Posted by: lrrp | September 28, 2007

Wikipedia: Our virtual Middle Ages

Wikipedia embodies a democratic medievalism that does not respect claims to personal expertise in the absence of verifiable sources.

By Steve Fuller

Wikipedia , the online encyclopedia, is the most impressive collective intellectual project ever attempted – and perhaps achieved. It demands both the attention and the contribution of anyone concerned with the future of knowledge. Because of the speed with which it has become a fixture in cyberspace, Wikipedia ‘s true significance has gone largely unremarked. Since its sixth anniversary in 2007, Wikipedia has consistently ranked in the top ten most frequently viewed Web sites worldwide. Everyday it is consulted by 7% of all 1.2 billion Internet users, and its rate of usage is growing faster than that of Internet usage as a whole.

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia to which anyone with a modicum of time, articulateness, and computer skills can contribute. Anyone can change any entry or add a new entry, and the results will immediately appear for all to see – and potentially contest. “Wiki” is a Hawaiian root that was officially added to English in 2007 to signify something done quickly – in this case, changes in the collective body of knowledge. Some 4.7 million “Wikipedians” have now contributed to 5.3 million entries, one-third of which are in English, with the rest in more than 250 other languages. Moreover, there is a relatively large group of hardcore contributors: roughly 75,000 Wikipedians have made at least five contributions in any given 30-day period.

The quality of articles is uneven, as might be expected of a self-organizing process, but it is not uniformly bad. True, topics favored by sex-starved male geeks have been elaborated in disturbingly exquisite detail, while less alluring matters often lie fallow. Nevertheless, according to University of Chicago Law professor Cass Sunstein, Wikipedia is now cited four times more often than the Encyclopedia Britannica in US judicial decisions. Moreover, Nature ‘s 2005 evaluation of the two encyclopedias in terms of comparably developed scientific articles found that Wikipedia averaged four errors to the Britannica ‘s three. That difference probably has been narrowed since then.

Wikipedia’s boosters trumpet it as heralding the arrival of “Web 2.0.” Whereas “Web 1.0” facilitated the storage and transmission of vast amounts of different kinds of information in cyberspace, “Web 2.0” supposedly renders the whole process interactive, removing the final frontier separating the transmitter and receiver of information. But we have been here before – in fact, for most of human history.

The sharp divide between producers and consumers of knowledge began only about 300 years ago, when book printers secured royal protection for their trade in the face of piracy in a rapidly expanding literary market. The legacy of their success, copyright law, continues to impede attempts to render cyberspace a free marketplace of ideas. Before, there were fewer readers and writers, but they were the same people, and had relatively direct access to each other’s work.

Indeed, a much smaller, slower, and more fragmented version of the Wikipedia community came into existence with the rise of universities in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Europe. The large ornamental codices of the early Middle Ages gave way to portable “handbooks” designed for the lighter touch of a quill pen. However, the pages of these books continued to be made of animal hide, which could easily be written over.

This often made it difficult to attribute authorship, because a text might consist of a copied lecture in which the copyist’s comments were inserted and then perhaps altered as the book passed to other hands. Wikipedia has remedied many of those technical problems. Any change to an entry automatically generates a historical trace, so entries can be read as what medieval scholars call a “palimpsest,” a text that has been successively overwritten. Moreover, “talk pages” provide ample opportunity to discuss actual and possible changes.

While Wikipedians do not need to pass around copies of their text – everyone owns a virtual copy – Wikipedia ‘s content policy remains deeply medieval in spirit.

That policy consists of three rules:

  1. No original research;
  2. A neutral point of view;
  3. Verifiability.

These rules are designed for people with reference material at their disposal but no authority to evaluate it. Such was the epistemic position of the Middle Ages, which presumed all humans to be mutually equal but subordinate to an inscrutable God. The most one could hope for, then, was a perfectly balanced dialectic. In the Middle Ages, this attitude spawned scholastic disputation.

In cyberspace, the same practice, often dismissed as “trolling,” remains the backbone of Wikipedia ‘s quality control. Wikipedia embodies a democratic medievalism that does not respect claims to personal expertise in the absence of verifiable sources. To fully realize this ideal, participation in Wikipedia might be made compulsory for advanced undergraduates and Master’s degree candidates worldwide. The expected norms of conduct of these students correspond exactly to Wikipedia ‘s content policy: one is not expected to do original research, but to know where the research material is and how to argue about it.

Compulsory student participation would not only improve Wikipedia ‘s already impressive collective knowledge base, but also might help curb the elitist pretensions of researchers in the global knowledge system.

(Steve Fuller is Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, United Kingdom. He is the author of The Knowledge Book: Key Concepts in Philosophy, Science and Culture.)

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2007. Exclusive to The Sunday Times


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