Thu, Aug 02, 2007 - Page 9 News List

The Internet enters into the virtual Middle Ages

By Steve Fuller

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, is the most impressive collective intellectual project ever attempted -- and perhaps achieved. It demands both the attention and the contribution of anyone concerned with the future of knowledge.

Because of the speed with which it has become a fixture in cyberspace, Wikipedia 's true significance has gone largely unremarked. Since its sixth anniversary this year, Wikipedia has consistently ranked in the top 10 most frequently viewed Web sites worldwide. Everyday it is consulted by 7 percent of all 1.2 billion Internet users, and its rate of usage is growing faster than that of Internet usage as a whole.

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia to which anyone with a modicum of time, articulateness, and computer skills can contribute. Anyone can change any entry or add a new entry, and the results will immediately appear for all to see -- and potentially contest.

"Wiki" is a Hawaiian root that was officially added to English last year to signify something done quickly -- in this case, changes in the collective body of knowledge.

Some 4.7 million "Wikipedians" have now contributed to 5.3 million entries, one-third of which are in English, with the rest in more than 250 other languages. Moreover, there is a relatively large group of hardcore contributors -- roughly 75,000 Wikipedians have made at least five contributions in any given 30-day period.

The quality of articles is uneven, as might be expected of a self-organizing process, but it is not uniformly bad. True, topics favored by sex-starved male geeks have been elaborated in disturbingly exquisite detail, while less alluring matters often lie fallow. Nevertheless, according to University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein, Wikipedia is now cited four times more often than the Encyclopedia Britannica in US judicial decisions.

Moreover, Nature's 2005 evaluation of the two encyclopedias in terms of comparably developed scientific articles found that Wikipedia averaged four errors to the Britannica's three. That difference probably has been narrowed since then.

Wikipedia's boosters trumpet it as heralding the arrival of "Web 2.0." Whereas "Web 1.0" facilitated the storage and transmission of vast amounts of different kinds of information in cyberspace, "Web 2.0" supposedly renders the whole process interactive, removing the final frontier separating the transmitter and receiver of informa-tion. But we have been here before -- in fact, for most of human history.

The sharp divide between producers and consumers of knowledge began only about 300 years ago, when book printers secured royal protection for their trade in the face of piracy in a rapidly expanding literary market. The legacy of their success, copyright law, continues to impede attempts to render cyberspace a free marketplace of ideas. Before, there were fewer readers and writers, but they were the same people, and had relatively direct access to each other's work.

Indeed, a much smaller, slower and more fragmented version of the Wikipedia community came into existence with the rise of universities in 12th and 13th century Europe.

The large ornamental codices of the early Middle Ages gave way to portable "handbooks" designed for the lighter touch of a quill pen. However, the pages of these books continued to be made of animal hide, which could easily be written over. This often made it difficult to attribute authorship, because a text might consist of a copied lecture in which the copyist's comments were inserted and then perhaps altered as the book passed to other hands.

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