The Value of Wikipedia and Collective Intelligence

I was having coffee with Sam and Casey the other day when Sam turned my attention to an article in the most recent issue of The Stranger.  The article, called “Who Will Save Us from the Future?: What Google Has Done to Life on Earth,” was a brief review of three new books about Google’s attempts to coalesce the wandering streams of the internet and the diverse ramifications of Web 2.0.  Most of the piece wasn’t terribly interesting, because we’re quite aware of Google’s transformative effect on the internet, and the way that Web 2.0 has begun to approach the coffin of newspaper journalism, hammer and nails in hand.  What stuck out though, was the section on a new book by Jaron Lanier, a silicon valley renaissance man who doesn’t much like the changes being wrought on the internet and informational collaboration.

Now my first instinct whenever I’m confronted with an opinion I disagree with, at least on the internet, is to do a background check on the author to see if they have any credibility.  (note: some of the things I’m going to say in this post and the next are going to be profoundly ironic in ways that will shortly become apparent).  Jaron Lanier does not, at a glance, seem like a credible guy.  But then again, he does not have a simple past.  I’ll let you read up on him to see what you think, but I decided he seems like a highly intelligent guy who’s probably worth hearing out.  Let me also say that I do believe that many ideas stand on their own merit, and that the intellectual credentials of an author isn’t always necessary or even relevant, but in the age of Blogger and WordPress, I think it’s always worth knowing who you’re dealing with.

The brilliant and credible Jaron Lanier.

Alright, so now that the background is out of the way, let’s get to the issue at hand.  Lanier holds some controversial opinions regarding many of the aspects of the internet that most of my generation consider its crowning achievements.  The first of these is that information should not be separated from its human authors.  Lanier decries Wikipedia for the way it strips the subtleties and context of human authorship from its words.  Authorless, collective works are dangerous, he claims, because of their tendency to align themselves with mainstream organizations and beliefs while assuming a false sense of authority derived from their collaborative creation.

This is high treason for proponents of Web 2.0.  Wikipedia was envisioned as being a repository for all of human knowledge – a goal made considerable (if not actually possible) by a collaborative editing process that allows anyone to make changes to articles.  Early on, the project received criticism because of the perceived inaccuracy associated with open source information, however studies have shown that the accuracy of Wikipedia’s articles approaches that of the Encylopaedia Britannica.

There’s definitely truth to Lanier’s criticisms of Wikipedia; even “facts” and “truth” have spin, and collaborative editing doesn’t create objectively neutral information, it only facilitates a more subtle and mainstream interpretation of events.  I think part of Lanier’s concern is that in looking at the Encyclopaedia Britannica, we can identify the biases of its authors and the cultural context in which it was written, while with Wikipedia, we’re confronted with only the bare information.  This is frightening, certainly, but I don’t think it constitutes a danger in the way that Lanier seems to believe.

The Wikipedia logo, approaching "completion."

Understanding the process behind the creation of a given body of information is, as Lanier insists, vital to our interpretation and analysis of that data, but I don’t believe that Wikipedia is any different than conventional encyclopedias in this regard.  I, like most of my generation, am incredibly dependent on Wikipedia, and I believe everything that I read on it.  But I don’t view it as a definitive source of information, writ unbiased and immaculate.  Instead I view it as what it is – the most accessible and comprehensive source of general information available, composed with an unusually high rate of accuracy.  I think the problem with Lanier’s criticism of Web 2.0 is that even while defending the importance of humanity, he ignores the essential information filters we have developed, and that have evolved to include the social networks of the internet.  Wikipedia is only dangerous if we forget its flaws.  Lanier’s criticism is meant to draw attention to these flaws, but this exposition doesn’t devalue Wikipedia in the way he seems to imply.  As long as we remember not to confuse the actual Wikipedia with our aspirations of perfect knowledge, it will remain an invaluable, albeit subtly limited resource.

(I want to address another of Lanier’s arguments involving blogging and social media, but I’ll do it in another post since this one has gotten a bit lengthy).

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2 responses to “The Value of Wikipedia and Collective Intelligence

  1. pre-internet you got your information from one, usually dated, source. Now if you are interested in a topic, say Parkinson’s treatment options, you can go to Wikepedia for the basics, Web MD for sciency perspectives, parkinsons.org for the research background, and multiple blogs by authors ranging from wingnuts to family caregivers. This kind of parallax view is invaluable, what counts is not the content or credibility of any one site, but the combined view you develop as you process each site and weigh it against others and ascertain credibility and value. No longer content to just take one view as gospel, we’ve developed a keen capacity for discernment in our knowledge search. A much better route I’d say than accepting one source.

  2. Pingback: Aesthetics as Self-Denial: Designing Beyond the Ego « Johnston Architects

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