Some time back, the online tech blog Slashdot hosted a Q&A session letting readers post single questions to Jimmy Wales, founder of the vast online encyclopedia Wikipedia. Wales would personally respond.
Below is one such exchange, on the unimpeachable infallibility of encyclopedic references:
Editing of Information
Q: Wikipedia has become so large that students and youth in particular deem it the official truth. As such governments, companies, and individuals will constantly try to spin that to their own advantage.
Do you believe you will ever be able to reconcile with governments in regards to information they deem classified showing up on Wikipedia and private citizens that consider articles about them to be libel? Or, perhaps, is that just a fight you will need to struggle against for all eternity?
A: Wales: Human beings will never stop quarreling. It’s part of the glorious nature of our species. Government will never cease being stupid and overstepping their boundaries. That, too, is part of the human condition.
The real question is: can open systems adapt and respond in mostly effective ways to deal with the worst of it? And the answer to that is clearly YES.
WHAT’S THIS REALLY ABOUT?
The Old Way
In the previous century, the standard reference works for home, school or library were “encyclopedias,” literally a circle of learning or course of instruction. Most readers remember the reference standard Encyclopedia Britannica. Perhaps appropriately, we’ve linked the topic to the Wikipedia article here.
There used to be many other encyclopedias, such as Encyclopedia Americana and World Book, which focused on knowledge and learning from a slightly more national, occupational or educational-level perspective, not to mention specialty encyclopedias and dictionaries like Bartlett’s and Webster’s, or indispensable compendiums on professional subjects like medicine, science, and engineering. Encyclopedia Britannica published its last print edition in 2012. A subscription-model online edition still carries on.
Traditional encyclopedias were written by accredited subject matter experts, and edited by boards of other professional editors and academics, often drawn from the ranks of the university and college communities. Every effort was made to ensure article content was as objective and factual as possible, and to present “controversial” topics (such as the American Civil War) as historical recitations of documentable and footnoted fact, along with terse descriptions of the motivations and viewpoints of various opposing sides and viewpoints.
That’s how we came to regard encyclopedias as “gospel,” unimpeachable sources of fact as it were, at least insofar as it’s possible for humans to agree on facts and interpretations. Many a family argument used to be settled by referring to the family encyclopedia.
The problem with the static encyclopedia: the “accuracy” of the encyclopedic “answer” was sometimes dependent on the views and objectivity of the contributors and editors. And you might never know when this was the case, unless you were already an expert on that topic. An article on “Laissez-Faire Capitalism” would definitely read quite differently if prepared under the vigilant eye of the conservative University of Chicago, as opposed to the more liberal eye of the University of California Berkeley.
In defense of the bound volume, it is a static record of the period or era in which it was printed. I have an old Encyclopedia Britannica given to me in the 1970’s, missing two volumes, that’s about twenty years older than that. In preparing my 2002 Astronomy article “Stardust: Where do rocks come from?” I was startled to realize how little mid-century encyclopedias could tell us about supernova explosions, and how these seed the universe with the “heavy” elements that make life possible on Earth.
It’s not often we get a chance to save the Carrier Pigeon. Old bound and printed encyclopedias are a “state of knowledge” frozen in time. We rarely can find that online. Projects like Google Books can preserve those “legacy” volumes. In my opinion, at least, such projects should be supported.
The New Way
The guiding principle of Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia is that, following the Wiki process, anyone can contribute to or update an article. There are controls, and there is oversight, most of it peer oversight. You can find a Wikipedia article on Harold “The End of World is Coming” Camping, but you won’t find an article asserting that there’ll be no need to pick up the kids after school, because the world will end at exactly 2PM.
Wikipedia says it currently hosts almost 4.3 million articles. If printed and bound, that would amount to 1,902 hardcopy volumes. I can’t get my arms around the number of Wikipedia contributors in a reasonable span of time, but it seems to be around a million a month, both first-time and repeat. Wikipedians seem to measure productivity in number of edits, not number of new posts. There’s a list of the top 1,000 individual “heavy hitters,” the highest of those amassing over 1,000,000 edits each.
When peer review hits the law of large numbers, some interesting statistical things begin happen for data reliability. It’s no coincidence Wikipedia, in its many international languages, is widely regarded as such a reliable and authoritative reference source.
Wikipedia “works” because constant many-hands peer review tends in the long run to correct inaccuracies and misleading or poorly written entries. If I happen to remember that the early Apple ‘HyperCard’ was a “scripting language” and not a full-fledged “computer program,” to give a hypothetical example, Wikipedia provides a way for me to update the inaccuracy.
If someone were to write an egregiously wrong, incompetent, agenda-biased, prejudiced or sloppy article, chances are it may start a Wikipedia flame war. As in the real world, eventually these anomalies sort themselves out whenever clearer heads finally prevail.
That’s why I think Jimmy Wales dropped the ball, or sold himself short, on explaining why open systems like Wikipedia are so effective.
Yes, again, where the topic can support different points of view and controversial differences of opinion, Wikipedia can be messy, just like the real world.
The difference between Wikipedia and the old printed and bound encyclopedias should by now be pretty obvious. Wikipedia has transparency and accountability.
The old system by its nature allowed for little or no difference of opinion. Once it went to print there was no way of recalling or updating the content. Anyone who ever tried to use the “annual update” volumes, as I once did, is likely to praise them as an effective and helpful research tool. No wonder we took those compendiums as unimpeachable. Any disagreement was swept under the carpet.
There’s a very good reason why printed volumes were called “bound.” Once you bought a set, your knowledge base stopped growing and evolving. Wikipedia is a NON-filterable knowledge base with an almost unlimited supply of subject matter experts. When there are disagreements, these are easily discoverable at a glance.
The person originally questioning Jimmy Wales about information editing obviously had government or corporate censorship and redacting in mind. While I don’t personally believe governments in free western nations have yet made significant inroads toward controlling freedom of online content on Wikipedia or of the press in general, we can expect occasional interaction on classified information, such as pertains to military or national security. To the extent that might be true, it’s not necessarily likely we’d hear much about it. Corporate redacting must go through the courts and the libel laws.
Having said that, if it hits the national media fan, such as on the recent Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden affairs, or the 2001 Enron scandal, it’s fair game for Wikipedia, blogs such as mine, and other online and offline publications, and I’m not particularly worried about it yet.
The highly visible sporadic messiness of Wikipedia open source authoring is superior to the old system of institutionalized consensus and dogma. The “new” system is a stochastic process; a new entry starts out with bumps and warts, perhaps lacking the Britannica finished eloquence of Oxford verbiage, but with a clearly defined aim of providing useful information about the topic. With the aid of many hands, perhaps thousands over time, the Wikipedia topic quickly becomes a polished authoritative reference, and a superior one, for it is never frozen in a stasis of printed paper. It can always evolve and adapt to new information and discovery.
In effect, it became the first impeachable reference work that’s corrected real-time by the same processes that challenge it.
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