Convenience is King

A recent article in the Boston Review by Evgeny Morozov laments the influence of Wikipedia. I found this passage a particularly interesting take on the epistemology (and ecology) of the web:

Wikipedians . . . are obsessed with popular culture and less equipped to document the high-brow. The 711-word entry on nouvelle vague filmmaker Claude Chabrol, for example, is much less impressive than the 1867-word article on Transformers-director Michael Bay. . . . [T]he real tragedy of the Wikipedia method is that it reduces intellectual contributions to such granular units that writing a 2000-word entry on Chabrol in one sitting feels like painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And if you do go to such lengths to improve the site, you do not want the bureaucrats—who may know nothing about Chabrol—to judge your contribution. There is something unappealing about the value system of a project that prizes, say, movie reviews quoted from college newspapers over elaborate entries in the authoritative Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film, simply because the latter does not have an easy-to-link Web site.

The Google fetish, it should be noted, is not ideological, but practical. Since Wikipedia’s editors are bombarded with editing tasks—one study estimates three new edits every second—they cannot investigate every entry thoroughly. They are constrained by what can be discovered readily—by Google. But most human knowledge, probably, still lies outside of Google’s reach.

The passage reminds me of an exchange between Sergey Brin and Ken Auletta recalled by the latter on the Leonard Lopate show. Brin asked Auletta why he didn’t just self-publish his book on the web, doing an end-run around publishers. “Who would pay my advance?,” Auletta asked. “How could I support myself for the 18 months it takes to write the book?”

While Brin saw the world of publishing as too-confining, Auletta was in effect opting out of another form of discipline—information location tools that highlight the most accessible content. One key question now is whether the free-cology of Google, Wikipedia, and unpaywalled sources will become its own world of knowledge, creating its own reality unmoored to traditional journalism or books. Auletta might worry that such a dynamic could unleash a Gresham’s Law scenario for knowledge, where the cheapest-to-produce drives out quality content like his. But hard-pressed netizens may well respond: “How am I going to pay for books like yours? How can I support myself when I need to pay $27.95 for every book I want to read?”

X-Posted: Madisonian.

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