Sunday, May 27, 2007


Elitism and Wikipedia -- a delayed post

Yesterday I spent most of the day in yardwork with Yvette: we pruned back bushes in the yeard which had not been touched for years -- if ever -- then clipped the branches into smaller pieces to be taken away. Yesterday I also received the copy of David Buxton's Travels in Ethiopia, a very readable book full of details I look forward to adding to articles in Wikipedia.

In other words, even on my days off, I have little time to write.

That is why I'm publishing here an essay I wrote several weeks back, but hadn't shared yet. I had almost forgotten about it, otherwise I would have shared it sooner.


I think Larry Sanger misses the point in his essay, "Who Says We Know: on the New Politics of Knowledge" (which I found thanks to Joseph Reagle). And if my analysis is correct, then the arguments that Encyclopedia Britannica relies on -- and, as afar as the average Wikipedian responds to them in their thinking, they too -- are similarly flawed.

Sanger's assumption is that experts -- those at the top of the skill level in their fields -- will always produce a better encyclopedia -- or organized collection of knowledge than any larger group of people, but who are as skilled. At least this is what I conclude from statements like: "Professionals are no longer needed for the bare purpose of the mass distribution of information and the shaping of opinion. The hegemony of the professional in determining our background knowledge is disappearing--a deeply profound truth that not everyone has fully absorbed."

Sanger pictures the advocates of Wikipedia (and their Web 2.0 supporters) as endorsing this view of information handling, and composes his argument in response to this egalitarian assumption: that while professionals may not be experts, there are people who are far more informed than others in various fields of knowledge -- who are experts. Sanger might have left himself open to a straw man argument were it not that some advocates do seem to express that very egalitarianism in their statements. So let's move past that and look at the assumption that the success of Wikipedia is due to the wisdom of the crowd being superior to that of the lone expert.

There are three fallacies here: the first is that the crowd is a collection of a great many levels of knowledge. From experience, I would say that this ignores the self-organizing tendencies of any group of volunteers, a process that brings out the skills of its members, increasing and decresing their influence as time proceeds, most commonly through unrelenting competition. Look at the evolution of the Linux community: in the beginning, literally anyone -- expert programmers to raw newbies -- could contribute patches and code to the project, and chances were very good that the contributions would be accepted. As time progressed, acceptance of contributions grew more selective; part of the reason was that "Linus doesn't scale", and he came to rely more and more on trusted lieutenants to filter out the bad submissions from the good, but this was the result that some members of the community were more skilled than others.

Undoubtedly the recognition of experts was influenced to some degree by politics -- but there is no guaranteed way to keep any group of people completely free of politics. We learn to be political animals when we are children in families, and use what we have learned through our adult lives.

As a result, the model Wikipedia is aiming for is not a "crowd is wiser than the lone expert" but "a larger group of lesser experts is always wiser than a smaller group of greater experts". So the problem for Wikipedia then becomes whether its innate social engineering is good enough to attract, recognize and keep the necessary large group of lesser experts who will continue to improve its content. That is a question that I believe the members of the Wikipedia community continues to debate and discuss.

The second fallacy is that in the relationship of the expert to the greater society that society is always a passive group, who accept without question or response the expert's opinions. The truth is that the larger society has always given feedback to the expert, although this feedback has been less direct in some eras than in other. As an example, let's consider the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, when it was considered the ultimate arbitor on truth. Consider the individual priest whose responsibility was to educate the hapless village on dogma, whose members were often either in conflict with it -- or entirely indifferent towards it. This priest, inevitably recognized this problem, and expressed how he would discharge this responsibility in one of three ways: preach on a given subject with the intent to convince; preach, but accept that his message would not be received; or simply ignore this responsibility, and hope that his flock would not be too obvious in displaying their hetrodoxy to the rest of the world.

While there is evidence that a sizeable number of priests accepted the third option towards all points of communicating their credentialized expertise, I think it's safe to say that the majority varied amongst all three options, depending on how their flock responded to the individual topics. A priest might deliver a sermon about how Jesus Christ loved the poor, knowing that it would be well-received; deliver a sermon about the importance of a Crusade, or the nature of Christ, even though none of his flock would respond positively -- or even understand; and remain silent about the various harvest celebrations, despite their apparent pagan elements because his words would be received with hostility, or perhaps even violence.

What Wikipedia does -- as well as what I would consider proper Web 2.0 communities -- is simply allow more of this greater society to directly participate; instead of being only an audience whose options are very limited (e.g., give or withhold applause, heckle, or walk out) they provide immediate commentary and criticisms to what the expert says, and the group's ability to respond gains a broader and more nuanced palette. One response that Wikipedia has allowed the larger society to make -- and I can't help has been overlooked -- is to express exactly what the larger society thinks is true and important. By this, I do not mean the satyrical concept of "Wikiality", but what large sections of educated people who are active on the Internet actually believes is true: the correct, the misperceptions, the urban myths, and even what they are willing to admit they do not know. (This last, I suspect, is expressed by the lack of edit wars around certain technical articles that nonetheless are written in extremely difficult or convoluted prose.)

This fallacy about the nature of group is tied to the third one, also about the group: the ancient fear of the tyranny of the mob. All elites have worried about the restless, unsophisticated and fickle society beneath them, a fear that persists today not only in racist language, but in the connotation of words like "lumpenproletariat", "drug addicts", "white trash", and "lusers". Unless carefully watched (this fallacy holds) this mob will be excited to violence, and unwisely destroy all that is good and refined. This fallacy persists because, there is some evidence to support this: there is an identifiable group of irresponsible people, seen as outsiders, who can harm the greater society. Often these people become outsiders because they have been identified as such, and their destructive actions reinforce this perception. Since this leads to sociological concerns that are irrelevant here, I won't discuss this further.

In other words, this fallacy asserts that the uneducated mob has created Wikipedia, and as a result we cannot trust its contents. The fact that at any given moment some vandal, crank or zealot embracing one point of view can change the contents of any article, continues this fallacy, will keep it from ever becoming even minimally reliable.

This is a problem, and one that the Wikipedia community perennially struggles with. However, I'll admit here that there is only so much that Wikipedia can do: there is no algorythm to reliability determine the difference between good content and bad content. The difference can only be determined by continual debate -- which is the best use of Wiki software. And where experts are needed, not only to educate, but to continue to refine their expertise.

I believe that there is no problem with content that a Liberal education -- and enough time -- cannot solve. The object of a Liberal education, by its name -- "liberal" coming from the Latin word for "free" -- liberates the student, by teaching her or him how to understand things and how to express her or himself articulately. Bad content enters Wikipedia because their authors do not know how to properly do research; and it remains because those who know better do not know how to explain why it is incorrect. I have never encountered any Wikipedian who has shown disdain for either of these skills -- in research or in language -- so I suspect that I am right in this. However, if experts flee Wikipedia for their ivory towers to live unsullied by contest, then instead of teaching the greater society how to be free their inaction will only allow that society to become enslaved.


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