filters. This idea that you can kind of make a personal profile, and the system will search Internet on the basis of this?
This is what I call the art of decimation…
Decimation. You kill only one person out of ten…
He gestures towards the well-filled bookshelves again.
The number of books that only concern my specific domain, not to speak of the other ones that I receive weekly certainly, exaggeratedly, overwhelms my reading…
Your capability, capacity?
My capability, my time. If you have a certain experience you are able to… well, you can make a very random decimation. On this or that subject for instance, there may be no more than ten possible new ideas. It is rare that that is the case.
And the working hypotheses you make are based on these?
So… if I read only one out of ten books, probably there will be an idea in there I can find, and if it is not there, then it will be in the next group of ten books that I pick up. But this is a very random thing.
But it is also very much based on your past experience, obviously?
Oh, sure, it is random, but based upon past experience.
He reaches for a book from his desk and begins to thumb through it.
OK, now I am able to open this at the first page, to look at the summary, to see the bibliography and to understand if the fellow is reliable or not; if there is something new there or not. And since I have long experience, my decimation is oriented. I sense it is better that I read this, and not that etcetera.
So you are able in a way to recognise newness, or innovation?
In a way, in a way. I can commit mistakes of course, but if I make a mistake today, I probably won't do that tomorrow. Possibly I may choose to disregard some book or other and that may be a mistake, but the next week I will come across yet another book, and so on. But a student of 20 years old, or even of 30 does not have this kind of filtering ability. We have to invent a practice, a theory. A practice or training in decimation.
Well now, how do we do that?
Eco leans forward eagerly in his chair.
Well, it still has to be invented. There must be some rules. There are some very elementary rules such as: control the dates of the bibliography for instance. If you are working on a certain subject you may find many references from 1993 and 1994. But in relation to other subjects finding only references from 1993 and 1994 might be negative, you ought to be finding some older dates.
So if you read a book on Kant and you have only a bibliography from the nineteen-nineties then this is suspect. The author is working from secondary sources. If you are reading a book on hypertext and you find an old bibliography then this is suspect, because every day there is something new about this particular field. So there may be some first, elementary rules you can use in order to isolate certain things immediately.
If you are reading an American book on a certain subject and you find only an English or American bibliography, then it is suspect. The author should have a larger…
Yes, overview. But if it is a book on analytical philosophy and there is only an English bibliography, it is probably unnecessary to also have a Polish bibliography, even though there is a great school of logicians and analytical philosophers in Poland. So it all depends on the subject matter; on the state of the art. It should be absolutely urgent for us to invent rules for decimation; probably flexible rules, that change from domain to domain. Otherwise the future will be worse than the present, and we can reach a level at which over-information and censure will identify each other.
You see, you can cancel by abundance. You can cancel by subtraction, and you can cancel by increase or addition.
By addition, yes. But you know, this business of knowing what is relevant… I mean – and this is something that I am quite concerned about – the quality of the stuff you get via the Net. You know, in Cyberspace, or whatever you want to call it; the Information Superhighway… It's my opinion – I don't know what you think – but certainly at the moment there are only a very limited number of people who have sufficient access, sufficient capabilities, to be able to put stuff out there. And that's a problem as well in itself. Because the people who choose to put information out there, those people choose the content of reading for the rest, do they not?
Eco is silent for a moment.
Yes, I saw you had many questions in the papers you gave me the other day about all this new technology. I feel obliged to make a formal statement here: I am enormously interested in what is happening. I am trying to establish all possible services on Internet here at my institute, and to push young people to work in this direction. I think it is enormously important for the future, even for politics. I want to introduce into our curriculum for communication studies some special seminars in this area. Personally, I do not use those technologies. For a very simple reason. At my age, first, let us also say, at my level of “visibility”, my problem is to avoid the message.
Otherwise I will be destroyed by the number of messages. My problem is not to answer the telephone; my problem is to destroy the fax;the unrequested fax as soon as it arrives. Even if, or rather, when in the near future, I finally get an email account, my problem will be how not to receive anything. Because if there is something that has to reach me at any cost, it will. There will be some way by which I will be informed.
There are few persons in the world that can reach me and tell me: Look you should pay attention to this or that. Now, this is a personal problem of mine.
Because of your position?
Yes, even corresponding to, let's say, my ideology. Once, when I was younger, I said that after 50 a critic or a scholar mustn't be concerned any longer with avant-garde movements, but to write only about Elizabethan poets.
…writing about the past?
Yes, now why? Because novelty is coming so quickly these days that only a younger person is able to swallow and digest it, while an older person is slower in doing that. Why? An older person has a lot of experience, knows a lot of things and can very well work on more established problems than the young people who do not know enough to do that.
Well, no, they don't have enough insight of course…
This is a general rule; it's not by chance that my last scholarly book was on the search for a perfect language and not on the last trends in informatics and semantics. Because younger people are very fresh and able to see what happens in these domains. I personally have more experience and am better able to work out from classical material. In a way I think I have followed this principle. Obviously, I keep my eyes open; I am still very curious about all this. Really though, I don't try at any cost to try to understand and write about post-rap music. I am more able to make a good analysis of the Beatles, if not, of Johann Sebastian Bach. And that's what happens with all those new technologies. It is the same as what happens to a sportsman. You are a football player until the age of thirty. After 30 you become a coach.
Yes, exactly. But the coach of course has the responsibility of keeping himself oriented about what is going on…?
Oh yes, keeping informed, but he is not obliged to try to kick the ball every morning.
And also there's this idea of being a facilitator, rather than a user in a conventional way: one sees the possibilities that are available, and makes them available for the other people and just says OK…?
Yes, but it is younger people who must make the new analyses. They are more flexible and they are more independent of past experience. They do not risk repeating the same schemes; interpretative schemes. So why should I make analyses of programmes when they are able to do it better?
Professor Eco, you are an academic; you're a scholar. You also write popular books. You are writing, very successfully, for two entirely different audiences. Do you experience any difficulty withstanding tabloidisation of your work, where the tabloid media and the TV conform to certain genres and norms which may be uncharacteristic of scholarly work?
The problem is triple. There is not a single problem, there are three problems. First, a statement: I write academic stuff. I write in the newspapers – call it tabloid or popular journalism. I write my novels that by a mysterious chance have a mass success, but which I personally consider academic novels; and they are not easy novels. They are not love stories or things like that. So, there are three different problems.
Secondly, the problem can be considered from the point of view of the producer and the point of view of the receiver. As a producer I do not feel I have a split personality. All my life, the fact of studying something helped me to write more popular articles in order to explain the phenomena of the mass-media. The fact of being obliged to do this made me make weekly reflections – I would say irresponsible reflections – cooked-and-eaten or wash-and-wear reflections on what happened day by day helped me to collect experiences; to be attentive to what happened, and then to use the same material in a more organic and more profound, or more articulated and more critical way in my academic books.
So, for me, it was a sort of mutual help: the academic activity helped me to have instruments to understand the actualities; the continual attention to day by day events helped me to have material for reflection for my academic work. The story of the novel is another one, but equally I don't feel a split here either in my personality. I feel that what I do on the left side helps what I am doing on the right side.
Different is the point of view of reception. Here there is another problem: the fact that you are transformed into an icon. They are asking you something that you do not want to give…
Transformed into an icon: you mean in the sense of becoming an oracle?
Yes, an oracle. One is asked all the time, “What do you think about…?”.
Now, why should I think anything about that? This happens not only to me. At this moment in time, Italian journalism is such that every scholar every day receives a phone call asking things like: “What do you think about the marriage of princess so-and-so?”, or even incredibly stupid questions like “what do you think about the death of Greta Garbo?”. Now why should you ask me about this? You answer either with a triviality like, “Well yes, she was a great actress, and I was very shocked by that,” or, if you want to be very original: “oh, I am very happy that that lousy whore is dead – I hated her…” Obviously your answer cannot be anything other than some kind of formality. So it is not only a personal experience of mine, but of everybody. So you receive continuous pressure to do everything. That's why I told you that I don't receive messages, I don't read faxes and I don't answer the phone.
So you don't follow electronic forums, or take part in online news group discussions or other activities of the Internet community?
Not until now. But that is another problem, it is not due to the pressure at all. I will do it in the course of the next few months. But only in order to make a sort of survey, starting to put together some ideas. Maybe there can be something I might want to start with. I think there is an old book collector's network that I think can be useful because you can ask other people things like: “I found an old edition from 1643; I am not sure if there is a previous edition.” OK, I will use it.
Eco nods seriously.
I think that is one of the most exciting things about the Internet is that you can look upon it as a “community”. I notice you mentioned in that paper you gave me from the San Marino conference that you were a bit unsure about whether we could really create this Global Village or community. Well now I do have some reservations – but I certainly have had some positive experiences. If you find the right community like for instance the PEIRCE-L discussion list that I am a member of: I find this very good, because you have some kind of quality control there since people that “go there” only do so because they are specially interested – Now just to develop this point a bit: you were talking about this business of being an icon etc. and Michael Crichton …
Well, in the last year I have published three books. I was obliged to read tons and tons of dissertations and papers from my students. So of course I did not have time at this moment to play with Internet. In the next six months probably, when I have finished a lot of things, I will do it. OK. It's only a practical problem. Apropos the icon thing: the only way is to try and resist this iconisation – you answer no, no, no. But the problem has reached uncontrollable dimensions in the mass-media kingdom, because now it is not only your statements that makes a scoop, but it is your silence too.
OK, I see, yes?
I always quote one particular episode, because it is typical; but there are tens of thousands of such episodes. One day, as usual, finishing my class at 7 p.m., together with my assistants and students we went to a bar for a chat until 8 p.m. and then I went home, with some of them following me and chatting. We crossed Piazza Verdi in Bologna, in which we have the Opera House. What I didn't know was that this particular evening there was an important première. Well, I didn't know about that, of course I don't know everything.
Well, we crossed the square and I went home to do something, or to watch television, or to fuck – I don't know what. The day after, the headline in the newspaper was: “Umberto Eco did not attend that première!” Which is not a piece of news at all, because I usually do not attend these things. So, it was not a piece of news, but probably they had nothing better to talk about, so my absence became a…
…yes, a sign. Well, at this point you cannot do anything but to try and disregard those kinds of accidents.
To return to Michael Crichton – I think I wrote this in those questions in those papers I gave you – was talking of this idea of the mediasaurus, the big publishing houses. Do you think the media giants are at risk because people will be able to go directly to the sources of information? I mean, do you think that will reduce the pressure on the kind of icon figure, the expert, or do you think that whole thing is a myth, a total myth?
My first reaction was: OK, finally we have an acephalous system. Acephalous: without a head.
Without a head, headless. Yes, I liked that rhizome idea of yours.
A kind of a modern Quillian network, a sort of neural net…
An organic system…?
Yes, without archetypes, and without – well, you know all that – and this will probably change enormously the filtering of information. Now, on second thoughts, I have two problems: How much can this system remain acephalous? The overloading of the network at some point will impose some filtering and discipline, and at this point we don't know what will happen. The Internet is the greatest possibility of abolishing any or every Great Brother…
Big Brother. But it can in a second step open up the possibility for some Big Brothers to occupy the main lines and the main network. At this point, I do not know. Secondly: if it remains acephalous, then the abundance of information will be such that either you have reached such a level of maturity that you are able to be your own filter, or you will desperately need a filter…
Some professional filter?
…some professional filter. So once again you will ask somebody…an information consultant…to be your gatekeeper!
Take the example of a book shop. In the thirties a book shop was a small place in which every week there were one or two new books. If you went there often you knew pretty well how to isolate the interesting new items and so on. Now, a book shop like the FNAC in Paris, or the Feltrinelli here in Bologna, is an Internet in itself: you have everything. Now – an this concerns not only the young student, but also myself – if I don't read the cultural pages of the newspapers to know what is happening, then I am lost. There's this excess of information. Once again it makes you need a gatekeeper…
…a filter. So this filtration function of certain centres of orientation will remain. Take another example: once upon a time there was the upper class who had the great tailors that were telling men, and ladies too, how to dress properly. The lower class could only buy ready-made, off the hook stuff, so it was very easy to distinguish them from one another. Then improved distribution made it very easy for everybody to begin composing his or her own dress, we have personalised denims, blue jeans etc.
Composing personal styles, yes.
And in principle the wife of Mr. Agnelli Rockefeller and the young maid from Puerto Rica can go to the same store – for instance Bloomingdales – buy the same elements and concoct their own style. Now, has this eliminated, in the language of fashions, the class-difference? No. The rich lady has some rules for composition…
Yes, a code. And the young Puerto-Rican has not. Maybe they can buy the same blue jeans. In the end the composition will still underline the difference. Where does the difference lie? In the great filtering of opinion leaders like Armani or Krizia: they tell how to compose, and the informed, cultivated person uses them as advisors, while the uncultivated person invents styles by him- or herself. So, once again, you have a sort of total Internet of fashions – up to a certain level: Timberland for both. Everybody can buy a pair of Timberlands. Blue jeans for both, but one has a small, private network of advisors.
Advisors, yes. So what you are basically saying then is that culture will pervade, even though…
Culture or UNculture. Because the filters also can be negative filters. But there will be filters in any case. At most there will be an exaggeration, an overabundance of negative filters. One of the TV talk-show directors, or anchor-men here in Italy at the moment – Funari – is providing a model for behaviour for a lot of lower-class young people. It is a filter: a negative filter, but it is there.
We have this dream and the vision of the Internet as something which is very open, and is going to create a society without a centre, or is going to take part in the development of societies without centres;a general global democratisation: you don't really think that that is possible?
Eco leans forward in his chair:
Yes, but once again we are back at the problem of decimation. A student of mine who is a devotee of the Internet, and he is interested also, not only, but also in Peirce, he discovered a Peircean network. So he sent messages, he got answers. He started to argue with somebody. And he said to me: “Oh last night after my last message I got an answer from a fellow – let's call him Smith – which seems to me stupid and strange.” So I said: “No, Smith is one of the greatest scholars on Peirce. Probably you don't know him because he has published very little. He is a modest person who works hard at this university, but he is a great, great mind.” So he was ready to disregard Smith's message, probably because he did not like the first ten lines, or possibly because Smith was wrong on this particular point. I don't know. While he ought to have taken him very seriously, but he couldn't know that. Smith was just one among the hundreds that were discussing Peirce at this moment on the Net. Once again: which are the criteria by which you are able to select a Smith? They cannot come from Internet.
The criteria cannot come from Internet?
No. You have to find something, for instance in the journal Versus, in which someone says that the opinions of Smith are very important. So, once again, if you don't have a filter, you are unable on the basis of a single message to understand that Smith has to be taken seriously. That's the risk.
But on the other hand, if you are a participant in one of these virtual communities – Let's call them communities – like these discussion groups and if you have got a kind of critical sense yourself, and if you know a bit about the field…?
Certainly, and you can discover that Brown, who is absolutely unknown, is in any case so smart that it is worthwhile to keep in touch with this person. Well, OK, there are also these positive aspects. OK, OK. But there is still a risk that if there are at anyone time one hundred persons discussing Peirce, your discovery of Brown, as well as your disregarding of Smith will be purely random.
You think so?
You cannot read one hundred messages in one night and look at them critically to decide that Brown is the best. Brown is the one you met. So if you don't have a background code, at least as a first filter, the fact of knowing that Smith is famous should not stop you from reading Brown. OK, this happens every day: you open a journal. There is an article by somebody there you don't know. You start reading and say OK, that's good. I have made interesting discoveries in my own life by reading articles by unknown scholars, and I discovered that they were great. And maybe I discovered later that they were famous: it was only due to my own ignorance that I did not know their name. So it is always possible to make random discoveries, but a filter is in some way important.
Well, again, it's this community thing…?
There can also be internal filters. You can look at one hundred messages on Peirce and see that each of them is quoting Smith. At a certain point you feel that Smith probably has a certain…importance, or something to say, considering that everybody is quoting him. But OK, it is once again this art of filtering and choosing that becomes a very complex art.
But it has to do with two things, doesn't it? A sense of community: a specialised community, people with common values and specific goals. And it has to do with a sense of trust: that the people in that 'space' are talking sense, and that there will be mechanisms operating there which will get rid of extraneous stuff. I think that is one of the most fascinating things, but also one of the most difficult things is: just how do you find the right community? On UseNet, alone, there are over 3000 News groups …
Listen, I am not saying that Internet is, or will be a negative experience. I am saying on the contrary that it is a great chance. Once we have asserted this, I am trying to isolate the possible traps; the possible negative aspects. I am trying to focus on the critical aspects of a positive experience. I think it is also my role as a critic of media to do that. I believe that once completely developed and implemented, Virtual Reality will be enormously important for a lot of scientific experiences, but I have also to remark that if Virtual Reality becomes only entertainment for solitary persons, it can become a new kind of technological masturbation. So we have to consider both.
Yes, yes. I think that is a very real problem, but again this is a question of solitude versus community, isn't it?
The problem of solitude is enormous…
Eco pauses for a moment, and leans back in his chair.
It is a community but it is only a virtual community. Now, it is true that great artists spend their lives living in remote villages and writing letters all over the world and they establish these kinds of virtual communities.
Kant did that as well – he was a great letter writer…?
Yes, there was Kant. But I think of a great poet like Leopardi. He was sick, a hunchback. Repressed. Lived in a village. Went once or twice to Rome. I don't remember how often, though he travelled a little more. He was well known, and in touch with all the intelligentsia of his time. OK, it's always possible. But for every Leopardi, you have a lot of other people that are living in isolation, with elaborate forms of mental illness. One great problem of our time is the decrease, or absolute lack, of face-to-face communities.
I always like to tell the story of Bosco – San Giovanni Bosco. This Salesian priest in the middle of the 19th century who got the idea that was a whole new generation of young people who were working from a very young age in factories, and so were dispersed and separated from the family. He invented the oratorium, which was a community, to which those who worked could go to play and discuss. And for those who couldn't work, he established typographies, activities in which they could take part. So, he was matching the problem of despair and isolation in the industrial society with the possibility of people meeting each other, and obviously also having a religious purpose. It was a great social invention.
What I reproach today; with both Catholics, as well as former Communists or Progressives, is that they lacked the new don Bosco. There was no new San Giovanni Bosco of our age able to invent a new possibility of establishing communities. And so you have young disaffected males with guns killing people in Central Park. You have all the problems of young people…
The pathologies, yes…
Also of mature and aged persons who feel isolated. Was, is, television a way to overcome this solitude? No, it was a way to increase it. With your can of beer you sit down on the couch… Television was not the solution.
Obviously for certain people – I had an old aunt who was obliged to live all the day at home, and was unable to walk, and for her the television was a gift of heaven. For her, it was really the only possibility to be in some way in touch with the world. But for a normal person it is not. Can the new virtual communities like we have on Internet do the same job? Certainly! They give to a person living in the Mid-West the possibility to contact others from there. Is that a substitute for face-to-face contact and community? No, it isn't! So the real social function of, let's say, Internet, should be to be a starting point for establishing contacts, and then to establish local…
Places to meet face-to-face…
Yes, local communities. When Internet really becomes a way of implementing – through virtual communities – face-to-face communities, then that will be an important social change. I was talking with Professor Prodi [note: Romano Prodi is professor of economics at the University of Bologna, and prospective prime- ministerial candidate for a coalition of centre-left moderates in the next Italian general election] and I told him that the only possibility that you have to make a real campaign, is to realise in every city a group, a club, a circle. One of the real forces in the inventions of Berlusconi was not only to use television for political propaganda. He, having a big industrial organisation, established clubs everywhere. This was people that were proud to wear the badge and to identify themselves as belonging to a particular group. I saw them in the village where I have my country house. It was artificial. It was all set up in two months, so it wasn't enough to establish a really profound sense of belonging to a community. But it was an idea.
So I told Prodi that he should do the same. And one way to do that is to use Internet. Because through Internet you can reach, say, two persons in every city, giving them materials, documents. People will be encouraged to xerox all these materials and to establish local groups, networks. So it is a sort of collaboration between virtual and…
…and real communities. If we succeed in doing that then Internet will be an enormous element or factor of social change. If it remains only virtual it could lead some people to pure onanistic solitude. In this sense, most of the hackers are sick persons, because they sit passive. They play and intrude into the computers of the banks or the Pentagon, because it is the only way to feel alive.
You have just released a new hypertext encyclopaedia. In an article you published recently in the local paper in Bologna, La Republicca, you write that this work will contain more information than the Encyclopaedia Britannica. There you also wrote that the main advantage of your Encyclomedia is its non-linear retrieval and cross-referencing system. I always wonder about the effectiveness of hypertext systems in general, because someone has to make the links. So even though you call it non-linear retrieval, or whatever, it is all decided by somebody in advance?
Well, first of all: if you are able tomorrow to invent a hypertext in which every idea and every word, every adjective, every article can be linked with everything. OK, at this point it is obvious that even there, there is a filter which establishes the links. In this sense it will be very difficult to make a philosophical hypertext, because you will have to decide if you will link the notion of passion in Descartes with the notion of passion in Aristotle, which are two different notions…
Yes, completely different.
For Aristotle it is simply a cognitive event, and for Descartes, and for the 17th century passion has to do with feeling, sentiment etcetera. But in the case of our Encyclomedia, which was based on historical data, you have a certain guarantee. The name of a city is linked to other cities. The name of a given person links with persons which had connections with them. And you also can establish unforeseen links…
The users can make their own links?
Yes, because you have, let's say, so-called books and files. There's for instance a book on Descartes, and obviously in the book on Descartes you will certainly mention, let's say Pascal, or Gallileo. There are some immediate links, because Gallileo and Pascal are highlighted, and so you can immediately identify the possibility of there being links there. There is no pre-established link between Descartes and Caravaggio. Why? Because they had nothing in common except he fact that they lived in the same century. But I wanted to solve, or to answer this question: “Was it possible that Descartes met Caravaggio?” Descartes travelled pretty much. So, I have a function that allows me to ask about Descartes AND/OR Caravaggio, and I found I had the possibility of detecting that that meeting was impossible, because Caravaggio died when Descartes was 14. So, I established my own links
OK, I see. You are able to check that kind of thing then. I saw a CD-ROM recently published by Multimedia World that was quite interesting. It was a kind of CD-ROM hypertext version of the magazine. But it also had – you know the World Wide Web – where you make a server and you put pages on it and create links to other places from these pages?
Well they had put a World Wide Web page on the CD-ROM, so that you could not only look at what was on the CD-ROM – the kind of enclosed world of that – but you also had access out onto the World Wide Web. And of course, once you can get onto World Wide Web, then you can go anywhere…
I don't know about the present state of the Net. I guess I am able to have on my screen every article published by every newspaper in Rwanda and Burundi, or at least, if that is not the case now, then it will be possible…
…at some time, yes, I'm sure.
Tomorrow. At this point, OK, there will be other negative aspects. You will get too much about Rwanda-Burundi…
Yes, and it is time to go through it all that's the problem…?
And I don't know if the best article is in the Boston Globe, or the Los Angeles Times. I have no time to read it all. That is the problem that we are facing. It exists.
But again, you can't get away from this idea of trust and community. Because, obviously, if you want to find out things, then normally, in everyday life, you go to people that you trust, who you think have a fairly good overview, and you ask them, “Well listen, there's too much here, can't you give me a pointer.”
Yes, that is a possibility. But you know one of the first great events on the early nets was the story of George Lakoff, who wrote this beautiful article on the Gulf War. He understood that it was too late to have it published before the war. He didn't know anything at the time about the Net, but he gave the article to a friend who had “connections”. The day after, people were xeroxing this article in Bologna, in Amsterdam, in Sidney, all over the world! The article propagated because of a network, but more than that. It was because the opinion of a man called George Lakoff was…
…worth reading, yes exactly!
But then you have this other problem that publishing happens very quickly. You can publish instantly on the Net. And with speed, follows brevity. I have noticed that newer generations of computer users are learning to communicate in very abbreviated codes.
I discovered recently a new formula they use…
Eco takes out a notebook from the desk, and begins to write.
…which in Italian sounds very obscene: CUL8R, “See you later”. Yes, you can write a love-letter in this way with the same intensity of heart…
This is a kind of phenomenon of virtual communities, because it is so instantaneous a form of communication, and we also see a merging of oral and written language in a lot of these discussion groups. There's very much a merging of these kinds of things. Do you think this will have an effect on publishing per se; on the literary norms, on literacy?
In the longer term I think so, yes, probably.
Eco continues writing.
You know that under the Mona Lisa of Duchamp there is this acronym – pseudo acronym, which read “L.H.O.D.O.Q.” – in French this is elle à chaud au cul: “Her ass is burning”. Obviously this was made by Duchamp in his Dadaist period, it remained a shibboleth for the happy few, but I think CUL8R can also become a form.
So you expect written norms to change?
Why not? Once I have discovered it, and once I have told it to some friends, I will use it in my letters. Why not? This can also change the epistolary style of many people. But to me this is a minor problem, because there are a lot of technological innovations that have changed things. For example in 16th century books they tried to develop the first rights of protection. They called it: privilège du roi. It was one page saying that the king has decided that nobody could use what was in the book without permission. Today we have this:
Eco scribbles a sign on the paper, and shows it to me.
Yes, copyright ©, sure.
Now today, that is enough. OK, we have observed that it was useless to have a page of privilège du roi when we have this one which means exactly the same thing. So it is not something absolutely new. Every new technology introduces new idioms…
Or even norms?
…norms that at the beginning can terrorise the old academic who says things like: “Oh our language is being corrupted!” They become…
Accepted and functional in a new way…?
… and independent. In the sixties all the letters I got from the States ended with “love”, which had lost its erotic, sexual connotations. I could write, you know, “love”, why not?
Peace and love?
Yes. Once you have accepted the new custom it becomes normalised. Now I see it has disappeared. The first time I received it from a friend I said: “Oh, did he become homosexual?” No, he did not of course.
In your article from that seminar at San Marino on the future of the book, you mentioned Rube Goldberg.
Well, I mentioned Rube Goldberg because somebody there mentioned him, so it was not an idea of mine but taking up the suggestion of somebody else.
But you said a Rube Goldberg model seems to you the only metaphysical template for our electronic future, and that sounds rather interesting. Metaphysical template, is that some kind of…?
As far as I remember he quoted Goldberg as a masterpiece of bricolage. Taking it in isolation in my paper without reference to the previous token it is rather ununderstandable. No, what I want to stress, and what is perhaps important for a kind of magazine like this is that there is one kind of discussion item I consider absolutely irrelevant, and one other kind of item I consider mischievous. The irrelevant one is the discussion on whether the CD-ROM will abolish the book. Now, that's stupid, that's silly.
This was tied in with this idea of ceci tuera cela – 'this will kill that?'
Yes. Because as I have repeatedly said, on a camel in the desert you can bring a book not a computer.
Well, today you can bring a computer.
Sure, today you can, but it is always easier when you are lying down in a tent with a book, you can do this and that.
Eco takes a newspaper from his desk. He leans back in his chair, draping the open paper over his face.
You don't need a plug, and you don't need an everlasting battery either. Second, because there are kinds of reading experiences that can only be done with a book. I don't think it's possible to read Homer on the computer. But books split into two categories: books to be read, and books to be consulted. All books made to be consulted can be substituted by the CD-ROM. The future writing desk of tomorrow should absolutely be made up of two computers. A small clone for writing, and the 486, the great high memory computer to store dictionaries and encyclopaedias and books that you need to consult. You can't do it all with a single computer. If you are writing you cannot stop all the time to open the database, to look for the dictionary. Every operation requires a lot of movements and time. Two computers, and all those shelves
He points demonstratively at all the bookshelves lining the walls:
All the reference works?
All the reference works, yes. It's less costly. I have calculated the price of a wall space, considering the price of floor space – not in the centre of Milan, not even at the periphery – the price of these shelves in humble materials, not in precious wood. I discovered that every stupid book that I receive costs me $100.
Not to mention the environmental aspect of course – the forests etc.
Yes, also the forests… I receive an average of 10 free books per day. It is costing me much too much. At the moment I have an apartment of 500 square metres, and I cannot go on moving my home every five years in order to store all the books I get. If I could eliminate all the encyclopaedias and dictionaries etcetera, then that would be fine. And if it would be an advantage for me, then it would be an enormous advantage for a person living in a small flat. So all the reference books can be eliminated. All the rest must remain.
The function of the computerised reference book would be one of encouraging me to find paper books, and to use them as paper books, that's all. I am very optimistic on this point. I don't believe that you will buy the new diskette of new poems, if not for reasons of information, because you need to have them quickly. The book, even with the worst paper in the world, lasts longer than magnetic support systems, at least up until now.
The second problem is this utopia of the hypertext, and I explained in my San Marino article the confusion between hyper-systems and hypertext. Hyper-systems are a great innovation. My CD-ROM is a hyper-system. But regarding hypertext: I don't need magnetic support to recompose Ulysses just as I want. I do it with a book. I do nothing but that when I read Joyce: changing and moving and going back. So the idea of a hypertext that I can use to recompose 10 different novels is stupid; as stupid as Dungeons and Dragons or this kind of stuff. It can be a game.
Once a man called Saporta invented in France, at the end of the fifties, a moveable book. The idea was already present in Mallarmé. The idea of the moveable book was a sort of great metaphor for the infinity of reading. If you want, it was a metaphor for deconstruction. OK. Saporta, on the contrary, made a book in which you could mix…
You mean you could put things into it?
…mix up the pages, and the story would change.
A kind of loose-leaf book?
Yes. OK. If you suspect that even in a CD-ROM the links are pre-established by the author, well, even Saporta pre-established the possibilities of the story.
It's all a limited universe, yes.
Is it not better to read Shakespeare and then to daydream, dreaming of Hamlet marrying Juliet, and so the hypertext as a text can only be a game. The hyper-system, that is the future. The hypertext can have educational purposes: try to mix up things, to find new possibilities. OK, but it is not a revolution in literature or in poetry.
You don't think so?
No, I don't think so. When you have had what we had the paper books, and with Joyce or Mallarmé, you don't need the hypertext in order to have an open-ended reading of literature.
You mentioned Dungeons and Dragons. These multi-user virtual spaces where people can engage simultaneously in dialogue by writing. They can create rooms, they can assume character roles, they can interact with each other in ways that physical space cannot allow. A colleague of mine, Finn Bostad, told me that some of his students spend many hours in this environment. For some, it is like enacting a novel at the same time as you are writing it.
OK, it's a nice game.
Do you think this might lead to new forms of literature?
I have been using a fantastic hypertext for the last 30 years. It is called Scrabble. Isn't it true that with Scrabble you can compose every possible cross link, every combination of sentences. It's a nice game, it can have educational purposes. Sometimes my wife who is German learned part of her English lexicon by playing Scrabble. Sometimes we play Scrabble in English, or in French. OK, but if you are a poet you have your mental Scrabble. You don't need the board to do it. It is the same I think for all those kinds of games. They can be very nice to play. So, I repeat: they can be used for training people in inventing and composing, but they have nothing to do, according to me, with the future of literature.
But maybe I am a dinosaur: I am still living very well by selling old-fashioned books, and probably I'll die before the landscape has changed completely. So I remain open to possible developments of all these perspectives. At the present state of the art, if I had to bet all the money I have in my pocket, I would bet more on hyper-systems more than on hypertext. That's a personal bet.
Have you looked at any of these hyper-books, like those of Jay Bolter and Michael Joyce? They have made some of these things which are just basically a hypertext system, where you can go in, and there's a lot of text which you can explore by means of different links.
Yes, I have read about them… I have not tried them, and I know that my position can be the same as of Cremonini, who was a great professor of logic, metaphysics and astronomy at the time of Gallileo. When they brought to him Gallileo's binocular, he said “I do not want to look inside it, because it could mix up my ideas.” So the poor Cremonini remained as the symbol of academic bigot that refuses to try a new experience. Then, when you read a serious book on Cremonini, first you discover that Cremonini was a great mind of this time, even though he was not an innovator like Gallileo, and that it isn't true that he refused to look into the binocular. He just said: “At the present state of technology, those lenses are very rudimentary, so I don't think that they can really help me to see something more.”
It was an objection to the present primitive state of the art. So what I am making now is probably a statement that we are still at a primitive state of the art. I have not been interested up to now to try virtual reality. Because until it is possible to make love to Marilyn Monroe; until the moment that her clothes start floating away – well, then at that moment I will try! But as long as it is just a sketch of Marilyn Monroe, and I can have the real sensation elsewhere, then the state of the art is so primitive that I prefer to wait, that's all! If you offer me this possibility soon, or better still, if you offer me this possibility when I am 80, I will be enthusiastic about the innovation, and I will become a fanatic supporter!
Well, I think I tend to agree with you there. There's still this very basic problem which is one of quality. The quality of the experience is still very limited, and it is the technology that limits it…?
It doesn't matter though; I say go with it! But that's why I say that at this point I have the impression that it is most interesting for educational and training purposes, rather than for providing real new aesthetic experiences. Even though my friend Nanni Balestrini, one of the poets and novelists, of the new avant-garde of the sixties made a poem with the computer – mixing it up.
A kind of art form – computer art?
Yes, something like milliard de poeme of Queneau. So those experiences already exist. I have the first edition of Chinosura Lucensis by a 17th century monk who invented a sort of Lullian multiple wheel, by means of which he was able to compose several million poems for the Virgin. It's an old idea, an old utopia. And sometimes this provided real help for invention. So there is nothing wrong with it, but probably the final effect should be an object that I can move with my mind and not with my fingers, otherwise I will lose something.
Exactly. So this brings us back again to the kind of question of the interface and how do you interact with it? It's a problem I think with computers today that they offer another type of experience. Take writing for example. You write with a pen, you move your hand in a certain way, have a certain kind of feedback all the time while you are writing. On a computer you are doing it all by means of keys.
As a writer I have discovered there are certain kinds of things for which I still need the pen, there are certain things for which I need the computer, certain things for which I need a felt-tipped pen. And the kind of instrument I am using is influencing my writing enormously.
The material substance that you operate with.
Yes, when I come to think about it, this kind of action…
Eco picks up his notepad and scribbles on it,
…is very important. And this is so new that people have not really understood those differences. I don't know…
We have these new pen-based systems now?
You have seen my Foucault's Pendulum. In one of the first files, Bellbo says how spiritual it is to invent. So, there was a Metropolitan legend that said that my novels have been written at the computer, and they don't consider that The Name of the Rose was published in 1980, and that the first really good word-processors started to come in 1982-83. So it could not have been computer-written.
So it was written on a typewriter, or…?
Type-written or hand-written. But for the Pendulum, since the Pendulum speaks about the computer, the silly journalists argue that, well, “Your book was concocted by the computer.” And they still believe that you put some words there, and zzzaapp: the machine gives you the book. One of them said: “Well, it is clear that this is computer-written, except one chapter. That one where the boy plays the trumpet in the cemetery (the final chapter). It's clear that that one is hand-written.” It was the only chapter of my book that I wrote immediately, and without correction at the computer! All the others were hand-written!
Put together, yes?
Put together in multiple ways. Why? Because I had in mind this final chapter right from the beginning. And I thought about it for eight years so intensely that when I arrived at this point – I remember very well, it was in my apartment in Bologna at 6 o'clock – it was like playing the piano, like a jazz-musician: I put it all down very easily with the computer, following my mind and only making the corrections underway. It was totally written at the computer…it was just because there was more inspiration, so to speak.
People have still these kinds of mythological visions about the machine. And then there is a purposefully faked production of mythology. Those who ask you the most naive questions about the computer; just seeing it as some kind of mysterious machine that invents for you, are journalists who are using them every day. So they know that it is not true. But when the ask questions, they try to make them the ones that the most naive reader would make. So there is a kind of play of bad faith, mauvaise fois. So the journalist, who knows exactly that it is not the computer which invents for him or her, is the one who co-operates in the spreading of the Metropolitan legend, the false rumour about the extraordinary intelligence of the computer.
I was thinking about that book that you published just recently: Six walks in the Fictional Woods. It was rather nice the last essay you had there. The final bit where you were taken into this kind of planetarium…
Ah, yes, the planetarium
…where you experienced the moment of your birth. Yes, now that's a kind of virtual reality experience, isn't it?
Yes, certainly, and it really was computer prepared, because only the computer could remake they sky of that evening.
But it really was a profound experience you thought, for yourself?
Yes, for me, it was really touching, perhaps a little narcissistic.
And perhaps especially since it was a sort of expression of love, as well, on the part of the people, in that they had gone to all the trouble?
Yes, it was an expression of love on their part, but there was also an atmosphere, because my wife, who was with me – and it was not her night – but she was equally impressed and touched by the magic of the experience. So for me, it could have been narcissism, but for her it was really the emotion, of having the impression of something that happened 60 years ago.
A kind of being in the past?
Yes, it was really beautiful.
So it is in fact possible to do a simulation which is so real that it has a profound effect upon the person, by means of technology?
Certainly, you can enjoy Beethoven on a compact disc better than with the 78 disc…and sometimes better than in a small theatre with a “medium rare” orchestra. So I am absolutely… Well, I am a recorder player, and now the Japanese production of plastic recorders has reached such a level of sophistication that – then you can of course still have a top recorder of superior quality costing $5.000, made by a top craftsman – but if you compare a good plastic recorder and a normal, old wooden one, the plastic ones keep their sound quality; and they don't suffer from temperature and humidity. And though perhaps not for a soloist, but certainly for a group or orchestra they can work very well. No objections.
See also: Semiotics index ay UC Denver.