Thursday, December 10, 2009

#23 - Wikipedia

It was the decade when...

cheating at Trivial Pursuit was easy as a mouse click.

I shall not bore you with facts and statistics. I will not ladle you with internet history. I will avoid analyzing the various controversies that have arisen over the years. (If you are interested you can find that information here, here, and here.) I simply want to take the moment here to say, unequivocally and clearly, that Wikipedia is one of the greatest things to ever happen in the history of humanity. There I said it. That's all. I'm done.

Ok, so, you want some explanation. Why does Wikipedia deserve such over-the-top praise? What attributes make it such an indispensable part of modern life? For the answer I simply like to imagine showing the site to a scholar from another era; perhaps a banyan wearing student of philology or natural philosophy, reading a book in Latin by candlelight next to his brass cassegrain reflector telescope at the Cambridge library in the 18th century. In the dimly lit scene, cut from Barry Lyndon, I emerge from my time-machine phone booth, laptop in hand. Somehow finding a wifi connection o'er the vast distances of time, I put the computer before the powdered and primped young student and ask him to type in a subject, any subject, into the Wikipedia search box. Perhaps "Sir Isaac Newton" is his selection, or, "Thomas Aquinas," both of whom would be on the lads 18th Cetrury reading list. Maybe his search is more abstract and he seeks knowledge on topics like "math" or "God." Or perhaps bored of scholastic endeavors his query is less academic and he searches for "figgy pudding" and "copulation." It's probably what's really on his mind. Whatever the choice, he instantaneously receives an organized and clear informative essay about his subject. Should he be dissatisfied with the contents on the page, hyperlinks are available to him at the bottom, allowing the student to reference at a more in-depth level the subject he was curious about. He types and types, the computer can't be stumped. The jaw goes slack. I would venture to guess that in no time at all this man of learning would come to be calling me a deity. (Either that or a witch to be burned at the stake. I'd prefer the former.)

I like to think about this because, given how quickly we incorporate new technology into our daily lives we just as quickly take it for granted. It bears repeating that the world of our impressed Cambridge student, learning his Euclid by the flicker of candlelight, was not so long ago. How far we have come is a testimony to the inquisitive academic spirit that has motivated thinkers throughout out history since time immemorial. And the terminal point of all these efforts may just be Wikipedia. The site represents one of the grandest dreams of all mankind: the totality of all human knowledge converging on a single, accessible point, a nexus of human intelligence. And, unlike the library of Alexandria, it can't burn down. It's practically indestructible.

Unreliable you say? An encyclopedia with no academic standard to separate the wheat from the chaff? Of what use is that? A encyclopedia in which anyone, any uneducated bozo, can act as an editor for any entry? That sounds like a recipe for disaster. To those naysayers I ask, "Have you ever actually used Wikipedia? Have you ever been shocked or appalled by a glaring error?" Neither have I. Sure, there have been some embarrassing moments but, on the whole, study after study has shown the online resource to be as reliable as the Encyclopedia Britannica. And even so, few who use the site are unaware of its unreliable narrator; a healthy skepticism about the contents is adopted by most readers. Even if an article were total balderdash, the aggregation of other web sources linked on a Wikipedia page are reason alone to single the site out as an important destination in web 2.0.

Wikipedia can make for a fun party game (albeit of a decidedly nerdy sort). I call it "Six-Degrees-Of-Anything" (sorry Mr. Bacon). The rules: select two wildly disparate topics and see how many internal wikipedia links it takes you to get from one to the other. For instance, Hula-Hoop to the Defenestrations of Prague goes thusly: Hula Hoop-Belarus-History of the Soviet Union 1985-1981-Czechoslovakia-Prague-Defenestrations of Prague. If you can get there in less links, I owe you a tenner. (Seriously, anyone who sends me an Email doing this will win a $10 from the kitty here at YATR. Game on bitches!) This hyper-connectivity between seemingly isolated topics even inspired an off-Broadway show called The Wikipedia Plays (natch), a collection of short pieces based on one long link train within Wikipedia.

Unlike "legitimate" encyclopedias, the democratic nature of Wikipedia means that the entry about Spider-Man may be as thorough as the page devoted to Friedrich Nietzsche. Sophisticates and would-be arbiters of social import might balk but, I say, no harm, no foul. Yes, we should all be familiar with the theory of eternal recurrence but, it hardly hurts anyone to know that Peter Parker began his Spider career as a professional wrestler. Britannica's editors have to make those kind of editorial decisions lest their encyclopedia become, well, 3.1 million articles long (as the English "edition" of Wikipedia is). No such editing is needed on the information superhighway; bandwidth weighs a lot less than leather bound tomes. Online there is more than enough room for Kant and comics, Napoleonic Wars and Napoleonic Desserts, Captain Ahab and Captain Kirk. Wikipedia's catholicity of content is what makes the site so universally appealing. Not a day goes by when I don't use it, trying to cram another abstruse fact or two into my already over-stuffed cranium. Luckily, with Wikipedia there, I know if I forget I am mere keystokes away from remembering.

You AUGHT to remember.

1 comment:

  1. You owe me a tenner!

    (well not really, since that site uses an old version of the site from March 2008, and April 2 isn't linked on Hula hoop anymore. But still!)