Nick Carr disputes the worth of Citizendium

Nick Carr’s blog piece (besides insulting Larry Sanger) makes a number of interesting points, some of which don’t stand up.

Firstly, he takes a swipe at (love it!)

“pixel-eyed apologists for the collective mediocritization of culture”.

He reckons that democratisation of knowledge is a mass dumb-down which will benight, rather than enlighten, us. Neither will it, he contends, be achieved through the Web, because the Web is a medium for information and thus incapable of inculcating knowledge, let alone wisdom. He then proceeds to draw a distinction between Sanger’s “what everyone knows”- the common knowledge of an encyclopedia – and his own principal concern, “what we know”, by which I think he means the limits of human research endeavour.

Secondly he rightly questions the undue importance ascribed to Wikipedia – only an encylopedia, after all:

“Whatever happens between Wikipedia and Citizendium, here’s what Wales and Sanger cannot be forgiven for: They have taken the encyclopedia out of the high school library, where it belongs, and turned it into some kind of totem of “human knowledge.” Who the hell goes to an encyclopedia looking for “truth,” anyway? You go to an encyclopedia when you can’t remember whether it was Cortez or Balboa who killed Montezuma or when you want to find out which countries border Turkey. What normal people want from an encyclopedia is not truth but accuracy. And figuring out whether something is accurate or not does not require thousands of words of epistemological hand-wringing. If it jibes with the facts, it’s accurate. If it doesn’t, it ain’t.”

The problem here is that he trivialises the enterprise of contstructing an encyclopaedia. He writes as if there were already authoritative sources available out there against which all assertions could “jibe”. But isn’t that the whole problem – knowledge is contested, and some types of knowledge particularly so? Granted, the business of running an encyclopedia would be much simpler if it were to limit itself to objective facts – but since when has that been the case? Wikipedia isn’t that simple – like other encyclopediae it contains entries about social phenomena – like Biggs’ theory of constructive alignment, or the Expressionist movement, for example – as well as the process through which granite is formed or the height of Mount Ararat. Unless there’s a consensus or universally acknowledged authoritative source on the matter, there won’t be much jibing going on.

But more importantly, still related to the undue importance ascribed to Wikipedia, he points out:

“… if you’re lucky enough not to face those barriers [to learning], then the getting of knowledge comes down not to the workings of either media elites or media collectives but to personal desire and initiative.”

This is the crux of his and Sanger’s difference of opinion, I think. If Sanger seriously believes that the most important thing standing in the way of enlightenment is a lack of good information, he’s extremely optimistic. But if Carr seriously believes that desire, initiative and – don’t forget – discrimination reside in each of us equally to be tapped at will, his thinking is similarly wishful, in that it omits the underlying circumstances of this desire – an inspiring spark of imagination, a feeling that it is one’s business to learn – ‘ownership’ of learning, other circumstances. And you could argue that the massive exposure of Wikipedia improves its opportunities to inspire (OK, it’s a long shot in its current state – let’s say “pique interest”), and you could argue that all those little Edit links send a strong signal that knowledge is the business of everyone (I do mean ‘knowledge’ – Nick Carr’s point about the dominance of information on the Web stands, but not inevitably – the Semantic Web promises more meaningful ways of representing information. And even for the time-being an encyclopedia, as an informative resource which introduces the basic science in any area, can play a necessary part – allbeit early and fleeting – in building knowledge.)

It’s interesting that, unlike many others – most topically Andrew Keen in his forthcoming book The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy – Nick Carr seems unconcerned about our natural ability, once we’re switched on to the job, to discern truth from dross – until the end of his post, where he makes an important point – one which is also at odds with his argument that acquiring knowledge is principally a matter of the right attitude:

“Jaron Lanier distills into four words the biggest problem with Wikipedia’s articles, and my guess is that the criticism will apply equally well to Citizendium’s: “The emphasis is random.” So true. Even when Wikipedia gets the facts right, the balance of those facts, a more subtle issue but one that’s equally important to accuracy, is often off. Small points get blown out of proportion – particularly those subject to debate – while big points get expressed poorly or glossed over. This is not a problem of expertise. It’s a problem of expression.”

Meaning that the Wikipedia entry for Bart Simpson may be bigger than the entry for Roland Barthes, or that the Kilroy-Silk article may place more emphasis on his representation in the Little Annie song I Think Of You than on his role in the UK Independence Party.

I had the impression that Sanger et al had addressed the internal balance criticism by installing an editor for each article. Regarding the inter-article balance, Carr’s right, and this proportion-shifting is an inherent quality of wikiness. Short of imposing restored proportions, maybe a message at the top of each entry to the effect that relative article size is liable to fluctuate as a function of media coverage, and not to place too much stock in comparisons? If we’re as naturally discerning as Carr (mostly) believes us to be, that could be enough.


One thought on “Nick Carr disputes the worth of Citizendium

  1. When it comes to Wikipedia, it’s open to all to put emphasis on whatever. So then it could be reduced to pop-culture since it’s not exclusively for a specific group of thinkers, but rather to the popular subjects (getting the most web-treatment). Now, if it was used to for students or purely for academic purposes (as we see with traditional encyclopedias and other forms of reference literature), it would require a mediator/instructor that would decide what is worth putting more emphasis. When it’s a free-for-all, everyone has a chance to put emphasis on whatever he/she wants … and it’s at the mercy of whoever ACTUALLY applies the emphasis.

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