Martin Wattenburg, IBM Research
Originally uploaded by blackbeltjones.
Lots being written at the moment about the authority of Wikipedia, after aspersions were cast recently by a journalist.
I don’t have anything to add other than the suggestion that both critics and it’s rather stung-sounding supporters are confusing authority with autonomy, in the principia cybernetica sense: “Self-asserting capacity of living systems to maintain their identity through the active compensation of deformations”
At DIS2004, Martin Wattenburg gave an impressive demonstration of this using a real-time java visualisation of the wikipedia: HistoryFlow, which I’ve written about here before.
Focussing on controversial subjects, Martin visually demonstrated the self-regulation, recovery from attack and consensus- generation the system manages in a remarkably short, you might say, biological time frame.
After seeing it illustrated with HistoryFlow, I don’t think that the harshest of critics could doubt the wikipedia‘s resilience and self-moderation.
It’s “authority” though might be a different matter.
The wikipedia’s structural strength and resilience confered by its form, also condemns it to be being in the constant flux of the wikinow – and that immediately erodes it’s ‘authority’ in traditional terms or perhaps ‘timelessness’ would be a better word.
As Liz Lawley comments on Joi Ito’s post (the comments are where the action is on that post, btw):
“while the back-and-forth of community editing may, over time, result in information with significant balance and validity, there’s also the very real potential of an unsuspecting user coming across an article during a pendulum swing. With print reference sources, that back-and-forth occurs as well, but it’s typically invisible to the end-user, who always receives the post-debate version.”
Another correspondent further down in the comments remarks:
“Encyclopedias are supposed to give information seekers correct information at any given time, not prove that they are self-repairing knowledge-building processes.”
Authority is a slippery, socially-constructed thing conferred over time, and the most authoratitive texts in our language once only had the authority most dubiously viewed by an establishement, that conferred by the dilligence of volunteers, just like the wikipedia.
This from Simon Winchester’s “The Surgeon of Crowthorne”:
“The undertaking of the scheme, he [Dean Trench] said, was beyond the ability of any one man. To peruse all of English literature – and to comb the London and New York newspapers, and the most literate of the magazine and journals – must be instead ‘the combined action of many’. It would be necessary to recruit a team – moreover, a huge team, one probably comprising hundreds and hundreds of unpaid amateurs, all of them working as volunteers.
The audience murmured with surprise. Such an idea, obvious though it may sound today, had never been put forward before.
But then, some members said as the meeting was breaking up, it did have some merit. It had a rough, rather democratic appeal to it. It was an idea consonant with Trench’s underlying thought, that any grand new dicitoonary ought to be itself a democratic product, a book that demonstrated the primacy of individual freedoms, of the idea that one could use words freely, as one liked, without hard and fast rules of lexicial conduct.
Any such dictionary certainly should not be an absolutist, autocratic product, such as the French had in mind: the English, who had raised eccentricity and ill-organisation to a high art, and placed the scatterbrain on a pedestal, loathed such Middle European things such as rules and conventions and dictatorships. They abhorred the idea of diktats – about the language, for heaven’s sake – emanating from some secretive body of unaccountable immortals. Yes, nodded a number of members of the Philological Society, as they gathered up their astrakhan coats and white silk scarves and top-hats that night and strolled out into the yellowish November fog; Dean Trench’s notion of calling for volunteers was a good one, a worthy and really rather noble idea.”
Jimmy Wales, of the wikipedia gave some talks yesterday in London, and if anyone has notes if would be very grateful if they could point me to them.