Wikipedia is a spectacular phenomenon, representing a true clash in the philosophies of different communications mediums and communities. It's been experiencing a bit of a backlash lately. Some claim that because it is so open to differing viewpoints, even from pre-ported "whack jobs", that one can't actually get at "the real truth" from it. A former editor of Britannia, for example, doesn't really get why so many people like Wikipedia, given its "graffiti in a washroom stall" nature.
I have three points to make about Wikipedia, compared to more traditional references like dictionaries and encyclopedias.
- Truth is determined through trust.
- There are two major perspectives behind WHAT a reference actually is for.
- There are two major cultures behind HOW a reference is communicated (its medium).
PoMo literary criticism gets pretty hairy, but I can pretty much sum it up in 4 words: most text has bias. An encyclopedia like Britannia is no different. But people trust it. Why? Well, here's an idea: Trust is built through time, reputation, and endorsement. Texts compete with one another over time and are challenged by many people's evaluative skills. Wikipedia simply has a lot of growing to reach Britannia in terms of competition, endorsement, and assessing the reputations of the endorsers. It probably will take less time than Britannia took, though (due to the differences in medium).
What is the purpose of a dictionary, or an encyclopedia? Here's a reasonable start: to organize thought and language. This can be a power of great good, or great evil. It can be liberating, or controlling. I propose two approaches to the use of "references": a humanist approach vs. a rationalist approach.
One view is that a reference is a tool for examination, a series of questions, an inquiry into meaning, a weapon against received wisdom and therefore against the assumptions of established power. In other words, an organized Socratic approach.
Another view is that that the reference is a dispensary of truth. An instrument to limit meaning by defining language. It directs what people think. This is the Platonic elitist approach.
How are people supposed to enter into public debate if the concepts which define our society and decided the manner in which we're governed are open neither to understanding nor questioning? Change can only come through what will seem at first to be outrageous statements, provocation, and a stubborn refusal to accept the calm, controlling formulae of conventional wisdom.
Remember: Encyclopedias and dictionaries were largely developed during the enlightenment by folks such as Diderot, Voltaire, and Flaubert as verbal guerilla warfare. They freed language from religion and court politics, and challenged the old regime. They didn't claim to be perveyors of "truth". Which is more true to that spirit -- Wikipedia, or today's encyclopedias or dictionaries?
(Apology: the above is largely a paraphrase of the intro to John Ralston Saul's "The Doubter's Companion")
Both Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis claimed that communications mediums have a tremendous effect on culture, meaning, and interpretation. "The medium is the message", indeed.
Some mediums tend to enhance our communications over a wide area, promoting conformity of knowledge. This is referred to as "space bias" - aka. a "literate" society. Other mediums tend to enhance our communications over time, preserving and evolving knowledge. This is referred to as "time bias" - aka. an "oral" society.
An oral society is immediate -- words are spoken "now", provoking reactions immediately. Knowledge resides in memory and belongs to the community -- and is only available to those who can hear it. A literate society is one where knowledge is a point of view, argued linearly, in a logical order. Thought is stored, but cannot be reacted to ("you can't ask a book a question"). Action becomes seperate from thought, so "planning" becomes popular.
The Internet flips the written word on its head -- it retains some of its qualities, but is much more of a "time biased" experience, and has more in common with oral cultures. The hyperlink, the flame e-mail, the Wiki, Blogs, IRC, instant messaging, even Slashdot -- these are all examples of "immediacy" and "reaction" one couldn't get in a predominate literate view.
Wikipedia could be seen as how an oral society -- the Internet -- creates meaning.
And to an old member of the literate society, it's pretty bizarre.
(Here's the original Slashdot post that this entry is based on.)