The new scholasticism

John Wallis’ (short and accessible) thesis Destructive Editing and Habitus in the Imaginative Construction of Wikipedia challenges my perspective of Wikipedia as an actual community; that is, a community in which stable, friendly, and collaborative relations can exist. He prefers to view Wikipedia as an “imagined community” of impersonal combatants in which the powerful use a discourse of “neutrality,” “verifiability,” “vandals,” and “trolls” to maintain its structure. He writes “There is very little friendliness or light-heartedness, or even sustained relations of fellowship between any two editors. Editors tend to meet on discussion pages as strangers and make no effort to improve their relationship” (Wallis2012deh, p. 9). Of course, Wikipedia is a big place, and you see different things depending on where you look. Given Godwin’s law (we come to see others online as Nazis) and Wikipedia’s Zeroth law (it shouldn’t work in practice) I thought it important to look at and identify what I call good faith collaboration.

Wallis’ point of view is a worthwhile and interesting perspective. Yet, what I found most interesting is a new scholasticism. In this view a work’s contribution consists exclusively of interpreting an interesting phenomenon in the light of dead philosophers. When I read such a work, I’m left with the feeling that I didn’t actually learn anything new about the world. Perhaps this is why I’m not a very good academic. At heart, I consider myself a geek and a hacker: excited to learn about things that work, to critique and to improve that which does not, and to share the results with others.

Perhaps this scholasticism is part of what I sometimes call “the whiteboard and the shelf.” As a (Web) engineer, the most important thing in my office was the whiteboard on which I could happily collaborate with my peers on a solution to a technical problem. Of course, perhaps a solution already existed, but our solution would no doubt be better! This failing is the “not invented here syndrome.” Conversely, when I was working on my Ph.D. I realized I was coming down with “citation paralysis” syndrome. I felt that I was not able to think and express a thought without first checking the literature. My most important asset had become the book shelf and bibliography.

I like to think I no longer suffer from the “not invented here syndrome” but I am ashamed when I (meaning well) stop creative thought with a reference to the book shelf (i.e., a “citation slap down.”)

So why did Wallis’ piece prompt me to think about this? I’ve rarely seen the new scholasticism stated so directly: Wikipedia offers nothing novel, at least to the anthropologist.

A large proportion of the studies that have been specifically devoted to Wikipedia (and it has been particularly attractive to quantitative sociologists and communications theorists, because of the abundance of raw data) quote at some point a paradigmatic maxim known as the Zeroeth Law: “The problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice. In theory, it can never work.” Wikipedia is taken to be an impossible case, and its concrete materialisation therefore constitutes grounds for immediate and surprised investigation. Chieflythe factors most shocking to researchers are Wikipedia’s decentralised coordination, its attraction of willing participants, and its refusal to decline into mess of destructive in-fighting. Decentralised governance is hardly a cause for awe among anthropologists (perhaps this is why they have stayed away), and all of these points are not in truth the distressing anomalies they are made out to be. (Wallis2012deh, p. 32)

Indeed, Wikipedia is fully comprehensible by philosophers (however great) that had never even seen it.

The imaginative construction of Wikipedia is a highly familiar process driven by forces of power/knowledge and division of labour documented by social scientists in the 70s and in the 19th century respectively; it is not a new phenomenon. In some respects it rests on a “network” frame but it is always fleshed out by political and other discursive practices of different kinds, many of which are amenable to Bourdieuian theorisation. (Wallis2012deh, p. 38)

Granted, Bourdieu was brilliant. And I’m sympathetic to those that challenge ahistoricism. Indeed, in the book I wrote “A hazard in thinking about new phenomena — such as the Web, wiki, or Wikipedia — is to aggrandize novelty at the expense of the past. To minimize this inclination I remind myself of the proverb ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same.’” I then used nineteenth century history and Quakers to frame and explain Wikipedia! But Wallis’ quotes seem all-together bleak.

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