Alright, yeah

Stephen Lewis (via Dave) has a good and troubling post about the limits of the Web as a repository of knowledge.

while the web might theoretically have the potential of providing more shelf space than all libraries combined, in reality it is quite far from being as well stocked. Indeed, only a small portion of the world’s knowledge is available online. The danger is that as people come to believe that the web is the be-all and end-all source of information, the less they will consult or be willing to pay for the off-line materials that continue to comprise the bulk of the world’s knowledge, intellectual achievement, and cultural heritage. The outcome: the active base of knowledge used by students, experts, and ordinary people will shrink as a limited volume of information, mostly culled from older secondary sources, is recycled and recombined over and again online, leading to an intellectual dark-age of sorts. In this scenario, Wikipedia entries will continue to grow uncontrolled and unverified while specialized books, scholarly journals and the world’s treasure troves of still-barely-explored primary sources will gather dust. Present-day librarians, experts in the mining of information and the guidance of researchers, will disappear. Scholarly discourse will slow to a crawl while the rest of us leave our misconceptions unquestioned and the gaps in our knowledge unfilled.

The challenge is either – or both – to get more books, periodicals, and original source materials online or to prompt people to return to libraries while at the same time ensuring that libraries remain (or become) accessible. Both tasks are dauntingly expensive and, in the end, must be paid for, whether through taxes, grants, memberships, donations, or market-level or publicly-subsidized fees.

Lewis goes on to talk about the destruction of the National and University Library in Sarajevo, among other things. Read the whole thing.

But what particularly struck me was the first comment below the post.

I think you’re undervaluing the new primary sources going up online, and you’re undervaluing the new connections that are possible which parchment can’t compete with like this post I’m making to you. I definitely agree that there is a ton of great knowledge stored up in books and other offline sources, but people solve problems with the information they have, and in many communities – especially rural third world communities, offline sources are just as unreachable, if not more, than online sources.

This is a textbook example of how enthusiasts deal with criticism. (I’m not going to name the commenter, because I’m not picking on him personally.) It’s a reaction I’ve seen a lot in debates around Wikipedia, but I’m sure it goes back a lot further. I call it the “your criticism may be valid but” approach – it starts by formally conceding the criticism, thus avoiding the need to refute or even address it. Counter-arguments can then be deployed at will, giving the rhetorical effect of debate without necessarily addressing the original point. It’s a very persuasive style of argument.In this case there are three main strategies. The criticism may be valid…

I think you’re undervaluing the new primary sources going up online

but (#1) things are getting better all the time, and soon it won’t be valid any more! (This is a very common argument among ‘social software’ fans. Say something critical about Wikipedia on a public forum, then start your stopwatch. See also Charlie Stross’s ‘High Frontier’ megathread.)

you’re undervaluing the new connections that are possible which parchment can’t compete with like this post I’m making to you. … in many communities – especially rural third world communities, offline sources are just as unreachable, if not more, than online sources

but (#2) you’re just looking at the negatives and ignoring the positives, and that’s wrong! Look at the positives, never mind the negatives! (Also very common out on the Web 2.0 frontier.)

I definitely agree that there is a ton of great knowledge stored up in books and other offline sources, but people solve problems with the information they have

but (#3) …hey, we get by, don’t we? Does it really matter all that much?

I’m not a fan of Richard Rorty, but I believe that communities have conversations, and that knowledge lives in those conversations (even if some of them are very slow conversations that have been serialised to paper over the decades). I also believe that knowledge comes in domains, and that each domain follows the shape of the overall cloud of knowledge constituted by a conversation. But I’ve been in enough specialised communities (Unix geeks, criminologists, folk singers, journalists…) to know that there’s a wall of ignorance and indifference around each domain; there probably has to be, if we’re not to keel over from too much perspective. Your stuff, you know about and you know that you don’t know all that much; you know you’re not an expert. Their stuff, well, you know enough; you know all you need to know, and anyway how complicated can it be?

Enthusiasts are good people to have around; they hoard the knowledge and keep the conversation going, even when there’s a bit of a lull. The trouble is, they tend to keep the wall of ignorance and apathy in place while they’re doing it. The moral is, if your question is about something just outside a particular domain of knowledge, don’t ask an enthusiast – they’ll tell you there’s nothing there. (Or: there’s something there now, but it won’t be there for long. Or: there’s something there, but look at all the great stuff we’ve got here!)

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 29 June 2007 at 03:07 | Permalink | Reply

    i do not think the gist of that comment was so dismissive of the world’s knowledge. perhaps i’m wrong, but i’m personally far more unnerved by the continued reliance on institutions that provide information (eg encyclopedias) as handed down knowledge, than by the enthusiasts who seem committed to making more of it more available in this new media. i will not log in or pay for encyclopedia britannica because i am not convinced that it’s any more comprehensive than wikipedia. every fact comes from somewhere, and with wikipedia, at least i’m suspicious enough to verify what i read. i’m not sure what your point was in this blog entry, but i’m surprised to see such a reaction to what seemed to me an innocuous comment.

  2. Phil
    Posted 29 June 2007 at 10:12 | Permalink | Reply

    i’m not sure what your point was in this blog entry, but i’m surprised to see such a reaction to what seemed to me an innocuous comment.

    Well, I’ve said what I’ve said. I thought the comment exemplified three techniques for avoiding engagement with criticism. It’s like responding to a boss, who’s asking if you’ve done something you haven’t, by going straight to “no but”:

    No, but I’ll get it done soon, honest…

    No, but look at all the good stuff I have done!

    No, but is it really a good use of my time?

    It’s all the more striking when people aren’t actually defending themselves – when someone’s enthusiasm has been challenged by a focus on awkward facts.

    You mention encyclopedias. Comparisons with the Britannica are interesting as far as they go – and I don’t believe they do Wikipedia any favours – but they don’t address the way that Wikipedia is used, essentially as an extension of Google. When I google for information I’m not hoping to find an encyclopedia article. Generally, Britannica articles used to appear on the first page of hits, but not right at the top; usually you’d see a fan sites, hobby sites, school sites, scholarly articles and domain-specific reference works on the same page, and usually the fan sites, etc, would be just as good. (I stopped using the Britannica altogether as soon as it went paywalled.) If all that had happened was that Britannica results had been pushed down from number 8 to number 9, with their place being taken by Wikipedia, I doubt we’d be having this conversation. What’s happened is that, for topic after topic, Wikipedia is number 1; the people who would have run all those fan sites and hobby sites are either writing for Wikipedia instead or they’re not bothering, since after all Wikipedia is already there. (Or else the sites are still out there, but they’re way down the search result list because they’re not getting the traffic.) It’s a monoculture; it’s a single point of failure, in a way that encyclopedias aren’t. And it’s the last thing that should have happened on the Web. (I’ll own up to a lingering Net idealism. Internet 0.1, I think it was.)

    Incidentally, from now on I’m going to be asking all commenters who I don’t already know to supply their full name, or else a link to somewhere that information can be found. Any comment without a name (like yours) may be deleted, unless it’s interesting (like yours).

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