Wednesday, September 20, 2006


So Larry Sanger has this idea to create a fork off of Wikipedia that will similarly act as a compendium of all knowledge, but be edited - led if you will - by intellectuals. I for one think it's a fine idea, and will be curious to see how it develops.

In his essay explaining the origins and the actuality of the idea, Sanger points out the problems with Wikipedia, which I think speak quite directly to my larger concerns with such operations, including manuscripts "published" online that allow readers to interact, adjust, edit, and add. His problems:

    • The community does not enforce its own rules effectively or consistently. Consequently, administrators and ordinary participants alike are able essentially to act abusively with impunity, which begets a never-ending cycle of abuse.
    • Widespread anonymity leads to a distinguishable problem, namely, the attractiveness of the project to people who merely want to cause trouble, or who want to undermine the project, or who want to change it into something that it is avowedly not--in other words, the troll problem.
    • Many now complain that the leaders of the community have become insular: it has become increasingly difficult for people who are not already part of the community to get fully on board, regardless of their ability or qualifications.
    • This arguably dysfunctional community is extremely off-putting to some of the most potentially valuable contributors, namely, academics. Furthermore, there is no special place for academics, so that they can contribute in a way they feel comfortable with. As a result, it seems likely that the project will never escape its amateurism. Indeed, one might say that Wikipedia is committed to amateurism. In an encyclopedia, there's something wrong with that.
A fine list of grievances, I'd say!

These are just the problems I have with the notion supported by the Future of the Book folks, wherein books are interactive, tagged, networked, etc... I'm all for citizen power - the vote, protests, petitions, etc... But when we throw off all authority - all of it - then who wins? The masses, some might say, or the majority, I might fear. I would recommend reading Herbert Marcuse's essay, Repressive Tolerance, to gain insight into the danger in disposing of controls for information transmission.

One link from the Future of the Book's blog, to a blog called (I think) Many 2 Many, has one writer breaking down the problems with Sanger's ideas. This Clay Shirky makes fine points, but his (or her?) resistance to the term expert strikes me as dangerous. I understand that the term "expert" cannot simply be separated out from institutional interests. But Shirky lays out three beliefs on which Sangor's idea is based, and says all are false. I disagree. The three beliefs:

  1. Experts are a special category of people, who can be readily recognized within their domains of expertise.
  2. A process of open creation in which experts are deferred to as of right will be superior to one in which they are given no special treatment.
  3. Once experts are identified, that deference will mainly be a product of moral suasion, and the only place authority will need to intrude are edge cases.

I refuse to strip all experts of a special title. I refuse to treat a person with an undergraduate degree in psychology as just as knowledgeable about the American Revolution as a PhD in American history who specializes in that time period. What is the point of higher education if people cannot earn distinctions? And if you earn a distinction, why shouldn't you check other people who have not?

I'm not software or computer savvy, admittedly, so I can't wade into arguments about software and information control in a technical way. I can only speak on the societal issue, and I put this kind of debate into a larger context in which no one is allowed to have authority. I am not arguing for more governmental authority per se, and certainly no more infringements on civil liberties and other freedoms, but I do believe that if someone proves themselves that they should have more stature when it comes to their specialty, whether it's a laywer, a carpenter, a professor, a plumber, whatever. They can still be questioned, but they can lead the way sometimes.

The resistance seems to throw that out. Power to the people! Now that's a call I can support, and I'm all for questioning, debating and investigating the information we receive. But claiming that something interactive online is the great equalizer is simple-minded, and lowers the value of that thing.

Sangor's call for accountability also strikes me as quite smart. I posted something on Second Life earlier - online aliases are par for the course in any number of virtual arenas now, and it does allow people to escape responsibility. When dealing with the transmission of information, this is incredibly problematic. Should we not know credentials? Should we dismiss any evidence of understanding and just allow anyone to speak on any issue, without anything but a self-created name to identify them?

I fear I'm making a conservative argument, something I rarely if ever do, so I'm going to continue thinking this issue through.

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