July 05, 2004

How Habermas blew it

The June 22 Eurozine has (an English translation of) an (originally German) article by Thierry Chervel, entitled "Europe loses ground".

The Europeans have invented the internet, but the Americans have come up with all business ideas for it. Moreover, American newspapers have proved much more generous when it comes to giving free access to their articles and publications. If Europe wants to create a public sphere, then European newspapers must finally wake up to the chances that the Internet provides.

One symptom of the problems that Chervel describes is the fact that he himself has no home page, as far as I can tell. This is the pathetic best that Google can come up with (translated here for the Eurozine piece), at least on the first few pages it returns. Journalist, document thyself!

Maybe things are turning around a bit for Old Europe: since last December, French has passed Farsi and Polish to vault into third place in the NITLE blog census, and is pressing Portuguese hard for second. And German has moved up from seventh to sixth.

Chinese (Big 5)

On the other hand, Spanish has slipped from sixth to seventh, and Italian is unchanged at eighth.

Chervel's essay is an instance of a familiar European hand-wringing type. It's reminiscent in some ways of American political self-loathing, but a closer analogy might be traditional American "missile gap" or "Japanese challenge" jeremiads. Or the old Soviet propaganda about how it was Russians who invented baseball, ice cream and electricity.

Like the American "gap" literature and the Soviet invention stories, Chervel stretches the facts more than a bit, for example when he writes that "Europe supplied the free industrywide standards for the incredible rise of the Internet". However, he makes some interesting points, especially this one:

The saddest embodiment of Donald Rumsfeld's word of the "old Europe" was the work of the German philosophy professor Jürgen Habermas, who wanted to launch his "Kerneuropa -initiative" against the Iraq war and the "new Europe" via various European newspapers. He published his own article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and assigned his colleagues to the Süddeutsche Zeitung , to the El Pais and in the Corriere della Serra. None of these papers however published the articles online. An interested intellectual in Madrid, Paris or Berlin would have had to go the main train station and purchase four newspapers from three different countries. A few days later, the debate was quickly forgotten.

Had Habermas invested a few thousand Euros to build his small website, had he published his article and those of his colleagues simultaneously in English, the sensation would have been big. Newspapers would have been forced to report. Maybe they would have intervened with their own contributions into the debate. Simultaneously the public would have been able to discuss in forums on "Kerneuropa.org" and through the use of the English language, the entire international public would have been able to participate. [emphasis added].

Would it really have required even a few thousand Euros to build a "small website"? I don't think so.

Like Chervel, Habermas doesn't seem to have even a home page, but there is a web site devoted to his thought -- hosted at California State University, Dominguez Hills, with University of Wisconsin, Parkside. I'll bet that the three professors who founded and run it (two of them emeritus) have not invested any "few thousand Euros".

I can certainly be precise about the financial requirements for Language Log's first year of operation: sweat equity aside, it was $21.85 for the registration of the three domain names languagelog.org/net/com. The web server runs in spare cycles on a (pre-existing) $700 Dell PC used mainly for other purposes in a university office -- its typical load is under .5, even serving around 4,000 pages a day for this site as well as hosting other services for one of my research projects. And my university can handle the (modest) internet bandwidth required for an essentially all-text weblog, without even noticing it (not that any policies are being violated, as far as I know). At some point we might move to a professionally-hosted site, but I don't expect that to cost a great deal either. If it had cost several thousand dollars to start Language Log, I don't think we would have tried the experiment.

It looks to me as if Habermas' university has net access, and I bet there are people there who know how to set up a web site, probably some of them even in his institute. One of the sources of the problem that worries Chervel is that Europeans may be less willing to try informal, inexpensive, bottom-up experiments, of the kind that were involved in the very early stages of Amazon and Google. Certainly my own experience, over 15 years of joint Euro-American research cooperation of various kinds, is that the Europeans generally want to invest a lot of money and time in preparatory studies and surveys and design committees and the like, whereas the Americans would rather "just do it."

Chervel goes on to say that

...the contrast does not lie between Europe and America but between the English speaking public and all others. An Internet service provider such as Arts&Letters Daily which selects the "Articles of Note" for its daily press briefing exclusively from cultural magazines and quality media, can rely on hundreds of sources. Amongst the "articles of note" this week was an article from the English language version of the Arabic newspaper Al Ahram as well as an article from the Guardian or from a obscure journal of an American university institute.

I'm not sure that I believe this. The European intellectual class is multilingual -- if a version of ALD that cited articles in French, German, Italian, Spanish etc. wouldn't work, it's not because of language barriers.

Look at Onze Taal, for example. I read it almost every day, and I'm not even European. I wonder whether Chervel knows that it exists?


[Update: I forgot to check, but there acutally is a kerneuropa.de, though I'm not sure that it has anything to do with this discussion.

And searching Google for {kerneuropa Habermas} returns 663 hits, some of which seem to provide an interesting gateway to other information. I don't think that any of them are what Chervel was asking for, though I'm not sure -- and I wonder if he checked, either.

For those interested in the content of the Habermas/Derrida Kerneuropa initiative, here is an interview with Richard Wolin on the subject, and (contra Chervel) a link to a version of the statement on the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung web site. None of this leads me to believe that this initiative's lack of popular response has much to do with European newspapers' lack of internet presence, or with the failure of Habermas and his associates to make more creative use of the medium. The ideas themselves seem less than inspiring. But I'm prepared to believe that there are differences in the role of the net in public discourse in Kerneuropa vs. the U.S. ]


Posted by Mark Liberman at July 5, 2004 06:11 PM

Libération, the French newspaper involved (mentioned in the Wolin interview), is the natural home of stroppy leftiste intellectuals, and was my bladet of preference for a large chunk of last year, so I went and had a look for this. I can find Derrida's brief statement of co-signature, which is not on the free archive and is by no means worth the two (2) EUR I just spent on it to prove that Libé's e-commerce back end is up to snuff (which it is).

Their search engine (like all in-house ones) is utterly broken, though, and with stuff that's fallen off the FreeWeb Google can't always help (the NYT has the same problem, to say nothing of the other Anglophone pay-per-view bladets, which is plenty), but my Google Fu is strong, and I eventually tracked down the original article in its lair, and purchased also that. (And then bludgeoned it into a form html2ps could print, sigh. At least it comes out at 5 and a bit yummy pages of A4 of Surgin' Jurgen's finest.)

So it's a safe bet that it would have been online for free for its week's grace period, and I wouldn't be all that surprised if that was true of at least some of the others also.

(And, for what it's worth, a newsagent ("newstand") five minute's walk from my office has (I think) all of the papers mentioned - it is a touchingly parochial German touch to assume that the "main train station" is where to get press from the Federal Republics of Foreignia.)

I'd love to see a pan-lingual link-driven A&L-style thing, though!

Posted by: des von bladet at July 6, 2004 05:03 AM

If "Europeans" means non-English-speaking persons, then Chervel is wrong: the Internet was invented by Tim Berners-Lee in spare moments at CERN. The locale was Switzerland, Berners-Lee is British, but his approach to the invention of the Net was what's thought of above as being characteristically American.

I make the point because Chervel's rattling focuses on non-Anglophone uses of the Net.

Posted by: Harold Hungerford at July 6, 2004 04:18 PM

Yikes! No, Tim Berners-Lee did not invent the Internet -- what he is properly credited for is the World Wide Web. There's a difference. See the histories page of the Internet Society (http://www.isoc.org/internet/history/) for all the information you could possible want, and more.

Posted by: Philip Resnik at July 6, 2004 07:50 PM

... as TBL himself says (http://www.w3.org/People/Berners-Lee/FAQ#Internet). But still, this is looking more and more like Chervel being the one who doesn't 'get' the Web, rather than something that can be easily generalised. Even if he's right about Habermas, newspapers anywhere (as des says) can be very patchy in what they offer online, and academics likewise, whether European or not. For instance, I find it surprising and disappointing that Samuel R Delany doesn't have a home page.

Posted by: Ray Girvan at July 7, 2004 12:07 AM