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some wikipedia history… October 28, 2007

Posted by KG in arts/culture, books, econ, misc, science, tech.
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year-old article from the new yorker:

In his view, misinformation, propaganda, and ignorance are responsible for many of the world’s ills. “I’m very much an Enlightenment kind of guy,” Wales told me. The promise of the Internet is free knowledge for everyone, he recalls thinking. How do we make that happen?

As an undergraduate, he had read Friedrich Hayek’s 1945 free-market manifesto, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” which argues that a person’s knowledge is by definition partial, and that truth is established only when people pool their wisdom. Wales thought of the essay again in the nineteen-nineties, when he began reading about the open-source movement, a group of programmers who believed that software should be free and distributed in such a way that anyone could modify the code. He was particularly impressed by “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” an essay, later expanded into a book, by Eric Raymond, one of the movement’s founders. “It opened my eyes to the possibility of mass collaboration,” Wales said.

What Wales seems to have in mind, however, is less Van Doren’s call to arms than that of an earlier rabble-rouser. In the nineteen-thirties, H. G. Wells lamented that, while the world was becoming smaller and moving at increasing speed, the way information was distributed remained old-fashioned and ineffective. He prescribed a “world brain,” a collaborative, decentralized repository of knowledge that would be subject to continual revision. More radically—with “alma-matricidal impiety,” as he put it—Wells indicted academia; the university was itself medieval. “We want a Henry Ford today to modernize the distribution of knowledge, make good knowledge cheap and easy in this still very ignorant, ill-educated, ill-served English-speaking world of ours,” he wrote. Had the Internet existed in his lifetime, Wells might have beaten Wales to the punch.

Wales’s most radical contribution may be not to have made information free but—in his own alma-matricidal way—to have invented a system that does not favor the Ph.D. over the well-read fifteen-year-old.

Over breakfast in early May, I asked Cauz for an analogy with which to compare Britannica and Wikipedia. “Wikipedia is to Britannica as ‘American Idol’ is to the Juilliard School,” he e-mailed me the next day. A few days later, Wales also chose a musical metaphor. “Wikipedia is to Britannica as rock and roll is to easy listening,” he suggested. “It may not be as smooth, but it scares the parents and is a lot smarter in the end.” He is right to emphasize the fright factor over accuracy. As was the Encyclopédie, Wikipedia is a combination of manifesto and reference work.

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