Floor Vanden Berghe,
About Antipedia, fake news, open source and algorithms
Conversation between Floor Vanden Berghe and Els Roelandt
ER: When I first laid eyes on Antipedia, I thought it was a special idea with a broad scope. To see how it worked, I typed your first name into the site. I received this answer:
A ''floor'' is the top of your grandpa's head. George Washington had a huge floor. Floors vary from simple dirt in a cave to many-layered surfaces using modern technology. Floors may be stone, wood, bamboo, metal, or any material that can hold a person's weight.
I suspect that this is a series of phrases that various people once entered. How exactly does Antipedia work?
FVB:Antipedia is a website built as an extension of Wikipedia. Wikipedia is built using articles explaining terms, proper names or other words. Anyone can make changes to an article: add sentences, add paragraphs, add images... Each time an article is modified on Wikipedia, that specific version of the article is archived. The Antipedia website compares these various archived versions. I wrote a piece of computer code that retrieves pieces of text added to Wikipedia but immediately deleted in the next chronological version of the article. Antipedia shows pieces of information that were added only to be deleted by someone else. So, in the example above, it says: “top of your grandpa’s head. George Washington had a huge floor.” It brings out certain ways of giving meaning that were found to be wrong.
The entire mechanical process behind the scenes of Antipedia runs on the infrastructure of the English version of Wikipedia. It is therefore inevitable that my name ends up in the article on "floor." Yesterday I read in the book All and Everything by composer George Gurdjieff, in which he talks about one of his frustrations concerning the English language. It stayed with me and seemed relevant in terms of looking up my first name (the sequence of characters: "f", "l", "o", "o", "r") in an English-language database:
The point is that in this fashionable language, the words "soul" and the bottom of your foot, also called "sole," are pronounced and even written almost alike.
Or as one of my favourite rappers, MF Doom, says in Rhinestone Cowboy:
We rock the house like rock 'n roll
Got more soul
Than a sock with a hole
But I am going astray.
ER: Wikipedia is open-source—anyone can contribute to articles. But who actually decides what is removed and through which criteria?
FVB: Wikipedia works on a voluntary basis. Some people who edit articles have fixed accounts, but you can make pseudo-anonymous changes without an account (in which case, it stores your IP address). Changes can involve either extending or reducing an article. I imagine some people, companies or institutions, patrol a range of definitions as watchdogs. There is no hierarchical structure on Wikipedia that decides top-down what a term means, as is the case with the Van Dale (Dutch Dictionary), for example. What a term means appears to be in a constant and dynamic struggle to improve and adapt. Digital interconnected systems make that dynamic possible. The result is a self-organizing structure whose end result is very valuable for users. The meaning of terms is slippery, constantly shifting.
ER: What if you disagree with certain additions?
FVB: If you disagree, you can make adjustments to the article. Sooner or later such adjustments will be made. This makes me think of my canary, which sometimes twitters very loudly. He does this to find a partner, and the louder he twitters the more chance he has of finding one. Sometimes I think that the process of defining terms runs in close parallel to the evolutionary idea of "survival of the fittest." What "fit" means in this context remains a question for me.
ER: I can imagine that attention is being paid to this in the context of fake news, right?
FVB: The idea of fake news seems inherently linked to digital technology. (For some reason, I’m seeing images of an orange-blonde howler monkey flashing by—also twittering quite loudly.) In my opinion, however, the phenomenon of kneading public opinion and coloring information flows is as old as the medium of language itself. If information is distributed by an organ, it will color that information in a way that is beneficial to its self-preservation. "News” seems to me to be framed, whether in the digital context or elsewhere. In every case, only part of the information is shown—part of the information is cut off, and another part highlighted. This framing is unfaithful to reality by definition. Fake news is like wet water. In the context of Wikipedia, the Antipedia website tries to formulate a response to this by showing what falls outside the frame.
ER: Now what would happen if you are of the opinion that the Wikipedia page on the word “floor”, deserves some explanation about you as a person, as “Floor”?
FVB: I have few ambitions to create a Wikipedia page about myself. Here I am very much reminded of the age-old nature/nurture debate: does something form itself through “willpower” or is it formed by its environment? Do I determine the characters representing me on my Wikipedia page, or do I let others define that sequence of characters? I try, as far as possible, to refrain from defining myself or external phenomena.
ER: It’s interesting what you say about fake news being connected to the digital context but having actually always existed. “Language is humanity’s most spectacular open-source project,” writes Gretchen McCulloch in her book Because Internet: Understanding New Rules of Language (2019). Does this also apply to news, to information, or to meaning?
FVB: I don't know McCulloch's book—it's difficult for me to take in the quote because I don't know its context. I fully agree that the internet redefines language. The internet and the way in which we are all connected in the blink of an eye seem to affect the foundations of the thing we call language. Cuneiform script, paper, libraries, the printing press, and Van Dale turned information, language, and definitions into static, solid, material things. The internet and LCD screens turn information into a dynamic game of flickering pixel lights. Meanings become amorphous, shifting ever faster. I recently heard this statement in an online lecture: “language is the ultimate form of anarchy.” I think that is a good idea.
ER: Is giving meaning also an open-source project?
FVB: “Open-source” implies a form of transparency. It means that the origin of something is not obscured. I think transparency is very important in giving meaning. I find the open-source method very charming. In a way, Antipedia also makes certain forms of giving meaning visible. Antipedia gives access to the source materials from which the final Wikipedia product is formed. The term “project” implies an activity limited in time. It would be sad to think of giving meaning as a time-limited activity—that that project would ever be finished.
ER: But Wikipedia keeps on moving, doesn't it?
FVB: It does! I would describe Wikipedia as a process rather than a project. Its unfinished nature is precisely what makes it valuable and fascinating.
ER: There is a lot of criticism of Wikipedia, sometimes regretting the gap between expert knowledge and anonymous editors. Of course, the imbalance between points of view coming from different regions of the world is also a point of discussion, as is the imbalance between points of view formulated on the basis of a particular religious conviction, gender specificity, or sexual preference. In Critical Point of View: A Wikipedia Reader (2011), Geert Lovink quotes philosopher Bruno Latour in relation to this. Latour invites us not to see the critic “as the one who debunks, but the one who assembles [...] not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather.” That is a very constructive vision. In the meantime, Wikipedia has been nicknamed “Dickipedia,” and there are countless alternatives, including Wikipedia cofounder Larry Sanger’s “Everipedia,” ( where you can -between brackets- even create a page about your own name). Everipedia works differently: it employs experts who speak from different identities (gender, sexual orientation, religion, region). So you can see what debate is going on around a certain subject. Does Antipedia aspire to something similar?
FVB: I really like Wikipedia. For me, it is a source of information that seems inexhaustible. Those who criticize its shortcomings are usually those who are in a position to make a positive contribution to it. I do not like the method of letting only “experts” decide what something means. Experts are often appointed through a hierarchical structure. Letting such experts decide on meaning seems to me to lead to a kind of censorship. Wikipedia creates a valuable debate between this expert knowledge and “anonymous edits.” An arena seems to be forming in which the top-down and bottom-up methods of giving meaning enter into dialogue. Dialogue leads to an accessible common field of knowledge. Antipedia brings out this debate behind the scenes, which often remains in the dark—it aims to give bubbling debate a form and place, rather than to be the result or end of a debate.
“If there were anything fixed in nature, if there were truths, all of this would, of course, be wrong. But fortunately, all truths are erroneous. This is the very essence of the dialectical process: today's truths become errors tomorrow; there is no final number.” —Yevgeny Zamyatin, On Literature, Revolution, Entropy, and Other Matters (1923)
ER: If I understand you correctly, you are what is called an “inclusionist” in relation to Wikipedia. According to some, including someone like professor of sociology Nicholas Carr, you have two approaches to Wikipedia: there are so-called deletionists, who only allow additions that comply with certain strict rules, and there are inclusionists or relativists, who want to make versatility and debate, as you call it above, visible and keep as many additions as possible. According to Carr, the inclusionists lost the battle back in 2006, they consider Wikipedia as it is today as a myth. It should therefore present itself differently: “Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit on the condition said person meets the requirements laid out in Wikipedia code 234.56, subsections A34-58, A65, B7 […].” Do you still believe in the myth of Wikipedia, or is Antipedia just a project trying to keep the myth alive?
FVB: I don’t know the nuances of the dichotomy between “inclusionists” and “deletionists,” so I find it difficult to give a concise answer. What strikes me is that “deletionist” has an extremely negative connotation, and to say that such a negative “won” smells like defeatism. The question suggests that the dialogue and open-source methodology behind Wikipedia is a myth and therefore fictional. I do not agree with that. Antipedia is not trying to keep a fiction alive, but to show the materiality of the debate. This debate has an impact on the material world. Reducing it to a fantasy or myth does not seem right to me.
ER: Hito Steyerl quotes Jacques Rancière, who claims that algorithms and other internet-related data function according to a dichotomy between “speech” and “noise” and that such a distinction has political undertones. After all, it divides a group of people into “citizens” and “rabble”—in other words it is a tool to exclude some people, not to see them as subjects who have rights.
FVB: I think it is wrong to classify data according to a binary system such as “speech” and “noise,” but that it can be a subjective, human method of dual interpretation. In my opinion, algorithms act within other, more complex, unintelligible parameters—like a black box. It seems to me that reasoning that follows from such a simplified interpretation must be wrong. But of course I do not know what nuances Steyerl is introducing. Anyway, Antipedia feels to me like a platform that puts that subjective “noise” in the spotlight.
ER: You also start working with algorithms in your book An essay on why language is deprecated (2019). Can you tell us more about that?
FVB: The book was generated by the artificially intelligent algorithm GPT-2, developed by OpenAI. I had that algorithm complete the sequence of characters “an essay on why language is deprecated” at 474 pages long. The result is a nonsensical text, with confused pseudological constructions and narratives that lead nowhere. To give it some carrying capacity, I collected it in a book that is available in physical archives. The book is a form of mechanically generated nonsensicality that infiltrates physical institutions. Here’s some unabashed advertising: www.book.floorvandenberghe.be, the book can also be found in the collection of Kunstenbibliotheek.
ER: You are also working on a Digital Care Manifesto inspired by the COVID-19 crisis. How can visitors contribute to it?
FVB: The digital care manifesto is an online platform that invites users to respond to the obligatory shift to digital environments caused by the crisis. The website invites users to engage in a collective discussion on how to make this shift into a more positive and sustainable system. I see many places where that critical conversation is disappearing, both online and offline. Recently I saw these numbers and I found them frightening. Here’s some more unabashed advertising on this project: www.digitalcaremanifes.to.
ER: What are your findings? Are there already results?
FVB: Since adding information to that manifesto is done anonymously (unlike on social media), it seems a bit more intuitive and passionate. I find the sweeping statements very interesting and necessary. I'm very happy to be able to contribute to a platform with that swashbuckling character.
ER: And finally, in May 2021 you also want to intervene on our Facebook pages. What can we expect from that?
FVB: A website and browser extension with a lot of randomness, noise, and nonsense. I find these things very valuable and I love them! To conclude, I recommend the 1956 film adaptation of George Orwell’s book 1984. This year the originally black-and-white film was rereleased and colored by artificially intelligent algorithms. The colored film can be watched for free on YouTube.