The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

wikipedia and its discontents

Rule #1 in my classes, from 101 to grad seminars, is "Wikipedia is not an acceptable source." I explain to my freshmen that Wikipedia can be a great place to start thinking about an issue and a fine place to start assembling points of view on a topic--keeping in mind that Wikipedia often neglects to represent all points of view on a topic. I use Wikipedia relentlessly as I put together lectures and powerpoints and even articles, but that's as far as I'll use it.

Stacy Schiff wrote a largely enthusiastic article in the New Yorker. Schiff sees Wikipedia as an admirable project, albeit one with drawbacks and potential dangers:

"Curiously, though, mob rule has not led to chaos. Wikipedia, which began as an experiment in unfettered democracy, has sprouted policies and procedures. At the same time, the site embodies our newly casual relationship to truth. When confronted with evidence of errors or bias, Wikipedians invoke a favorite excuse: look how often the mainstream media, and the traditional encyclopedia, are wrong! As defenses go, this is the epistemological equivalent of “But Johnny jumped off the bridge first.” Wikipedia, though, is only five years old. One day, it may grow up."

My wife, though, who is a Wikiskeptic, forwarded me an article, entitled "Digital Maoism," from Edge, written by a dreadlocked fellow named Jaron Lanier, who sees the drawbacks, and the dangers, as the fundamental characteristic. For Lanier, Wikipedia represents

"a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous."

The more I think about it, the more I think he's right. I'm not as pessimistic as Gustave Le Bon was in his classic 1896 study of the collective mind, THE CROWD, but I just don't believe that "the collective mind" WILL ultimately come up with the best solution. Not necessarily because of ignorance or bad intentions, but--and here is where my orientation as a rhetoric teacher comes out--because of the crowd's/collective's susceptibility to rhetoric. We, especially in a collective, are particularly vulnerable to skillful rhetorical appeals that can undermine our trust in truth, factuality, logic, etc. (This core feeling, of course, must also have been shaped and strengthened by the last two Presidential elections.)


  • At 1:05 PM, Blogger anna said…

    Once in a while, on Wikipedia, I come across one contributor who has blown away all of the other writers. Check ear wax. Or don't, it's kind of gross, but anyways, it's just intense. So my point is that despite rhetoric or truth, there's occasionally an intense depth of knowledge.

  • At 1:48 PM, Blogger mantooth said…

    the NYer article pointed out that at least one of the major climate-change experts said that Wikipedia has the best brief article on it he's seen.

  • At 3:21 PM, Blogger zp said…

    I think I'm more wikiskeptic than not.

    But I've been spending the last few weeks with really lousy published histories and reference materials too.

    Did I mention I love the new look? Well, I do. Chill, like the last one, but even more so.

  • At 4:34 PM, Blogger mantooth said…

    thanks; it's one of those readymades from Blogger but they have a better design sense than I do. I needed something a little more modern.


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