Tuesday Research: Wikipedia

I am an unabashed Wikipedia lover. Er, fan. I love it for practical and philosophical reasons.

First, practical: Wikipedia is a great place to start research. (Just don’t finish there.) It’s usually one of the first links offered by a Google search, and inside a Wikipedia entry you can find a lot of general info that is more or less accurate, divided into categories, along with outside links, and most importantly: references. I like to stop by and skim, to figure out if I’m really that interested in a particular topic, or for a refresher. Wikipedia can remind me of things I’ve read in other places, or it can suggest texts for me to check out. From there, my next step is usually the University library. Like I said, Wikipedia is a great place to begin – but I always try to keep in mind that Stephen Colbert, with the help of his viewers, once took over the entry on elephants and changed it to say that the population of African elephants had tripled in the past six months. Wikipedia’s server crashed and several entries had to be locked down.

And now, philosophical: Wikipedia represents a shared reality. And not just any shared reality, but one that is acknowledged and agreed to and sort of has rules. You can change the accepted reality, and you can gain privileges by being a regular “user” of this reality. It’s a majority-rules reality. Which is how culture works, how prejudice works, how sanity and insanity work.

Wikipedia represents Truth. The only kind of truth we know. It’s the story that changes as people change, as science changes, and as stories change. It’s the manifestation of human knowledge – it is the transition between “everyone knowing that the world is flat” to “everyone knowing that the world is round” simply because most people believe in a particular fact. If I go change the entry on Loki to say that he was never a real Norse God, but only an invention of Christian monks writing in the 11th century, no doubt someone would change it back. Then I change it again, and it’s reversed again, until maybe someone agrees with me or five people disagree, and eventually the person with the most established history as a Wikipedia user will prevail, or perhaps I will prove my case using references from a new article in the Journal of Old Norse Literature, and eventually my edit will prevail.

If only Galileo had had access to Wikipedia.

Of course, the downside of this is the tendancy of a whole bunch of people to agree on some really crazy, unverifiable things. (*cough*Creationism*cough*). But I would argue that those crazy, unverifiable things are a very important part of our cultural Truth – of our story. Truth isn’t fixed, and we’re all part of our own stories, our own personal, cultural, universal stories. We have different levels of establishment (based on cultural markers of “expertise”) and different levels of ability to change the story.

Wikipedia is a metaphor for knowledge, privilege, culture, truth, and this new, technological Story of Life. What’s not to love?

6 thoughts on “Tuesday Research: Wikipedia

  1. If by Truth you mean Authority. A mystic would disagree with you entirely (but who listens to those freaks). That said, it is better in my estimation to have an evolving authority than some stick-in-the-mud text. Evolution (and so quickly…) of an authority is a fairly novel concept, but one must not forget that the map is not the terrain.

  2. We’ll see if the fast pace maintains itself, or if it only leads faster to some sort of deterioration. Entropy?

    but one must not forget that the map is not the terrain. Agreed! And that’s why Wikipedia is a great place to start out – but you’ve got to dig if you want results you can count on.

    Isn’t Truth, as in our understanding of the world, based in Authority? Is there any other Truth? (Outside those mystics, of course.) Though, we certainly don’t need to devolve into pomo or anything so, what was it?… destructively cynical and unintelligible. 😉

  3. let’s see.
    methods for truth (knowledge) acquisition: reason, experience, intuition, authority, divine spark, meditation, teh intrawebs…
    So, no it is not based on authority alone.

  4. That’s all about personal truth though, right? I suppose a group can come to the same truth based in shared experience, or similar capacity for reason/intuition/divine spark – but when you move into a situation where there’s more than one individual crafting truth, how can anything be “resolved” without the application of authority?

  5. The reason that allows for a geometric proof is not a personal one, and one can say that through repeated empirical observation certain truths, sometimes referred to as facts, can be derived. The cool part is you don’t have to take my word for it, you can mix vinegar and baking soda together and the result will not be solely a matter of interpretation of moral philosophy, and it will happen the same way in Calcutta. You might share your experience of a chemical reaction, but it is not a “shared experience”. Many experiences are more complicated than this, but by no means all, probably most are even simpler. Many people, in my estimation, fail to put much of anything to the test. This is why you hear the “science as religion” comments, because many are content to live their lives based on authority, without testing the facts with which they are presented. While its true that I don’t have a cyclotron, or gas chromatograph, I am able to gravely question the idea of “shared reality”. I think this kind of talk is heavily grounded in the is/ought fallacy and results from a pathological need for consistency. Some questions have exceedingly complex answers while other answers are quite simple, but must be derived by hammering them out on the anvil of practice. In a previous comment (to a different post) you made a distinction between symbolic and real landscapes, and I would say that it is important not to try to derive conclusions from one about the other. Language is a shared reality, to a large degree, but it is A medium, not THE medium for experience. Resolution? After the fact, usually ,and based more on necessity than most authorities will ever admit.

  6. Truth isn’t fixed, and we’re all part of our own stories, our own personal, cultural, universal stories. We have different levels of establishment (based on cultural markers of “expertise”) and different levels of ability to change the story.

    Wikipedia is a metaphor for knowledge, privilege, culture, truth, and this new, technological Story of Life. What’s not to love?

    Indeed. When I’m writing the only truth I persue is the accuracy of my experience. Total recall is a movie not a human trait. I’m the ultimate authority, I’ve got the gun. Isn’t historical truth the same? Recording something doesn’t make it accurate, only makes it recorded. So historical facts are only facts if we believe them to be, or someone with a big gun tells us so.

    Historians, researchers, and people with letters after their names only record the journey towards the truth. They are collectors of clues. Interpreting clues is not the same as fact. Truth is elusive.

    I’m confused. You guys use big words. Retires to his mystical world.

    Enjoyed your thoughts, Simon.

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