I was drawn to a piece on Radio National’s Counterpoint programme, which promised to be a critique on Wikipedia. Here’s evidence of the mainstreaming of a hidden gem: to have it discussed nationally on radio. Not that I needed that evidence, on an anecdotal level at least. I frequently encounter non-technical people nowadays that use Wikipedia as their first reference source.
However, Wikipedia emerged favourably from the the two discussions I picked up in this exercise, and I’m still waiting for a serious challenge to its burgeoning pre-eminence.
The first point of contention came from Jaron Lanier. Who’s he? Despite his own bio and that in Wikipedia (vetted quite recently by him), his substance is rather elusive to me, although he has clearly been involved in technical and critical spheres. Undeniably he is literate, and has garnered recognition, including an honorary doctorate, as well as notable people who are willing to put a fair bit of thought into responding to his essays.
I believe the teaser for the interview with Lanier said words to the effect that Wikipedia was a “revolution in unsourced information”. I was thus looking forward to a critique of its accuracy. Now the Wikipedia model is somewhat counterintuitive in that it sounds like it lends itself to both misinformation and disinformation, yet in practice works particularly well.
Here I present another analysis. Nature magazine carried out a survey (which Lanier is wont to quote) comparing the accuracy of Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica. It concluded there is not a great deal of difference between the two – a finding favourable enough to the former to draw the ongoing wrath of the latter. Nature stood by its conclusions. Four major errors were spotted in each; smaller errors of fact were of an equal order of magnitude: 162 for Wikipedia and 123 for Britannica. The sampling was relatively small (42 pairs of usable reviews), but it’s not surprising Britannica was wringing its hands at the prospect of its reputation being usurped by such a young upstart. That link to the survey leads to all the details of Britannica's criticisms and Nature's rebuttals.
Back to Lanier. If you read his comments carefully enough (in the Counterpoint interview and particularly in the essay that probably caught their attention – Digital Maoism), he is actually bewailing the fact of collaboration, and the apparent loss of the individual voice. He contrasts it with myspace.com, which he expresses enthusiasm for – specifically because it is an individual, signed voice - regardless of the quality of the content.
Lanier has an axe to grind against collective collaboration, and doesn’t seem to disparage the accuracy of Wikipedia per se. It’s an interesting perspective for a professed computer scientist: it’s much more that of an artist. Art and science/knowledge, I contend, have very different purposes and in the ultimate, science (and knowledge) is more concerned with successful collaboration, whereas it is in art that the individual's voice has strongest relevance to the subject matter.
Further, Lanier is misleading in claiming that that collective content of Wikipedia is homogenised. In fact, if any contentious issues therein are tested, they are found to have a plurality of voices, proffering often diametrically opposed views on the same issue.
I have a side issue with how the man encourages himself to be portrayed. The radio presenter, Michael Duffy, credited Lanier as being an “academic at the International Computer Science Institute at Berkeley”. At a brief whizz past (which is all radio listeners will get), this sounds like Lanier’s been given cachet by being associated with the University of California, Berkeley. In fact, a) that Institute is not associated with U of C, and b) Lanier would not seem to be an academic at ICSI. His Wikipedia biography doesn’t mention it; in his own website bio, he mentions various “associations” with that Institute, but the Institute’s staff list doesn’t mention him at all. I think the artistic desire for signature won out over the scientistic regard for accuracy.
So we have Lanier’s critique of what he calls the “hive mind” – for what it’s worth. I’m still waiting for a challenging critique of Wikipedia.