I’ve been following the discussion at the Web 2.0 Forum with interest. In summary, Michael Gorman of Encyclopaedia Britannica complains that Web 2.0, and it supposed champion Wikipedia, is a “digital tsunami” (Gorman 2007jer) threatening education, scholarship, and the underlying values of Western civilization (Gorman 2007ssi1). Yet, while I follow the discussion with interest, I actually don’t find it substantively engaging. Many of the arguments, particularly Gorman’s, tend to be characterized by unsubstantiated claims and the purposeful construal of nuanced issues as extremes – propping up strawmen for subsequent potshots. As I’ve already indicated, while it might bring pundits a sense of righteousness and attention, in the end “Time, not arguments, will utlimately tell.” (And, for this reason I appreciate Larry Sanger’s continuing efforts to implement his vision.)
Why, then, do I find this discussion of interest? Punditry, communicative disorders, and history. First, I’m trying to come to an understanding of “punditry,” and I think Gorman’s recent bloggings is an exemplar. My sense is that sometimes people argue for arguments’ sake. That is, even if they genuinely believe the thing they are arguing for, attention, not persuasion, is the goal. (In a sense, perhaps it is a high-brow, and perhaps more genuinely held, form of trolling – another interesting phenomenon.) Second, I’m interested in communicative disorders. For example, Gorman faults Wales for allegedly saying “If you can’t google it, it doesn’t exist.” (This quotation was originally unsourced, challenged by Wales, sourced by Gorman, and the disagreement continued.) But earlier in the same essay, Gorman himself complains “More solid and reputable websites are buried by the current algorithms of the Internet because they are often fee-based and cannot garner as many links as free sites (links are key to boosting one’s search engine rank)” (Gorman 2007ssi1). If Wales made such a claim, I would expect it would likely have been a descriptive statement, rather than normative. That is, this is largely the way it is, versus the way it should be. And, this is essentially the same thing Gorman notes, and laments, above: if one’s content is not freely accessible it is “buried.” And I can’t imagine anyone claiming that all nondigital information should be dismissed out of hand, and perish from the earth. The real issue is the normative response one should make in light of the “Google description”: make information freely accessible, or enable Google to index proprietary sources, and even nondigital media (e.g., old books). This, to me, is an interesting question, something which is happening today, and something I would like to learn more about. For example, what kind of arrangements does Google make with fee-based sites to index or content? (JStor articles often are a prominent results in my Google queries.) What is the user response to a search result which is not immediately available to them? By purposeful misunderstanding punditry confuses genuine grounds for agreement and disagreement, and possible understanding.
My final reason for my interest is because of the ways in which this debate parallels similar discussions throughout history. That’s right, as I argue elsewhere on this site, and in my forthcoming dissertation, reference works frequently act as a flashpoint and focus for larger social anxieties about change. I suspect my argument here is a consequence of a historical sensibility: what most people see as an extraordinary shift appears, with perspective, to be one thread in a larger tapestry. For example, Gorman’s concern with plagiarism is ahistorical. Again, elsewhere I argue that the history of reference works is a history of plagiarism. When the Britannica was in its infancy, much like the Wikipedia today, its founding editor admitted he “made a Dictionary of Arts and Sciences with a pair of scissors, clipping out from various books a quantum sufficit of matter for the printer.” (Yeo 2001:180) I’m not condoning plagiarism, but I find if we want to make normative statements about how things should be, it is best to genuinely understand the way things are, and have been in the past. This seems to be a difficult task in the midst of punditry, without some level of scholarly remove or Neutral Point of View – as Wikipedians say.