Wikipedia and Enlightenment

A recent New York Times magazine article on Wikipedia (Magazine, July 1) reminded me just how significant this encyclopedia is. It provides an instant access, free source of knowledge on almost anything (now over 1.8 million articles in the English section alone; it offers articles in 250 languages). Anyone can contribute, adding anything from a misplaced comma to an extensive research article with footnotes. The enterprise is run by a non-profit foundation, controlled by a small board. There are 30 “stewards” and 1200 administrators. The “admins” are the only ones who have the power to check content, remove articles or additions, and even permanently ban certain persons from access. Everyone involved seems to take their responsibilities with the utmost seriousness. The amount of work put in by all contributors, but especially the administrators, is mind boggling — and all for free. (I would think it would not hurt to develop a compensation policy, but this could weaken the monkish self-abnegation that seems to infect all involved.)

In spite of the way in which it is organized, and the lack of “recognized authorities” behind its articles, studies have shown that it is about as accurate per line as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Another study here found that experts rated Wikipedia articles as more accurate that nonexperts unfamiliar with the material. My own experience is that it is often a waste of time to use the Internet for information on a topic. It is much easier to just go to Wikipedia and review their material. The great success of this “democratic” approach to knowledge compilation reminds one of the success of juries in most kinds of trials and of recent studies that have shown that a group of non-experts will come to decisions at least as useful as experts (which is not to say that in manifold ways, the contributors to Wikipedia are not themselves “experts”).

The project is guided by what are called the five pillars.

The first and more general pillar defines the enterprise as an encyclopedia, which is not a place for personal opinions or trivia. It is not a soapbox or a directory etc.

The second pillar sets the objective as “a neutral point of view”. The user or contributor is told that “verifiable, authoritative sources should be used whenever possible, especially on controversial topics. When a conflict arises as to which version is the most neutral, declare a cool-down period and tag the article as disputed; hammer out details on the talk page and follow dispute resolution”.

The third pillar is that it is free and entries can be changed by anyone. All revisions are kept, so that the article can be changed back to an earlier form if necessary. No copyrighted material is allowed.

The fourth pillar emphasizes the importance of good manners by all involved. There should be no editing wars. Good faith should be assumed on the part of all involved.

The fifth pillar is that there are no firm rules. People should be bold in editing and writing. Perfection is not required. They are reminded that all prior versions are kept, so there is no need to fear the destruction of good material.

What seemed truly remarkable to the writer of the NYT piece was the dedication of those involved to these principles. He particularly noted that in an age in which many social scientists and literary critics have concluded that it is naive to believe neutrality is possible or that there is “a truth”, he has found a community in which these values are treasured. Noting that most of those deeply involved in the project (including many admins) are in the 20-35 age group, and many are still in high school, he asks “Where did they learn these values?” What this suggests is that there are thousands of teachers throughout this country who are instilling in the young firmly held educational values in spite of the chaos that surrounds so much of modern life.

The Wikipedia phenomenon is one of the most hopeful signs of the possibility of a new age of enlightenment that I have come across.

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Explore posts in the same categories: morality, philosophy, ways of life

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