[Marxism] Wikipedia

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu May 5 08:04:15 MDT 2005


Galaxy Quest
Wikipedia is a real-life Hitchhiker's Guide: huge, nerdy, and imprecise.
By Paul Boutin

It's too bad Douglas Adams wasn't able to see his vision brought to life. I 
don't mean the so-so movie version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. 
I'm talking about Wikipedia, the Web's own don't-panic guide to everything.

The parallels between The Hitchhiker's Guide (as found in Adams' original 
BBC radio series and novels) and Wikipedia are so striking, it's a wonder 
that the author's rabid fans don't think he invented time travel. Since its 
editor was perennially out to lunch, the Guide was amended "by any passing 
stranger who happened to wander into the empty offices on an afternoon and 
saw something worth doing." This anonymous group effort ends up outselling 
Encyclopedia Galactica even though "it has many omissions and contains much 
that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate."

Adams actually launched his own online guide before he died in 2001, but it 
was, he wrote, "still a little like the fossil record in that it consists 
almost entirely of gaps." Wikipedia is a colossal improvement—it's just 
like the fictional Hitchhiker's Guide, only nerdier. Wikipedia is the Web 
fetishist's ideal data structure: It's free, it's open-source, and it 
features a 4,000-word exegesis of Dune.

For decades, software-makers competed to build complex collaboration 
systems. These high-end tools, like Lotus Notes, let companies specify who 
can edit which documents and establish complex approval procedures for 
changes. In 1995, software researcher Ward Cunningham destroyed the 
hierarchies by designing a site, the WikiWikiWeb, that anyone could edit. 
(Wiki-wiki means "quick quick" in Hawaiian. Cunningham saw it on a Honolulu 
Airport bus.)

Wikipedia, with more than 1 million entries in at least 10 languages, is 
the mother of all wikis, but there are also wikis devoted to quotations, 
the city of Seattle, and Irish politics. (Check out this wiki of wikis, 
which lists more than 1,000 sites.) Instead of enforcing rules, wikis trust 
that groups can behave. Anyone can edit or reorganize their contents. If 
you realize something's missing, incomplete, or incorrect, you can fix it 
yourself without asking permission. "People told me that the experience 
changed their lives," Cunningham said via e-mail.

Don't expect Wikipedia to change your life, though, unless you've secretly 
longed to be an encyclopedia editor. Just because you give everyone read 
and write permissions doesn't mean everyone will use them. Wiki lovers 
argue that they are collaborative, self-correcting, living documents that 
evolve to hold the sum of all the knowledge of their users. But, like 
blogging, editing the Net's encyclopedia appeals to a small, enthusiastic 

Like the Guide's lengthy entries on drinking, Wikipedia mirrors the 
interests of its writers rather than its readers. You'll find more on 
Slashdot than The New Yorker. The entry for Cory Doctorow is three times as 
long as the one for E.L. Doctorow. Film buffs have yet to post a page on 
Through a Glass Darkly; they're too busy tweaking the seven-part entry on Tron.

But excessive nerdiness isn't what's keeping Wikipedia from becoming the 
Net's killer resource. Accuracy is. In a Wired feature story, Daniel Pink 
(kind of) praised the hulking encyclopedia by saying you can "[l]ook up any 
topic you know something about and you'll probably find that the Wikipedia 
entry is, if not perfect, not bad." But don't people use encyclopedias to 
look up stuff they don't know anything about? Even if a reference tool is 
98 percent right, it's not useful if you don't know which 2 percent is 
wrong. The entry for Slate, for instance, claims that several freelance 
writers are "columnists on staff" and still lists Cyrus Krohn as publisher 
months after the Washington Post Co.'s Cliff Sloan took over.

Just because the Wikipedia elves will probably fix those errors by the time 
you read this article doesn't mean that the system is inherently 
self-healing. Not everyone who uses a wiki wants to hit from both sides of 
the plate. The subset of enthusiastic writers and editors is orders of 
magnitude smaller than the group of passive readers who'll never get around 
to contributing anything.

Bashing Wikipedia is nearly as risky as bashing Scientology. I know that 
I'm going to get barraged by the Wikivangelists—"If an entry's wrong," 
they'll say, "stop complaining about it and fix it." But if I were truly 
conscientious, I'd have to stop and edit something almost every time I use 
Wikipedia. Most people are like Douglas Adams' characters—we resolve firmly 
to stay and fix it after work then forget the whole episode by lunchtime. 
Wikipedia is a good first stop to get the basics in a hurry, especially for 
tech and pop culture topics that probably won't ever make it into 
Britannica. I'm just careful not to use it to settle bar bets or as source 
material for an article. I made that mistake exactly once.

Wikis are a great way to collect group knowledge, but not every reference 
book in the galaxy will turn into one. A couple of weeks ago, online 
reports claimed that Microsoft's Encarta decided to wikify its paltry 
42,000 entries. Encarta's Editorial Director Gary Alt told me that the 
truth is prosaic. Readers will be able to submit suggested corrections or 
improvements to existing entries, but Encarta is not looking for new 
entries, and the editors will still decide what's worth including.

An elitist encyclopedia like Encarta will never be able to match the 
breadth or speed of a user-edited reference library, but it's smart to coax 
readers into helping stretch its inherent advantage—reliability. Alt told 
me he's hiring all of six people to review and research reader submissions. 
Unlike the editor of The Hitchhiker's Guide, they'll probably be eating 
lunch at their desks.

Related in SlateLast year, Clive Thompson asked if an online crowd could 
write a novel. In January, Jack Shafer said that blogs need a little time 
to catch up to the hype.

Paul Boutin is a Silicon Valley writer who spent 15 years as a software 
engineer and manager.


LA Times, May 4, 2005
Wikipedia: See 'Information,' 'Amazing,' 'Anarchy'
By Crispin Sartwell, Crispin Sartwell teaches political philosophy at 
Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

Encyclopedias — whether paper (Britannica, for example) or software 
(Encarta) — are intended to be representations of the scope of human 
knowledge at the moment of their publication. This idea, of course, has a 
long history. But the most interesting thing about it may be its future, as 
represented by the magnificent, nonprofit Wikipedia.

"Wiki" is the Hawaiian word for quick, and it refers to a website that can 
be updated easily by anyone from any Web browser. The first wiki armature 
was developed in 1995, and Wikipedia — the brainchild of one Jimmy Wales — 
was founded in 2001. Under Wales' brilliant conception, anyone can go into 
Wikipedia (wikipedia.org) and create a new article or edit an old one: It 
is entirely accessible and entirely alterable.

This is anarchy, of course, and completely antithetical to the encyclopedic 
tradition, which has emphasized a kind of solemn definitiveness and 
authority. Britannica and Encarta, for instance, not only employ experts to 
write their articles but subject everything they publish to a rigorous 
review process. At Wikipedia, you (or any old maniac) can march right onto 
the "nuclear fusion" page and add your thoughts.

But as Wikipedia says about itself, the point is not that it's hard to make 
mistakes but that it's easy to correct them. Because thousands of people — 
ordinary, unpaid, outside participants — monitor and edit Wikipedia, errors 
and vandalism are often corrected in seconds. One feature of the site is a 
list of recently updated pages, so that one can keep track of changes. One 
can even revert to a previous version of an article if mistaken or 
malevolent parties have messed it up.

The result is not perfect. In one brief instance, a character from "Star 
Wars" was labeled Benedict XVI. But such is the exception, not the rule, 
and usually quickly rectified. Overall, the encyclopedia gets ever larger 
and ever more accurate. The English version has grown to more than half a 
million entries, and in checking the "recent changes" section I once found 
a dozen or more revisions every minute. The site also provides contexts in 
which changes can be proposed and discussed among writers.

So is it to be trusted? Does it have the credibility of Britannica? Well, I 
have monitored over a decent period a number of entries on matters about 
which I know something and have found them almost invariably accurate. And 
I have watched some of them grow, becoming ever more elaborate and interlinked.

In fact, open architecture is in some sense the only possible way to do 
what an encyclopedia purports to do: represent the state of human knowledge 
in real time. Such a project is by its nature so huge that it requires what 
Wikipedia has: thousands of experts, editors, checkers and so on with 
expertise in different fields working over a period of years. Also, 
Wikipedia, unlike the World Book, for example, or even Encarta, is updated 
continuously. When we use the term "public property," we usually mean state 
property, but Wikipedia compromises the concept of ownership without 
dispossessing anyone: It is truly public property.

What is perhaps most fascinating about Wikipedia is its demonstration in 
practical anarchy. It is an ever-shifting, voluntary, collaborative 
enterprise. If it is in the long run successful, it would show that people 
can make amazing things together without being commanded, constrained, 
taxed, bribed or punished.

There are people who want to deface or even destroy Wikipedia. The 
right-wing blogger Ace of Spades — out of mischief and because he heard 
Wikipedia's operators were liberals — recently called on its readers to 
"punk" the site: to put up as much misinformation and nonsense as possible. 
Other blogs gleefully expose errors, even if those defects persist only for 
a few minutes.

If the vandals are successful, they'll more or less confirm the common 
wisdom that people are too evil and miserable to be allowed to govern 

But if Wikipedia grows into the greatest reference work ever made, it will 
suggest that great things are possible when you merely let people go and 
see what happens.



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