The Art of Rationalisation in the Age of Crisis – Interview with Miloš Rančić (for Media Lanscape issue of DeScripto)

Written November 2008.

Published February 2009. in Media Landscape: Serbia in Transition, DeScripto – A Journal of Media in South-East Europe No 3, Vol 4, Vienna:SEEMO, 2008. Download the original publication here.


The Art of Rationalisation in the Age of Crisis

Interview with Miloš Rančić (a linguist, computer programmer, Wikimedia Serbia, Ebart media archive)

by Vladimir Jerić Vlidi

The small research I did using your media database confirmed that the ‘traditional’ mainstream media would rather not mention “Internet” at all, or would report on it in a context of pedophilia, identity theft, terrorism… As somebody who worked on “internets” for almost 15 years now, would you agree with that?

– Well, considering Wikipedia, we are aware of it for quite some time. A lot of media would be reporting very negative, some even in a hilarious way, I can remember Press daily and how much we were laughing, but some were more serious in their accusations, like NIN weekly, who actually called Wikipedia “the Orwellian project'” – which is interesting, in a way that the consequence was that NIN itself became repulsive for quite a few of Wikipedia people who used to read it before. The most positive experience so far we had with Vreme weekly – there are always problems with being precise in modern terminology, but the overall approach would be positive. I have to say that I do not follow mainstream media that much, or at all – I haven’t been watching TV for years, for example… It was just a few days ago I tried this new 3G feature on my mobile phone, so I watched TV on this tiny screen for some minutes – interesting – but in general, television appears to me as some sort of the ‘amusement park’ of today, and if occasionally I sit in front of TV I just can’t stop watching, everything appears so unusual, to say… I guess I grew estranged of it.

Quite a few of the local journalists and different “experts” would still feel the need to speak in public about Wikipedia as unreliable, insufficient, amateurish, even ‘dangerous’ or ‘damaging’, although we all know for quite some time now, backed by all the relevant surveys and analysis, that it is completely the other way around. Where, according to your opinion, this need comes from? Why those people would not accept the facts, and not try to benefit from having Wikipedia, instead?

– You just reminded me on a thing I was contemplating for some months now. Let’s think of the profession of being a journalist, for example. Today, it is a very demanding job to be one, and even for some ‘simpler’ tasks, like covering the events around the city on a daily basis (for example, the daily shows like “The Belgrade Chronic” are covering zillion of different things) – it requires, besides ‘acquiring” the information itself, a high degree of diverse knowledge on different topics. What I realized is that it is precisely the Wikipedia which provides the education of the future journalist in an adequate way, as it makes you to ‘broaden’ the scope of your education, it learns you how to search for ‘sources’, it learns about the methodology of searching for ‘relevant’ information, and the methodology of ‘digesting’ and representing the information in an understandable and transparent way, and in a style which would be not that much different from a journalistic one – we can say that a lot of young people who decide to write for Wikipedia are by that very act showing the interest in journalism, anyway.

My personal experience is that the average Wikipedian (which would be a prominent member of community or an administrator) has a broader scope of education then the average journalist.

In the previous issue of deScripto dealing with local media landscape, published in 2006, still there was some criticism on Wikipedia coming from the people considered to be the experts, similar to what would be a popular misconception on Internet in general, claiming that it is ‘unstable’, ‘unreliable’, ‘over-simplifying’, and repeating other common stereotypes?

It is quite clear that the ‘rules of working’ are much ‘harder’, defined in more details and more transparent in Wikipedia then in all of the local encyclopedia projects…

…and we had a flood of “new encyclopedias” recently…

… yes, right. In Wikipedia, there has to be a relevant source, and preferably more sources, referenced; then the ‘tone’ needs to be neutral, and you can not play on the ‘authority’ card – in a lot, a lot of the other projects it is just one ‘authority’ figure which is referenced, somebody who wrote on something for which there are no other sources, no confirmations, and in that respect it is very problematic to state that Wikipedia doesn’t come to standards of any general encyclopedia. I am not really following all the new and different projects developing around, so still I take as the examples and references the never finished Encyclopedia of Yugoslavia, then The Military encyclopedia and a Little Prosveta Encyclopedia (so-called Mala enciklopedija Prosveta – officially: Opšta enciklopedija, treće izdanje, Prosveta, Beograd, 1978, which used to be a very popular and referenced one). Realistically speaking, compared to Prosveta edition, for example, almost each entry in Wikipedia is just plainly better. And, one more thing – Wikipedia is not a ‘wonder’ anymore, so that the people would be excited to speak and comment on it, nor we from the local branch of Wikimedia feel much need to campaign and ‘popularize’ it around – most of the people I meet these days know precisely what Wikipedia is, and are in general quite positive about it. People use it. It is here to stay.

So we hope that those “early adopting” problems marked with suspicion and fear will fade out, replaced by focusing on the “real” problems of Wikipedia, on about how it works and in which direction it develops. What kind of problems should be discussed regarding Wikipedia today?

The real problem of Wikipedia, and I am talking about the ‘big’ one here, the one in English, would be that it is still “thin” in those fields where, in general, there is not yet a critical mass of people who are also prominent in computer sciences, and in average that would be social sciences. Wikipedia is ‘thinnest’ there. For example, as somebody educated in linguistics, I can say that Wikipedia is pretty ‘thin’ in the field – of course, the main things and basic terms are there, but compared to, for example, astronomy, which is covered in tremendous details now, it is not much. But people around astronomy are familiar with computer technology and computer culture for decades. Wikipedia in Serbian would have slightly different problems, which would be similar for all the communities from the smaller-in-population languages, and that is that the certain individuals can still influence a lot; a good example of that would be socio-linguistics, where I launched the initiative together with professor Jelena Filipović from the Faculty of Philology and students contributed with three entries each, so the field is decently covered, I would say better then in the Wikipedia in English. But, in general, this is what I see as the real problem, still there is the lack of people from certain fields who are also prominent in using and understanding computer networks, and it is reflected in Wikipedia.

What is that the mainstream journalism is re-publishing from Wikipedia (as a consequence of it being ‘open’ for public use), what kind of ‘content’ in average is of interest to the press?

Oh, I don’t know what they (the mainstream media) did recently, I’ll need to search the Ebart media database to update on it (laughing)… But we seen everything – really everything – piracy, the ‘real piracy’ – popular daily papers taking and using the photographs, for example, or quoting the verbatim pieces of certain articles, and if all what they should do is to attribute it, but they don’t do even that, it just shows… Well, a bad attitude. A bad taste. But with some news agencies we have a wonderful collaboration. For example, local WikiNews is re-publishing the news-stream from the Beta News Agency, and it works great.

I see the potential for collaboration with traditional, or mainstream media, and I don’t think Wikipedia presents any kind of threat to traditional journalism. Still there is the public demand to have an extensive and permanent, 24 hours per day coverage (and also the space to sell adds), especially in smaller and mid-sized environments, like this one here – and I don’t think that the traditional local news services are in any state of immediate danger to be extinct. Still they provide the service some self-organized entities can not – they produce the news which are systematically covering all fields, deliver on regular basis and in time, and without much if any oscillation – in other words, I don’t see any treat to Beta, Tanjug, AFP or Reuters. But with daily newspapers, it is different; it becomes obviously an obsolete thing, to say.

Milos_Rancic

Well, the local numbers disagree – the circulation of traditional press is not growing, but not shrinking, yet; and just 30% of regular hardcopy readers do read the online version of the dailies here and there. On the other hand, all the newspapers have on-line editorial boards and are ‘competing’ to build extensive web-sites and archives, and the concept of the newspapers-for-free, introduced by 24 sata, provoked some response by the biggest and most traditional – Politika daily recently begun handing out Politika.zip, a free digest of the ‘real’ issue. But I agree that it seems that this sort of publishing is fading away, and is being growingly replaced by Internet – and I also think that we haven’t even begun to explore the full potential of mobile phones in this respect, for example – so the monopoly to find, produce and disseminate information or a piece of news is definitely lost for daily newspapers. It is already over. Where the potential of professional journalism remains may be actually in the journalism itself, not just in standing in between the news and the public, but in commenting, criticism, analysis, contextualizing, predicting, joining the dots – in ‘interpreting” the news, to say. The ‘news-as-the-information’ is already omnipresent, in real time and in all the formats and media we may use, but as a fast and short, bold and dry, somewhat disconnected ‘piece of data’. Journalists should be the people who are there to “interpret” the data, to analyze what it means and what are the possible consequences of it.

There are a few paradigms there. One is about the content, and what the nature of that content is. Another is the question of media, in a technological sense. When I am not behind the computer (and that is almost never), I am following the news on my mobile phone. The point is, the technology of such access to news is not in that wide-spread use yet. Still a majority of the people will grab a newspapers on their way to toilette. Me, I take my mobile. I do that ever since I got a first mobile which was able to do so. But this technology seems to be still emerging, and I am sure once it takes over people would feel no need to revert to carrying a bunch of papers around. The previous year may be characteristic by announcing the technology of paper-like computer display. That means that soon we will read from such displays, and you’ll have only a few displays around, which will show any content from any source on your demand, so for journalism I do not really see the option of not publishing online. What would be a revenue model for journalism is one entirely different story – I don’t know, probably advertising… And also, when occasionally I go trough a paper copy of the newspapers, most of the times I find myself reading the news I read yesterday online; since I already read the yesterdays news yesterday, I go online and read the news of today. But I think that aggregating news is still not that easy, and I think news agencies like Beta are still much ‘stronger’ then Internet, to say; especially considering the local news, they have people who do that all the time, they gather the news, filter out the noise, and organize these streams into categories which may be of your concern, otherwise you would have to cope with that. But a very small number of people is sufficient for this job, so it would be just a small portion of the people working in ‘journalism’. Journalism is becoming different now. I think that today there is too much people in media and journalism. Similar like in software – l also I think there are too much computer programmers. Simply, there is no need for that many programmers. Society does not require that much. Especially when free software becomes dominant, it will prove that there will be no need to have, I don’t know, 15 or 150 different and competitive pieces of software to do the same one thing you want; what for? Why would you need it? On the other hand, it doesn’t mean that there will no job for programmers, a lot of things are there to be done, but still it will require less programmers. And the similar is with journalism; there I expect even more of a specialization.

Some of EU member states, or in some cases the certain municipalities, already require by law using of free and open-source software, and the trend is to go towards open licensing approach regarding the ‘content’. What is your assessment on the current situation with using open-source software in public services and introducing e-government services on those principles here? it may be a bit far-fetched, as still Serbia is lagging behind what is EU or regional average in basic categories considering using of computers and digital networks.

There is something which is not reflected in the statistics. Statistics can be often misleading. Belgrade is significantly different then the rest of the Serbia. Belgrade is not that much behind in Internet then most of the cities its size, in average; but everything south of Belgrade is almost completely disconnected. The other thing is, you know, our position here, the position of the society, it is still like that the “pirated” software is one perfectly acceptable thing – and this is also my personal position – of course, there are other problems with it, as it is based on the technology which is “closed’, the code is closed, and precisely because of it being based on that kind of technology, you could have a lot of problems. Not just once it was proven to be the case. On the other hand, people use what is available, they do with what they have and nobody should condemn it – but the global trends are slowly being replicated here, as well. On this small laptop of yours you now have Ubuntu, I see. More people I talk to are considering to switch to Linux, or to at least try it.

Regarding the government policies, I don’t see any of this reflected there. There I see nothing happening really. I see some initiatives, even from the places which are close to the structures of the government, but in reality and within what we consider as ‘official’, nothing is happening yet.

Back to the story of local media and the Internet. The latest horror story I found in December spreading around traditional media was that the 80 % of computers in schools in Serbia are found to be infected with some sort of mallware. But it would always appear de-contextualized from the real source of problem, which would be the security issues of Microsoft products and the lack of education by the users, and it would somehow be attributed to the very idea of Internet and computers themselves, as being inherently problematic and dangerous.

But, regarding those issues, again I don’t find the situation here much different then in most of the other places. I consider myself pretty well informed about the topic, as most of the time I follow Slashdot – it is my main news source, as at least 20-30% of the news on Slashdot feeds I find I am interested in, which for me makes it by far the most relevant source compared to anything else – and there I see the similar problems being reported from more or less everywhere, including United States. There are people everywhere who are afraid of Internet, who scare other people with Internet, and there are numerous different horror stories about Internet emerging all the time; I am online since 1995, so pretty much from the beginning of Internet as we know it, and in my immediate environment I never ever experienced any of the “horror stories”. It is obvious that there is a campaign against the Internet among some social circles, or by some individuals; I attribute it to fear. Once some people used to be afraid of the soap, remember? It is the matter of understanding, of knowledge. Just look how the horror stories about the launching of the large hadron collider in CERN this Autumn emerged. People really thought that when they switch it on, the whole planet would collapse into itself, and whatnot. In some places on the Far East still people believe that if the fan cooler is switched on, you should not spend any time in the room where it is working, as it may “suck all the air out” and you may suffocate. Some Somalian tribes believe that local men can become impotent only by shaking hands with white men, so they will be afraid to touch you. Of course, a certain level of rationality and rationalization is always required. There are pedophiles around. There are people who would rape a 5 year old kid. These things may happen. But are not usual – how many people you met in your life which may do such a thing? None, I guess. Similar chances you have to meet one on the Internet, then – it is not much different, really. But you need to rationalize.

I started this small survey with the premise that Internet infrastructure, however expensive and outdated, became finally available in Serbia, and that the society entered the phase in which the wider social acceptance of Internet depends much more on promoting and researching the culture of using it, living with it, working with it. It is only this way that it may become both ubiquitous and transparent, a common thing, something which should be taken as default. Would you agree?

Well, infrastructure remains to be the problem. I myself had to pull a very strong “connections” in Telecom in order to be “switched” from the notorious PCM telephone line in my previous apartment to something which would be able to transmit data. But OK, let’s say it was a remote suburb, and that it was not the ‘priority’ to upgrade the lines there. Some parts of Belgrade still have a lot of issues regarding connectivity. Then I moved to the city center, and ended up making the improvised connection using the line from the apartment next door, as my line again was not ‘modernized’ and couldn’t be used for data. So infrastructure is definitely still something to deal with.

Regarding promoting the culture of using Internet, I quite agree that any sort of coordinated activity from the side of government and institutions is yet to be expected. There are some new people around now, so we will see. I had the opportunity, by chance, to meet most of the people who were officially in charge of the Internet by now. It has to do with the Computer Center of the University of Belgrade (RCUB), and with Faculty of Electrotechnics. This would be the profile of the people involved, they will be predominantly engineers. And it appears to be the problem. There are always two aspects of the technology, but average local politician would not be able to distinguish between the two, and would see it appearing as one. One aspect is the technology as in what engineers do – determining, planning, creating and maintaining the technical functionality of one system. It has a lot to do with hardware and software issues. There, without any doubts, the Faculty of Electrotechnics is producing a competent people. And this is what most politicians are able to recognize as “technology”. But, there is another aspect of technology, which for politicians and those in charge is not articulated yet, and because of which having those new people around is very important. You need people who know how Internet is working. I have no doubts that engineers would continue to make great functioning and very redundant systems for electrical distribution, or land line telephony. But Internet is different, as it requires all what an engineer does, and beyond, in order for it to really work. This is not to say that engineers would not be a perfectly good choice to deal with Internet – only, additional education is required, the one that goes beyond engineering. And I think that there is a big lack of this kind of people. I met engineers who can code in complex languages just like that, and who are able to program micro-controllers to do wonders, anytime, but who just happen not to know how to format the text in Microsoft Word. Probably it is different by now, and I think the situation among young people is much better in that respect – I am talking about some previous generations – but those generations would be precisely the people who grew up to be of influence in certain institutions today. The problem is, if you try to learn about Internet issues from some sort of ‘external’ position, you will always be lagging at least a generation behind. You need to be ‘on’ the Internet in order to know about Internet. This is the profile of people required, and those people would be able to “push” things. But still we have politicians who think “OK, this is something connected with computers and Internet, we need an engineer here”. This I see as one serious, core problem.

And, for the end: as somebody who lives and works on and from the Internet – Wikipedia is voluntary affair, of course, but before Ebart, you have been working with regional VOIP providers, so professionally and financially you depend on the Internet for quite some time – how do you access the consequences of forthcoming recession on Internet, on the people who depend on Internet in their daily activities and those who are directly employed on the ‘internets’ – what will change for you?

Well, there are a few aspects there. The company I work for is data-mining and archiving media. A lot of companies, institutions and political parties are depending on exploiting these resources in order to analyze and decide what to do next. Whatever crisis is coming, I think this is the last service they would decide to deprive themselves of. So I think my position is pretty “safe”, to say. On the other hand, I expect a lot of rationalization to happen around. There will not be much funding around for developing this and that anymore, and a lot of things would go under the process of rationalization. This rationalization should also include accepting the open-source and free software on much wider scale, and I actually think that people able to work with free software may be in growing demand. It also may mean even more of using the ‘pirated’ software. But I expect that a lot of programmers would lose their jobs and contracts. When a bank goes down, for example, it does not require developing of any software applications anymore. So, as in any crises, those who have more options would have much better chances to “get trough” – and it is true for programmers, as well. If you can code in several different languages, you have much more chances then if you know to work just with one; if you can port for different operating systems, you are better off then if you are connected with just porting for one. We can also see more of the outsourcing in one scenario I can think of, and much less in another; it is very uncertain which way it would go. But living in Serbia, one thing proved to be constantly true: anything is possible.