Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Wikipedia

ISTE asked for opinions on this topic: "Wikipedia, friend or foe"

. . . and this is my answer . . .

Wikipedia is just like the “Encyclopedia Galactica”
. . . only different.


Not an Isaac Asimov fan? Here's a Cliffs Notes version: Twenty thousand "encyclopedists" are dispatched to a distant planet ostensibly to prepare an encyclopedia of all human knowledge. Admittedly it's so far in the future that there is a lot more knowledge to put into their enormous publication, but these 20,000 labor for fifty years before their work is interrupted.

The Encyclopedia Galactica is created on a simply massive scale—very appropriate to science fiction—but it still follows the same method of compiling encyclopedias that has been used since the first such compilation almost 300 years ago. That is, to create a trustworthy resource you first gather many experts and editors with distinguished educations. Asimov tried to see the future, but he missed it in guessing that the definitive gathering of human knowledge would be done by the elite possessors of knowledge. It would have been impossible in 1951 to guess that knowledge-compiling would become democratized to the point where we all chip in to form our own real-life version of the Encyclopedia Galactica.

"All of us are smarter than any of us." That's the idea behind Wikipedia, and it is one that is well supported by James Surowiecki and the research that he references in The Wisdom of Crowds. If any random contributor were creating entries in Wikipedia by himself, then that would not be trustworthy. But when you have a crowd of editors swarming over each Wikipedia article and having discussion on the back-end about how the article could be improved on the front-side, there are significant checks and balances. There is wisdom.

Each time I’ve edited a Wikipedia article (and I’ve only edited three so far) I’ve been impressed by the dialogue that is going on behind the scenes. These other self-appointed editors see themselves as providers and guardians of information. They subscribe to “their” articles so as to be alerted to any future changes. Funny thing about it—each of those three articles that I made changes in are now also “my” articles. I own part of Wikipedia, if you know what I mean. Three out of 11 million is a small part, but those three are more accurate and complete because of me. That is democracy.

Just now when I was trying to remember how many encyclopedists were sent to Terminus . . . I consulted my online encyclopedia. It had all the facts I wanted and one amused chuckle for me when I read a quote from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and then reflected on those who complain of Wikipedia:
"… [The Guide] has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom … though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate…”
I’ll fix the inaccuracies in Wikipedia as I find them (and you will, too), and together we’ll make an online encyclopedia even better than the fabled Encyclopedia Galactica.

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