transmitting live from cambridge: wikimania 2006 08.04.2006, 1:29 PM
posted by dan visel
I'm at the Wikimania 2006 conference at Harvard Law School, from where I'll be posting over the course of the three-day conference (schedule). The big news so far (as has already been reported in a number of blogs) came from this morning's plenary address by Jimmy Wales, when he announced that Wikipedia content was going to be included in the Hundred Dollar Laptop. Exactly what "Wikipedia content" means isn't clear to me at the moment – Wikipedia content that's not on a network loses a great deal of its power – but I'm sure details will filter out soon.
This move is obvious enough, perhaps, but there are interesting ramifications of this. Some of these were brought out during the audience question period during the next panel that I attended, in which Alex Halavis talked about issues of evaluating Wikipedia's topical coverage, and Jim Giles, the writer of the Nature study comparing the Wikipedia & the Encyclopædia Britannica. The subtext of both was the problem of authority and how it's perceived. We measure the Wikipedia against five hundred years of English-language print culture, which the Encyclopædia Britannica represents to many. What happens when the Wikipedia is set loose in a culture that has no print or literary tradition? The Wikipedia might assume immense cultural importance. The obvious point of comparison is the Bible. One of the major forces behind creating Unicode – and fonts to support the languages used in the developing world – is SIL, founded with the aim of printing the Bible in every language on Earth. It will be interesting to see if Wikipedia gets as far.
Gary Frost on August 4, 2006 8:33 PM:
The idea that everything is in flux forever is a bit loony. There is a phase space surrounding any encyclopedic entry term and as the term is subjected to multiple expressions, either over time or across contributors , or both, it comes to rest near a useful, adept expression. The EB 1911 edition is like that. A paper Wiki or one committed to a computer drive, will be like that. The only requirement for this elegant, automatic process is a wide and attentive readership.
dan visel on August 5, 2006 3:23 PM:
Hi Gary--- I saw you posted that on your site & was hoping you'd bring it over here. I'm not sure I'm completely in agreement with you: flux can't be denied. Certainly the idea that all is flux (and the ancillary idea that truth is socially constructed) is a radical position, though there's a long tradition for this - you can take it back to Heraclitus, who I'll nominate as the patron saint of Wikipedia. It also seems to be an endpoint of the modernist program: see Finnegans Wake, a book designed to be read forever. An even better example: Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by the Bachelors, Even, which Duchamp left unfinished, realizing that the process that created the work (documented in the notes in his Green Box) was more important that the work itself.
But Heraclitus is almost never talked about without some reference to Parmenides, his near contemporary who declared that there was no change and that everything is static. Can you have one without the other? I don't think so.
Strangely, I haven't seen anyone yet point out the oddity of a Wikipedia conference being hosted at Harvard, whose motto "Veritas" is slathered across every available surface. There's some justice in it being at the law school, where truth is disputed, rather than at, say, the divinity school. And I've always thought there was something charmingly ambiguous about that motto: it simply presents truth as a concept, not declaring what to do with truth, or even that one should aspire to it. Can "veritas" be socially constructed? It's a big question which surprisingly hasn't been argued about much here.
Gary Frost on August 5, 2006 9:09 PM:
Duchamp excelled at the documentation of ephemeral phenomenon. His later work especially, reiterated inadvertencies and random vectors until they became fixed motifs. Then he proceeded to miniaturize these found icons in the Bote en valise editions, reformatting from original to surrogate. In essence he created an encyclopedia or teachers' lesson plan of his artistic insights. Then he left the room content that attentive readers would adventure into unique selections from his visual catalog.
From this perspective Duchamp was a machinist. It is sobering to imagine that theorists of digital research and publication who promote flux in scholarship and education could dissolve their own contributions and endanger fabrics of knowledge. Even librarians, enthused with digital library services, are dissolving the bibliographic unit of the print book, decommissioning their hard earned classification systems and diluting services aimed at scholarly assistance.
Mystics say; "Walk into the darkness!", but they know where they are going.
ChrisBradley on August 5, 2006 11:23 PM:
I finished attempting a quick transcription in my IRC channel of Lessig's speech about an hour ago and am now working on the opening Jwales speech in irc.freenode.net ##noisecontrol - my sort of independent publishing venue. I'll try to remember to link back the Jwales speech here in a few moments as soon as I'm done with my transcription as it stands today.
Stay cool - just a friend in the ether
author of American Mohawk - Collected Poems
dan visel on August 6, 2006 4:20 PM:
There is a strange attitude that seems to be taken by many Wikipedians here that the problem with Wikipedia is that "it's just not finished yet", and it just needs "This article needs cleanup" and editor attention. This seems to be an idea inherited from print: that an entry can be thought of a finished. That to me does seem to miss the point of Wikipedia, its emphasis on process rather than product.
Gary Frost on August 7, 2006 10:22 PM:
Print actually requires more "process" although it certainly achieves more finished publication. Process is drafting, reviewing, editing, correcting and revision of copy.
I think the special kind of "process" that you identify with live forum publication is transformation of content without consistent print processing. If the Wikipedia moderators remark on the work's lack of finish I suggest that they do have the print exemplar of process in mind, but without the print commitment to content fixity or prescribed scope.
As publishers Wikipedia moderators have a low overhead model with free content and cheap production. What they need to invent is a screen based product different from print and drastically different from e-encyclopedias. They also need a reader experience differing from a Google search, or Google Print search or Google Book search. Of course they have already achieved exactly these things..
Chris Bradley on August 8, 2006 10:02 AM:
Finished the Wales transcript - just noticed I hadn't dropped it off here yet. Enjoy!