Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Wikipedia Is Ruining the Concept of Knowledge

"Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That's what we're doing." - Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia

Wikipedia is a medium, a source, an entity that needs no introduction. If you don't know what it is, you don't know how to get to this website either. In short, Wikipedia is billed as a "multilingual, web-based, free content encyclopedia project." (And yes, I'm quoting the Wikipedia entry on Wikipedia, which would be a Michel Foucault wet dream if only it involved gay S&M.)

Mock turtlenecks have been a dead giveaway ever since. I'm looking at you, Dick Vermeil.

First off, let me establish that this is not a column questioning the legitimacy of the information on Wikipedia, which has already been done at every level. Although there is a little peer review, as P.T. and I learned in trying to get an entry for "pace," in the end, each entry within the system can be and is edited by any user, with no kind of qualifications necessary. Thus, the entire encyclopedia is based upon consensus instead of scholarship. This is an incontrovertible point, and you either accept it or not with regard to how it affects the value of the site's information. No, my TANBRines, this column is not about that. It's about the circularity created by our accelerated culture's newfound dependency upon a site with such questionable legitimacy in the first place...and how that might be bad and shit.

Let's say you're enrolled in some form of higher education, as many of my readers are. Your professor assigns group presentations that are designed to, through independent research, further illuminate a topic he has already addressed. Let's say the topic is tornadoes. If you're like the people making noise in the library while I'm doing real research, your Powerpoint slide looks something like this:

I got all of those facts from the "tornado" Wikipedia entry, mostly from the first paragraph. I made the slide in about five minutes, and, unfortunately, it would probably garner a grade of about a B, depending on whether or not I actually elaborate on the slide or just read it verbatim, as most people do. Although the information is basic and weirdly non sequitur or irrelevant, what with the specific maximum speed, none of it is wrong. And within our culture that's becoming the standard for education.

The problem with presenting information from Wikipedia as a primary resource, however, is that it will already sound familiar to your audience, and it will be obvious that you all but cut-and-pasted from the eleventh most popular site on the Internet. Chances are, there has been a line or two on this very website that was lifted from Wikipedia--not plagiarized from but pretty directly inspired by--and you had that sense of recognition when you were reading it here.

So we should be able to solve this problem easily. Teachers should read all the germane Wikipedia entries beforehand, and they should police plagiarism of those entries more stringently. The reason why that isn't happening, however, is that those teachers are now shaping their lectures with that same material. Sure, perhaps that teacher knows his subject matter well, but why not look up important facts if they're all available in one quick and easy location?

If you didn't listen to the professor's lecture on tornadoes, maybe you went home and brushed up on the lesson using Wikipedia as well. In that case, when that chickenhead reads her tornado slide, you will have flirted with the same few lines for the third time. What's more, if the subject comes up in casual conversation among friends during that window before you've forgotten about tornadoes, you'll parrot the same information back to them. None of those exchanges involves anything more than the basics, and none offers a unique perspective on those ideas either. Because of Wikipedia, everyone can theoretically know about a concept but no one ever really does. In this way, we extend the lack of elitism involved in the process of submitting or editing entries in Wikipedia to our consumption of it.
Depending on how pretentious you are, this may mean that we are learning less with every technological step. It's the inverse of what Jimmy Wales advertised.

You were already dumb for using Cliffs Notes; now you're too poor to have a computer too. No wonder you go to a school that reads Jack London books.

For more than a generation, the following conversation has occurred:
Child: "I don't really care about math class. Anything I need to know in real life I can just look up on a calculator."
Parent: "You'd be surprised. You won't be able to walk around with a calculator all the time."

That's a short-sighted thing to tell a kid, of course, but with the increased mobility of computers and the Internet, are we nearing the point as a civilization when actually learning something could be a waste of time? Eventually, we'll be able to look up any subject on Wikipedia instantly, right? It's at that point or sooner that we have to re-evaluate our definition of education. Perhaps Wikipedia has rendered the training we receive obsolete. Perhaps we've just been memorizing needlessly. Either that, or--and I'm thinking this is more likely--we were on the right track for the last few thousands of years, and Wikipedia is a less reliable and more spurious source of info than we all give it credit for.

Back in the day, Plato told us that something qualified as "knowledge" if it was justified, true, and believed. At least Wikipedia has that last one covered.


Will said...

Kinda pissed that I didn't get a shoutout re: the Pace article, considering I wrote the fucker.

Tank said...

Yeah, you did way more work on that than anyone else. But I have readers who don't know who you are. I didn't know how else to put it.

Will said...

Your readers be damned, I demand respect!