James Governor's Monkchips

The Invisible Hand Of Wikipedia

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How come markets are allowed to work by magic but encyclopedias aren’t? How come open source software can’t be improved using magic, but commercial software can? How come i ask so many questions in my blog but dont provide any answers?

I have been thinking about how people deny the wisdom of the crowds, deny the credibility a crowd can give to someone by all pointing and saying she is the one that knows more about that subject than anyone else because we asked her and she gave good answers to our questions…

It jars me that markets are allowed to make “authoritative” judgments; such as how much is this company worth, or what impact will interest rate rises have on share prices, but an encyclopedia entry worked on by scores of people has no value. I think the freedom to tinker is creating some entries of real quality. Just what does peer to peer production mean? Radical flattening and challenges to authority, for sure. The debate rages.

But markets go further; they are said by their exponents to be the answer to all problems. Resource constraints–the market will work it out. World pullution-don’t worry the market will fix it. The good old invisible hand again. Don’t worry about trying to understand the range of variables involved, the market will solve it for us. Hey markets can even predict terrorist attacks.

Clay Shirky just waded into the Wikipedia permathread again. He says people are one of two types – radials or cartesians. When radials talk to cartesians about wikipedia they just don’t understand each other; great point Clay.

I wanted to splice the Invisible Hand meme to the Wikipedia Credibility question.

This blog is half-baked but i wanted to at least throw the idea out there. I can think of plenty of objections myself but i am prepared to dismiss many of them. My biggest concern is strawmanism – maybe no market true believers would accuse wikipedia of a lack of credibility.

More eyeballs lead to better quality, is where i stand, and Andy too. And i am happy with magic as a basis for decision-making, as long as we all aknowledge the fact.

Its a question of authority. And we should try and avoid living at the poles.

One final note and a bit of a gear change- i worked on the Grove Dictionary Of Art during the early 90s. I was a researcher checking bibliography and biography. The dictionary was a HUGE project that took years to complete. I was there, paid, to check the entries of the experts, unpaid. They did it for kudos. The dictionary claims to be “the most comprehensive and authoritative online resource for all research in the history of the visual arts. We invite you to read reviews of this great resource”. I would expect it to be exactly the kind of authority Danah would approve of.

When i went searching for bibliographical information, art catalogs and whatnot, sometimes they just didnt exist. The authors had obviously just made shit up. The great majority of entries i checked showed scholarship, but some of them i just had to build from scratch, because the extant entry was no use at all. So don’t try and tell me these sources are immune to inaccuracy.

And did you hear the one about Britannica getting called by a twelve year old boy?

Lucian George, 12, a pupil at Highgate Junior School in North London, was delving into the volumes on Poland and wildlife in Central Europe when he noted the mistakes.

The first was the assertion by the internationally acclaimed reference book that the small town of Chochim, in which two battles were fought between the Poles and the Ottoman Empire, now lies in Moldova.

“Wrong,” said Lucian, who attends the former hall of learning of Charles Clarke, the Home Secretary. “Chochim is in Ukraine.”

Carefully noting the page and column of each error, the boy continued his investigations of the 32-volume tome like a diligent sub-editor.

In volume 25, page 934, column 2, the encyclopaedia states that the European bison, or wisent, may be found only in the Bialowieza Forest in Poland, which is also incorrect.

“The European bison also inhabit the southern mountains of Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, eastern Slovakia and the Romanian Carpathians,” Lucian said.

That is far better than wikipedia, then eh?

It is not my intention to put forward a rabid defence of wikipedia. But it is my intention to argue for peer review, and also to encourage a healthy skepticism in general. You have to do that in the reality-based community, in the marketplace of ideas.

One final argument for why Wikipedia is better in some respects than other dictionaries and encyclopedias – it can be fixed in real time, when an error is found. Contrast this with a book which can’t be fixed until the next edition. In many respects you could call this a Long Tail affect. The Long Tail of The attempt to deliver everything in one single uber set of volumes is doomed to failure. What happens when you find an error in a traditional reference work. Nothing. When you find one in wikipedia you know what to do. There is something about facts–they have an awfully long shelf life. And we now have a store room for them, with superfast search to get those facts broughts to us on demand. The Long Tail of Credibility. That is a space Wikipedia is set to fill out. It is very wakeful.


  1. shd i capitalize more rigorously? does it matter to you, dear reader?

  2. Capitalization DOES matter to me. But your lack of it made me think the problem is the keyboard, not you. When I’m writing, at least half my capitalizations don’t happen. I have to go back and make a point of capitalizing, because the Shift key didn’t do its thing. I HATE wasting the time to manually capitalize.

    I once ordered the world’s most expensive keyboard (around $170.00) to see if I could increase the capitalization and decrease the noisy clack of the keys. No cigar!

    If you find an easy way to “capitalize more rigorously”, I hope you’ll let me know. Meantime, your writing is so worth reading, the lack of caps is surely a minor irritant.

    Thanks for writing,

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