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The Montgomery-Finkelstein debate

January 24, 2007

Rough Type's users have been generating some particularly good content of late, so I thought I'd be a good Web 2.0 plantation owner and harvest it for my own (meager) gain. In the comment thread to my recent post on the black hole of Wikipedia, Paul Montgomery and Seth Finkelstein have been going at it like a couple of fairly well-mannered cats in a bag about Wikipedia, white guyism, and the quantum universe. Their exchange, which began with Montgomery's broadside against the poor, defenseless plantation owner, follows.

MONTGOMERY: Nick hates Wikipedia because it represents a challenge to his strong sense of elitism and personal cultural superiority. Nick can't stand the thought of an entity which asserts authoritativeness but has none of the institutional infrastructure that Nick has been brought up to worship. There are no old white guys who have ultimate editing authority, you don't need to have been educated by old white guys to participate, and the content is not geared exclusively to the tastes of old white guys.

I am not saying that editors are obsolete, merely that the Wikipedia model is also valid enough for its own purposes and should not be looked down upon merely because it is not "professional."

FINKELSTEIN: Umm, what is "the Wikipedia model"? I'm serious. You say: "has none of the institutional infrastructure ..." But Wikipedia has an *enormous* amount of *different* institutional infrastructure. This isn't even arguable. It's got committees and petty power-tripping and fiefdoms and an absolute ruler of it all. And *institutionally*, it worships the dead white male sources, going so far as to infamously reject people's own statements about their life in favor of what some dead white male institution wrote!

The key element seems to be that while doing this, it somehow manages to pull off a sneering attitude to *individual* experts, giving the suckers the thrill of being able to lord it over The Man. But what does that prove? Only that if you can get grad student types to work for free by telling them they're getting back at professor types, many of them can be deluded by this sort of emotional appeal.

MONTGOMERY: Yes Seth, Wikipedia has institutional infrastructure, but of a far different kind to the Encyclopedia Britannica, or a university. That was the point I was making by saying "none of the institutional infrastructure that Nick has been brought up to worship." Apologies if I did not make myself clear.

I don't get why people complain so much about NPOV [Wikipedia's "neutral point of view policy"]. It's not as if you could ring up the EB and get them to change what they wrote about you in their dead tree editions, or at least to the extent you can complain it's just the same process as Wikipedia. It seems like a perfectly reasonable rule to me for both EB and Wikipedia. Where people go wrong is in thinking they should be the ones rewriting the content, when in fact they should be pointing others towards independent sources of the real facts.

As for the professor/grad student analogy, to quote a Wikipedia-ism: "citation needed". :D

FINKELSTEIN: Paul, why do you say it's "a far different kind" - that is, in what sense?

The major difference I see is that while Wikipedia has an absolute *fetish* about believing that knowledge *is* what academic and mainstream media institutions say it is, it venomously disrespects the social recognition of the expertise of the people who rank highly in those institutions. Rationally, that's very weird if you think about it (though actually rather common). It's sort of like being a big believer in Western medicine, and at the same time saying doctors don't know anything.

If the answer is "We can work for free!", well, what's so great about that? (Really, it's "By doing free work, we can delude ourselves that we get *intellectual* status, just like the academic and mainstream media institutions." But you *don't*. All you do is work for free.)

What you're missing is that fetish for academic and mainstream media institutions. Yes, people want to be believed over what someone else writes about them, most especially lazy or careless journalists. If it's a case of your word against theirs, do you see how very very strange it is to say "Sorry, we cannot recognize *your* expertise on your life. The *only* sources of legitimate expertise are what 'old white guys' write, and you need to go find one of the 'old white guys' writing another statement before we'll believe you"? (i.e. they're expected to meekly share the fetish even when they're personally affected by it being wrong!)

You're framing it in terms of being a control-freak, which is an automatic dismissal. But the deep question is what sort of mentality says that in every his-word-against-mine conflict, a mainstream media writer's product is to be believed ("privileged" in academese) over the person being written about? Think about this, really.

MONTGOMERY: Seth, I see no problem with being institutionally suspicious of anyone who potentially has an agenda to push within the pages of Wikipedia. The agenda-pushing is canonically true about people editing their own biographical entries, and is also true of people who have a vested interest in the subject of other entries.

Would you rather have a history written by the participants, or their hangers-on? I would not. That is not history, it is propaganda. Encyclopedia entries should never be written by the subjects of those entries.

Apart from NPOV, the Wikipedia rule you seem to be railing against most is the rule against including original research. If you are of the opinion that encyclopedias should be filled with primary reporting, as if they're an extension of magazines or technical journals, then I have no way of arguing with you since you don't understand what an encyclopedia is for. There are a gazillion other places on the Internet to publish your personal opinions, recollections and theories, but Wikipedia is not one of them.

FINKELSTEIN: Paul, let me make sure I understand. Is your answer to my question, "In his-word-against-mine, why do you believe a reporter over the person being written about?", that someone who claims a reporter is wrong always "has an agenda" ("to push within the pages of Wikipedia"), but the reporter is not ever counted as "having an agenda" (since they're not writing on Wikipedia)? This isn't much of an answer - it's pretty much just restating that you believe reporters over other people all the time. Your answer is basically circular - the question *presupposes* a difference between the reporter and the person being written about.

"Would you rather have a history written by the participants, or their hangers-on?" - Well, my question is why the participants are *ignored* and all power is vested in what's previously written by "old white guys who have ultimate editing authority, ... educated by old white guys ... geared exclusively to the tastes of old white guys.".

I mean, you write such sneering, dismissive, belittling takes on people who feel aggrieved by those old white guys, and how what those old white guys write is the proper source of knowledge ("what an encyclopedia is for") ... and then you tell us how different Wikipedia is from Encyclopedia Britannica.

In fact, you're essentially arguing Wikipedia is more British than the British - you won't even deign to acknowledge a journalist might get it wrong in writing about a person, which is really amazing.

Don't you see ANY problem here? How there's a problem between that "old-white-guy"-institution fetish, and the claims of being avant-garde?

MONTGOMERY: Seth, my answer to that question is: The question is irrelevant to discussions about Wikipedia, because an encyclopedia is not where such debates should take place.

Encyclopedias are not small claims tribunals [actually, I think that's a pretty good metaphor for Wikipedia -Nick] where sources can argue the toss with journalists or academics about their works. Perhaps there should be a site unconnected to Wikipedia where arguments between journalists and sources can be played out in full and in public. Then Wikipedia can link to that. However, such a debate is not suitable for the pages of an encyclopedia.

You seem to think encyclopedias should be about finding the One Truth, where its authors quest to discover the true meaning of everything. This is a fallacy. Encyclopedia authors should make every effort NOT to make judgments. As Wikipedia's verifiability rule states: "The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth". You seem to be having trouble grasping this concept, Seth.

Encyclopedias are not meant at all to be canonical repositories of every fact about every subject. They were only ever designed as starting points for further research. Only stupid people would want encyclopedias to contain the static "truth" and not be part of an ongoing dialogue, because that would encourage them not to think, not to make their own intellectual decisions.

FINKELSTEIN: Paul, I'm going to try one more time, since you keep begging the question. I'm afraid I'm repeating myself: What do you *mean* by "none of the institutional infrastructure that Nick has been brought up to worship" [may I just interject here that I don't much like "institutional infrastructure"? -Nick], except we-work-free! and don't socially respect the idea of *individual* expertise (indeed, are socially hostile towards the very concept, as part of the motivation for getting unpaid labor out of suckers). I think we've established that Wikipedia has a slavish, dogmatic, worship of the "old-white-guy" institutional idea of *knowledge* (and, playing armchair analyst, in a way that's a classic example of insecurity and defensiveness). You appear to have trouble with the concept that this idea is even arguable (I should hasten to say I'm pretty devoted to it myself, but I do understand it's not unchallenged, and it has some notable downsides, most strongly felt by those non-white or not-guys.).

I grasp the concept of "The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth", I just boggle at someone who thinks it's a good idea, and *at the same time* can flame about old-white-guyness and claim some sort of revolutionary stance . While perhaps not exactly a contradiction, it does seem to be a kind of bona-fide doublethink.

Please note, repeating some variation of "Encyclopedia" is *defined* to be what's previously written by "old white guys who have ultimate editing authority, ... educated by old white guys ... geared exclusively to the tastes of old white guys.", is just going around the doublethink outlined above. The issue isn't the definition, it's why you hold this old-white-guys definition as sacrosanct, yet claim Wikipedia is something different in terms of institutional infrastructure (excepting again the difference that it's free labor and demagogic motivation).

P.S.: Call me stupid, but I don't WANT any "ongoing dialogue" where some ranter off the street has the same conversational weight as an expert who has studied the topic for decades - everybody may have a right to an opinion, but their opinons are not equally right.

MONTGOMERY: Seth, you keep making wrong statements. Wikipedia does not lack respect for individual expertise. It merely does not want its articles to be written by a person who relies on their expertise alone and can not back up their assertions with citations and references. If someone with individual expertise wants to write an argumentative essay elsewhere on the Internet which displays all of that expertise in high-quality prose, then that essay will most likely be linked to on Wikipedia. However, Wikipedia is not the place to publish argumentative essays.

As for my statement about institutional infrastructure, the difference is between Newtonian theory and quantum theory, determinism and probabilistic logic. Wikipedia's philosophy is seated firmly in the quantum camp, whereby there can be no objective Truth, only subjective observations made by sentient humans. The natural extrapolation is that anyone trying to assert a single Truth is trying to distort reality. Thus Wikipedia can only refer to external data and must let the reader decide on their own personal truth.

This does not mean that ranters have the same conversational weight as experts. Another implication of using quantum logic is that each outcome has a probability. Each article effectively assigns a probability for each statement contained within it via the language constructs used around those statements. This is another crucial point: yes, old-white-guy sources are included and are often assigned high probability by the author, but the alternative sources are also included, no matter how wacky - unlike the EB - and are ranked accordingly. At least, that's the theory.

Quantum theory may be many decades old, but it is still revolutionary when compared to many cultural institutions which are still mired in 19th century traditions. Insecurity, you accuse me of? The very building blocks of reality are insecure. More people should realise that.


Upon further review of the play, the penalties still offset. The ball will be moved to the original line of scrimmage and the clock reset.

Still first down....

Posted by: Bob McIlree [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 24, 2007 11:20 AM

Brilliant. So much better than the usual Nick Carr blog post -- and a lot less work too :-)

Seriously though, a great debate, with much worthwhile thrusting and parrying on either side. I would pay money to watch or listen to such a debate -- but thankfully, Nick has decided not to charge for the privilege, in true Web 2.0/Communism 2.0 fashion.

Unfortunately, Nick gets a game misconduct for referring to Paul and Seth as "users" in his preamble. For shame.

Posted by: mathewi [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 24, 2007 11:29 AM

"I am not saying that editors are obsolete,"

Have to seen the "talk" pages of various entries? If we're not calling them "editors", I'd call them "goalies". One topic in particular springs to mind where the "goalie" flat out asserted that he was hanging around to make sure that the "right" information was entered on the page. So much for the sanctity of NPOV and the alleged non-influence of editors.

Also as a side note, the danah boyd flap comes to mind, and I think that's what Seth obliquely references in the above exchange. Small d, small b.

(I may be mis-characterizing the argument, but if comment pong ensues, that's a good thing. After all, Nick's blog won't write itself, will it? Oh, wait.) :-)

Posted by: Ethan [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 24, 2007 12:05 PM

"..there can be no objective Truth, only subjective observations made by sentient humans", which doesn't mean those observations can't be wrong or that observations by different people have the same consistency.

The quantum theory doesn't state that the only incorrect measurement is the measurement made by an interested party, does it?

Posted by: Sergey Schetinin [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2007 12:55 AM

Hmm, I feel like I should have got paid for that somehow... :D

Posted by: Paul Montgomery [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2007 05:05 AM

What most people overlook is the fact, that events on a quantum level don't influence macroscopic objects like humans asf. in a truly verifiable way. In the macroscopic universe the "classic" laws of physics still apply. So saying that the very building blocks of reality are insecure is an overstatement.

Posted by: darkobserver [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2007 07:12 AM

This image of Wikipedia as dedicated to multiple, partial, competing and ultimately subjective versions of knowledge is fair enough if you're thinking about the history or discussion pages, but it's the polar opposite of the Wikipedia people actually consult. If you disagree, find me a self-contradictory Wikipedia entry, or one featuring a quantum superposition of alternative versions.

Posted by: Phil [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2007 08:34 AM

I feel like I should have got paid for that somehow.

Paul, I just cracked open a big tub of caviar that you paid for. Thanks! Nick

Posted by: Nick Carr [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2007 10:01 AM

You're welcome!

Posted by: Paul Montgomery [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2007 10:36 AM

Heh... I can't remember where I read this, but this thread reminds me of a reporter asking Harvard's Endowment how they were able to make such high ROIs. The response was simple... they didn't listen to all the "brilliant" profs in the econ dept.

Posted by: Robert Young [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 25, 2007 07:53 PM

I can only think that the references to "dead white guys" is simple racism. Pure and simple racism. Why should people's contributions to our cultural history be denigrated because of their race? Because its racism.

The only other comment I would make is that Wikipedia is extremely congruent to a Marxist project, complete with byzantine rules, demi-gods who both set, adjudicate and ignore those rules, a (benevolant?) dictator, and the proles who do all the work. Why else would there be such an emphasis that the only pure work is done by people without academic qualifications and without any obvious economic incentive? That the people are somehow in revolt against "experts" who write for economic gain? Or perhaps the economic system itself?

I am a classical liberal, but Wikipedia has nothing to do with liberalism and everything to do with a virtual totalitarian Marxist state. Wales has already begun his economic exploitation with Wikia and others. Its a matter of time before the proles realise how much they've been betrayed.

Posted by: John A [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 26, 2007 04:37 AM

Paul, you're writing (someone else's) blog! Isn't the pure joy and hapiness of that enough for you? :-) :-) :-)

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 26, 2007 10:49 PM

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