Sep 182007

Here’s some Q &A from the Encyclopedia Britannica online:

Quick Facts about Bellow, Saul

Q: Who is the author of “The Adventures of Augie March”?
A: Saul Bellow is the author of “The Adventures of Augie March”

Q: Who is the author of “Dangling Man”?
A: Saul Bellow is the author of “Dangling Man”

Q: Who is the author of “The Victim”?
A: Saul Bellow is the author of “The Victim”

Quick Facts about Plath, Sylvia
Q: Who is the author of “The Bell Jar”?

Sylvia Plath is the author of “The Bell Jar”

Q: Who is the author of “Ariel”?
A: Sylvia Plath is the author of “Ariel”

Q: Who is the author of “The Collected Poems”?
A: Sylvia Plath is the author of “The Collected Poems”

Does the Britannica believe that anyone of any age would be interested in this nonsense? It certainly makes one wonder why Andrew Keen, in his the cult of the amateur: how today’s internet is killing our culture, is quite exercised that the “professional” Brittannica may be replaced by the “amateur” Wikipedia. (In passing, Keen exults that one college’s history department banned references to Wikipedia in papers, but most college teachers would look askance at citations of any encyclopedia, I think. I certainly would.)  But the online version of the Britannica is guilty of a number of quite amateurish moves, the above idiotic Q & A being just some.

Keen does not appear to have made any actual comparisons of the Britannica and Wikipedia, perhaps relying on publicity handouts from the former. He mentions for instance that Albert Einstein, Madame Curie and George Bernard Shaw all once wrote for the Britannica. He neglects to point out that all these authors have been dead for at least half a century. He further ignores the fact that Britannica has been significantly dumbed down since those days. One can, indeed still read Albert Einstein’s article on “Spacetime,” but rather than being part of the current edition, it is described as from “classic Britannica.” It is prefaced by remarks that it is probably going to be a hard read.

2. The Once and Future King of Reference Works

The encyclopedia, as a form, made its appearance in the eighteenth century as a multi-volume compendium of knowledge that the rich might put in their personal libraries. But by the 1960’s, at the least, the full-fledged encyclopedia as a tool for adults was largely outmoded. For one thing, significant knowledge was multiplying at too rapid a rate to be confined in a reasonable number of volumes. The Britannica hit twenty volumes long ago. By now, to keep up the same level of coverage of various fields, it might well require a thousand volumes, and would have to cost something over $50,000.00 in print versions. That would be pretty much impossible, of course. Besides that, substantial revisions would be needed very frequently to keep the knowledge at the forefront. Relatively low cost books and large public and university libraries have meant that other sources of knowledge would be as readily accessible. The Britannica in its 15th edition of some 40 volumes at best became a slightly odd status symbol, one that most educated people found they could well do without.

If one adopts Keen’s outlook of opposition to “today’s Internet”, it is ironic that with its arrival, the problems of too great length or the need for rapid revision can be addressed in new ways, so once again the idea of an all-encompassing encyclopedia becomes feasible, at least in part. To a degree, the web itself is an encyclopedia, with every search engine some sort of index. But this is a difficult-to-correct set of articles, with no necessary or obvious indications of bias, lack of knowledge on the part of the authors, etc. In this situation, the wiki method is a brilliant innovation, though perhaps it could be improved slightly. Anyone who believes she has something to say about a topic can address it in the Wikipedia led by Jimmy Wales, but if others disagree, they can make alterations. When there is great dispute, Wales or the council working with him and somehow led by him can enter in, as of course can any other outsiders. As long as the overall council acts on more or less reasonable principles, the articles tend to get better, and revisions tend to settle down — most of the time.

There are problems inherent in any work being written by a committee: lack of literary style, repetitiveness, lack of overall organization in individual articles, great variation in quality between articles, some bias, etc. But these problems are also present to some degree in the EB or in any encyclopedia. The Wikipedia is very manifestly a work in progress, and it is only going to improve on the average, while already encompassing a larger swath of knowledge than the EB, with a reasonable degree of accuracy and with more currency. It is a key to Wikipedia’s success that one does not have to pay to use it, so that anyone interested can check an article and add their expertise. Because people believe that what they know and care about deserves attention, they are eager to make sure articles that matter to them are correct. They average Wikipedia writer is less good at making sure that non-experts can understand, but on the whole they do not do such a bad job with this

I looked at a few dozen articles in a wide range of fields, comparing online EB with W, all being articles about which I have considerable background knowledge. These include articles about such subjects as feudalism, string theory and other aspects of current physics, various modern writers, art, recent European history, botany and zoology, American politics, simple geometry and some other math, philosophy, auto mechanics, and more. On the whole, I learned more from W than from EB, though, in general, EB articles were better shaped and less repetitive.

Keen sneeringly suggests that an auto mechanic is just as likely to write or “correct” an article on physics as a physicist.  (He fails to consider articles on auto mechanics, which might also be of considerable interest the average reader. W is far superior to EB on the subject of anti-lock brakes, for example.) Why anyone not an expert would choose to write on a subject, Keen does not explain. In truth, as far as I can tell, the W article on string theory as well as other articles in recent or contemporary physics topics were probably written by physics graduate students, up on the latest, but not so knowledgeable about history, for example. The EB String Theory article was written by Brian Greene, a Columbia physics professor and author of a couple of “popular” books on the subject. His article is too brief, but what it does say it says well. However, anyone patient enough to follow the somewhat more awkward W article will learn more about the contemporary situation and the background as well, and even the very earliest history.

String theory emerged from an interpretation of a formula offered for different purposes by Gabriele Veneziano, in about 1968. He offered this as satisfying a set of requirements for what was known as the S-Matrix that had been proposed by Geoffrey Chew. When I looked up S-Matrix theory in W, I found an article that W‘s editing mechanism informed all readers was not appropriately written and should be cleaned up. The obvious reason was too many unexplained terms. The article was basically correct, in my view, but poorly written. No one reading W can be in doubt that this article has problems, and gets some sense of what those problems are. On the other hand, when I looked up S-matrix in EB online, I found nothing, and the same happened when I searched for Geoffrey Chew, who also at least has a brief entry in W.

W’s article on feudalism is also better than EB’s because the latter is written by an especially biased writer, whose main claim to fame is disputing that the term “feudalism” should ever be used at all. W’s article references her work, but also that of many others.

Still, W does have some pretty foolish articles. Anyone who has ever read the works of Thomas Pynchon knows that their plots are pretty much secondary to the telling of the story, but in a bizarre effort to match Cliff’s Notes, the article on Pynchon’s novel V offers  a plot outline that covers about half the chapters. Some dolt might use this as the basis for a paper to submit to a college class, but less harm would thereby be done than in most cases of the use of actual Cliff’s Notes. EB says almost nothing about V, so, while not informative, it does no harm in this case either. On the other hand, the main article about Pynchon in W is better than the one in EB.

And so on.

Wikipedia is already better than Britannica, in my view. While it will continue to have some eccentric articles, it will almost surely get better and better, and it will do so precisely because it does not charge set fees. It might do even better if it figures out a way for most contributors to have their names attached. That will increase the rewards of attention coming to the writers, and that attention will encourage care and accuracy where that has meaning — and perhaps better organization and writing.  At least this is worth some experimentation.

For instance, Wikipedia could start allowing authors who submit a brief bio and a photo to list their names, and then allow readers to judge what they have written. Those authors whose work is rated highest, and who have therefore contributed the most of an article, would have their names listed first among authors. Separate listings could be for editing. There could also be an honor roll of the best contributors to the most articles, and so on.  Writing a good article remains a difficult task, but it is also a wonderful exercise in understanding and learning how to explain. I think any offer of monetary rewards should be rejected, but the attention one gets for good article writing could logically carry over into the rest of one’s life. Of course, this would create some new problems, with attempts to gain unmerited attention, claims of precedence, and many other well-known problems of scholarly infighting. But one aspect of W that is good is that it already leads to a degree of protective watchfulness on the part of large number of readers.

With or without that change, W will revolutionize the notion of a single source of comprehensive knowledge in the Internet era. And it will do that in dialogical fashion, which is of course the source of all worthwhile knowledge except for individual expression and autobiography. The recognition that everyone is to some degree an expert in something and that that expertise can be of value to others is one of the implicit glories of the Internet.

  One Response to “Keen Review/Riff V: Wicked, Wicked Wikipedia”

  1. There are problems with Wikipedia governance see: – and this is very far from the trolling tactics of Mr Keen. In short this has the same basis as the ‘problem of scholary infighting’ but in a very different social context, with different culture and different technical means. What is most worrying is that it attracts people who treat it as a kind of game and let those people to advance up the ladder of wikipedia admins, generating a very self enforcing social dynamics.

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