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Charles on… anything that comes along

Tuesday 18 April 2006

Filed under: — Charles @ 10:35 pm

Being snitty is easy. Being properly critical isn’t. But is that the Wikipedia way?

You’d think that my commissioning Andrew Orlowski to write about Wikipedia and the glut of online information (”A thirst for knowledge“) in the Guardian’s Technology page was the most Evil Thing that has ever been perpetrated in the pages of a national newspaper, to judge from some of the wounded emails I’ve received.

The thing is that they’ve all gone along the lines of “Andrew Orlowski is biased! He hates Wikipedia! Look at all those stories he’s written on The Register about it!”

To which my reply has pretty uniformly been: have you read the article that appeared in the paper? I did - three or four times in the editing process alone; and it went through a couple of draft cycles (where the writer adds stuff in or clarifies points or asks someone something that seemed to need asking) before that. I thought it was a very interesting piece which raises important questions about what happens when you have lots of information but, in essence, no means of establishing authority.

And did people judge it on those terms? No - they said “But look what he wrote about Scoble!

My response: have you read the article that appeared in the paper?

I’ve been back-and-forthing on this for a few days with some people who seem pretty determined; my query to them of “would you be complaining like this if he had said that Wikipedia was the greatest invention ever? Would you complain like this if if were written by someone else?” gets a sort of silence; in one case, a referral to the Wikipedia page about Andrew Orlowski, which contains at least one statement that to me indicates that (a) people are guessing about what he does and doesn’t do, which in the circumstances is ironic (b) there’s a lot of animus against him amidst Wikipedia-folk. Neither makes them wrong, but it doesn’t mean Andrew Orlowski is wrong either.

(Actually, the one incontrovertibly wrong “fact” in the piece - saying that Encyclopedia Britannica’s website went online in 1999 - was introduced by me in the editing process, because we felt more was needed on it, and the writer was on the wrong end of an eight-hour time lag. I put that detail in because I checked it against a story I wrote in 1999. But in fact Britannica’s website went online in 1994 - as the organisation itself was quick to point out.)

One pleasing measure of the piece is that it has prompted plenty of discussion online (particularly good here, here, here); and some people have managed to overcome the fact of its author (gee) to read and consider it. That’s a start, at least.

In parallel, though, I came across a piece with the following quotation and summing up:

have no memory for things I have learned, nor things I have read, nor things experienced or heard, neither for people nor events; I feel that I have experienced nothing, learned nothing, that I actually know less than the average schoolboy, and that what I do know is superficial, and that every second question is beyond me. I am incapable of thinking deliberately; my thoughts run into a wall. I can grasp the essence of things in isolation, but I am quite incapable of coherent, unbroken thinking. I can’t even tell a story properly; in fact, I can scarcely talk …

One of the unintended consequences of the Web 2.0 movement may well be that we fall, collectively, into the amnesia that Kafka describes. Without an elite mainstream media, we will lose our memory for things learnt, read, experienced, or heard. The cultural consequences of this are dire, requiring the authoritative voice of at least an Allan Bloom, if not an Oswald Spengler. But here in Silicon Valley, on the brink of the Web 2.0 epoch, there no longer are any Blooms or Spenglers. All we have is the great seduction of citizen media, democratized content and authentic online communities. And weblogs, course. Millions and millions of blogs.

It’s Adam Keen at CBSNews.com. The article’s called “Web 2.0 is reminiscent of Marx“. I’m amazed they got something with that title on the site.

(Oh, and a bonus link that is simply too good to miss. Here’s Warren Boroson on what Wikipedia doesn’t know about mutual funds; and about Barry Goldwater. It’s fabulous. Though the headline - “Wikipedia site filled with major mistakes” - could perhaps have had a little work. Or humour.)

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