Thursday, September 07, 2006

Where Does Wiki Come From?

I am a big fan of the Wikipedia concept, mostly because I very definitely believe in a tyranny of experts and public discourse as a means of solving it. Also, though, because an encyclopedia is meant to represent an overview of the accumulated knowledge of a culture. It makes sense that it should be subject to review by that culture as a whole, representative rather than prescriptive. And indeed, on the whole I am enthusiastic about the internet in general as a means of breaking up traditional power monopolies, particularly in breaking through the liberal media's propaganda machine. It's true that opening something to the public means that faulty information slips through, but that's hardly an issue confined to Wikipedia.

Thus, it was with great interest that I read this bit on where Wiki comes from. I'll let you read the actual study for yourself, but the gist is that it is indeed a wide-ranging community effort, not the cabal of dedicated fans in their basements that some have conjured up. This is intuitive, actually. Normal encyclopedias do not get written by core staff either. Generally, publications like Britannica farm out work to various experts (Anthony Burgess, for example, famously wrote Britannica's entry on "The Novel") and have their core staff do the editing, checking quality standards, etc. - keeping the thing "whole." As it turns out, that's exactly how Wikipedia functions - a core "staff" of dedicated fans keep the interface uniform, enforce the quality standards, fish out the vandalism, etc. The overwhelming majority of the content, as it turns out, comes from occasional (or even one-time) posters - people not even formally registered with the organization.

One other point of interest: apparently vandalism accounts for only a vanishingly small percentage of edits on Wiki. That speaks to my optimism about human nature. At their core, I believe that humans are moral and cooperative. Wikipedia, in a certain sense, is like a mini-civilization. More than the framework of laws that bind a society (though this is also of inestimable importance), civilization survives because of social behavior. It thrives because individuals voluntarily act in ways that make it possible for us all to live together. It all depends on a certain amount of trust - that, for the most part, what you tell me is your honest opinion, that you will admit when you are wrong, that you will not shoot me if I knock on your door, that the products you sell me are of adequate quality, etc.

In Language and Politics we are discussing the Linguistic analogue of this: Paul Grice's Maxims of Conversation. Another language-related analogue is Sisela Bok's book on Lying, which argues from what might call a pragmatic Kantian view that the reason it is important to tell the truth is because society could not function if people told lies. I read Bok some time ago and found it very persuasive (though perhaps "persuasive" is not the right word since I am already largely convinced by Kant's view of morality). (See here for an interesting interview.)

Kant has often been criticized as being divorced from reality, in the ivory tower, etc. One of the great classroom moments of my former life as a Philosopher was in Peter Kunzmann's class. We were doing a seminar on Peter Singer's book Practical Ethics - and Dr. Kunzmann pointed out that despite all Singer's bluster about the "impracticality" of Kant, Kant talked about things like lying and stealing that actually come up in everyday life. Singer is more concerned with euthanasia and animal experiments, stuff that people don't have to deal with. I rather enjoyed hearing that because I believe it on an even deeper level than Kunzmann probably meant it. It's not just that Kant's examples of how moral people should behave turn out to be relevant to our everyday experiences, it's also that he provides a template for dealing with ethical issues in general that not only can people easily apply and use, but also one that speaks to human nature. On some fundamental level, we are social creatures. It isn't just that honesty is something people's parents programmed them to appreciate at a young age - it's that people, by virtue of their rational faculties, sense that meaningful interaction is not possible without it. Kant tapped into the essence of what it is to be moral. Be honest not because your parents told you to, not because it says so in the Bible, and certainly not out of fear of the negative consequences of being caught in a lie. Tell the truth because lying subverts the purpose of language - because communication would be impossible if lying were the general rule.

It's not just the law, it's also a good idea, in other words. And people, for the most part, know that. They may even be genetically predisposed to know that. This is the primary reason I am not afraid of a minarchist society. I know that most people, left to their own devices, do the right thing. That Wikipedia is, in its own small way, proof of that is gratifying, but it is not surprising.


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