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Wikipedia: See ‘Information,’ ‘Amazing,’ ‘Anarchy’

Crispin Sartwell teaches political philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.

Encyclopedias -- whether paper (Britannica, for example) or software (Encarta) -- are intended to be representations of the scope of human knowledge at the moment of their publication. This idea, of course, has a long history. But the most interesting thing about it may be its future, as represented by the magnificent, nonprofit Wikipedia.

“Wiki” is the Hawaiian word for quick, and it refers to a website that can be updated easily by anyone from any Web browser. The first wiki armature was developed in 1995, and Wikipedia -- the brainchild of one Jimmy Wales -- was founded in 2001. Under Wales’ brilliant conception, anyone can go into Wikipedia (wikipedia.org) and create a new article or edit an old one: It is entirely accessible and entirely alterable.

This is anarchy, of course, and completely antithetical to the encyclopedic tradition, which has emphasized a kind of solemn definitiveness and authority. Britannica and Encarta, for instance, not only employ experts to write their articles but subject everything they publish to a rigorous review process. At Wikipedia, you (or any old maniac) can march right onto the “nuclear fusion” page and add your thoughts.

But as Wikipedia says about itself, the point is not that it’s hard to make mistakes but that it’s easy to correct them. Because thousands of people -- ordinary, unpaid, outside participants -- monitor and edit Wikipedia, errors and vandalism are often corrected in seconds. One feature of the site is a list of recently updated pages, so that one can keep track of changes. One can even revert to a previous version of an article if mistaken or malevolent parties have messed it up.

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The result is not perfect. In one brief instance, a character from “Star Wars” was labeled Benedict XVI. But such is the exception, not the rule, and usually quickly rectified. Overall, the encyclopedia gets ever larger and ever more accurate. The English version has grown to more than half a million entries, and in checking the “recent changes” section I once found a dozen or more revisions every minute. The site also provides contexts in which changes can be proposed and discussed among writers.

So is it to be trusted? Does it have the credibility of Britannica? Well, I have monitored over a decent period a number of entries on matters about which I know something and have found them almost invariably accurate. And I have watched some of them grow, becoming ever more elaborate and interlinked.

In fact, open architecture is in some sense the only possible way to do what an encyclopedia purports to do: represent the state of human knowledge in real time. Such a project is by its nature so huge that it requires what Wikipedia has: thousands of experts, editors, checkers and so on with expertise in different fields working over a period of years. Also, Wikipedia, unlike the World Book, for example, or even Encarta, is updated continuously. When we use the term “public property,” we usually mean state property, but Wikipedia compromises the concept of ownership without dispossessing anyone: It is truly public property.

What is perhaps most fascinating about Wikipedia is its demonstration in practical anarchy. It is an ever-shifting, voluntary, collaborative enterprise. If it is in the long run successful, it would show that people can make amazing things together without being commanded, constrained, taxed, bribed or punished.

There are people who want to deface or even destroy Wikipedia. The right-wing blogger Ace of Spades -- out of mischief and because he heard Wikipedia’s operators were liberals -- recently called on its readers to “punk” the site: to put up as much misinformation and nonsense as possible. Other blogs gleefully expose errors, even if those defects persist only for a few minutes.

If the vandals are successful, they’ll more or less confirm the common wisdom that people are too evil and miserable to be allowed to govern themselves.

But if Wikipedia grows into the greatest reference work ever made, it will suggest that great things are possible when you merely let people go and see what happens.


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