From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

November 28 , 2006*: Don't Bogart that Info

People frequently assume that I'm a Wikipedian. On the face of things I suppose that that's a rather logical assumption. I write rather obsessively (and certainly more obsessively than elegantly), there are at least a handful of topics with which I'm familiar enough to perhaps make passing on my knowledge a worthwhile endeavor, and I hold a deep-felt conviction that the web should be a repository for human knowledge. I'm also a strong believer in the power of the collective. And as though that's not enough, I've been following the Wikipedia from long before it skyrocketed into being a favorite web property. With all of these characteristics, my confession that not only have I never written anything in the Wikipedia, but that I honestly have no urge to do so, has caused more than a few eyebrows to be raised.

Admittedly, there seems to be something strange going on here. How can someone who seems to so fully fit the image not be taking an active role in such an important and impressive collective knowledge enterprise? My reasons are both pragmatic and ideological (and stem from experience as well). I definitely think that there's a need for an encyclopedic resource on the web. What's more, as far as resources go, I don't find much fault with the Wikipedia. My problem with the Wikipedia is that, as I've become more and more convinced over the last few years, such a resource goes against the very essence of the web.

Personally, I find it quite strange that among all the questions that might be asked about the Wikipedia, or for that matter, about any encyclopedia, one basic question seems to be readily, almost willingly, passed over, perhaps even purposefully avoided: Just why is it that we want an encyclopedia, anyway? There's no doubt that an encyclopedia is a source of information, perhaps even of knowledge. But it's the sort of source that provides answers to questions rather than generates questions. We expect an encyclopedia to be definitive. We turn to it because we find it hard to live with doubt. That being the case, the actual fact that we've learned is ultimately less important than the fact that we've found a fact, and that after finding what we were looking for, we're no longer in doubt. We may not know everything, but everything is knowable.

This "knowability" carries with it connotations of objectivity. We get the impression that it's possible to stand outside of things and to observe them from above. Because an encyclopedia houses, even organizes, human knowledge, when we browse through it's pages we're also reassuring ourselves that there's still order in the world - something far from obvious in a post-modernist society. And this perhaps explains why neutrality is so important - not simply in any encyclopedia, but particularly so in the Wikipedia that can't rely on a claim of verifiable expertise on which to defend what's written in its pages. We assume that presenting a "Neutral Point of View" (something the Wikipedia describes as a central goal) is a sign of being accurate and believable. If our source doesn't have an axe to grind, we can relate to it as being dependable and authoritative. Considering, however, that in today's post-modernist world even "not having an axe to grind" is a sort of an axe, it may ultimately be impossible to achieve a truly neutral point of view. A fascinating glimpse into the perhaps Sisyphean attempt to achieve neutrality is offered us by Marshall Poe, in the August, 2006 issue of Atlantic Online where he examines the attempt to reach an agreed upon definition of abortion in the lead sentence of the Wikipedia entry on that subject. Some subjects are undoubtedly more difficult to approach in a neutral manner than others, but for anyone adamant about a particular topic (and if you're not adamant about it why go to the trouble of writing an encyclopedia entry about it?) striving to achieve neutrality would seem to be more of a hindrance that an aid.

Jaron Lanier's (what? already?) classic essay from May of this year, Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism, did a good job of shaking up the community of Wikipedia evangelists and groupies. In that essay Lanier lashed out at the taken-for-granted assumptions of "hive mind" enthusiasts. He attacked the notion that a crowd was capable, simply by definition, of achieving a higher order of accuracy or understanding (or, of course, wisdom) than an individual. What rang truest for me in his article (isn't that a more elegant way of saying "I wish I'd written that"?) however, was Lanier's point that what's most interesting about the web is the fact that statements actually appear in context - the context of a real person with a real opinion. In other words, precisely by trying to imitate a "real" encyclopedia, the Wikipedia loses what could have made it interesting in the first place. By bringing us facts (whether true or not) out of context, a context that by definition includes opinions and points of view, those facts lost their ability to grab us, to excite and involve us. Lanier writes:

A desirable text is more than a collection of accurate references. It is also an expression of personality.

For instance, most of the technical or scientific information that is in the Wikipedia was already on the Web before the Wikipedia was started. You could always use Google or other search services to find information about items that are now wikified. In some cases I have noticed specific texts get cloned from original sites at universities or labs onto wiki pages. And when that happens, each text loses part of its value. Since search engines are now more likely to point you to the wikified versions, the Web has lost some of its flavor in casual use.

When you see the context in which something was written and you know who the author was beyond just a name, you learn so much more than when you find the same text placed in the anonymous, faux-authoritative, anti-contextual brew of the Wikipedia. The question isn't just one of authentication and accountability, though those are important, but something more subtle. A voice should be sensed as a whole. You have to have a chance to sense personality in order for language to have its full meaning. Personal Web pages do that, as do journals and books. Even Britannica has an editorial voice, which some people have criticized as being vaguely too "Dead White Men."
That's a lot of quoting. Perhaps even too much. But in this particular instance, it's also a way of allowing Lanier's voice to come through. And that, at least in part, is the point. Rather than trying to be objective, Lanier is presenting us with an opinion that reflects his own experience. It's certainly nice to be presented with facts - I'm quite happy to get them, to learn them, to learn from them. But it's a package deal, and often it's at least as important that we know where those "facts", and whoever is reporting them, are coming from. Of course when a group works on something, the individual idiosyncrasies that ordinarily accompany each voice are almost unavoidably muted. The seasoning gets toned down and an across the board blandness takes its place. Some people see this as a suppression of their own particular contribution, and they find it difficult to embrace what the group has created if it means that their distinctive contribution has been swallowed by the whole. This tension between the desire to be part of a larger group effort, yet also to maintain a clear and separate identity is certainly understandable, but it's not part of why I don't contribute to the Wikipedia.

So in the long run, I've chosen not to join the party. You might even say that, at least in this particular case, I keep my information to myself. I don't write for the Wikipedia because were I to do so, I'd be defeating my own purpose of finding, and giving, voice to information on the web. I won't go so far as to claim that we really don't need another encyclopedia, or that an objective and dependable free web source isn't a valid goal. But I have other tasks to attend to. Let others devote their time to achieving an agreed upon definition of an issue. I'm rather confident that the sun will shine tomorrow even if our encyclopedias are filled with inaccuracies, or (perhaps) worse, biased information. Today's objectivity may yet turn out to be tomorrow's bias, but even though it's no longer officially categorized as a planet, Pluto continues to revolve around the sun. Much more than an agreed upon, definitive, definition of a particular topic, what interests me is the often heated and emotion debate that rages as many individuals attempt, in their own, unregimented fashion, and on a myriad of different platforms, to give their own take on that topic. Rather than getting pre-packaged, white bread, information, I prefer to get the raw, not yet honed, stuff - spicily seasoned with opinions and real points of view. It's much more interesting that way.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

back to the Boidem Contents Page

Return to Luftmentsh