Sunday, January 14, 2007
Some thoughts on Wikipedia from India
This is the crux of the Wikipedia phenomenon: it pays no attention to the matter of expertise. A teenager sitting in her home in a remote village in China with an internet connection has as much weight and scope to expound on the causes and effects of the Great Depression as the renowned expert at Harvard who has spent a life time thinking about the subject. This is in itself neither disturbing nor comforting. There are contexts where it may be either.
Abhijit Nadgouda emphasizes a different point in Krishna's essay, the problem of accuracy and "collectivism". (He offers his opinion on whether the Internet fuels collectivism in an earlier essay.) I find his terminology, with its obvious Marxist coloring, obscures the issue. Political language has been guilty of this obscuration for years, ever since Eric Raymond and Nikolai Bezroukov argued whether the Open Source model Raymond described in the Cathedral and the Bazaar was an example of unfettered free market activity or socialism.
What is actually happening has no relationship to a political or economic model: the Internet is simply allowing people with similar interests to find each other and interact. This phenomena can be traced back to King Charlemagne inviting to his court all of the brightest minds of his generation, giving them a living, and letting them talk with each other -- if not in the courts of earlier kings in otherparts of the world, who were progressive and enlightened. In these courts, learning benefitted as much from the formal debates these scholars held before the monarch as from the informal discussions that they, or their disciples, held in their spare hours over food and drink. And these courts also had the same problem with the qualified, the unqualified, the socially backward and those looking for a quick gain, that Wikipedia has.
The point many pundits on the social side of the Internet appear to overlook is that due to the accident of birth bright minds are scattered across the globe, and that an intelligent person can feel just as isolated in an American suburban housing development as Krishna's teenager in a remote Chinese village. Without the access the Internet provides, it takes a tremendous effort of will and desire to overcome this isolation for one person to locate even one or two other people with similar interests. Wikipedia is one result of these people finding each other, and developing their relationships.
Now for my clarifications. I guess I used the wrong language if you felt I was attaching a political twist to it. And I am really not very aware of the Marxist terminology. The point I raised about Wikipedia was the one I came across a lot in online and offline discussion. Accuracy and credibility, from a user and reader's perspecive. Should I link to Wikipedia? Is the information "correct"? What if the information changes? I myself have asked these questions. I seemed to have develop a way of my own to decide whether to use Wikipedia on any subject for any purpose or not, which I find similar to the context that Krishna mentions.
Also, the earlier essay on collectivism was more in the spirit of support of Wikipedia, etc. Even in the original essay Digital Maoism, on which my post was based on, the point addressed was credibility of Wikipedia.
I think it is great that Internet connects and communities allow freedom to interact. However like Krishna said, the Wikipedia's greatness cannot exist without its flaws, which we have to take care of on a case to case basis.
Second, you haven't written anything that I would disagree with; I was trying to provide examples to emphasize that we are talking about co-operation between people, and that using any political theory to explain how Wikipedia functions adds only smoke, not light, to the analysis.
I'm not surprised that you are unaware of the "Marxist" coloring of the word "collectivism": I suspect that you don't live in the United States, where that connotation is unadvoidable. That word is used in a positive way only by leftists. For anyone else to suggest that collectivism might be a good thing would be (to another Americanism) a "CLM" or a career-limiting move. Even though many of his theories and insights have long ago become accepted and refined by economists, Marx has been so demonized in American political discourse that some of my fellow citizens will stop thinking when they see that word. Look at the discussion between Raymond and Bezroukov that I have referenced: Raymond strikes back instinctively at the few mentions of Marx and ignores the rest of Bezroukov's insights.
I completely agree with you that it is mostly about co-operation between people. And I think it applies to a lot of cases in the real world. What I have been seeing is that the intention is of co-operation, but it does not happen necessarily. The same environment that allows and promotes co-operation can be used for exactly the opposite things.
Now I do understand your post more, I read a bit more about Marxist terminology. However, without using that color, it is interesting to see the similarity/difference in behavior of Wikipedia, American Idol or elections. I will stress on that even the elections are not political but collaborative events (I am trying to avoid collectivism :-). All these three encourage participation, rather I would say, they require participation for co-operation. But they can be manipulated.
The earlier essay about collectivism was to ponder on whether Wikipedia can be suitable for all kinds of subjects. It was more from a personal perspective rather than a social. A lot of people have tried to discourage Wikipedia because of the inaccuracy in some cases. For me, this inaccuracy is acceptable sometimes, and it depends entirely on the context in which I want to use it.
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