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Wikipedia & Collective Memory
Rohit Gupta, 13 Oct 04

Wiktionary.pngKim H. Vetman has written an interesting paper that illustrates how distributed resources are changing not only the nature of knowledge, but the ways of knowing. Vetman points out that knowledge may be more than something dynamic that changes over time:

"A deeper implication of this revolution is a new kind of digital bridge whereby even illiterate persons can be included within the knowledge loop of collective memory institutions."

I think the most interesting feature of a knowledge pool like the Wikipedia is the rapid post editing process, which may prove more efficient than the peer-review techniques that have been used so far by scientific journals. In terms of Cybernetics, "feedback" is the only error-correction and navigation system we have in nature, and even space vehicles rely on that for accuracy. Then why not history?

The Wikipedia enables history to be updated to a moment where it starts kissing daily news, but that doesn't mean it fills the 'gap'. I have this beautiful excerpt from Eric Hobsbawm's The Age Of Empire:

"For all of us there is a twilight zone between history and memory; between the past as a generalised record which is open to relatively disspassionate inspection and the past as a remembered part of, or background to, one's own life. For individual human beings this zone stretches from the point where living family traditions or memories begin - say, from the earliest family photo which the oldest living family member can identify or explicate - to the end of infancy, when public and private destinies are recognised as inseparable and as mutually defining one another."

One can easily sense that non-scholarly people, sometime in the future, and once the writers of Wikipedia reach a critical mass, will try to directly update the existing knowledge and bypass scientific journals. This may also happen when someone mathematically demonstrates the veracity of "peer-reviewed, post-editing" publishing systems. Or, some wise men might campaign to promote an ideology through changing a historical record, which is quite commonplace. In reaction to this, the dedicated protectors of Wikipedia will put up defenses, making the system stronger. That's a brilliant mechanism.

It has been mentioned in Brenkler's "Coase's Penguin" that - perhaps the only information product that can't be peer-produced is a novel. I'm not so sure now. The Wikipedia seems to be writing a collective autobiography of the human race.

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It has been mentioned in Brenkler's "Coase's Penguin" that - perhaps the only information product that can't be peer-produced is a novel.

Novels and even artwork can be peer-produced, but not if the creative ability of the online peers is restricted. I saw an online experiment once where a website tried to produce a novel by getting visitors to contribute a single sentence; I saw another where a website tried to produce a picture by letting visitors alter single dots in a grid.

These highly-controlled experiments don't generate good results because they limit the input of the user and don't let visitors contribute according to their abilities. For example, a book project that enabled people to choose between plot planning, illustrations, writing, and revising would have the best chance at success.

This sort of online freedom is one of the reasons Wikipedia is so successful. On Wikipedia, anyone can devise new articles, revise articles, take pictures, create PhotoShop images, ask questions, or even vote to delete poorly written articles. This creative freedom allows people to specialize and contribute what they are able to and generate a better product.

Posted by: salasks on 13 Oct 04

err...slight correction: On Wikipedia, articles are not eligible for deletion if they are written poorly, only if the subject is not worthy of an encyclopedia (ie someone writing an article about themselves).

Posted by: salasks on 13 Oct 04

Wikipedia is the best. Especially when it comes to edit wars. =)

Posted by: __earth on 13 Oct 04

Can a mob of strangers build a house? No. But can they build a city? Yes! That's one way of looking at the difference between a novel and an encyclopedia.

And in the best cities the "creative abilities of the online peers" are *highly* restricted, by law or custom. There is a whole science here which still lacks even basic terminology.

My guess is it will turn out after it is well understood to be something like Christopher Alexander's "Pattern Languages", but the current statement of Pattern Languages seems to be at a temporary dead end.

Posted by: pierre on 14 Oct 04

Can a mob of strangers build a house? Perhaps not, but a mob of neighbors can build a barn...

Posted by: Mars Saxman on 14 Oct 04

Ha! Good followup. Barn-raising is one of Alexander's examples: he says it works because the neighbors share an unspoken pattern language specifying the general sequence of steps and heuristics for each step.

Posted by: pierre on 14 Oct 04

So millions of monkeys typing away in perpetuity
could write Hamlet, and the Wikipedia!

Posted by: Rohit Gupta on 14 Oct 04



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