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Wikipedia and Encyclopedic Anxiety

Joseph Reagle

March 26 2010

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A simple “meta” proposition

Reference works can embody and provoke larger social anxieties.

So, how to make sense of the discourse about Wikipedia, including the following?

…[Wikipedians] continue to add to, and the intellectually lazy to use, the fundamentally flawed resource, … A professor who encourages the use of Wikipedia is the intellectual equivalent of a dietician who recommends a steady diet of Big Macs with everything.

Let’s first consider the history of reference work criticism relative to the:

  1. varied motives of producers,
  2. their mixed reception, and
  3. and contrary interpretations by scholars.

Varied motives

While reference works often thought to be inherently progressive, this need not always be the case.

Johann Zedler wrote in his eighteenth century encyclopedia, the Universal-Lexicon : “the purpose of the study of science … is nothing more nor less than to combat atheism , and to prove the divine nature of things” (as cited in ).

The French Academy thought they could standardize the French language.

Britannica’s George Gleig, wrote in EB’s (3rd edition) dedication that: “The French Encyclopédie has been accused, and justly accused, of having disseminated far and wide the seeds of anarchy and atheism . If the Encyclopaedia Britannica shall in any degree counteract the tendency of that pestiferous work, even these two volumes will not be wholly unworthy of Your Majesty’s attention” .

Mixed reception

Encyclopedia Britannica’s first edition was controversial for its illustrations of the womb; yet we also saw it attack the Encyclopédie .

The Encyclopédie was banned and consulted by the Louis XV, and censored and protected by Malesherbes.

While many complain Wikipedia is overly populist, proponents of the fringe/pseudo science aetherometry complain Wikipedia is the servant of “peer-review institutions of Big Science” .

Contrary interpretations

Foster Stockwell argues the Encyclopédie’s treatment of crafts was liberatory in that it:

Diderot helped set in motion the downfall of the royal family and the rigid class system.

but Cynthia Koep argues it was an attempt:

on the part of the dominant, elite culture to control language and discourse: in our case, the editors of the Encyclopédie expropriating and transforming work techniques.

Therefore we might understand debate about reference works to be as telling about the larger society as the work itself. As Harvey Einbinder writes in the introduction to his critique of EB:

since an encyclopedia is a mirror of contemporary learning, it offers a valuable opportunity to examine prevailing attitudes and beliefs in a variety of fields.

An example: Webster’s Third

Herbert Morton makes a specific form of this argument with respect to Webster’s Third , published in 1961, and the alleged “social permissiveness” of society then.

Both editions, when published, employed attempted to reflect contemporary discourse and the latest advances in lexicography. So, Webster’s Second wasn’t inherently conservative relative to the Third , only dated.

The normative force of the encyclopedia.

We need to appreciate one reason reference works are controversial: a presumption of normative force . But this is a market construct (e.g. advertising):

britannica love


… and a material constraint (e.g. selecting materials that merit inclusion).

Hence, the culture wars.

Wikipedia’s critics

Wikipedia provokes unease about four themes found throughout my work:

I focus on the last and questions of remixing, hype, and generational differences .

Rip, mix, burn

Kevin Kelly’s liquid books:

In the new world of books, every bit informs another; every page reads all the other pages At the same time, once digitized, books can be unraveled into single pages or be reduced further, into snippets of a page. These snippets will be remixed into reordered books and virtual bookshelves.

Yet, Gorman’s argues you have to read all the pages:

The books in great libraries are much more than the sum of their parts. They are designed to be read sequentially and cumulatively , so that the reader gains knowledge in the reading. .

So here we see a concern over the integrity of knowledge and sanctity of the author .

Otlet’s Monographic Principle

But this is not a new issue! In 1918 Otlet wrote:

The aim … is to detach what the book amalgamates , to reduce all that is complex to its elements and to devote a page [or index card] to each"

Once one read; today one refers to, checks through, skims. Vita brevis, ars longa! There is too much to read; the times are wrong; the trend is no longer slavishly to follow the author through the maze of a personal plan which he has outlined for himself and which in vain he attempts to impose on those who read him.

Hyperbole and punditry

Gorman calls all of this:

a wonderfully modern manifestation of the triumph of hope and boosterism over reality .

Other critics chime in that: * Wikipedians are defending the collective dumbing down of culture. * Wikipedians are making grand claims and the problem is “how it’s been elevated to such importance so quickly.”

A modest defense

But most Wikipedia supporters aren’t making these claims: rather Wikipedia is amazing for what it is.

Orlowski writes such sentiments are akin to saying: “Yes it’s garbage, but it’s delivered so much faster!”

Is this a case of: a glass half empty, half full? A problem of punditry?

Jeremy Wagstaff notes that comparing something to Wikipedia is “The New Cliche”: “You know something has arrived when it’s used to describe a phenomenon. Or what people hope will be a phenomenon.”

Generational differences

Gorman manages to sound like an old man shaking his fist when he complains that:

The fact is that today’s young, as do the young in every age, need to learn from those who are older and wiser "

Clay Shirky responds:

according to Gorman, the shift to digital and network reproduction of information will fail unless it recapitulates the institutions and habits that have grown up around print.

Scott McLemee more amusingly notes that:

The tone of Gorman’s remedial lecture implies that educators now devote the better part of their day to teaching students to shove pencils up their nose while Googling for pornography . I do not believe this to be the case. (It would be bad, of course, if it were.)”

Adams’ on generational differences

Douglas Adams’s humorously noted:

  1. Anything from when you were born is considered normal
  2. Anything before you’re 30 is “incredibly exciting and creative.”
  3. Anything after that is "against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilisation as we know it …
  4. “… until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.”

Even so, with every generation we undergo a new round of “huffing and puffing” .

In closing

What “prevailing attitudes and beliefs” (as Einbinder wrote) can we then discern if it is true that: reference works embody and provoke larger social anxieties?

With respect to the theme of technological inspiration I find a concern for the integrity of knowledge , the sanctity of the author , of hype and punditry , and a generational gap of insecurity .

The end

I look forward to questions and discussion!