Re: "Who Says We Know: On The New Politics of Knowledge" By Larry Sanger

Jaron Lanier, George Dyson, Gloria Origgi, Charles Leadbeater


If social networking and Wiki media is the new religion, we need dissenters and atheists to challenge the new faith. Larry Sanger is making a macro argument about how society establishes "background knowledge" and a much more detailed critique of how Wikipedia works. I am not convinced by either argument but I am grateful to Sanger for making the challenge.

Take Sanger's macro argument first.

Society has "background" knowledge which is well established and provides the framework for how we understand the world. In the past background knowledge was established by an elite, from priests to publishers. We are entering a new era in which background knowledge will be created through a more open, egalitarian and democratic process enabled by Web 2.0 and its successors. One risk Sanger raises in passing—echoing Cass Sunstein in Infotopia is that Web 2.0 might fragment common platform of background knowledge. But his main focus is on the current best example of "democratic" background knowledge creation—Wikipedia—which he says is deeply flawed because it treats all contributors as equals and fails to accord a proper role to experts. So the risk is that as a society we may become dependent on a way of establishing background knowledge that is more egalitarian but less accurate.

I am not convinced by this argument. Leave aside whether this claim is true for all societies—India, China, Iran—or just the developed liberal democracies. And leave aside whether the account of history is correct: many would argue that elite control over society's background knowledge has been subject to growing contest for at least the last two centuries. That contest is now taking on new forms thanks to the Web.

For Sanger's apocalyptic scenario to be correct there would have to be a new way of establishing society's background knowledge that will displace competing methods, leaving us in the grip of a new, flawed, monopoly provider of background knowledge—Wikipedia—writ large.

But that is not what's happening. Instead of displacing other sources, Web 2.0 seems to be adding to them, complementing them. As readers and researchers we now have a wider array of sources to choose from and compare. And by comparing them we may become more discerning, critical and engaged readers, learning to distinguish what can be trusted from which source. Wider information sources could make us more critically engaged citizens, more used to thinking for ourselves, a point Yochai Benkler makes powerfully in The Wealth of Networks.

Let me give you a very trivial example. Every morning I scavenge for news about Arsenal football club (soccer to American readers) which has its home round the corner from mine in north London. Ten years ago my sources were confined to the two newspapers I got delivered at home which carried about one report on Arsenal every two days, written by an "expert" football reporter. When the web came along the official site started to provide lots of useful additional information about upcoming fixtures accompanied by bland match reports and player interviews.

Then five years ago a slightly crazed, sometime drunk, often witty and very passionate Dublin based Arsenal fan started Arseblog which each day provides a daily round up of the news in all the newspapers, on and offline editions, including papers in France and Spain where many Arsenal players come from, as well as linking to all the other—fifteen plus—decent blogs about Arsenal.

In Sanger's nightmare scenario Arseblog would became a monopoly, displacing all other sources of news and comment about the club. That would clearly not be ideal. Sometimes the blogger in chief goes awol. Arseblog works only by drawing on and aggregating other sources from the expert to the amateur.

But Arseblog is not going to become a monopoly provider of news a bout Arsenal. Instead what we have is a much richer information ecology, in which there is a good deal of collaboration—Arseblog feeds on experts in the newspapers but also directs readers to them—as well as competition.

As Sanger puts it: "I think most us want mainstream expert opinion stated clearly and accurately; but we don't want to ignore minority and popular views, either, precisely because we know that experts are sometimes wrong, even systematically wrong. We want well-agree factors to be stated as such, but beyond that, we want to be able to consider the whole dialectical enchilada, so that we can make up our own minds for ourselves." Well that seems to be exactly what the emerging, richer media ecology provides.

So it Sanger's macro argument fails because Wikipedia is not displacing but diversifying our sources of information, that leave his much more detailed, micro critique of how Wikipedia functions.

I am no expert on Wikipedia but I did not find this convincing either. Sanger does not clearly establish that Wikipedia regularly makes serious mistakes that experts would have avoided.  He says Wikipedia would be better if experts had a special role but does not specify how this might work. At one point he seems to suggest the real problem with Wikipedia is not lack of expertise but a lack of independence and  diversity among contributors.

Even if Sanger is right that Wikipedia is flawed, reforming Wikipedia is not the only option. The richer information ecology created by Web 2.0 should allow a variety of alternatives to Wikipedia, such as Citizendium,  to emerge which mix experts and amateurs in different ways on different topics.

Wikipedia—and its current process—does not represent a new monopoly provider of society's background knowledge. Wikipedia part of the developing "dialectical enchilada" that Sanger says we all want.


Why reputation matters

I like the idea of epistemic egalitarianism that underlies the Wikipedia project. But, as an epistemologist interested in the impact of Internet on knowledge, I won't bet on epistemic egalitarianism as a stable outcome of Web 2.0. So I share Larry Sanger's scepticism about the equation between Equality=Truth. The Web is not only a powerful reservoir of all sort of labelled and unlabelled information, but it is also a powerful reputational tool that introduces ranks, rating systems, weights and biases in the landscape of knowledge. Systems as different as the PageRank algorithm in Google-based on the idea that a link from page A to page B is a vote from A to B and the weight of this vote depends on who A is—and the reputational system that underlies eBay, are powerful epistemic tools insofar as they not only provide information and connect people, but sort people and information according to scales of value. Even in this information-dense world, knowledge without evaluation would be a sad desert landscape in which people would be stunned in front of an enormous and mute mass of information, as Bouvard et Pécuchet, the two heroes of Flaubert's famous novel, who decided to retire and to go through every known discipline without, in the end, being able to learn anything.

Here is my modest epistemological prediction: The more knowledge grows on Wikipedia or other similar tools on the Web, the more crucial the mastery of reputational cues about the quality of information will become. An introduction of tools for measuring"credentials" seems thus the most natural development of such a system. But of course we may disagree on what counts as "credentials" for expertise. And here I would like to invoke a parallel notion to that of epistemic egalitarianism so cherished by the Wikipedia community, that is, the notion of epistemic responsibility. What counts as a credential, how credible is the reputation of an expert, is something we may be able to rationally measure by handling in an appropriate way the huge amount of indirect criteria, reputational mechanisms and recommendation tools available today inside and outside the Web. An epistemically responsible subject is someone who is able to navigate the immense corpus of knowledge made available by the Web by using the appropriate reputational tools, as a competent connoisseur of French wine is not one who has drunk the largest number of different bottles of wine, but someone who is able to make sense of labels, appellations, regions, names of grapes and also who is able to discriminate the advice of experts and charlatans. So, if credentials are academic titles, a responsible epistemic subject should check the institutions that have delivered these titles, or check whether the holder of 15 different degrees and awards has a citation rate higher than 5 in the ISI Web of Knowledge. I can also compare the past records with the credibility gained "on the spot": someone's holding three PhD in the best American universities who write inconsistencies tells me something on these three prestigious institutions.

An efficient knowledge system like Wikipedia inevitably will grow by generating a variety of evaluative tools: that its how culture grows, how traditions are created. What is a cultural tradition? A labelling systems of insiders and outsiders, of who stays on and who is lost in the magma of the past. The good news is that in the Web era this inevitable evaluation is made through new, collective tools that challenge the received views and develop and improve an innovative and democratic way of selection of knowledge. But there's no escape from the creation of a "canonical"—even if tentative and rapidly evolving—corpus of knowledge.

GEORGE DYSON [4.24.07]

How did I come to know what I know about the world and myself? What ought I to know? What would I like to know that I don't know? If I want to know about this or that, where can I get the clearest, best and latest information? And where did these other people about me get their ideas about things, which are sometimes so different from mine? — H.G. Wells

"The day when an energetic journalist could gather together a few star contributors and a miscellany of compilers of very uneven quality to scribble him special articles, often tainted with propaganda and advertisement, and call it an Encyclopaedia, is past."

So proclaimed H. G. Wells, to the Royal Institution of Great Britain, on November 20th, 1936. With darkness descending across Europe, Wells called for "a World Encyclopaedia... carefully assembled with the approval of outstanding authorities in each subject... alive and growing and changing continually under revision, extension and replacement from the original thinkers in the world."

"How did I come to know what I know about the world and myself?" asked Wells. "What ought I to know? What would I like to know that I don't know? If I want to know about this or that, where can I get the clearest, best and latest information? And where did these other people about me get their ideas about things, which are sometimes so different from mine?"

Wells foresaw (70 years ahead of Web 2.0) that "the whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual" and urged us to build a "universal organization and clarification of knowledge and ideas... a World Brain which will... have at once the concentration of a craniate animal and the diffused vitality of an amoeba."

But the wisdom of crowds did not look promising in 1936. Wells's World Encyclopedia—more Citizendium than Wikipedia—would be governed by an editorial board, with experts at the helm. Non-specialists need not apply. "In a burning hotel or cast away on a desert island they [non-specialists ] would probably do quite as well. And yet collectively they would be ill-informed."

Gresham's Law (see Wikipedia) holds that bad money drives out good. Wales's Law (that's Jimmy Wales, founder—or is it co-founder—of Wikipedia) holds that bad information will be driven out by good. But we have ample evidence of the reverse. Wikipedia or Citizendium? Wells or Wales? The difference is in the metadata—and the meta-metadata that determines who has expertise over expertise. Endless regress, or an asymptotic approach to the limits of truth?

"Ten years ago I started a company based on the assumption that people are basically good," announced E-Bay founder Pierre Omidyar in 2004. "And now I have the data to prove it." Anyone who has been defrauded on E-Bay is entitled to disagree. But, overall, the evidence from E-Bay is that most people will deal fairly. Yet a few will always cheat. So it is with Truth.

The Wikipedia community seeks equality and truth. Can they make this work? Many see evidence of failure. I see evidence that it could work. The current ailments are ones that better layers of metadata—attributions, references, and differentiation of facts from beliefs—could largely cure.

It is not just what we know that's important, it is what we don't. We not only need an encyclopedia of knowledge, we need an encyclopedia of ignorance, too. If our ignorance is not mislabeled, cataloging it in one place can be a useful tool.

"We are still too close to the beginning of the universe to be certain about its death," wrote J. D. Bernal in 1929. And we are too close to the beginning of Wikipedia (and Citizendium) to determine which—if either—is the path to truth.

JARON LANIER [4.22.07]

He's charitable in characterizing his opponents as "egalitarian." By way of analogy, a clunky communist economy that makes everyone equally poor is not egalitarian in any admirable way, and neither is a sloppy information architecture that gives everyone equal access to creating and receiving mediocre information.

My problem with the Wikipedia was not primarily with the questions of expertise or accuracy when I wrote "Digital Maoism." Instead I was worried about the reduced expectations people seemed to have of themselves in the context of "Web 2.0." Why tweak a wiki or add data to some other conglomerate site when you now have the ability to really write and be read? Why choose to become part of an anonymous mush when you can finally be known?

Since I wrote the essay, I have paid more attention to the question of quality on the Wikipedia, and I must say, it is worse than I thought based on my earlier experience. In the areas where I have detailed knowledge, such as regarding certain obscure musical instruments, the Wikipedia is not just unreliable but unreliable in an insidious way.

Entries are often just askew enough to screw someone up who might be trying to appreciate a recording better, or trying to get the background on an exotic instrument seen on stage. The Wikipedia has found a way to efficiently enable the fallacy of specious accuracy in text. (This fallacy used to be more familiar in the domain of numbers.) Numerous mistakes occur below the threshold of detail found in conventional encyclopedias or online sources, so are hard to check, making "edit wars" excruciating. But at the same time the Wikipedia is made to appear vast and authoritative.

Another way to make the same point: The value of a good summary article is in the choice of what details to leave out. The Wikipedia is useless in this regard.

I know, I know, why don't I just go in to try to fix the problem entries I come upon? Because when you do that you have to engage in the aforementioned edit wars with anonymous people who are typically headstrong and have more time than I do to fight (but not enough time to do sufficiently thorough independent research, it seems.)

Well, ok, I just looked up one instrument (chosen at random by spinning a bottle in my instrument room); the not-at-all-obscure Chinese mouth organ "Sheng." As of this evening, the entry is typical for the Wikipedia. There is plenty of circumstantially selected, impressively detailed information, including names of some Europeans who brought shengs to the West in the 1700s and so on. But the overall effect is misleading. The emphasis is random.

For instance, the models and tunings of shengs listed are relevant in some recent contexts (when there have been Chinese instrument factories innovating to serve a modern and somewhat Western-influenced movement of music education and performance) but even within that framework, the details are hardly complete. The hot news among my Sheng-playing friends in the last few years has been the amazing innovation in models like the Hong Liang Zhao 38 key gaoyin, which are changing ideas about what can be played on the instrument.

An online exposition of modern keyed shengs ought to at least mention that the sheng world is caught up right now in a period of rapid transformation. Much more importantly, the very long history of the sheng, which includes many forms, tunings, and earlier influences on the West (going back to classical times) is not even suggested.

Of course once a Wikipedia inadequacy gets publicized, like the charming but incorrect claim that I'm a filmmaker, it gets fixed right away. It's like when a politician publicly helps a needy family now and then in front of the cameras, while leaving millions of other invisible families without health insurance. At some point you want to stop feeding such a politician families to use for publicity—and I feel the same way about trying to get faulty Wikipedia entries fixed by publicizing them.

For me, though, there is a more profound problem, and in this case my concerns are not entirely addressed by Sanger's project: Why recreate something which already exists, like an encyclopedia, when there are opportunities to create profoundly new things, like virtual simulations of the world, such as the Mirror Worlds proposed by David Gelernter? The same question can be asked about the open software community's obsessions with such things as UNIX and browsers. Maybe the human spirit isn't quite expansive enough to be revolutionary in the creative sense and the economic sense at the same time.

If there is a choice to be made, I am with Sanger. Economics and politics are only means to an end, so they shouldn't be prioritized over deeper, more beautiful stuff.

Return to Larry Sanger's Who Says We Know: On The New Politics of Knowledge"