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A Wiki's as Good as a Nod

Geoff Nunberg

"Fresh Air" Commentary, 6/5/07


If defenders of traditional print culture were looking for a portent that end times are upon us, they might have found it in a sentence from one of Paul Krugman's New York Times columns a couple of months ago. The sentence began: "A conspiracy theory, says Wikipedia, ''attempts to explain the cause of an event as a secret, and often deceptive plot by some covert alliance….'' It was the phrase "says Wikipedia" that had me doing a double take. We usually reserve that kind of attribution for sources that have acquired an institutional voice that transcends their individual contributors. As in, "According to the Oxford English Dictionary..." or "In the words of the Encyclopedia Britannica..." Or for that matter, "the New York Times says..." But it was odd to see that lofty syntax used to talk about Wikipedia. It was like quoting some anonymous graffiti written on a bathroom wall in Nassau Hall and introducing them with, "According to Princeton University…"

But maybe Krugman was just owning up to what most journalists and scholars regard as a guilty secret, which is that they rely on Wikipedia all the time. By "rely on," I don't mean just for doing "preliminary research," which is how academics always say they use Wikipedia, in the same tone that they adopt when they cop to glancing at People in the dentist's waiting room. I mean using Wikipedia as a primary source of information.

 Or at least I do. In fact I've been keeping a log of the questions I've gone to Wikipedia with in the last few months. Which Edsel models were full-sized cars? When did Henry A. Wallace deliver his "Century of the Common Man" speech? What's the difference between discrete and continuous probability distributions? What was the deal was with the Nueva Trova movement in Cuban music? And that's not to mention all the names I looked up from my "whatever happened to" file -- Pia Zadora, Chuck Knoblauch, Elian Gonzales, Yma Sumac, Vanilla Ice, Joey Heatherton, and the guys from Humble Pie who weren't Peter Frampton.

I almost never bother to verify the answers. Usually I don't much care -- like most people, I suspect, I use Wikipedia for idle ruminating, usually when I ought to be doing something else. Anyway, Wikipedia has as good a chance of being right on most of these items as anybody else does. It isn't likely to lead you astray about probability distributions or when Roberto Clemente was national league MVP or when Phil Collins joined Genesis. There are too many people out there who make it a point of pride to know that stuff.  And where else would you go to find out about Pia Zadora, the Undead, or Harry Potter? I haven't actually read any of the Harry Potter books, but I figure that any group of people who take the collective time and trouble to compile a 7000-word article just on Lord Voldemort have got to know what they're talking about.         

But it's imprudent to trust the wisdom of crowds when it comes to fixing the date of Daniel Defoe's birth or the titles of Max Beerbohm's works or what Joyce had to say about Ibsen. And Wikipedia is even more helpless at explaining any of those writers. The collective process isn't going to be able to produce the consistent viewpoint or the engaged tone of voice that criticism requires. In fact the prose of Wikipedia is inexorably drawn to a corporate impersonality -- it's the way the English language would talk if it had no place to go home to at night.

Still, I expect  most users have a good sense of Wikipedia's strengths and limitations. At their best, the articles are well-organized collections of more-or-less reliable facts; at their worst they're so jumbled and incoherent that factual incorrectness is merely a side-issue. I think of what the physicist Wolfgang Pauli once said about a paper submitted to a journal. "This isn't right. This isn't even wrong."

But what did we expect? The most exasperating thing about all these arguments about Wikipedia is that everybody seems to assume it's a single entity the way an encyclopedia is. The Wikipedians explain how this open collaborative process is lurching toward a neutral and methodical synthesis of all of human knowledge. The critics charge that it's undermining the conception of expertise and intellectual order that the encyclopedia has embodied since the Enlightenment. But in one form or another, that picture of human knowledge was always a grand illusion, even back when we could believe in the unity of high culture. By now, the encyclopedia and the dictionary are really just symbols that we honor with inattentive piety. Actually, it's my guess that most of the people who harrumph about how Wikipedia is nothing like an encyclopedia haven't actually opened one for some time.

But then Wikipedia is steeped in exactly the same bookish nostalgia. That's implicit in the name Wikipedia itself and the ferociously oedipal rivalry the Wikipedians feels with the Britannica. And it explains the exaggerated deference that Wikipedians pay to published sources, even though a lot of the books and articles the contributors cite turn out to be no more reliable than Wikipedia itself. 

The irony is that Wikipedia actually signals the end of the encyclopedic vision. It's only when you actually try to implement that view of collective knowledge that you realize how fond and delusional it is. When you deposit this multitude of strangers in a single place, you shouldn't be surprised when you come back and find nothing but a jumble of footprints in the mud. That's actually a fair picture of what human knowledge has always been, but it was never so evident before.

Copyright © 2007 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.