Wednesday, October 03, 2007

St Paul's College Talk

I haven't posted for a while, but I've been doing a lot of thinking about the implications of new social web technologies for academia, which culminated in a talk I gave at St Paul's College (USYD) on Monday 17th September. Thanks again to my student Don Cameron for the invitation.

The content of my talk doesn't really reflect the breadth of the ensuing discussion, which I found challenging and rewarding. I hope to cover some of the points raised in the coming weeks.

- J

Wikipedia and its potential consequences for the academy

Sometime last Thursday, Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia published its two millionth English article. The subject-matter of the article itself was particularly appropriate. It describes a Spanish TV show called El Hormiguero, which achieved fame in 2006 for getting audience members to walk across a swimming pool filled with a liquid goo, an "oobleck" of cornstarch and water.

On the face of it, this article seems to betray precisely the kind of low-brow popular interest that the internet is constantly criticised for promoting. However, within a click or two from this page one can find oneself learning about other non-Newtownian forms of liquid goo which, thanks to the relationship they exhibit between viscosity and shear, are a principal component in all-wheel drive cars. Another click away, and you're learning some of the basic physics of torque. Alternatively, taking a different route, you would quickly discover the term "oobleck" was coined Theodor Seuss Giesel, affectionately known as Dr. Seuss, and that the name is correctly pronounce soice, as in voice.

This slippage between the technical and the trivial is just one of the contradictions we find in the wonderful world of Wikipedia. Tonight I want to examine a few others, and make some irresponsible remarks about the impact this might have on academia. But first, a straw poll. How many of you have visited Wikipedia? How many have contributed in some way? And how many of you have vandalised a page by adding libellous material to an article about a public figure you loathe? No-one. Just me then.

Some history

Wikipedia was founded by Jimbo Wales and Larry Sanger on January 15th, 2001, as a free content adjunct to the Nupedia project, which invited only expert contributors. It was originally conceived as a good source of raw content for the Nupedia, content which would undergo expert editing before publication. However, Wikipedia soon became a cultural phenomenon, and Nupedia was abandoned. Within twelve months of Wikipedia's launch, the English edition boasted 1000 articles and several non-english language editions had been started, beginning with German, Catalan and French. Within two years, the English edition had passed 100,000 articles, and by 2004, the Wikipedia as a whole had reached 1 million articles in over 100 languages. Today, there are over 7.5 million articles on the Wikipedia in about 250 languages and the domain name ranks as the 10th most visited domain on the Internet. It has upwards of 20 times the amount of internet traffic enjoyed by the online addition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.

Intellectual Authority

Over its six-year history, Wikipedia has been the subject of a number of controversies, from an attempt by a false charity to gain credibility through the Boxing Day tsunami article, to the doctoring of biographies of US politicians by their political aides, and more recently the discovery that (after ISPs) our own Defense Department was biggest, Australian contributor of anonymous edits to Wikipedia. These have threatened to undermine the authority and reliability of the site, which is constantly under scrutiny.


This brings us to the central issue surrounding the emergence of Wikipedia as the dominant source of encyclopedic information of the internet. That is, it's reliability and its status as an encyclopedia. One of the founders of Wikipedia, Larry Sanger, has actually become the biggest critic of the site in this regard, claiming that the Wikipedia suffers from a serious inconsistency in the quality of articles on any topic in a highly specialized, namely, those topics to which one traditionally defers to experts. For example, in an article in Kuro5hin, Sanger claimed that Wikipedia's philosophy section leaves a lot to be desired when compared to that of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. "From the point of view of a specialist," he wrote, "let's just say that Wikipedia needs a lot of work."

We'll come back to why Sanger thinks this is a problem that is unlikely to go away. What is clear is that this criticism plays into a more general criticism of the Internet, which stresses the threat of a rapidly developing Cult of the Amateur. That's the title of a recent book by Andrew Keen, who champions the movement. Keen is well-known for his conspiratorial view of Web 2.0. He writes that "Just as Marx seduced a generation of European idealists with his fantasy of self-realization in a communist utopia, so the Web 2.0 cult of creative self-realization has seduced everyone in Silicon Valley. The movement bridges counter-cultural radicals of the '60s such as Steve Jobs with the contemporary geek culture of Google's Larry Page." "Elite artists and an elite media industry are symbiotic. If you democratize media, then you end up democratizing talent. The unintended consequence of all this democratization, to misquote Web 2.0 apologist Thomas Friedman, is cultural "flattening." No more Hitchcocks, Bonos, or Sebalds. Just the flat noise of opinion--Socrates's nightmare."

Sanger himself has taken up the challenge and recently created a competitor site to Wikipedia, named Citizendium. In effect, it's a rehashing of the Nupedia idea, with all articles being edited by content experts in the relevant field. Despite its awkward name, Citizendium claims to be matching Wikipedia early growth rate, with over 1000 english language articles in its first year. "The result," Sanger claims, "will be not only enormous and free, but reliable.” Times Online, Sept 8, 2007

Brittanica vs Wikipedia

But how reliable is Wikipedia? In 2005, the relative intellectual merit of Wikipedia was tested by the preeminent scientific journal, Nature. Nature took random sample articles from Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Brittania, and sent the text via email to experts in the relevant field. Altogether 42 articles from each encyclopedia were given peer reviews. Nature reported that "Only eight serious errors, such as misinterpretations of important concepts, were detected in the pairs of articles reviewed, four from each encyclopaedia." Nature also reported that while Wikipedia's articles were found to have an average of about four factual errors, omissions or misleading statements per article, the Encyclopedia Brittanica only managed to go one better, with an average of three. They did find that Brittanica's articles were better written and more readable, but that because of it's editorial processes, Brittanica lagged behind developments in research compared to Wikipedia, which is able to update its content almost in real time.

Brittanica was so incensed by this result that, somewhat foolishly, it attempted to challenge it, and suffered a comprehensive rebuttal by Nature's editors. In some ways, this test only goes to show the limitations of the comparison and the standard that it represents. After all, the strength of Wikipedia is, firstly, that it is built by a community without any boundaries. Anyone can edit. Most people equate "anyone" with the lowest-common denominator, but this openness actually cuts both ways. It means that those on the cutting edge of a discipline can contribute just as easily as the most naïve. It also means that as Wikipedia becomes more of a household resource, those genuinely concerned with the representation of their discipline will be more inclined to shift from being users or critics of Wikipedia, to being contributors.

What's more, there's no reason why the same people who consult the encyclopedia brittanica for their information can't also contribute to Wikipedia. The second remarkable thing about the Wikipedia, and another source of its strength, is that it's agnosticism about its sources allows it to rapidly absorb its competitors advances. Improving the standard of the encyclopedia Brittanica can't help but improve the standard of the Wikipedia. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that Wikipedia simply does not recognize competitors, it only recognizes collaborators.

As a commentator on John Quiggins' blog recently put it "Many of wikipedias critics dont appear to understand the meaning of the word[s] collaborative and user editable. Rather than bagging it’s inaccuracies, why don’t they fix them?"

The final aspect of Wikipedia that is revealed by Nature's attempt to assess its intellectual value is the inherently provisional character of its content. In a wiki, by virtue of their being editable, articles never actually leave the editing phase. They are never published in the traditional sense. This gives the Wikipedia, and indeed every wiki, the sense of being an unfinished (and we might say, unfinishable) project. To be sure, people do still generally arrive at Wikipedia expecting a finished, authoritative article – and some have complained that this is precisely the problem with the site calling itself an encyclopedia. However, the more interesting question is whether a shift in readers' expectations to match what the site delivers would actually be a good thing.

Thus, Wikipedia can be regarded as playing an important, but generally unacknowledged, part in what network-economy theorist Yochai Benkler calls "the most fundamental and long-standing effect that Internet communications are having … on the cultural practice of public communication," which is that

"the Internet allows individuals to abandon the idea of the public sphere as primarily constructed of finished statements uttered by a small set of actors socially understood to be "the media" (whether state owned or commercial) and separated from society, and to move toward a set of social practices that see individuals as participating in a debate. Statements in the public sphere can now be seen as invitations for a conversation, not as finished goods." (Benkler 2006, 180)

Substitute the academy for the media in that quote, and you get an idea of the subtle transformation taking place. As the public sphere in which academic discourse takes place comes to be regarded as populated with unfinished statements, the harder it is to distinguish a group of agents or academics who have a specialised capacity and authority to contribute to the conversation.

In fact, the breakdown of the boundaries of academia have been welcomed in some quarters. For example, the influential members of the Institute for the Future of the Book argue that

the goals of scholarship, teaching, and service are deeply intertwined, and that a reimagining of the scholarly press through the affordances of contemporary network technologies will enable us not simply to build a better publishing process but also to forge better relationships among colleagues, and between the academy and the public.

They argue that the shift to an open-access scholarly network will allow the academy

to forge a more inclusive community of scholars who challenge opaque forms of traditional scholarship by foregrounding process and emphasizing critical dialogue. Such dialogue … will also build bridges with diverse non-academic communities, allowing the academy to regain its credibility with these constituencies who have come to equate scholarly critical discourse with ivory tower elitism.

It's worthwhile returning to Larry Sanger at this point. Sanger argues that the reason why the representation of specialised knowledge on the Wikipedia is not likely to improve with the growth of the site, is because the openness of Wikipedia forces experts to defend their views against attack from non-experts, usually on the talk page of the article in question. That is, Sanger regards an open-access scholarly network as opening the door to anti-intellectualism.

The debate, like the internet itself, remains open and unfinished. Yet it's clear that it has enormous significance for the very notion of an academy, and the relationship between that community and the public at large, since significant sectors of the public are now clearly expressing a desire to take responsibility themselves for the production of knowledge. The question for us within the academy is not, how do we reassert our rights as experts, since we have other avenues of publication where those rights are respected. The question for us is rather how can we embrace this desire and play an effective role (even if it is a supporting one) in the biggest aggregation of human knowledge since the Library at Alexandria.


Hannah Forsyth said...

Hey Justin, nice one and it looks like you're doing great stuff.

I've also been thinking about these things in my usual vague and convoluted kind of way, of course as I start thinking about the ownership of knowledge (loved the owning ideas mini-post btw).

A couple of these disarticulated thoughts have included the "insistence" of often wants an expert in an area to give some legitimacy to dinner-party conversations as entertainment (which I love btw) but I have a feeling that the expertise of experts is decreasingly functioning as valid example was here:

I WONDER (conjecture warning...) if knowledge production and democratisation might have already excluded "experts" and "our" (I'm not an expert on much but will include myself as an HE worker anyway) belated attempts to participate with any authority might not work. I wonder what an "effective role" might be now?

Also been thinking that maybe the entire character of knowledge has changed, from contested or specultative (with a notion of linear progress) to pixilated and competitive where each piece of knowledge is rapidly replaced by another (in an "open market" structure), competing against one another in the new knowledge market.

Also that the distinctions between knowledge and information are changing.

Library at Alexandria is also an image that has been floating around in my head.

But have to run and do school holiday stuff now.

Wikipedia manages to capture nearly all of these things and thanks for posting the talk, it is a great read.

Justin Tauber said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justin Tauber said...

Thanks for the comment, Hannah. The program you mentioned is called "Difference of Opinion", and I wonder whether it may be that academics are getting squeezed into the role of providing content. And from the perspective of content, there's little reason to distinguish uninformed and informed opinion. What's important is that someone is saying something and that there is some sort of conflict to maintain interest.

Maybe academics need to take a leaf out of the prime-minister's playbook, and start thinking about strategies for communicating more directly with the public. Howard's political masterstroke was to bypass the commentariat and use talkback radio to speak to his constituents. It seems to me that as academics, we need to recognize that we're not just training researchers, we're also preserving a culture of inquiry, and that role needs to have a public face. All those honours, masters and phd students who don't go on to become academics effectively lose their connection to the academy, rather than being its representatives in the wider world.

I still need to think about this more. But perhaps you're getting the gist?

Hannah Forsyth said...

And one day I hope to be a little less pixilated myself!

Hannah Forsyth said...

Hey Justin,

I've been going along to Sydney University Edfac's Higher Education Colloquium the past few months and the consistent message is, I think, something along your lines: we need to talk up what we do.

Probably. Though the example from Difference of Opinion (this was discussion around Catherine Lumby's expert opinion and whether experts are really trustworthy. What if the character of knowledge has changed and what we do is no longer relevant or valuable? Despite the fact that we are knowledge-producers in a knowledge economy!

Interesting idea of being squeezed into the role of providing content.