Accessibility note: if you have trouble reading this post, I advise you to enable the Read Aloud plugin in Chrome or read it using the Reader View in Firefox.
Name: Michele Lavazza
Country of Residence: Italy
Short bio: Michele Lavazza is an expert on learning technologies and digital humanities, and an advocate of free knowledge online. He holds a Master’s Degree in Philosophy from the University of Milan and currently works as an instructional designer at W.Training. He has been a Wikipedian and Wikimedian since 2010. In 2020, he founded the Ludwig Wittgenstein Project (LWP).
How did you find yourself in love with the open source and open knowledge movement?
I found myself in love with the notion of a universal and accessible body of knowledge at a very young age, probably because of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the all-encompassing knowledge bases of the Star Trek spaceships. This fascination grew, later on, when I got acquainted with the French Enlightenment. The first reasonably fast, flat-rate internet connection arrived at my parent’s home relatively late, in 2010, and in a matter of months I had discovered Wikipedia, started tinkering with it, and found great pleasure in writing articles that were always improved and expanded by the community. Since then, I’ve gradually learned a lot about what openness is and how free-culture projects work. The experience of taking part in such projects (mostly online, but sometimes in person too) has always been enormously rewarding.
“Digital humanities” is such a broad field, and often there is no consensus on its scope. What is the “digital” in humanities for you?
I think there are two important points about the digital humanities as opposed to the “regular” humanities. Digital humanities are about enhancing our interaction with the traditional subjects of the humanities (books, visual arts, music…) and about making them more accessible. Or at least this is what I think they should do.
An example of the first point, enhancement, is the ability to search within a body of text without having to rely on cumbersome and incomplete indexes. Another example is the ability to get closer to the Mona Lisa thanks to a high-resolution photograph than you ever could in the Louvre. Yet another is the ability to navigate an interactive hypertext version of Spinoza’s Ethics or of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus instead of the traditional, linear print versions.
The second point, accessibility, has to do with people being given an opportunity to read the texts, see the pictures, listen to the music on the internet, ideally for free and freely. The humanities want to be free; texts and other media want to be as widely available as possible. They are made to be seen and used by their audience. The humanities have always been about preserving and spreading culture; the internet just makes it easier than ever before.
Are there any technologies that you think could greatly benefit humanities? Why?
There are a few more advanced technologies, however, that are surely worth mentioning: last-generation OCR software, for example, is giving a huge boost to the digitization of texts, and improved speech-to-text applications are making texts much more accessible to blind and visually impaired people.
What do you think the future holds for publishing?
I think print books are here to stay. Maybe not forever, but I don’t see the paper book market changing radically for at least another generation.
As to e-books, I fear that we are going towards a “netflixification” of the industry. What I mean is that it might get increasingly difficult to own a book, even if you pay for it. This is a trend that, unfortunately, is gaining momentum in the US as far as libraries are concerned: the book is not treated as a product, but as a service, and you are supposed to pay a monthly or yearly fee to be able to read it. If you stop paying, or the provider discontinues the service, the book is gone. This is a tendency which should be countered by all means, because it’s only going to increase the publishers’ profits at the expense of the public’s ability to afford reading. E-books should be owned by the person or institution that paid for them once, and libraries should be allowed to do what we call “controlled digital lending”, that is lending electronic versions of the books that they own in paper form, to one user at a time, for a limited period of time.
What will be the role of copyright in the digital age?
In the best-case scenario, copyright will evolve to become what it was originally meant to be: a short-term protection for creative works that makes it possible for artists and authors to earn a living from what they do without making such works inaccessible or unaffordable.
In the worst-case scenario, the current trend of ever-increasingly-long copyright terms will make it easier and easier for publishers to profit from the classics for generations while hindering the public’s access to a vast mass of works, thus, dooming them to oblivion.
What will probably happen is somewhere in-between; the least that can be done at the moment is to expand the usage of free licenses and protect the public domain from erosion.
Let’s discuss your newest endeavor, the LWP. Do you think such initiatives could bridge the gap between scholars and the public, or is this is a rather ambitious goal?
That is indeed an ambitious goal. It is not impossible, however, that by making Wittgenstein’s published writings freely available online, we will make it slightly easier for the average reader to get acquainted with the philosophy of one of the most interesting people of the 20th century. This, in turn, probably won’t bridge the gap that separates academia from the public (and from the typical cultivated person too). But it will make that gap a little narrower, and that’s already something.
Just like many other open-source projects, you too chose to work with an international group of volunteers. Was it a conscious decision from the start?
The Ludwig Wittgenstein Project started as a multilingual project, because Wittgenstein himself wrote both in German and in English and because the very idea of launching the LWP was sparked by a new freely licenSed Italian translation of the Tractatus logico-philosophicus. So, it was only natural to try to involve people from all over the world in the project. For me personally, however, it is a true pleasure to work with an international team and I’m proud that we already managed, at least linguistically, to reach a step beyond the traditional Euro-American boundaries of Western philosophy.
Based on what criteria would you evaluate the LWP? What will make it successful?
Partly sheer numbers, partly peer recognition. As I briefly mentioned above, one of the reasons that motivate me in this pursuit is that I find it beautiful that someone might fall in love with Wittgenstein, like I did long ago, thanks to a piece of writing they found on our website. In this way, our website is like a public library, and the more people visit it, the better if fulfills its purpose. It is very important, however, to have one’s work acknowledged and hopefully appreciated by the specialists in the field. We are striving to do a quality job with our editions of the original texts as well as with the translations. We received a few encouraging signs and at the moment of writing this I just got a wonderful piece of news which I’d like to share: the University of Milan awarded the LWP a grant to translate Wittgenstein’s Blue Book into Italian. This is the kind of thing that makes your day, isn’t it?
What are your favorite projects you have ever worked on?
Well, Wikipedia will always have a special place among all the projects I have taken part in. I learned so much while contributing to that project – not only about the most obscure fields of technology and the humanities, but also about people and relations.
What are your plans for the future?
In the short-to-mid term I will dedicate all my free time to the Ludwig Wittgenstein Project, to my wife and to my cat. (Don’t tell the cat I mentioned those three things in that order.) I don’t think the LWP will ever reach a point of “completeness”, but it might very well reach a point where it doesn’t need me any longer. Then, we’ll see what the future brings.
"Michele Lavazza at Wikimania 2016" image via
Do you have any suggestions about who I should interview next? Send them my way!