January 17, 2012

What if Wikipedia stayed off?

What if Wikipedia stayed "off"?  Where will so many of us go to do our research when we have to do real legwork to find sources and answers?

Wikipedia and other websites are going to be "blacked out" on Wednesday to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). While many of the other sites that are threatening to make themselves unavailable on Wednesday aren't educationally valuable as far as I can tell (the Washington Post mentions Reddit and Failblog), Wikipedia does contain lots of valuable information.  I've always been bothered by what people think is the main virtue of Wikipedia (after its comprehensiveness and the price, $0), the broad-based and essentially anonymous base of writers for the online encyclopedia.  Wikipedia believes that inaccuracy in an article, whether stemming from a writer's ignorance or a writer's bad faith, will be corrected by other contributors.  I've always been skeptical that an uncredentialed and anonymous person from who-knows-where could present entirely accurate and complete articles; but it does seem like Wikipedia is more free of vandalism than one might expect from a web page "that anyone can edit."  And I don't recall recently finding huge, honking errors in articles that I've read on subjects where I am knowledgeable enough to notice such errors.

But what really bugs me is that people, especially children and older students, may be using Wikipedia to do their basic research or even all their research.  The growing neglect of printed sources could lead to forgetting why printed sources are so valuable: rather than relying on yet another anonymous Wikipedia contributor to check a contributor's work, publishers have their own experts, people with public reputation, who edit the materials that a writer submits.  The writers are not anonymous, but credentialed.  The vetting process is not anonymous, but is instead done by people a reader must necessarily trust over the anonymous Wikipedian, who has no reputation at all.  The gatekeepers to the city of knowledge that Wikipedia is trying to get around are essential to the process of transmitting information.

This is because the presence of such gatekeepers is the triumph of the past few hundred years of scholarship and professional publishing--we can all rely on printed resources to give us an impartial view of the state of a science, history, or some other subject.  I know that it's only as impartial a view as the current state of research makes possible.  The printed sources are not perfect--but they are perfect in the sense of being the product of the best method we have, that is, knowledgeable and vetted gatekeepers each providing an edited sum of his knowledge.  And the fact that the sources cost money is just fine--knowledge about any given subject isn't free--it takes man-hours and travel time and the costs of pencil and paper.  People should acknowledge that what they're learning is important enough to pay for.

And maybe it's not for the best that every bit of knowledge can be at a young person's fingers at the speed of light!  For one thing, the ease of figuring out how old Harrison Ford is or what the average snowfall in Moscow is leads people to be rude--let's interrupt our humans-only conversation about Moscow to find out some fact on the computer or the Iphone!  More importantly, the ease of getting to an answer makes it even easier for a reader, especially one not an experienced researcher, to assume that he's gotten the whole answer.  To assume that there's not a different point of view out there, or some facet of a subject that Wikipedia has missed.  I don't think that a print source necessarily protects against this naivete or this laziness--but when you go to the library shelf to get a book, it's much harder to ignore all the alternative sources that are right there next to the first source you've chosen.

So . . . if Wikipedia stayed "off" for a little while, perhaps people would be forced to reconsider their faith in a single, essentially anonymous source.  They might branch out and look for other sources, websites or even books, that they like as well or even better.  They might better appreciate how fortunate we are to live in a society where there is so much reliable, expensive information right at our fingertips; and they might better appreciate the effort, discipline and tact that go into providing good information.

And maybe when I wake up tomorrow I'll marshal some evidence for any of the things I've written here.

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