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Standing On The Shoulders of Giants
Taran Rampersad, 28 Sep 04

It's been a full day since the article ''Wikis' Offer Knowledge - Sharing Online' has been published. It's a good article, not only that it informs and discusses the pros and cons - but because it, by using a name at the very beginning, makes the article about people. It just so happens that this time, the name at the top was mine. By no stretch am I the most prolific contributor to the Wikipedia; I found my name in print because I am a 'normal' contributor.

The other success of the article was that it promoted discussion. Personally, I received many emails about the article - from around the world. Canada. England. India. United States. Australia. Japan. All around the world, through the tendrils of The Associated Press, people were reacting to the article in various ways. Many messages were supportive, but a few contested the Wikipedia. It is the few that contested the Wikipedia that I cherished (though the people I responded to may think otherwise). It is these few that contested that inspired me to write this, who made me sit down and think and consider what we're really talking about.

There's been a lot of discussion about the Wikipedia. Whether it's accurate, whether it's reliable... these are challenges that are refreshing to hear, because it is those who would issue these challenges that assure that those of us working on the Wikipedia keep things as consistent and reliable as possible. But what is the Wikipedia? What are it's strengths, what are it's weaknesses? The debate is endless, circular, and at times quite tiring. Perhaps this article will help focus on the real issues - but first, we must dispel myths. Then we can talk about the Wikipedia, then other Open Content.

Myths of Accuracy and Reliability of Written Media

When I write of written media, I am not talking specifically about books, magazines and digital media. Instead, I am talking about all of these media combined; any form of written communication - including this very article. The accuracy of everything we read is always questionable, but at points in our global society, we have become dependant on these writings - despite inconsistencies and wars waged with pens and printing presses. We are victims of our own trust at times; we are victims to that which we hold dear. For centuries, the written word has been how we have passed information from one generation to the next.

But these words are not infallible. Indeed, there are problems with these media - foremost, the further back in time we read, the less people who could write. In the grand scheme of things, we have only started scribbling effectively in the last few centuries - not because we were incapable, but rather because we have had more to write of. Somewhere, we mysteriously jumped from cave drawings to quantum electrodynamic physics on a digital media that would certainly confuse our ancestors. Our lives have changed our language. And our society has exploded from the few that could write to the new and untested majority who can not only write, they can publish themselves.

Those that wrote over the last centuries and left behind bound books - some hand transcribed, others printed - these people were a minority. Being published such that we may read the books now was - and is - an arduous process, one which even today is dependant on who you know more than what you have written. The human social network for publishing has ever censored, though we have read no complaint. And yet, how would we read such a complaint if the books themselves weren't published - or worse, if the books were burned, or rewritten to present certain perspectives? That is censorship, and where there is censorship, there is always a question of accuracy. But that accuracy - or lack of it - can never be assured because we don't know what is missing. If we're lucky, we may have hints as to why it is missing - if we even know it is.

I was discussing the Wikipedia on the phone with Jacqueline Morris today, and both of us having studied for Ordinary Level Examinations in Trinidad and Tobago, we ended up discussing mistakes within the textbooks themselves. In the developed world, in the United States and Europe, it's possible less mistakes creep into textbooks. But we learn early here in Trinidad and Tobago that inconsistencies in textbooks are common. The handwritten notes that we sometimes got, painstakingly copied from blackboards, also contained errors. It may be the same around the world, but we discussed the possibility that people in other parts of the world may not have the same experience - or a different degree of the same experience.

The bottom line is - if we wanted to learn things, we had to think instead of blindly trust to books, or - by extension - any other form of written media.

Consider the case of Galileo Galilei. He left the University of Padua for 'financial reasons', but fortunately became part of the faculty. His writings upset the Roman Catholic Church - and the cornerstone of publishing during that period was none other than the Church - and his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was placed in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Of course, fortunately for all of us (including Sir Isaac Newton), this did not remain so. And because it did not remain so, because this information is on public record - we do know.

What don't we know? Are we basing accuracy on only what we know? Are we basing reliability on only what has been published, that which has met the criteria for being published?

Consider the plight of the African slaves throughout the world - transplanted with an oral tradition, having writing forbidden throughout the world. In the Caribbean, it's very difficult to even trace the roots of modern types of Creole (Kweyol); much other culture has been lost and other culture unexplainable. By not being permitted to even learn to write, people were not permitted to be published. And this wasn't published on a public list. Peons, slaves, 'common people'... only a few centuries ago these people, these human beings - they were not permitted to be published.

So while we speak of accuracy, we have to consider: How does one measure accuracy? When we speak of reliability, we must consider: How does one measure reliability? With guns and equipment, accuracy and reliability have been made to be common terms, common ways of discussing things - but when it comes to knowledge, these terms cannot be used in the same manner because there is no absolute truth to measure by.

But here's a truth. Freedom of Speech is only for those who can speak. Freedom of Expression is only for those who can express. Freedom of the press - belongs only to people who have a printing press. Freedom of the Digital press belongs to people with internet access and a virtual page.

Every truth we hold dear is based on previous truths, proven or debased. Every theory is another manner of trying to hold the world together within our minds. So how can we sensibly discuss accuracy and reliability when we have no way of measuring; how can we compare the accuracy and reliability of two separate systems when we don't know how accurate or reliable either one is?

The 'debate' on accuracy and reliability may continue, but to what end? What is hoped to be accomplished? I suppose it will keep some people busy for quite some time, which may not be a bad thing.

While we must strive for as much accuracy and reliability as possible, how do we assure that this happens? We'll come back to answer that question in a bit.

Speed of the Traditional Publishing System, and the Scope

The traditional publishing system is based on a few things. First, it depends on the printing press. Next, it depends on writers and editors; and these writers and editors depend on market - a business market. If there is no demand, why spend a lot of time and money supplying? So if people aren't willing to spend money to read something, it's unlikely that it will be published. But because something was not published does not mean it was not written about.This extends to digital media with traditional roots as well, otherwise everything would be accepted at Slashdot as a story.

From writing, to editing, to printing - the publishing process takes a lot of time. And we don't have as much time as we used to.

We are comfortable with a system which has worked for hundreds of years, just as the world was comfortable with alchemy before Newton. While your next door neighbor quietly tries to create Gold from Lead, here's a quote to consider:

The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them. - Albert Einstein

Make no mistake, the sharing of human knowledge has ever been a problem to be solved, and after reorganizing as much as possible, allowing as many people into the publishing system as possible - the faults within the system still limit it.

To further make this point, the Associated Press article which mentioned me - and San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago - was not published in Trinidad and Tobago. I suppose that the story was reliable and accurate to some degree... for those who could read it.

Books cost money. Magazines cost money. Websites cost money. But in the grand scheme of things, how much money does it take to publish a book that can be viewed by millions of people simultaneously? Probably less than it costs to print as many paper books of the same information. And how quickly can it changed; how quickly will it change? At what expense?

How much paper must we use, how many reprints? Shall we have trade-ins for revisions to allow for recycling of paper, thus losing the history of the changes of this knowledge? Or should we instead do something digitally?

The world is not slowing down; the value of time is increasing as more and more of it has to be used to accomodate the birthing crowns of the coming generations. At the time of this writing, we have finally reached a point where it is at least questionable that the present system can accomodate the needs of human society over the next millenium. Or even the next 10 years. Or right now.

Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations. All this is put in your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it on to your children. - Albert Einstein

The Future of Human Knowledge: The Wikipedia, Open and Free Content

Richard Stallman wrote The Free Universal Encyclopedia and Learning Resource, and it describes the Wikipedia completely - and yet, for some reason, a lot of people don't seem to understand the implications of a Free Encyclopedia; an Encyclopedia born of and nurtured by Freedom. It's an idealistic and moral endeavour, which apparently means that it's perceived as lunacy by some. But it's more than that. It's amazingly practical.

Earlier, I questioned 'While we must strive for as much accuracy and reliability as possible, how do we assure that this happens?'. The answer is amazingly simple and intuitive; we check multiple sources for the same information and compare them. Effectively, the Wikipedia does this already - by allowing everyone to edit, and view revisions. Further, with hyperlinks to supportive or related material, readers can find substantiation or even negation of parts of an article - and either raise a flag asking 'Why?', or correct it themselves. Diverse topics that are seemingly unrelated become related, easily followed. Why flip pages and search an index when you can just click a link?

Yes, people can vandalize this sort of content - there is no question - but to what end? Some have done it recently, to check how long it takes to get something fixed. That's an interesting test; but there is no control to compare with. The ideal is that everything will be fixed immediately, the fact is below the ideal. Should we be surprised? Is it faster than corrections to the comparable traditional media? Again, we lack a method of measuring this. Errors happen faster, but so does good content. If we must have a measure, how about a ratio of good to bad content? Doing otherwise seems like removing road signs on the information superhighway to see how many people are led astray before the road signs are replaced.

What about the content itself? Does any Encyclopedia other than the Wikipedia have 'San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago' in it? Probably not. Why does the Wikipedia have it? Because someone added it. How long would that take for a traditional Encyclopedia?

What it boils down to is that the only measurable things we have to compare the Wikipedia to traditional encyclopedias are the number of entries, the number of languages, and the ratio of errors/vandalism.

There are flies in the ointment, but they are not new flies. They are the same flies we have had for centuries, though there are more now than there were in the past. The Wikipedia is imperfect, but it's imperfection is a reflection not just on the contributors - it's a reflection on the critics, on the vandals, on the ignorant and on the knowledgeable. The imperfection reflects our understanding and use of our own knowledge. Again, nothing has changed.

What has changed is the level of cooperation around the world; the amount of content that has been created is amazing - the capacity of future content is staggering. The truth is that the Wikipedia has just started; nobody has said it is finished. It's unlikely that the Wikipedia will ever be finished. But many people fail to realize that they can get a copy of a snapshot and try to maintain it by themselves - something called forking in Free Software/Open Source Software circles.

And to developing countries, where people may lack books in their local libraries - the Wikipedia is as much a resource as the Gutenberg project. The cost of books might be prohibitive, and a lack of local availability will add to that cost. But for the cost of an internet connection, one can get reasonably accurate information - and pointers to resources that may have more in the local library. This is the power of Free Content and Open Content mixed with the ability to update immediately. While some say that content is missing because of biases of contributors, this content is not missing because of biases - it is missing because people aren't contributing and submitting their own content.

As the article says, I didn't complain when San Fernando, Trinidad and Tobago wasn't in the Wikipedia. My search didn't stop there, and when I found the information I went back and shared it. People should be encouraged to contribute.

Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be. — Kahlil Gibran, "A Handful of Sand on the Shore"

The Wikipedia is imperfect. Our methods of measuring imperfection are imperfect, because perfection is an ideal we strive for. Open and Free Content weren't made up while some sinister people twisted their moustaches and hatched plots for world domination. It's time to beat the swords back into ploughshares; it's time to take human knowledge and our legacy to new levels. Participate and help affect the process; it's our process.

It was Sir Isaac Newton who first said, "If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants." - a lot of his works were created by assessing the theories of his predecessors (and even writing them over to understand them) and testing them, experimenting with them. Information back then was 'Open' in that there was no Copyright - but not everyone could read, not everyone could write, not everyone could afford the books. He tested the work of others, some passed - some failed. But when he 'remixed' everything, he added his own works and experimentation, and unquestionably became one of the giants on whose shoulders the entire world has stood for quite some time.

We can all be the shoulders of these giants for future generations. We talk about ecology, we talk about pollution, we talk about many things and try to leave the world a better place for future generations - or at least pay lip service. Perhaps we could do that with human knowledge as well, by trying to do it better. Perhaps it's our responsibility to do that.

Knowledge is the cornerstone of this world, and the future of our world. Maybe we should try to improve upon systems regarding knowledge instead of attempting to debase them. If it's not perfect, make it better.

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You may be interested in the Crossbow project on Wikipedia:

Posted by: Xed on 29 Sep 04

Actually, I do not agree with Crossbow since it does not correct the problem. It's a superficial band aid on the real problem - getting people who aren't contributing to contribute.

The idea behind it is good. I think the methodology isn't.

Posted by: Taran on 29 Sep 04

For another great piece about the positive aspects of Wikipedia, see this link:

Why I'm Moving To Wikipedia

Basically it's about why an Everything2 editor left there to work on Wikipedia: "It took a lengthy server break to make me see it, but I've finally realized that Wikipedia is what E2 will never be."

Posted by: Bcorr on 29 Sep 04

All the dumb articles are basically scratch space to keep the kids from writing on the walls. Clearly a large number of articles are worthless, but it keeps those people engaged and involved and we hope one day they will contribute of more substance. Wikipedia has a long way to go, but obviously has the potential.

Posted by: Stephen Balbach on 29 Sep 04


The wikipedia is wonderful, of that there is little doubt. I am interested in a couple of ideas. The first is that in writing abount the wikipedia (see I noticed a desire to find a 'balanced' or 'objective' viewpoint. While this is possible for a matter of fact, such as the birthdate of a particular politician, it is generally difficult to do so when describing questions of history, or indeed 'science'. That is what revisionism and post-revisionism is all about.

Which makes me wonder whether there has been any 'forking' of the wikipedia. Have there been groups or individuals who so disagreeing with the explanation of the Cold War that they have created their own mutated wikipedia project? We expect forking in open source projects, so I expect this has happened. But where?

Posted by: Azeem on 5 Oct 04

To my knowledge, there's been no forking of the Wikipedia - though legally and technically it is a possibility.

It would seem despite how many people disagree on things, the Wikipedia is seen as a 'greater good' - and things seem to be running in accordance with that greater good. Otherwise there would have been a fork.

Posted by: Taran on 5 Oct 04



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