Larry Sanger, the cofounder of Wikipedia and, more recently, the sole founder of Citizendium, another online volunteer-written encyclopedia, if at the moment one that remains curled tightly in a fetal position, has written an essay about “the new politics of knowledge” for the journal Edge. It is long, well-meaning, and unreadable. Here’s a taste of Sanger’s deathful prose:
Well, when we say that encyclopedias should state the truth, do we mean the truth itself, or what the best-informed people take to be the truth – or perhaps even what the general public takes to be the truth? I’d like to say “the truth itself,” but we can’t simply point to the truth in the way we can point to the North Star. Some philosophers, called pragmatists, have said there’s no such thing as “the truth itself,” and that we should just consider the truth to be whatever the experts opine in “the ideal limit of inquiry” (in the phrase of C. S. Peirce). While I am not a pragmatist in this philosophical sense, I do think that it is misleading to say simply that encyclopedias aim at the truth. We can’t just leave it at that. Unfortunately, statements do not wear little labels reading “True!” and “False!” We need a criterion of encyclopedic truth – a method whereby we can determine whether a statement in an encyclopedia is true.
It’s like fucking Polonius has come back to life. Get thee back behind the arras, pierced old fool, and badger us not with thine tedious pedantry!
OK, maybe that’s a little harsh. I wish Sanger well. Although I think Citizendium will flop – it’s too late to market and it comes wrapped in an ornate intellectual scaffolding that acts as a kind of force field against intruders (ie, contributors) – I would like to see it become popular for one simple reason: It would tend to dilute Wikipedia’s hegemony over Google search results, and that would be a small but good thing. Sanger’s article is a defense of his idea that if you gave “experts” some degree of control over Wikipedia’s contents – if you put them at “the head of the table” to watch over the kids – you’d end up with a better Wikipedia. That may well be true, but I sense that if Wikipedia is afflicted by what I’ve termed the cult of the amateur (Sanger calls it “dabblerism”), Citizendium may be afflicted by the cult of the expert. Both cults operate at approximately an equal distance from reality.
To be honest, I don’t see much difference between Sanger and his arch-nemesis and sometime collaborator Jimmy Wales. They’re true believers arguing over a technicality – always the bitterest kind of dispute – and Wales recently sidled toward Sanger’s camp when he came out in favor of introducing a more formal credentialism into Wikipedia’s already extraordinarily bureaucratic operation. (Wikipedia was once about outsiders; now it’s about insiders.) As Wikipedia shifts from pursuing quantity to pursuing “quality,” it is already heading in Sanger’s direction.
Whatever happens between Wikipedia and Citizendium, here’s what Wales and Sanger cannot be forgiven for: They have taken the encyclopedia out of the high school library, where it belongs, and turned it into some kind of totem of “human knowledge.” Who the hell goes to an encyclopedia looking for “truth,” anyway? You go to an encyclopedia when you can’t remember whether it was Cortez or Balboa who killed Montezuma or when you want to find out which countries border Turkey. What normal people want from an encyclopedia is not truth but accuracy. And figuring out whether something is accurate or not does not require thousands of words of epistemological hand-wringing. If it jibes with the facts, it’s accurate. If it doesn’t, it ain’t. One of the reasons Wikipedia so often gets a free pass is that it pretends it’s in the truth business rather than the accuracy business. That’s bullshit, but people seem to buy it.
Now that I’m warmed up, I have to say there’s another thing that gets my goat about Sanger, Wales, and all the other pixel-eyed apologists for the collective mediocritization of culture. They’re all in the business of proclaiming the dawn of a new, more perfect age of human cognition and understanding, made possible by the pulsing optical fibers of the internet. “I am optimistic,” Sanger recently said, with a face as straight as the theoretical line that runs the shortest possible distance between two points, “about humanity’s coming enlightenment.”
Truth! Knowledge! Enlightenment!
Enlightenment, of course, presupposes darkness: If we’re to be delivered into the light, then we must be mired in the murk of ignorance. So Sanger has to paint a fantastical picture of the past for his observations about the present and future to carry any weight. In his fantasy, “what we know” has through the ages been tightly controlled by all-powerful elites and doled out to us like so many spoonfuls of baby food:
In the Middle Ages, we were told what we knew by the Church; after the printing press and the Reformation, by state censors and the licensers of publishers; with the rise of liberalism in the 19th and 20th centuries, by publishers themselves, and later by broadcast media – in any case, by a small, elite group of professionals.
If this isn’t complete nonsense, it is such a ridiculous exaggeration that, for all practical purposes, it’s indistinguishable from complete nonsense. What’s most appalling is the way it presents “we” – by which I assume Sanger means the entirely imaginary claylike mass of undifferentiated beings that to him and others of his ilk represents mankind – as being dumb receptor valves entirely without imagination or a capacity for free thought. If from the Enlightenment to the present, “we” were spoonfed “what we know” by some central cabal of elitist gatekeepers bent on thought control, then why are we – or, more precisely, were we – so smart?
Take a look at your average educated citizen of, say, 1850 and compare the breadth of his knowledge with that of the average educated citizen of today (17 years after the invention of the glorious World Wide Web and six years after the blessed arrival of Wikipedia). I mean, really: there’s no comparison. If elites were tightly controlling “what we know” for the past few centuries, they were certainly doing a clumsy job of it. Are we to suppose that all the great thinkers of the past would have been really smart if only they could have surfed the web?
If an alien were to land on earth today and initiate a study of the relationship between the raw supply of information and the general level of knowledge of the populace, he would almost certainly come to the conclusion that the two are inversely correlated. I think that conclusion would be mistaken – there have to be other variables at work – but it nevertheless underscores the vast difference between getting information and getting knowledge. As Stephen Bertman has written, “Were all the great books of the Western world compressed onto a single silicon chip, the human race would be no wiser.” And were all those books, as well as every other stray strand of digitizable information, woven into what Kevin Kelly calls a “liquid fabric” of online content, linked, tagged, and annotated with a billion user comments, we would still be no wiser.
Sanger continues: “today, if you want to find out what ‘everybody knows,’ you aren’t limited to looking at what The New York Times and Encyclopedia Britannica are taking for granted. You can turn to online sources that reflect a far broader spectrum of opinion than that of the aforementioned ‘small, elite group of professionals.’ … I, at least, think it is wonderful that the power to declare what we all know is no longer exclusively in the hands of a professional elite.”
I swear to God, I have not yet met anyone on this planet, whether sharp as a tack or dumb as a rock, who, if he desires to find out what “everybody knows,” feels that he is limited by what the New York Times or the Encyclopedia Britannica “declares.” The time in my own life when I was most intensively interested in discovering “what we know” was probably when I was in my early twenties. I don’t recall ever looking at an encyclopedia during those years, and (for better or worse) I didn’t spend a lot of time reading newspapers. This was also before the arrival of the personal computer, so I never went online, either. Now maybe I’m misremembering, but I believe I always felt that I had access to a wealth of information about “what we know.” There were books, there were journals and magazines, there were libraries with shelves of reference works and, if you were really ambitious, cabinets of microfiche. There were smart people to talk to, there were woods to walk through, there were cities to explore. It was not at all difficult to find a spectrum of opinion every bit as broad as what you’ll find on the web today. Where was that professional elite that exclusively held the power to control what I knew about what we knew? I’ll tell you where it was: It was nonexistent.
Sure, a lot of people in this world face barriers, economic, political, and geographic, to getting access to information, but that’s hardly the fault of the New York Times or the Encyclopedia Britannica. And if you’re lucky enough not to face those barriers, then the getting of knowledge comes down not to the workings of either media elites or media collectives but to personal desire and initiative. If you have a hankering for knowledge and the will and discipline to pursue it, you will find the information you require, and its quantity need not be measured in terabytes. A little goes a long way. (Some have found a grain of sand sufficient.) If you lack a desire for knowledge, or the will and discipline to pursue it, you can be given all the information in the world and it will leave only the slightest and most delicate impression on your mind – the kind of impression typically left by, say, a Wikipedia article.
Yes, Wikipedia is the most extensive work of paraphrasing the world has ever seen – and, I admit, that’s a useful accomplishment and something its creators can be genuinely proud of – but, in the end, who really cares? It adds not a jot to the sum total of human knowledge. In fact, by presenting knowledge as a readymade commodity, a Happy Meal for Thinkers in a Hurry, it may well be doing more to retard creative thought than to spur it.
In a comment appended to Sanger’s essay, Jaron Lanier distills into four words the biggest problem with Wikipedia’s articles, and my guess is that the criticism will apply equally well to Citizendium’s: “The emphasis is random.” So true. Even when Wikipedia gets the facts right, the balance of those facts, a more subtle issue but one that’s equally important to accuracy, is often off. Small points get blown out of proportion – particularly those subject to debate – while big points get expressed poorly or glossed over. This is not a problem of expertise. It’s a problem of expression. In the end, Sanger’s barking up the wrong tree. The quality of an encyclopedia is not determined by the number of experts who sign up to contribute but by the skill of the writers and editors who translate what the experts know into the language of the lay reader. That’s a job that experts and crowds are both profoundly ill-suited for.