Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Wikipedia Blackout

(Click to enlarge to readable size.)

I'm going to do a complete sidestep of the First Amendment issues here and of the various implications for international law. Rather, I'm going to alight upon the alarmist headline on the Wikipedia blackout page: "Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge." Open access scholarship deserves its own post and its own discussion. But that's not what Wikipedia is. It's not open access scholarship; it is facts and not knowledge. And frankly, my heart is a bit lighter knowing that it's not accessible for twenty-four hours. I only wish they coincided with hours in which I was in the classroom.

This isn't going to be one more predictable rant against the evils of Wikipedia. (Anyone can edit it to say anything! The pope! Star Wars! True, of course, but beside the point here.) No, instead I object to an attitude that I see in a lot of people, including a good number of my students, that has grown up around the ubiquity of Wikipedia. It's the attitude of "oh, I don't have to learn this because I can just look it up on Wikipedia."

Let me begin with the caveat that this is technically not Wikipedia's fault. Folks could bypass Wikipedia when they need to look something up. (I do that.) But by now, Wikipedia is such an established thing and so ubiquitous that by and large, people don't. I'm not sure if very many people even acknowledge the possible value of doing something like that. Using Wikipedia is no longer a choice people make; instead, it's an unquestioned working assumption. We have, to coin an unfortunate-sounding term, a wikipedia culture: You google, the Wikipedia entry is the first search result, and you click.

The result of this is the glorification of the fact. That might be a good thing in the absolute blackest and whitest of worlds, one where the options are politicians who believe in evolution or don't. But the fact of the matter (no pun intended — really!) is that the world isn't black and white. The problem isn't believing in Darwin or not; it's about believing or not believing in the value of expertise. And that's where the reification of fact falls far short. Darwin's conclusion (or any other expert's about anything else) is not the only thing at stake, but so too his powers of patience and observation, his research and the methodology that governed it, the cogency of his argument and his creative ability to connect dots that had previously lain isolated: The way that we have come to understand evolution is as important as the result that we do understand it.

Knowledge does, of course, require the memorization of some facts. If my students don't remember when Don Quijote was published and then randomly decide to declare that the date of the first volume was, say, 1212, then they are going to be severely hampered in their ability to analyze the chapters that contain the story of the Morisco named Ricote, a textual pericope that is heavily dependent on the political, religious and cultural circumstances of the early seventeenth century, when the novel was, in fact, published. This is where Wikipedia does people its first great disservice: It lulls them into a false sense of a secure world in which they don't need to have any facts at their fingers or on the tips of their tongues, because they can just look it up on Wikipedia. And in turn, in these cases, this attitude and a lack of facts hampers thought and discourse.

But knowledge also requires analysis. And that's where the default-to-Wikipedia attitude is especially pernicious. Because I find that many people, especially students who don't necessarily yet have the education or experience to understand fully why this doesn't work, think that they can, in effect, look up analyses on Wikipedia, get the "correct" analysis, and call it  a day. Who needs introductory lecture classes anymore to provide a coherent overview of a topic? Just look it up on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia uses the term "undisputed content" to mark what it considers to unobjectionable sections of potentially controversial entries; this terminology contributes to the idea that whatever the editing down or analysis is that appears their is the only way of understanding it. It doesn't really work that way, though. Much of my value as a teacher is my ability to see the big picture and my judgment as an editor or curator of a course of study: what to include, what to exclude. We always make choices about inclusion and exclusion. There is no platonic form of the encyclopedia. So, sure. My students could get a bare-bones description of the reign of Alfonso X from Wikipedia. But it's unlikely to set them up to be able to ask broad questions about his importance or to pique their curiosity that they might pursue further study.

An article on the LA Times web site confirms to me that this problem of unquestioned assumptions when seeking answers to questions or doing research is very real and exists outside of the academy as well.  It concludes by quoting a screenwriter who explains how he will manage his research needs during the blackout: "If I need to get research, I'll just Google." This quotation illustrates a lack of understanding of the difference between data and databases, between search engines and their results, between the tools of research and the research itself.

The web should not have to be at odds with knowledge and expertise; ideally, the one would open up new avenues of pursuing the other. But in practical day-to-day terms, that's not how it works. Not yet, at least. All is not lost: I do know and know of a number of people who are developing really interesting, dynamic (in the literal sense) and expert web presentations of data, information, and syntheses. But we're not there yet. At present, the wikipedification of knowledge contributes to our broader culture of devaluing intellectualism and learning. Wikipedia could have been a great populist experiment and the democratization of expertise. Instead, it is contributing to its derision and demise.

Let's not forget that it is opposition to the very problematic SOPA and PIPA that have led Wikipedia to black itself out, and that is a noble cause.* But I'm enjoying the world as it is today, without the Wikipedia scourge at everyone's fingertips. Protesting an unjust bill and no Wikipedia? No downside to this very fleeting status quo.

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