Tuesday, May 17th, 2011

Wikipedia And The Death Of The Expert

"Learners are doers, not recipients."—Walter J. Ong, "McLuhan as Teacher: The Future Is a Thing of the Past"

It's high time people stopped kvetching about Wikipedia, which has long been the best encyclopedia available in English, and started figuring out what it portends instead. For one thing, Wikipedia is forcing us to confront the paradox inherent in the idea of learners as "doers, not recipients." If learners are indeed doers and not recipients, from whom are they learning? From one another, it appears; same as it ever was.

It's been over five years since the landmark study in Nature that showed "few differences in accuracy" between Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Though the honchos at Britannica threw a big hissy at the surprising results of that study, Nature stood by its methods and results, and a number of subsequent studies have confirmed its findings; so far as general accuracy of content is concerned, Wikipedia is comparable to conventionally compiled encyclopedias, including Britannica.

There were a few dust-ups in the wake of the Nature affair, notably Middlebury College history department's banning of Wikipedia citations in student papers in 2007. The resulting debate turned out to be quite helpful as a number of librarians finally popped out of the woodwork to say hey, now wait one minute, no undergraduate paper should be citing any encyclopedia whatsoever, which, doy, and it ought to have been pointed out a lot sooner.

By 2009 the complaints had more or less faded away, and nowadays what you have is college librarians writing blog posts in which they continue to reiterate the blindingly obvious: "Wikipedia is an excellent tool for leading you to more information. It is a step along the way, and it is extremely valuable."

Wikipedia's Rough Riders
How come Wikipedia hasn't turned into a giant glob of graffiti? It certainly would have by now, were it not for the multitude of volunteer sheriffs of the information highway who ride around patrolling the thing day and night.

There is a bogglingly complex and well-staffed system for dealing with errors and disputes on Wikipedia. There are special tools provided to volunteers for preventing vandalism, decreasing administrative workload and so on: rollbacker, autopatroller and the like. Then there are nearly two thousand administrators, who are empowered to "protect, delete and restore pages, move pages over redirects, hide and delete page revisions, and block other editors."

Higher up the tree, there is MedCom, a committee of mediators, and then there are the arbitrators (just 16 of them, at this time) who handle more serious beefs. The bar for arbitrators is high. Potential candidates are limited to those who have made their bones by contributing many hundreds of hours of work. A look at the Wikipedia page detailing current requests for arbitration gives an idea of the kinds of disputes resolved by arbitrators and the methods through which they're settled.

At the top of this loosely organized but large and passionate governing force is the Wikimedia Board of Trustees, currently a group of ten that includes Jimmy Wales, "Chairman Emeritus." Three seats, including that of the current Chairman, Ting Chen, are held by community members—that is to say, interested individuals of no particular expertise outside their own deep and long-standing volunteer involvement, elected by "active members" of the Wikimedia community (an "active member" is someone who has made a certain number of edits to articles within a certain timeframe).

Other, parallel systems of control at Wikipedia have grown more robust as well, such as the informally organized "projects" like WikiProject: Medicine, in which anyone interested can help improve the quality of articles relating to medicine.

In short, there is a byzantine array of forces working for accuracy and against edit-warring, sock-puppetry and the like on Wikipedia. (Ira Matetsky, a Wikipedia arbitrator known on the site as Newyorkbrad, posted a long and fascinating account of Wikipedia's administrative processes at The Volokh Conspiracy in May 2009, if you're interested in more detail.)

It's not perfect, of course, but neither is any other human-derived resource, including, as if it were necessary to say so, printed encyclopedias or books. It bears mentioning that if Wikipedia is a valuable resource, that is because a lot of people—untold thousands, in fact—are busting tail to make it that way.

Faster Encylopedia, Fill Fill
Wikipedia has three main advantages over its print ancestors:

1. Wikipedia offers far richer, more comprehensive citations to source materials and bibliographies on- and offline, thereby providing a far better entry point for serious study;

2. It is instantly responsive to new developments;

3. Most significantly, users can "look under the hood" of Wikipedia in order to investigate the controversial or doubtful aspects of any given subject. I refer to the magical "History" button that appears in the top right corner of any Wikipedia page. Click this, and you will have instantaneous access to everything that has ever been written on the Wikipedia page in question. (In rare cases, i.e., during an edit war, a Wikipedia administrator may remove material, but this almost never happens.) The course of long and intricately involved disputations may thus come instantly to light. Of course, a load of dimwitted yelling and general codswallop may also emerge, but let's face it, the same thing happens with any given stack of books in the library, only in more formal, less convenient packaging.

Take the case of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, the historian and author of Hitler's Willing Executioners, which examined the complicity of ordinary Germans in the atrocities of the second war. Prof. Goldhagen's Wikipedia page has been revised 607 times since its first publication in 2004. Someone pops in there every week or two and removes or adds his brickbats or accolades, often according to his own political leanings. (I'm a fan of this controversial author, despite disagreeing with him on a number of contemporary political issues.) The current page is spare, but it's also entirely lacking in anything weird, rude or inaccurate. There's no evidence of disputes requiring intervention by mediators or arbitrators, and reading all the edits gives a very good idea of what all the rumpus over the years has been about. History pages like this one, showing two different edits of the Goldhagen page, provide a clear illustration of the ongoing attempt to strike a fair balance of views. Goldhagen's page also provides an excellent resource for further reading, including 47 references, ten links to the author's articles and websites, and thirteen bibliographical entries.

It's this third innovation that makes Wikipedia far more than just a portal to research, though indeed no ordinary encyclopedia, whether printed or online, can touch it for that. Rather than being just a tempest in the teacup of publishing, Wikipedia is the foreshock of an epistemological earthquake to rival the one set rumbling by Johannes Gutenberg ca. 1439.

Bob Stein, founder and co-director of the Institute for the Future of the Book (and co-founder, in 1984, of the Criterion Collection company) has been writing persuasively in this vein about Wikipedia for years now. I asked him recently to give an update on his views, and he said that if I wanted to understand the significance of Wikipedia, I should read Marshall McLuhan.

"Go back and study the shift in human communication, what McLuhan called 'the shift to print,'" he said. "The place where an idea could be owned by a single person. One of McLuhan's genius insights was his understanding of how the shift from an oral culture to one based on print gave rise to our modern notion of the individual as the originator and owner of particular ideas."

According to McLuhan, Bob explained, "the ownership of an idea" was made inevitable by the invention of printing; it is this era that we are outgrowing, as McLuhan foresaw. "If the printing press empowered the individual, the digital world empowers collaboration."

Straight Outta Cambridge
"The ruinous authority of experts [...] was McLuhan's lifelong theme."—Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger

McLuhan's chief insights centered around the idea that technology strongly affects not only the content of culture, but the mind that creates and consumes that culture. He maintained that technology alters cognition itself, all the way down to its deepest, most elemental processes.

His 1962 The Gutenberg Galaxy is a difficult, disorderly, weirdly prescient and often dazzling book. Reading it is like riding on an old wooden rollercoaster that is threatening to blast apart at each turn; it isn't organized into chapters and doesn't make a linear argument; its insights throw off sparks in all directions. On the surface, The Gutenberg Galaxy is about the end of an evolutionary progress from print ("linear," "authoritative") to digital ("collaborative" "tribal") ways of reasoning.

McLuhan prefigured the Internet era in a number of surprising ways. As he said in a March 1969 Playboy interview: "The computer thus holds out the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding and unity, a state of absorption in the Logos that could knit mankind into one family and create a perpetuity of harmony and peace."

McLuhan came of age at Cambridge, the cradle of modern literary criticism, in that groundbreaking moment when (a) the role of readers and (b) the world at large suddenly became matters of interest to literary scholars. As the New Critics would come to do in the U.S., the Cambridge gang sought the meaning of a literary work in the text itself, in its means of communicating its message to a reader.

Before these rationalists came on the scene, literary criticism had a mystical character rooted in the Romantic ideas of guys like Walter Pater, who viewed literary production and consumption both as occurring through the inspiration of an almost divine agency. (The phrase "purple prose" might have been invented for Pater, who was given to such turns of phrase as "to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.") Artists ranging from the Pre-Raphaelites to Oscar Wilde bought into this super-aestheticized model of understanding art and literature, but it was ill-attuned to the rationalist demands of a post-industrial society (though we aren't yet quite free of this idea of the Muse striking us with the inspirational equivalent of Cupid's dart; Harold Bloom, for example, is still forever blathering on about Pater.)

Modern criticism was also born out of frustration with the hidebound academics who appeared to believe that English literature had ended in the 17th century. F. R. Leavis, an influential critic who taught McLuhan at Cambridge, was among the first who dared to rank Pound and Eliot alongside Milton. The view of the scholarly establishment on both sides of the Atlantic had theretofore been that it would take you a lifetime simply to master the recondite joys of Milton; that was the true and real study of literature, and nothing written in our own lifetimes was ever going to count. It took some serious English-department renegades to alter those convictions. Studying under Leavis at Cambridge, McLuhan developed the beginnings of the lifelong distaste for "expertise" and "authority" that would come to characterize his work.

McLuhan took Leavis's methods far beyond literature, though. Just as, in Leavis's view, a poem imposed its own assumptions on the listener, created its own world, so too did every medium of communication force its own methods of connection into the human mind. The late David Lochhead, a Canadian theologian, did a lovely job of explaining McLuhan's approach in 1994.

It is not only our material environment that is transformed by our machinery. We take our technology into the deepest recesses of our souls. Our view of reality, our structures of meaning, our sense of identity—all are touched and transformed by the technologies which we have allowed to mediate between ourselves and our world. We create machines in our own image and they, in turn, recreate us in theirs.[...]

Our machines allow us to reach out beyond the limits of our flesh. Our machines alter the ways in which our senses feed us information about the world beyond. [...] Our machines offer us an image of ourselves — an image, which like the reflection of Narcissus, can hold us transfixed in self-adoration.

McLuhan drew from many, many sources in order to develop these ideas; the work of Canadian political economist and media theorist Harold Innis was instrumental for him. Innis's technique, like McLuhan's, forswears the building up of a convincing argument, or any attempt at "proof," instead gathering in a ton of disparate ideas from different disciplines that might seem irreconcilable at first; yet considering them together results in a shifted perspective, and a cascade of new insights.

In the familiar, linear method of argument, it's as if the author were a trial attorney and the reader a juror. By contrast, the McLuhan/Innis method is more like throwing the reader in a helicopter, taking him somewhere far away and simply exposing him to a vast new panorama. These authors wanted not to make and sell their own "point of view," but to take you on a head trip instead.

As McLuhan writes in The Gutenberg Galaxy:

Innis sacrificed point of view and prestige to his sense of the urgent need for insight … When he interrelates the development of the steam press with "the consolidation of the vernaculars" and the rise of nationalism and revolution he is not reporting anybody's point of view, least of all his own. He is setting up a mosaic configuration or galaxy for insight … Innis makes no effort to "spell out" the interrelations between the components in his galaxy. He offers no consumer packages in his later work, but only do-it-yourself kits, like a symbolist poet or an abstract painter.

All these elements—the abandonment of "point of view," the willingness to consider the present with the same urgency as the past, the borrowing "of wit or wisdom from any man who is capable of lending us either," the desire to understand the mechanisms by which we are made to understand—are cornerstones of intellectual innovation in the Internet age. In particular, the liberation from "authorship" (brought about by the emergence of a "hive mind") is starting to have immediate implications that few beside McLuhan foresaw. His work represents a synthesis of the main precepts of New Criticism with what we have come to call cultural criticism and/or media theory.

How neatly does this dovetail into a subtle and surprising new appreciation of the communal knowledge-making at Wikipedia?! It's no wonder that McLuhan is among the patron saints of the Internet.

It's no accident, either, that from grad school onward McLuhan was involved in collaborative projects that drew in a wide variety of disciplines, institutions, students, and paths of inquiry. If the results were chaotic (and they often were) they were also vital and thrilling. He worked with educators, corporate executives, computer scientists and management theorists; he helped develop high-school media syllabi, designed a study relating dyslexia to television watching, and conducted sensory tests for IBM. (For more on McLuhan, I can highly recommend Philip Marchand's fine biography, The Medium and the Messenger.)

McLuhan's insights, though they are being lived by millions every day, will take a long time to become fully manifest. But it's already clear that Wikipedia, along with other crowd-sourced resources, is wreaking a certain amount of McLuhanesque havoc on conventional notions of "authority," "authorship," and even "knowledge."

The Internet Is Making Us Maoist
Though librarians and the academy in general have more or less fallen into line, there is still considerable critical opposition to the spread and influence of Wikipedia and of the Internet in general as a cultural and intellectual force.

In an influential 2006 piece at Edge, "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism" Jaron Lanier wrote that "the hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring" and pronounced the concept of an all-wise collective not only faddish, but wrong and dangerous. He expressed a conservative contempt for "the collective" (by which he more or less means, "the mob") and a staunch faith in the validity and significance of "authorship" and "individuality."

From the same essay: "The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe that the Internet itself is an entity that has something to say, we're devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots." Well okay. I guess if we started to believe that the Internet itself were writing Wikipedia we would be in some trouble, or maybe we would be Rod Serling, I don't know.

A lot of things have changed since 2006, but Mr. Lanier's mind is not among them. Seriously, reading his stuff is like watching a guy lose his shirt at the roulette wheel and still he keeps on grimly putting everything on the same number. Lanier's reasoning is right next door to that of Nicholas Carr (The Internet Is Making Us Stupid), Evgeny Morozov (The Internet Is Worse Than Useless Politically), Malcolm Gladwell (oh, don't even get me started) and Sherry Turkle (The Internet Is Making Us Ever So Lonely.)

So in his 2010 book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto Lanier kept up the attack on Wikipedia and other forms of crowdsourcing. From a 2010 interview:

On one level, the Internet has become anti-intellectual because Web 2.0 collectivism has killed the individual voice. It is increasingly disheartening to write about any topic in depth these days, because people will only read what the first link from a search engine directs them to, and that will typically be the collective expression of the Wikipedia.

Stop saying "the Wikipedia"! Anyhoo. it's difficult to see how Lanier, Carr et al. will be able to keep this sort of thing up for much longer. Michael Agger took Lanier's book to ribbons in Slate: "[Lanier's] critique is ultimately just a particular brand of snobbery. [He] is a Romantic snob. He believes in individual genius and creativity, whether it's Steve Jobs driving a company to create the iPhone or a girl in a basement composing a song on an unusual musical instrument."

But how come we're still even discussing this, when Bob Stein already made mincemeat (very kindly, but mincemeat) of "Digital Maoism" right when it came out, in 2006? And how come the crux of Stein's observations went pretty much unnoticed?

In a traditional encyclopedia, experts write articles that are permanently encased in authoritative editions. The writing and editing goes on behind the scenes, effectively hiding the process that produces the published article. [...] Jaron focuses on the "finished piece," ie. the latest version of a Wikipedia article. In fact what is most illuminative is the back-and-forth that occurs between a topic's many author/editors. I think there is a lot to be learned by studying the points of dissent. [...]

At its core, Jaron's piece defends the traditional role of the independent author, particularly the hierarchy that renders readers as passive recipients of an author's wisdom. Jaron is fundamentally resistant to the new emerging sense of the author as moderator — someone able to marshal "the wisdom of the network."

There has been some comment as to how this model of understanding actually works, but we need a lot more. The alteration in the way we think of authorship is deeper and more subtle than has yet been widely discussed. As Stein said to me recently, "The truth of a discipline, idea or episode in history lies in these interstices," he said. "If you want to understand something complicated it's helpful to look at the back and forth of competing voices or views."

Events have long ago overtaken the small matter of "the independent author." The question that counts now is: the line between author and reader is blurring, whether we like it or not. How can we use that incontrovertible fact to all our benefit?

The End Of Truth
There's an enormous difference between understanding something and deciding something. Only in the latter case must options be weighed, and one chosen. Wikipedia is like a laboratory for this new way of public reasoning for the purpose of understanding, an extended polylogue embracing every reader in an ever-larger, never-ending dialectic. Rather than being handed an "authoritative" decision, you're given the means for rolling your own.

We can call this new way of looking at things post-linear or even "post-fact" as Clay Shirky put it in a recent and thrill-packed interview with me. (This was a wicked nod to Farhad Manjoo, whose book True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society is dead against the idea of being "post-fact.") Shirky is himself a somewhat McLuhan-esque figure, a rapid-fire talker whose conversation is like a lit-up pinball machine with insights all caroming against one another.

"Those who are wringing their hands over Wikipedia are those committed to the idea of some uncomplicated 'truth" he said, going on to characterize the early controversy between Britannica and Wikipedia as "an anguish regarding authority … that there are no guarantees to truth."
He continued: "The threat to Britannica from Wikipedia is not a matter of dueling methods of providing information. Wikipedia, if it works better than Britannica, threatens not only its authority as a source of information, but also the theory of knowledge on which Britannica is founded. On Wikipedia "the author" is distributed, and this fact is indigestible to current models of thinking.

"Wikipedia is forcing people to accept the stone-cold bummer that knowledge is produced and constructed by argument rather than by divine inspiration."

He went on to illustrate with the example of alchemy.

"Alchemists kept their practices shrouded in secrecy. The shift from alchemy to chemistry wasn't in the practitioners, nor in the instruments they used. The difference was that chemists had become willing to expose their methods and conclusions to the withering scrutiny of their peers," he said. "The chemists said, 'We don't want to believe what isn't true,' and then: 'It's not true until someone else checks your work.' This doubting impulse led to things like peer review, the duplication of experiments, the foundation of modern science."

By empowering readers and observers with transparent access to the means by which conclusions are reached, rather than assembling them in an audience to hear the Authorities deliver the catechism from on high, we are all of us becoming scientists in this way, entering into a democracy of the intellect that is already bearing spectacular fruit, not just at Wikipedia but through any number of collaborative projects, from the Gutenberg Project to Tor to Linux.

But there continues to be resistance to the idea that expertise itself has been called into question, and we can expect that resistance to continue. Experts, understandably, are apt to be annoyed by their devaluation, and are liable to make their displeasure felt. And the thing about experts is that a lot of people still feel disinclined to question them.

Experts, geniuses, authorities, "authors"—we were taught to believe that these should be questioned, but until now have not often been given a way to do so, to seek out and test for ourselves the exact means by which they reached their conclusions. So long as we believe that there is such a thing as an expert rather than a fellow-investigator, then that person's views just by magic will be worth more than our own, no matter how much or how often actual events have shown this not to be the case. For us to have this magic thinking about "individualism" then is pernicious politically, intellectually, in every way. That is not to say that we don't value those who can lead the conversation. We'll need them more and more, those "who are able to marshal the wisdom of the network," to use Bob Stein's words. But they might be more like DJs, assembling new ways of looking at things from a huge variety of elements, than like than judges whose processes are secret, and whose opinions are sacred.

And there's so much more to this. If my point of view needn't immediately eradicate yours—if we are having not a contest but an ongoing comparison, whether in politics, art or literary criticism, if "knowledge" is and will remain provisional (and we could put a huge shout-out to Rorty here, if we had the space and the breath) what would this mean to the quality of our discourse, or to the subsequent character and quality of "understanding"?

Maybe disagreement doesn't have to be a battle to be fought to the death; it can be embraced, even savored. Wikipedia as it is now constituted lends enormous force to this argument. The ability to weigh conflicting opinions dispassionately and without requiring a "decision" is invaluable in understanding almost any serious question. That much is clear right now. There are many, many practical political, pedagogical and epistemological benefits yet to be investigated.

"Learning" no longer means sitting passively in a lecture hall or on in front of a television or in a library and waiting to receive the "authoritative" version of what the experts think is up as if it were a Communion wafer. For nearly 20 years we have had the Internet, now grown into a medium of almost infinite paths, where "learning" means that you can Twitter directly to people in Egypt to ask them what they really think about ElBaradei (and get answers), ask an author or critic to address a point you feel he may have missed (ditto), or share your own insights in countless forums where they will be read and admired (and/or savaged.) Knowledge is growing more broadly and immediately participatory and collaborative by the moment.

The results of these collaborations, like Wikipedia, represent not just new methods of packaging knowledge, but a new vision of what might come to be meant by "knowledge": something more like what Marshall McLuhan called "a galaxy for insight."

"The sadness of our age is characterized by the shackles of individualism," Bob Stein said. But are we throwing off those shackles, even as we speak?

Maria Bustillos is the author of Dorkismo and Act Like A Gentleman, Think Like A Woman.

Timex advertisement via Boing Boing. Photo of Chen and Wales by Beatrice Murch; alchemist at work print from C.J.S. Thomson; both via Wikimedia Commons.

94 Comments / Post A Comment

soco (#8,225)

Lanier's argument was larger than "crowds are bad because they're collectivist," but also that these collectively made projects always seem to be copies of something else. Numerous people spent how many years building Linux, just to have a copy of…UNIX? I've reduced the argument some for brevity, but it's an interesting point: why should we celebrate when crowds of thousands spend years replicating things we already had? Are we just celebrating the sport of it?

But I think you lightly touched on why it can be useful for the collective to replicate what was made by the expert individual: we learn by doing, not by passive intake of others' work. It's a John Dewey sort of argument, where learning is intertwined with the action. So the question shouldn't be, 'of what use is Wikipedia?' but instead, 'how will we use the skills we learned from Wikipedia?'

barnhouse (#1,326)

@soco Hoo boy are we ever agreed.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

@soco: And people spent years building Unix, just to have a version of Multics. So Unix wasn't an original thing built by expert individuals either. Lanier's romantic argument, a myth of the totally autonomous individual creating ex nihilo, is vacuous.

Werner Hedgehog (#11,170)

@soco Sure, Linux reproduces the features and functionality of authored UNIX, but the resemblance is only superficial. The "value added" here is that the OS is in a constant state of flux and subject to different developmental pressures than the extant UNIX code. They have a certain resemblance now, yes, but their destinies are divergent.

A good example would be the development of FOSS desktop environments. The Linux desktop is not fully formed, of course, but would such a thing have ever been made if UNIX had never been reimagined as it was?

Clip Arthur (#2,024)

@soco Baloney. If you are on the Internet and using a website that is most likely running on some variant of Linux you owe that collective unit a lot of respect. 10 years ago I was managing websites and doing light sysadmin work on Solaris based systems. Linux was not stable enough or robust enough then. So we were at the mercy of Sun licensing and Sun updates. Both pains in the arse. For example, let’s say someone found a hole in something Solaris based… Guess what a sysadmin could do? Simply wait for Sun to issue a patch. And if it was an esoteric patch, good luck with that. With Linux, the source code is open so the second a vulnerability comes to light a small army of coders will work together, find a solution or fix and then share with the world. If you want to wait for an official patch from a source like Ubuntu, fine. But you can also apply your own fixes based on skills and knowledge.

You see that is the key of the free software world and the world of collaborative coding. The support base is stronger, larger and you are only limited by personal desire and skills.

That is on top of the fact that Linux can really be setup on practically any hardware config. You are not at the mercy of Sun or some other entity to write drivers or the hardware they have “authorized” to use with their software. And thanks to that, someone can take a PC machine that is consider a “junker” by modern standards and turn it into a viable Linux machine. Heck, anyone who wants to be a sysadmin should actually do that as a personal hobby/challenge to hone their skills. Skills in configuring and dealing with hardware quirks and learning how to do the basics.

It opens the world of creating an Internet server up to regular folks. Which is something Sun and SCO never really wanted.

@soco Somewhere, tens of thousands of years ago, someone, probably a precusror to Homo Sapiens, and probably in multiple places more or less simultaneously, discovered abstraction. Maybe they left a rock to mark a path. Whatever it was, everything, absolutely everything we now know and do (intellectually speaking) is a copy and refinement of those primitive uses of symbols. That's how it works.

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

Not to be a boring ol' academic, but quoting McLuhan uncritically seems pretty problematic, and the fact that the only modern cosigns you could find aren't in the fields of media or technology studies (SCT) is telling. McLuhan's view is worrisomely prevalent among amateur theorists on the Internet, and in particular his underlying assumption that technology is deterministic makes us all a lot less critical about technology and humans' own role in creating it and shaping how it's used.

Anyway, I have to go to office hours and you already know how I feel about Shirky, so etc. etc. etc. I mean, it's not like collaborative projects weren't extremely common before the digital age (they form the basis of the modern academy, kind of!), and there's always been lots of amateur-generated knowledge out there, so I dunno how this is a shift, I guess.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@MikeBarthel Gosh though, do you really think that conjectures over the deterministic nature of technology make us less critical?! I think they are key components of that criticism. In the McLuhanesque spirit, I guess, wasn't trying to look for "cosigns" at all, just to present some related insights in popular reading … (Also, I have no idea how you feel about Shirky; would love to know.)

As for collaborative projects having anything like their current influence before the digital age, surely that question is wide open. Look how difficult it has been for the academy to reshape the dissertation process for example. How grueling it is for young academics to have the pressure of "making a name" for themselves, the pressure to publish, etc., and all this is known but has remained inalterable for the a matter of decades. Even the Polymath 4 project, from its inception a collaborative one, seems to have been forced to grapple with the problem of "authorship."

Moff (#28)

@MikeBarthel: The problem is not that McLuhan's underlying assumption is that technology is deterministic. Even if that were an accurate description of his point of view (and I would say it only sort of is), there is really no way to seriously grapple with his work and not think critically about technology. (Which is not to say the many people who name-check him do think critically about it.)

@Maria: The problem is that McLuhan, though he gets cited by proponents of new media all the time, was deeply skeptical about electric technology being good for humanity. Actually, "deeply skeptical" might be an understatement — he was a devout Catholic and semi-seriously wondered aloud on occasion if it wasn't the work of the original electric engineer, the, uh, Lightbringer.

Seriously, it's terribly problematic to use McLuhan to cheerlead for new media, because one of his major theses was that the underlying structure of Western civilization (all the First Amendment-y stuff liberals like about it) isn't sustainable in an electrically mediated world. (And by the way, it occurs to me that my parenthetical at the end of my reply to Mike could be read as a potshot directed at you, but it's not.)

Moff (#28)

(Which is not to say he was a fan of pre-electric, typographically biased Western culture and its attendant specialists and experts, or that he hated new technology. Not at all. He just thought we should understand how they all work, and — with all due respect — might have thought comparing Wikipedia and encyclopedias was a little simpleminded. There are a lot of important differences in how they each work, that are notable beyond the superficial similarities.)

MikeBarthel (#1,884)

@barnhouse I mean I could get into a whole hand-waving thing here about how individualism became way more important in the mid-20th but like take the studio system, for instance, which is this giant collectivist hive, so much so that (as I understand it?) early film theorists had to make up this whole "auteurist" idea in order to assign authorship of a film to someone. The major difference between Wikipedia/GNU/whatever and something like the studio system is that, as I know someone's pointed out (Benkler?), the market forces motivating involvement aren't monetary-based but based in some other form of personal gratification – it's usually formulated as "reputation" but eeeeeeh. So I think the difference is less that there wasn't collaboration before and now there is but that pre-digital collaboration was economically organized and now it's socially organized. Which is an interesting thing but I think it shifts the nature of authorship rather than bulldozes it entirely. Like when collaborative creative content is produced through economic arrangements it's held in common through being owned by corporations, but when it's created through social organization it's like it's owned by a particular social identity, kind of? Instead of being owned by "the Disney corporation" it's owned by the community of interest.

I don't totally side with Social Construction of Technology people but the basic idea is that seeing technology as the primary driver of these changes makes them seem inevitable or natural, which is sorta implied by the title of Shirkey's own book. They think you need to focus on what human decisions resulted in the making of particular pieces of technology, how humans created use for that technology, and how other decisions could have resulted in different outcomes.

Anyway I am kind of hallucinating from illness right now (it's been an eventful hour) so I'm probably not explaining this very well but that's a gesture at it, anyway.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Moff Oh, for sure. Marchand goes to great pains to explain that McLuhan saw a lot of dangers in the advent of new media–and this is evident even in The Gutenberg Galaxy. What he sought, as you later point out, was a clear understanding of the nature of media so that we would be its masters and not its slaves. Not trying to "cheerlead" really, so much as shed some light on how these things are really making themselves felt.

Moff (#28)

@barnhouse: Sure, it just seems a little one-sided. "Maybe disagreement doesn't have to be a battle to be fought to the death; it can be embraced, even savored" — true, and Wikipedia is sometimes a testament to that, as is, say, Andrew Sullivan's blog. But McLuhan would say the same electric technology that made these things possible is also at the root of the Tea Party, climate-change denial, and the anti-vaccine movement. What's significant is that I think you'd find that it's the people who are well versed in book-based thinking who tend to use electric media to embrace and savor disagreement.

As for Lanier, it's been awhile since I read his book, but it's odd to see him positioned against McLuhan (more or less). I don't have the memory to dig into Lanier's arguments in detail, and I know I was skeptical of some of them, but his overall concern was quite in keeping with McLuhan's perspective. And especially insofar as belief in individual genius and creativity goes — well, McLuhan was hypothesizing about crowdsourcing decades ago, but he much more frequently called out the artist as the person who could predict and respond to technological turbulence, and regularly noted that the new electric environment offered everyone the ability to shape their lives creatively. In part he was talking about collaboration, but I think there was quite a lot that can also be read in the same spirit as Lanier's concerns that forms like Facebook restrict us all to the same parameters.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Moff Very interesting all round. Yes. McLuhan quoted Pound, I think, saying that artists were "the antennae of the race," I think. I doubt he would have had much truck with Lanier's romanticism, though; for sure he was a collaborationist himself, though he tended to suck up all the oxygen in any given room, no matter who else was in it. Don't think he wrote a lot on the subject of "genius" per se? n.b. I think McLuhan was dead wrong on a ton of stuff (notably the "hot" and "cool" thing) but blazingly right about the "linear" vs. "tribal" deal.

There have long been cranks of the climate-change-denying or Tea Party variety; I don't think these things were influenced much by the advent of the Internet?

(p.s. I do love a good natter with you!! It's been too long.)

Moff (#28)

@barnhouse: Actually, your friend DFW's oft-quoted piece on the talk radio host can yield some pretty good insight into what McLuhan meant by a hot medium.

And he did love to collaborate, but he also did a lot of work alone. Who knows how much of Lanier he'd have agreed with, but the concerns in You Are Not a Gadget about the programming structure of Unix (I think? again, been awhile) are right up McLuhan's alley.

As for the cranks, of course they have been around forever. But, say, the John Birchers never achieved much genuine or lasting political power — they certainly didn't ever exercise the influence over nationwide elections that the Tea Party did in 2010. In part, the Tea Party's influence has come from its members' ability to reach a lot of people quickly and to collaborate with each other, thanks to electric media; electric media also make it hard to judge accurately how "big" a particular interest is. (Because you can't judging size is all about perspective, and as you note, perspective, or point of view, is erased by electric media. This is about as McLuhan-esque a statement as they come.)

But the driving interest in the Tea Party stems from the same sentiment toward experts that you cite as fueling Wikipedia. All of the bitching about "elites," all the populism — this is just another variety of the same expert-questioning sensibility you're talking about, the same process of decentralization that results from electric technology. And all of this is true about the climate change people and the vaccine people, too. Yes, we've always had cranks; no, they haven't ever played such a vigorous role, for such a long time, in the conversation about American political and social issues. They used to be marginalized; and now there's much less of a margin.

I mean, if you're just looking at the components and not their effect, you're missing McLuhan's whole point. It's like with your "Hyperlinks are just footnotes!" thing: Sure, you can choose whether to seek further information with either medium. But what's significant is how many, many, many more people do, with hyperlinks.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Moff Well I know what is meant by a hot medium, I just don't agree, is all, especially not that television is necessarily "cool" or detached in the way he seemed to suppose … but if McLuhan was right and understanding can shape the way we use technology (and I think he was,) I agree with him again about that part of it. It's not necessary (or advisable, I don't think) to consume media passively. The results will vary according to the viewer's or reader's own critical apparatus.

As for the Birchers, they have always been somewhat of an under-the-radar organization compared to the likes of the Tea Party, so it is difficult to gauge their real influence. But what about Father Coughlin? I would argue that any mass medium empowers demagoguery in about the same way. If anything, the web's propensity to engender debate is a threat to that kind of effort. As evidence, I would cite the slow erosion of Free Republic. They wound up having to ban practically everyone in their attempts to ensure ideological purity.

Moff (#28)

@barnhouse: Well, gauging something like "influence" isn't a precise art, but you'd be hard-pressed to argue that Birchers were ever taken as seriously by as many institutions, for as long a time as the Tea Party has been. And of course demagogues have been around forever, but the Tea Party is a weird thing: It is largely people who already have their country trying to take their country back. I mean, underclasses have long railed against "the elite," but middle and upper classes not so much. And all the hostility focused on education and educational institutions, from leftist university curricula down to scheming teachers' unions? I don't think there's much historical precedent for that, not in a country where half a century ago, going to college was part and parcel of the American dream.

And yeah, the web certainly engenders debate, but, you know, there's that tribalization thing too. The Free Republic example might also be a good illustration of hot and cool media: Applying too many strictures just isn't sustainable in a cool medium; you need to give people some room to participate by defining themselves. Which is in part why the Tea Party works, and why it doesn't: There's a lot of room to maneuver under its umbrella (note the many news articles in which members can't themselves define exactly what they're trying to accomplish), but there's also not enough focus to get much done beyond scaring some politicians and knocking a few out of office (note the many news articles in which members can't themselves define exactly what they're trying to accomplish). Because I mean, the Tea Party has been influential, but its influence has been sorta haphazard.

scrooge (#2,697)

@MikeBarthel Yes, we've always had cranks; no, they haven't ever played such a vigorous role
Prohibition? McCarthyism? America has always been good at mobilizing its cranks.

Moff (#28)

@scrooge: Sure, but those weren't really cranks per se. The dry movement and the McCarthyists were channeling widespread sentiments — that drinking was a dangerous vice, that Communism was perpetually on the verge of toppling America. They were extremists, but their views were largely in line with those of the powerful institutions of the time.

scrooge (#2,697)

@Moff Well, I suppose if you define "crank" by the number of people who hold the allegedly cranky belief — i.e. that if enough people are crazy then they aren't. To me, they were cranks. To posterity, too, methinks…

Even then, the number of speakeasies in places like New York sort of argues against your case that temperance was a mainstream movement. Admittedly, it did take a 36 states to pass the 18th Amendment; but that's a reflection of the Federal system, counting thinly populated rural (and religious) states as equal to densely populated urban states, and perhaps not of the population as a whole.

Moff (#28)

@scrooge: Sure, but even in those densely populated urban states, there was a prevailing sensibility that drinking was bad. It's like with porn today: Whatever the reality (that millions of people look at tons of porn), the overriding public sentiment is "Porn is bad." Government officials, churches, and schools surely were not lining up to say "Drinking is good!" Of course there was resistance to it, but the temperance movement was still deeply sanctioned by our institutions.

The Tea Party, on the other hand, is not. (Well, maybe by some churches. But only some, and the American church is no longer the institution it once was.) Even when politicians move to appease the Tea Party, it smacks way more of desperation than sympathy. Climate change and anti-vaccinism, too — at their roots, they aren't about a grand moral concern for the soul of America; they're about "Just because these people have fancy degrees, they're not going to tell me how to evaluate this information." So call 'em all cranks if you want, but the new ones are a different brand, and they're not a type that would have got much attention sixty or seventy years ago.

darthchewie (#12,569)

Moff is making some excellent points in this discussion. The anti-expert sentiments that fuel wiki-hype are similar to those that characterize movements like the Tea Party. Both are driven by resentment at elite institutions that claim to wield power based on knowledge.

However, I would take it a step further than Moff. Movements like the Tea Party are commonly chalked up to resentment born of economic insecurity, but I think the same thing is true of Wikipedia hypers. There are an increasing number of people in the US who have some education but not enough to get a stable job in a credentialed profession. I would submit that forums like Wikipedia supply people with a way to feel intellectual without demanding that they actually have credentials or produce knowledge. Not a doctor? Edit the entry for arthritis and you can feel like an expert. Not an art historian? Read an article about Van Gogh and make a small edit to his page. Of course, this performance of expertise is illusory; wiki-editors are really just rephrasing the labor-intensive work of real experts. But it allows people to imagine that they are intellectuals.

PearJack (#6,087)

I know this is getting off-topic, but aren't most of the people "behind" the Tea Party of Bircher pedigree, like the Koch brothers? Poorly informed white people are basically just their divisions.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@PearJack: Yes. Also, wake me when we get to Norbert Wiener.

@Moff: Hyperlinks are footnotes the way a grave is a wormhole — yes, you *do* go to another dimension in a manner of speaking…

Moff (#28)

@PearJack: Yeah, that's why it's so interesting. When a fringe movement gets closer to the center, we should ask why.

scrooge (#2,697)

@Moff "…but even in those densely populated urban states, there was a prevailing sensibility that drinking was bad." [Citation Needed].
This is one of those situations where there really aren't any statistics on which to base either of our cases. Maybe we must just hope Marshal McLuhan will appear magically and tell one of us "You know nothing of my work".

SeanP (#4,058)

@MikeBarthel from your post (when the hell are we going to get a blockquote feature?): I mean, it's not like collaborative projects weren't extremely common before the digital age (they form the basis of the modern academy, kind of!), and there's always been lots of amateur-generated knowledge out there, so I dunno how this is a shift, I guess.

You really don't see the difference? I know a lot of stuff about a lot of things, but I'm not part of "the academy". So until the advent of, say, Wikipedia (as a stand-in for web-based collaboration in general), it was in any practical sense impossible for me to participate in a discussion of any of these topics outside my own circle of friends. Wikipedia makes it possible for me to actually contribute something lasting to our body of knowledge of some topic, without having to dedicate my life to "the academy". And of course that's somewhat threatening to those actually in the academy (I'll stop using the stupid scare quotes), so I'm not surprised at the dismissive attitude you and others take toward this.

hapax (#6,251)


But the driving interest in the Tea Party stems from the same sentiment toward experts that you cite as fueling Wikipedia. All of the bitching about "elites," all the populism — this is just another variety of the same expert-questioning sensibility you're talking about, the same process of decentralization that results from electric technology. And all of this is true about the climate change people and the vaccine people, too.

I really enjoyed an article that addressed this very issue, written by Stanley Fish (of all people!) in Harper's some years ago. I can't find it online, but there's a summary of it here. Fish uses the creationist "Teach The Controversy" slogan as a way into the paradoxical use of postmodern discourse by the far right. They recognized, he says, that the lingo of "decentralization" actually suits their purposes pretty well, since they've already succeeded quite handily at portraying themselves as marginalized (despite the fact that, as you point out, they literally and figuratively own the country). Though Fish usually sends me to a crazy place, I think he was right on the money here.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@MikeBarthel I managed to lose track of your reply, I'm sorry! woof. Anyways please check this out!!

PearJack (#6,087)

@hapax I'm bored so I went looking: http://harpers.org/archive/2005/12/page/0072

Pretty sure that's it; also I found this: http://harpers.org/archive/2002/07/page/0035

darthchewie (#12,569)

This article is foolish and actually mischaracterizes what Wikipedia is doing.

Wikipedia is based around a strong hierarchy between experts and everyone else. Credentialed experts do primary research. They look at the actual stuff. Wiki-editors do secondary research. They read the sources that the experts write and debate the meaning of those sources. This is the governance that is built into the site, and it is a hierarchical one. Wiki-editors would only be “fellow travelers” with experts if they did primary research themselves. But how many times have you seen wiki-editors cite their own research in French or Russian archives, or their own experiments on bacteria, or their own mathematical proofs? Never. And that’s the difference.

Wikipedia hardly devalues experts. It enshrines them like never before. Every statement in a Wikipedia article has to be backed up with a citation to an article or book produced by a journalist, an academic, a scientist, or some other credentialed expert who has carried out primary research according to currently prevailing methods in journalism or academia. In no way are the wiki-writers “fellow travelers” with these expert sources in the governance of the site. Their job is only to debate which wording best characterizes the existing expert sources for the purposes of an encyclopedia article. This is all great as a learning exercise, and I applaud them for doing so, but it does not equalize experts and readers.

Far from dethroning expert knowledge or authors, Wikipedia is in fact the single greatest collection of citations to experts in the history of the world. It is a monument to expertise in fact.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

@darthchewie I think you're misunderstanding which experts the article says wikipedia dethrones. There's never any suggestion here that wikipedia threatens primary research. The point is that wikipedia makes it easy for the layman to filter and repackage existing research — and there are plenty of "experts" whose careers are built on no more than that.

Mindpowered (#948)

@DoctorDisaster I think Maria could have been more explicit on that point. Judging from her examples it was an obloquy against essential critical truths in inherently fuzzy subjects ( Li-Crit, Cultural studies).

But, her attack on "expertise" was ambiguous. Is it a relativist attack on all people who are accredited in any way as an expert on a particular piece of knowledge?(the kind that post – ___________ specializes in)?

Or was it more directed at those who are "pundocratic" and stray outside their area (I'm, an English professor, let me comment on American Morals, trust me, I'm expert)?

On a broader level, I can empathize with Wikipedia critics. I can find far more information on Pokemon, than I can on the geology of the rocky mountains. One is the defining physio-geological feature of North America, and the other is a TV show that will go the way of Kid Video in a few years. I suppose the take away is that crowd-sourced knowledge is only the mean of the crowd being sourced.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

@Mindpowered I see your point, but I'd quibble with that last sentence. Checking wikipedia is unambiguously more useful than just asking some random nerd about stuff (as "mean of the crowd" would imply). A fairer criticism would be to say that, like any work, wikipedia reflects the values of its creators. Basically anybody can contribute, and the nature of the project plays to those with lots of time on their hands, so it's no surprise that it has accumulated a disproportionate amount of pop and nerd culture detritus. Simply put, more people care about Pokemon than the geology of the Rockies. On the bright side, if you are looking for important information, at least you won't have to wade through the inane stuff to get there.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Mindpowered actually there is a pretty robust Wikiproject:Mountains, and the article on Rocky Mountain Geology, though brief, points you in the right direction citationwise. That is all it is supposed to do, right? Not replace research, but crank up your engine. In the case of Rocky Mountain geology there are excellent secondary sources out there; Pokemon, not so much, I imagine. Wikipedia tends to fill in the blanks on pop culture stuff, where there isn't anything to cite.

If you're trying to learn about something on Wikipedia, particularly something even vaguely controversial, though, you really have to read through all the edits. That can really be just crazy illuminating. I fear a lot of casual Wikipedia users haven't figured out to do that.

Mindpowered (#948)

@barnhouse What kinds of insight, do you get by trawling the edits? Aside from controversy, generates heat. Or is it the epistemological process that fascinates you?

@DD/bh It's an interesting a point. Wikipedia, more as repository of non-expert pop culture knowledge. But having said that, it's still treated asgospel than a tertiary overview, with links towards primary sources.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Mindpowered (b)

darthchewie (#12,569)

@DoctorDisaster Well, this article is entitled "Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert." Pretty strong language, and completely inaccurate as far as an expert-sourced encyclopedia like Wikipedia is concerned. It should be called "Wikipedia and the Enshrinement of the Expert," because that's what Wikipedia does–establish a hierarchy between experts and editors, like all encyclopedias.

I am not convinced that Wikipedia represents a huge change. The Wikipedia articles on Relativity or the Russian Revolution or Impressionism are mostly written by academic experts, just like the Britannica articles on the same subjects. True, you can see the edits, but what does that really mean? Most edits are combating trolls or ideologues who have no interest in legitimate debate. Where there is legitimate disagreement, the Wikipedia article itself usually acknowledges that in the text of the article. Well, print encyclopedia articles do the same thing. Wikipedia is not the first encyclopedia to acknowledge that knowledge is revisable. Bustillos's claims are based on the straw-man argument that all prior encyclopedias are somehow authoritarian instruments that bash the reader over the head with expertise and refuse any questioning. Far from it. Go read the Encyclopédie of Diderot and D'Alembert. Go read the early Britannica. Or better yet the recent ones. They fully acknowledge the revisability of their claims and they include lengthy citations so readers can consult the primary stuff on their own.

Really, the only difference with Wikipedia is that it is free and that it is online. As laudable as it is, however, this convenience does not equate to a revolution in knowledge.

Keith Kisser (#9,714)

Characterizing Lanier as a Romantic snob is generous. He's a typical conservative troll, angry that "the mob" has access to knowledge that wasn't approved by or under the control of "Traditional Sources of Knowledge" (rich white Christian males). It's the standard gripe we've been getting for the last decade from these dweebs.

darthchewie (#12,569)

@Keith Kisser Every sentence in every wikipedia article has to be backed up by a citation to a "traditional source of knowledge, such as a journalistic article or peer-reviewed academic publication." Otherwise it will be erased.

You obviously have no clue what Lanier is arguing. I would wager to say that you have never read his book and you are basing your comment off of Bustillos's mischaracterization of him. Guess what? That makes you the troll, not Lanier.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

ZX81! lost a lot of hours to that tape drive and wiggly memory brick.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@dntsqzthchrmn No wait, that's the Timex Sinclar 1000… the earlier, pre-chiclet keyboard one. 1K RAM, if I remember. Black and white. It made an EXCELLENT doorstop. I think of it every time the LRB or whoever mentions Clive Sinclair, and then I fill the recycling bin a little higher.

SeanP (#4,058)

@dntsqzthchrmn Holy crap, I had a ZX81 too. I wish I could find it, they're worth some money now.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@SeanP: O RLY

Bobby Womack (#4,074)

Articles like this make me wish you guys had more ads to make money off of us.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Well. I'm not at all sure how valuable–not to mention important, no, not yet, not yet at all–Wikipedia is, but this was enormously clarifying for me as I toddle along in the "discipline" of my day job, preparing to take depositions of a couple of putatively daunting, yet translucent, "scientific" "experts" next week.

In other words, you exposed a method that helped me find my way.

As for the implications of Wikipedia, Net Collectivism, and the liberation that accompanies our rapid conflating of the concrete with the virtual, that narcotic admixture of ethereal and ephemeral, I've been spending a lot of time lately chewing these lines from an old John Prine song:

We are living in the future
I'll tell you how I know
I read it in the paper
Fifteen years ago
We're all driving rocket ships
And talking with our minds
And wearing turquoise jewelry
And standing in soup lines.

Pardon the non-academic digression. Back to your Internet.

hapax (#6,251)

The amount of dunderheaded crap on Wikipedia makes me cast my vote for the 'experts' every time. It's not even the ridiculous appeals to Google or the totally uncritical splicing together of nearly-random sources that bothers me so much as the sheer plodding corporate-memo-ness of its prose. Even 'good' articles on Wikipedia, by which I mean the ones that don't garble their facts, are pretty much unreadable; the constant push-and-pull between editors makes for this weird, featureless, clunky prose that a Chronicle blogger describes here. And the talk pages! God! If you need any proof that Wikipedia's contributors don't know what they're talking about, I recommend skimming the talk page for any political or ideological issue you might care to name.

I think you're in dangerous waters using the Nature article to support your position here; it seems pretty clear to me that that study was very badly flawed. Here's an article which seems to be a pretty definitive takedown of that study, and whose critiques can't be ascribed to any defensiveness on the part of Britannica's editors.

I became a big fan of yours after reading your David Foster Wallace article, which is everything Wikipedia is not: well-researched, thoughtful, funny, insightful, and informative. Undergraduates would do well to read more of that stuff and less… well, crap.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@hapax Wow, thank you for kind words.

The blog post you cite was written by Nicholas Carr (author of The Shallows), that famous enemy of the Internet, and it is startling that you would call this would-be takedown "definitive". It is typical Carr: "I am no expert in the subjects covered by the survey – and my judgement may be mistaken – but my sense in reading through the lists was that the inaccuracies in Wikipedia tended to be more substantial than those in Britannica." (Okay, then that is settled!) The link I give above is to the Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, and links a bunch of peer-reviewed studies (the most talked-about were conducted in Germany) basically confirming Nature's claims. I really tried, and failed, to come up with any credible refutation of the Nature findings.

True enough, of course, about the often-bad prose on Wikipedia, though it's a mixed bag. I get really furious when my own stuff on there is mangled! haha.

@barnhouse: German studies of Wikipedia's accuracy typically look at the German Wikipedia, not the English Wikipedia. The German Wikipedia is substantially more accurate than the English Wikipedia, because Jimmy Wales isn't fluent in German. (That may sound facetious, but really, it is the root of the matter.)

There were many words tossed about in this opinionated essay, but I'm afraid you've spectacularly missed the actual understanding with which an intelligent person should emerge after examining what's going on at Wikipedia, and rejecting it.

hapax (#6,251)

@barnhouse I suppose it would be churlish to make an observation about your defense of the hard-earned expertise of your sources and your dismissal of the popular fluffiness of mine, so I won't do that! In all honesty I don't even know what The Shallows is, and I say (without sarcasm) that perhaps I would be horrified if I really understood whose website I just quoted with such approval. Such are the dangers of the argument from auctoritas, I guess. But I still thought his post on that Nature study made a lot of sense, and I stand by my assertion that his arguments, for whatever other flaws he may have, serve as a valuable corrective to the Wikipedia > Britannica argument.

I've been having trouble with these commenting fields all day, and the formatting for this page is wonky both at work and at home, and I wasn't able to open an edit window for my original comment even in the allotted five-minute timespan, so I feel like I didn't manage to say what I really wanted to say, which is something like this: 'real' scholarship of the sort you dismiss here is conversation; never in my academic travels did I encounter a scholar who wasn't in constant dialogue with the discipline as a whole, and even the most stuffy conferences and festschriften were always full of lively debate. I grant that that debate is bounded (often severely, almost comically bounded) and that invisible ideologies create glass walls around a lot of our conversations. I get that. But the idea that The Professor or The Scientist or whoever is making pronouncements from on high and condemning anyone who disagrees with him (always a him, eh?) is just really old-fashioned and straw-mannish, and the idea that Wikipedia is somehow necessary in order to stick it to The Man rubs me the wrong way.

I think that for me, what matters most is a commitment to the dialogue — a real desire to engage the issues, to work shit out, to have the patience to wrestle with hard questions and to pursue answers even if they are personally troubling. Now I will be the first to grant that some academics don't have that, insofar as some of them are in it for the money or the prestige or whatever. But even if that's the case, how many Wikipedians have it? Judging from the talk pages, vanishingly few. Their commitments lie elsewhere. Thus holding Wikipedia up as some triumph of democracy is missing the point, IMO.

But for what it's worth, I'm glad we're having this conversation about it.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@hapax Me too (re: this conversation.)

This is just the thing. We are so very much agreed about "commitment to the dialogue", and I agree also that the preponderance of academics have that commitment. I think everyone has it, really, until he (and yeah I am a fan of gender-neutral he!!) is sidetracked by other considerations. But look how fast a discussion of new methods of knowledge drives us back to a consideration of the dialogue. Also, I think it is really sad what short shrift the volunteers at Wikipedia are getting. Gotta disagree that their "commitments lie elsewhere," because it is very difficult, time-consuming and literally thankless work. Practically the only reason you'd do it is that you want very passionately to engage these issues; their (MANY) internecine documents most definitely testify to that desire.

elenahernandez (#12,573)

Love Wikipedia!!! I use it all the time, but just for reference.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

This reminds me, what happened to the contributor known as The Machines?

danbo (#8,510)

i really like the analogy of chemists and the scientific community in general. but the thing about scientific knowledge is that, for the century "we" (scientists and philosophers, i.e., experts) put in to debating, say, evolution through natural selection, most people still don't understand the concept, even if they purport to accept it as true.

i'd be interested to learn the percentage of people
who actively participate in wikipedia as part of all the people who use wikipedia as a source or entry-point for learning. i'm guessing that an amazing majority of people who visit that site take its content as authority just as they'd take scientific studies as authority or even a newspaper article about arnold's lovechild as authority.

i guess my point is that most people aren't and won't ever be engaged in the the activities of authorship, traditional or collective, about most topics. so it seems like there will always be a relatively small amount of people who put forth knowledge and opinion, and there will always be a far greater amount of people soaking up that knowledge with reckless abandon. or am i not giving people enough credit?

Moff (#28)

@danbo: Nope, I think you're right. (Always err on the side of not giving people enough credit.)

wiilliiaamm (#225)

I use Wikipedia to learn about bands I've never heard of and then to impress people with my knowledge of obscure bands. And that task is handled quite ably by my Wikipedia.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Also fine for getting up to speed on reality show episodes if you don't have a TV.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

I liked this article a lot and hope to hear more on this subject from the same source, whether she wants to be called an expert or not.

Wikipedia is seriously an excellent thing and a wonder of the modern world, and I go there all the time and tinker with it myself so I shouldn't bitch, maybe. But its superiority to traditional 'sikes and its prowess as a killer of the Expert …? I really wonder.

For one thing, its self-correcting and self-improving features work only where there is decent traffic to articles on a given subject, and work best where Wikipedia already has decent coverage of that subject. But Wikipedia's coverage and the community's interest are severely biased towards for example the new, the political, the pop-cultural, the technological. An inaccurate lineup of the personnel of some band on its however-manyeth album, or an instance of political bias from some sneaky troll, might get corrected faster than an inaccuracy on some encyclopedia-worthy subject. (And what are the encyclopedia-worthy subjects? Well, don't ask Wikipedia to do anything but subvert a question like that.)

Also, since a Wikipedia article is like a picnic to which everybody brings what they like best about the subject, there is a peculiar kind of inaccuracy that regularly arises, where maybe no factual error occurs but the arbitrary focus creates a misleading picture.

That probably occurs more in short articles. In longer articles, the volunteer method creates a different kind of focus inaccuracy: editors seem more often to address themselves to single passages, and may not even read the whole. That leads to dizzying continuity problems. Somebody who consults a long Wikipedia article may come away very confused — unless, as is sometimes the case, the article has been worked over systematically and structured by somebody who resembles precisely one of those experts that the medium is supposed to be making extinct.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Tulletilsynet Gah what a great comment, thank you. With respect to the quality of specific Wikipedia articles: maybe you are right that overall, Wikipedia is currently biased toward "the new, the political, the pop-cultural, the technological." But I am continually surprised at the exceptions to this. For example I know an amateur historian who has gone around putting in a ton of valuable information regarding Central African politics of the 1950s, just because he happens to have studied this unusual subject in great detail, and wants to share. Sometimes I will consult a topic that I feel sure will be well-sourced on Wikipedia, and am disappointed to find a ridiculously small amount available. On the other hand, I was flabbergasted some years ago when I went to consult my 90's Britannica for a biography of Carlo Ponzi and there was literally nothing there. But have a look at the Wikipedia article on Ponzi. It is surprisingly thorough and really beautifully done, even though the subject in no way falls into your list of "preferred" categories.

But we could trade examples and counter-examples all night, I'm sure. The point I was after making is WAY more to do with the condition in which a searcher after "knowledge" now finds himself when he confronts a new source of information. Wikipedia invites this person in many different ways (more and better citations, the ability to read various versions of the page, the ability to make his own contributions) to trace and even widen the path of those who came before. And Wikipedia is just the largest of many such examples; the beginning, not the end, of an epistemological change that makes fellow-seekers of us all. That isn't to lessen the value of "experts", provided these are knowledgeable, interested parties, fellow-seekers who can contribute a lot, as opposed to those who wish to perform before a passive audience of lesser beings.

iplaudius (#1,066)

With Wikipedia, and the internet generally, research can be freed from the burden to publish and reiterate dry lists, catalogues, transcriptions, reproductions, facsimiles — and all the other apparatus that scholars use when they need to provide the reader with primary source data that might otherwise be hard to find.

Think about how many pages of dissertations, books, articles, and so forth are spent on lists! Lists of people, of sources, of places, of events, of data data data. And what a useless format — an unsortable, unsearchable list — given the flexibility of database technology!

Wikipedia allows us to share very specific and very rare information at a very low cost and at very wide distribution and high availability. (Sorry about all those "verys." I have *feelings* about this!)

Of course, there is such a thing as reading beyond one’s ability to understand: resources like Wikipedia bring out the worst in autodidacts (ehem), who one hopes will stumble occasionally on articles like this one.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

@barnhouse @iplaudius
I love Maria's epigraph from Fr. Ong, which is so optimistic. (If Solon were living now, he could have said, "I would grow old updating Wikipedia" instead of "I would grow old learning new things.")

Also love McLuhan's Playboy quote, but notice how he phrased it. "The computer thus holds out the promise of a technologically engendered state of universal understanding …." Sly devil. He could have said the same about socialism or Scientology.

Maria, you must be right about Wikipedia being a beginning, not the end. (Touch wood: if not of an epistemological then of a methodological change, anyhow.) But you can only really judge things that are finished, in some sense. Anything else is judging your hopes, and who has the heart to judge his hopes?

I agree that Wikipedia is getting better all the time. Messed-up articles suddenly turn brilliant and make you glad you didn't yield to temptation and put in your two cents' worth. Someday every "gladly-would-he-lerne-and-gladly-teche" type will be generous enough to address herself to Wikipedia. But by its nature, it's a work in progress — and not always progress, even though that's the massive trend. I can encourage my kids to go to Wikipedia and use it with the appropriate critical caution, but I can't ever recommend any Wikipedia article to them.

(Plaudius, I feel your joy on the point about the liberation from lists and such. Yesterday I saw something (a list, essentially) on Wikipedia that I'd once dreaded putting together and thought, Wow, if that was today I could just have said 'You could look it up on Wikipedia!' and gone on with my preferred task.)

Tulletilsynet (#333)

PS Maria: Ponzi kind of proves my point about new, political, pop-cultural, technological. At least it does if I want to be stubborn. Wikipedia treats Ponzi well because his notoriety was revived in relatively recent times (check the Google timeline), not just because he did what he did when he did it.

(Which was in the lifetime of some people now living, but never mind that.)

NomenKlaature (#12,635)

So, I registered for this, despite having read The Awl since the wee numbers; I was tempted to register today by the INDIGENOUS GRASSES. But. It was this issue! The culture of print! Being misunderstood by great thinkers!

I confess to being neither a McLuhan scholar, nor a Wikipedia editor, nevertheless, I suspect that McLuhan is wrong, which would throw cogs in the whole train of thought above. What I am is a print scholar (and maker). Anyway. My evidence of McLuhan's wrongness is that in The Gutenberg Galaxy, though he does refer to and quote William J. Ivins' (curator and founder of the Prints Department at the Met) book, Prints and Visual Communication (published in '53, but based on many earlier lectures), he seems to intentionally ignore Ivins' main, somewhat revolutionary, point. McLuhan posits cultural transformation due to moveable type, and cites Ivins' remarks about same–however, Ivins took care (in the preface, even, where one lays out the basic precepts of one's arguments) to illustrate the fact that most people overlook the more radical (and far earlier) cultural transformation wrought by exactly repeatable visual statements (not text, but image). Said transformation, though informative and invaluable (example: illustrations of poisonous plants being more precise than text descriptions), was also non-linear (example: The Rhinocerous engravings–kind of hypertexty, actually, as an image), and more of a collective spirit than one of ownership.

Yeah. So typography is not equal to "print", internet–got it? Also, text in print existed long before moveable type; it was edited by crafting new blocks to insert into portions of old ones. Thinking Gutenberg was THE print revolution is Western bias, as well. I guess McLuhan has his place, but given that he seemed to ignore pre-existing thought on visuality and information transmission, I would hope more people would question his essential points.

For the record, Walter Benjamin also chaps my hide, what with his hoo-ha about Aura (traditional non-photographic prints are multiple originals, not multiple copies; the multiple is not equal to photography, internet, got it?), and McLuhan and Benjamin almost always show up in the same brains and papers. So I could just be being more hipster than thou about this. I think more folks should read Ivins, instead of, or in supplement to, those two. His book is available for free at the Internet Archive
( http://www.archive.org/details/printsandvisualc009941mbp ).

Now that I am sufficiently mortified by the length and crankiness of my comment, I shall retire to imagine INDIGENOUS GRASSES quietly filling my home. I shall probably also keep away from The Awl for an unspecified length of time due to embarrassment.

Oh, also–Wikipedia: it's handy!

barnhouse (#1,326)

@NomenKlaature Don't you dare go away! (Maria here.) What an awesome comment. Well, the thing is that McLuhan (and Fr. Ong before him) didn't rely so much on Ivins (loved the insight about "repeatable image" and really I am responding to tell you to read Ernest Bramah, which is fiction and amazingly silly but has the best story about repeatable images you will ever read, in one of the Kai Lung books.) They relied on this guy Peter Ramus. But beyond this, it's not like McLuhan ever let facts get in the way of a good argument! He was a mess! in multiple ways. Still it is beyond remarkable that such a guy came up with such stuff in the 1960s, when a computer was the size of a small garage and could barely add and subtract and cost a trillion dollars. What I know about Benjamin you could stuff in a watch but I'm definitely going to look into it on your say-so–thanks!!

Moff (#28)

@NomenKlaature: I confess, I'm having some trouble getting everything you're saying, but while Maria is right about McLuhan and facts (he was much more interested in engendering understanding than knowledge, per the post, and thought of his works as "probes," or statements intentionally designed to perturb and to provoke thought, rather than as factual claims), I'm not sure you're giving him enough credit. McLuhan's argument isn't that the Gutenberg press was the first way of producing exactly repeatable visual statements (he explicitly discusses woodcut engravings in places); it's that it was such an amplified way of doing it that the book technology and all its concomitant biases quickly took place of primacy in Western civilization.

I mean, you can call the earlier woodblock images more "radical"; but it's hard to look at all our city blocks laid out in neat little rows, covered with rectangular buildings laid out in neat little rows, filled with rows of square-ish rooms containing rows of cubicles or desks — all of which look largely the same no matter where you happen to be, geographically — and to think that all of this would have come about like this if not for the ease with which the printed book let us move high-resolution knowledge all over the place. There are just so many examples to point to, and they're so pervasive, and so formally emblematic of what the printing press does, that I'm not sure what you'd term it other than revolutionary.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

I guess it makes sense that the comments on this topic would be so damn long.

I think this article is overly optimistic about the wikipedia editing process, and about peer review (chemistry vs. alchemy).

I have no problem with wikipedia's accuracy or content. But has anyone seriously tried writing something substantial on wikipedia? It's a nightmare. The anonymous admins and self-appointed editors are a nightmare. The complex ever-changing and ever re-interpreting set of rules are a nightmare.

Wikipedia is really the product of a relatively small group of folks, the admins and most vigilant editors (the same way the folks with the most free time on their hands control most other online communities). It reflects on them, and they should be proud of their work, but don't talk about wikipedia like it's a truly open, collective system. 99% of people who even try to contribute to wikipedia are excluded, if not by the arcane editor and syntax: http://calacanis.com/2007/02/20/technological-obscurification-three-ways-wikipedia-keeps-99-of/
Then by the admins and editors.

Peer review doesn't work nearly as well or as flawlessly as you imply in the discussion of chemistry vs. alchemy, and it's not open, either. Sure, peer review keeps out inaccurate stuff and so forth, but it also keeps out innovative, different stuff. Peer review more often than not helps maintain and extend existing paradigms. That's why many are exploring alternative systems such as open post-publication peer review. Let people publish and share first (with their identity and background and so forth attached), and then let people openly review it afterward, rate it, respond to it, etc., but not wipe it off the face of the earth or re-write it in a way that makes it 'neutral'.

So, Wikipedia still preserves many of the old systems of authority and obscurity. It just incrementally expanded and anonymized the number of 'editors' in control.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Doug Holton@twitter Yes and no? I mean I said "portends" not "instantiates" … but here is an interesting new page from the Wikimedia Board addressing the issues you rightly address.

Don't Panic (#12,659)

I know I am a day late (a dollar short, too?) but this article raised two (related) issues for me that didn’t appear elsewhere in the comments that I thought I might toss out.

First, do any other lawyers out there see an interesting resemblance between Wikipedia and the common law? They both rely heavily on citations and are constantly evolving through adversarial debate. It seems that they both are more a journey towards objective truth rather than an academic declaration of what is absolutely true according to one single person. Point being, that Wikipedia perhaps shouldn’t be contrasted with expert knowledge at all. It is rather something more organic if not unfamiliar.

The other thing that Wikipedia reminds me of (which was briefly mentioned in the beginning of the article and then not brought up again) is oral folk traditions. These various myths, legends, songs, remedies, and c. that made up all of human knowledge before the written word were inherently not authored by a single individual. Rather, they changed with every transmission from one person to another, both accruing and shedding detail and bias along the way.

If you think about Wikipedia in these terms – as a perpetually evolving, organic body of knowledge akin to an oral or common law tradition – I think it’s hard to argue that it’s an entirely bad thing. Should you treat it as the gospel truth? No. But that isn’t really its purpose anyway, is it?

Anyway, very well written and thought provoking as always.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@Don't Panic: "Research has shown that ballads were produced by all of society."

David (#192)

Do you think we should just finally admit that while there is absolute black, and absolute white (and that these are knowable and perceptible with certainly by multiple parties in the same instant)– the rest of it (i.e. history, facts, events) are narrative, interpreted and made up? It seems like Wikipedia is "true" and squares with the E. Britannica because both are composed by people– that is, entities that are entirely human. Products by people are the result of a point of view, and understood through a lens of experience. Rocks and minerals do not have a point of view–they are an expression of their underlying structure–even if people are made of molecules too.

Larry Sanger is co-founder of Wikipedia. He saw fit to "fork" the project. citizendium.org seeks to correct the bulk of what Ms. Bustillos inappropriately praises about Wikipedia. Dr. Sanger continues to believe that expertise is essential to the advancement of human knowledge. I agree, and I followed him to Citizendium. Read his response to this essay: " 25 Replies to Maria Bustillos" – I predict that it will take a long time to find a new equilibrium. Wikipedia is out of whack, so I have set my long-term hope on Citizendium. I encourage those of you who are willing to be skeptical of the conclusions Ms. Bustillos draws to check out the Citizendium community.

Fascinating. I have literally never heard of Citizendium. (Which says something about one of us.)

p is for pee (#900)

I would LOVE to hear what you have to say about Malcolm Gladwell. Seriously.

Seth Finkelstein (#12,646)

I recommend reading:

"25 Replies to Maria Bustillos"

by Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger.

Quote: "Maria Bustillos commits a whole series of fallacies or plain mistakes and, unsurprisingly, comes to some quite wrong conclusions."

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@Seth Finkelstein: I did think it was dicey to use a still from the Woody Allen/McLuhan scene to illustrate an argument about McLuhan.

OK — so how many of Sanger's replies consist of one-line dismissals of the writers Bustillos cites? It's true that McLuhan (and probably Ong) are on the outs in the academy, and having read Shirky's books I can imagine why he's on there, but…

kdr (#12,829)

The Fourth Estate re-writ; from the inside out, the bottom up, and upside down. Curative DJs abound in a aggregatorized choir for our daily who, what, when, where, why and how; tomorrow's history lesson, dynamically journalized. Comprehensive writ here, Maria. Thank you.

Sammy (#13,136)

Maybe the "expert" has died, but research has shown that Wikipedia has not much more or less critical errors as Britanica. Also, Wikipedia, the more popular a post is, the more information, relevant and up to date the information will be. So I think it's great.

mbkirova (#13,237)

One major crit re The Wik: try comparing the same pages in different languages, for instance Russian and English. Totally different takes on many topics, and eau de government control.

Dougal (#12,302)

Something the writer might want to keep in mind:
"Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth."

(Note to moderators: "hi" above is spam.)

sollenklarkson (#13,445)


Joe_Blow (#13,456)

This is a fascinating discussion and, like Wikipedia and other on-line resources (including Britannica, thanks to my university library's account), I now have a trove of links to follow, which I normally don't do with footnotes, except in documents in my core areas of expertise (digital forensics, user interface psychology and design, ocean, nuclear, and aeronautical engineering, and military command, control, computation, and intelligence – I'm nothing, if not a very curious, spongy nerd who's had to roll with the economic punches for decades! ;)

Keep up the great back-and-forth – someone Out There is learning, and may actually pursue this area more fully in the future. As a volunteer computing historian/docent at a SillyCon Valley computing museum, and an animal caretaker and guide at an aquarium in Monterey, I have found we learn at least as much from those whom are wrong as we do from those whom are right – and it can take quite a while to determine which is which, particularly among experts. I would like to point out that, in many advances in fields such as astronomy, computing, experimental aircraft development, etc., amateurs have been responsible for the lion's share of important discoveries. Of course, these people are at least as passionate about their "hobbies" as the professionals, and may spend even more time on them than the professionals, so, they are experts, despite incomplete traditional credentials.

Recall how the Wright Brothers discovered that all of the experts of their time (and before) were actually using completely inaccurate lift/drag data for decades from a French expert (whom had died during a self-imposed flying experiment), and their independent development of accurate wind tunnel data gave them the edge (along with a hell of a lot of independent – and fun – kite design and flying experimentation, plus innovations such as warped-wing steering, aluminum engine blocks, aerodynamic props instead of ship-screw designs, etc.). Then, there were all those pesky flat Earth experts, Earth-centric experts, Leader-as-God experts, Eugenics-is-fact experts, etc., etc., etc. Question Authority, indeed!

Thanks again – Seacrest, Out! (sorry, couldn't resist the ephemeral pop reference ;)
Joe (no, I'm _NOT_a plumber – why does everyone ask?) Blow

barnhouse (#1,326)

@Joe_Blow Thank you for this, it cracked me up (Maria here.) You might like a book from the NYRB, it is called Hidden Histories of Science and touches on all these themes.

meow (#13,555)

Damn. I hope wordpress won't kill me as well.

helen (#13,681)

The article is rather long for my current limited span of attention availability but it seemed well researched. But I don't understand why it's titled "Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert" – would not "Growth of the Expert" be nore apt as Wikipedia makes it easier for us to become experts than Brittanica ever did with it's high cost and nothing as slick as Google to guide you to the information you're trying to acquire.

Raj Kris (#13,960)

Wikepedia make and expert of a layman, its a mine of information with diffrent poins of view considered and a dynamic encylopedia which keeps itself updated by the contributors !! Thanks to the founders which makes reference a breeze and enjoyable !!

BenK (#161,118)

Just reading this article several months later. I think Lanier's viewpoint is definitely conservative, but I don't think he should be dismissed as a luddite. The problem, from his point of view, is that the collectivist nature of Wikipedia has the potential to frame an individual's contributions and arguments as not only incorrect but morally wrong because they go against the grain of popularly held beliefs. On the other hand, the assumptions on which a collective bases its reading of an issue might avoid the same scrutiny if the editors of Wikipedia collectively do not believe a statement to be controversial. Not every statement in any Wikipedia entry is referenced or cited (it might make for terrible reading if it were) but surely there are underlying assumptions throughout Wikipedia articles, even ones that are copiously cited.

Lanier's concerns are legitimate and should not be dismissed just because they are cautionary and conservative. Wikipedia is here to stay, and it is a useful tool. However, there is a danger that a novice to a subject might read an article to get the wrong idea about it, not just because someone has populated the article with incorrect information, but because the article contains many underlying assumptions that are not overtly questioned. This danger is not exclusive to Wikipedia as a resource; but while Wikipedia offers a greater potential for collaboration, there is also the potential for a dissenting voice to be shouted down by a collective that is unwilling to take a chance on an expert opinion.

Sure, we live in a new era where individualism is outmoded and useful intelligence will be collective. So why for days on end now have we been seeing endless tributes all over the web to Christopher Hitchens, an exemplar of the individual intellectual?

Firstly, the notion that technology is in a co-evolving relationship with our cognition is actually gaining traction within psychology; see Andy Clark's books "Natural Born Cyborgs" and "Supersizing the Mind" for an overview. The point being, that this interaction between technology and cognition is being actively studied. It WON'T be a simple interaction, and its full implications are unclear.

Secondly, the idea that crowd-sourcing or democratising knowledge practices can produce reliable knowledge has a mathematical model: Condorcet's jury theorem. But there is a catch…

If the bulk of the population is in fact uninformed (or lazy, or selfish, or just plain wrong) then outsourcing fails miserably, and things converge on nonsense or half-truths or falsehoods. And given that we know there are cognitive biases that means that people can be consistently wrong about some things (See Daniel Kahnemans book "thinking fast, thinking slow") then there are good reasons for thinking there are potential ways that crowd-sourcing really does "make us stupid." Not always, but sometimes. Not all issues. But some.

So three. The trick is then working out a suitable "crowd." The notion of the solitary expert is bollocks. All scientists stand on the shoulders of others; they are innovative nodes for a "crowd-sourced" set of information. Its just that the innovative node assesses a unique crowd. That crowd might be a subset of all available people, or it might be all experts. Part of the problem with the Tea Party style belief systems is that their "crowd" –their information sources they gather from– are all biased, and all feeding back on each other, offering a reflection of their own views.

In the end then, the most important aspect of this article is NOT the McLuhan stuff, that is frankly a red herring. Its Wikipedia's systems for handling disputes, its constant patrolling, and its arbitration processes. Its these systems that ensure that the "crowd" that is being sourced is reasonable, unbiased, and not a solitary individual with an agenda. Its this "crowd" control that make Wikipedia reliable.

Problem with Wiki though and other sites like it are the fact that what they claim within their pages is wrong, so taking that information as the truth instead of a professional is wrong. I still check on more official sites for information than I do wiki etc as wiki is notorious for mistakes.

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