The opposite of what I think

I’ve got to get a move-on here because I’ve got to clean up after our faux Mardi Gras party we had last night (pictures and a post about that later). But I wanted to post something about the last couple weeks of wiki-centric stuff around here, culminating in a couple lectures featuring Larry Sanger and Marshall Poe.

Just to back up a bit:

Marshall Poe is the McAndless visiting scholar at EMU this year. This is an endowment that was set up many years ago to bring in various visiting professors for a term; a couple years ago, this is how we got Scott McCloud to be on campus and do so much stuff with our classes. Poe’s approach has been to bring in others, presumably the people that he worked with/interviewed for his forthcoming book on Wikipedia, to come in and give talks and such. There are a couple more scheduled through the term.

This week, it was Sanger, who spoke along with Poe Thursday night and Friday morning at this little symposium thing we had here. Basically, Sanger spoke mostly about his new project, Citizendium, which he sees as a sort of anecdote to the anarchy and chaos of Wikipedia, a place where articles are written by people who use their real names and are then vetted by real experts, and a place where everyone has discussions in professional and polite tones.

I have to say there are few things that Sanger said that I agree with.

One of the things that framed my own preconceived notions about Sanger was Poe’s Atlantic Monthly article, “The Hive,” which is a history of Wikipedia. In the story, Sanger is depicted as a guy who came up with much of what was Wikipedia (at least in the early days), who was victimized by/a participant in some ugly flame-wars, and who was more or less tossed out of the Wikipedia universe just as it started taking off. So I knew that he had reasons to be bitter and defensive. But the extent to which this came across in his two speeches was rather striking. Sanger seems like a pretty angry guy.

I don’t think Wikipedia (or YouTube or Digg, both of which Sanger and Poe mentioned frequently) are as chaotic and lawless as they suggest, and it seems to me that model of many eyeballs has served Wikipedia surprisingly well in terms of it accuracy. Citizendium (and btw, an unsolicited piece of advice: change the name to something that folks can easily pronounce) aims to be a better online encyclopedia, but even if that were possible, why? What’s the goal? All encyclopedias– Britannica, Wikipedia, Citizendium– are, by definition, summaries which are inevitably “watered down,” which frequently gloss over controversial details, and which are often enough wrong. I encourage my students to use Wikipedia as a place to get started, though I don’t allow them to reference it as a source in an academic research project. But I wouldn’t allow them to reference Britannica or Citizendium either. So even if Sanger is making a better mousetrap/encyclopedia (and that’s an “if,” of course), it’s difficult for me to understand the point.

In the end, I think what was most interesting about Sanger’s speeches and point of view is that it is so very very different from mine and, as far as I can tell, most of my colleagues. Sanger is a Philosopher with a capital P and out of the same mold as Plato. He’s an academic (of a sort) who, based on his training and world view, has no problem at all with an epistemology that assumes Neutrality is possible, that Knowledge is “out there” and, that the goal of philosophy is to objectively approach and understand that Knowledge. The best way to get to that Knowledge is to ask a Philosopher, which is someone who has Wisdom (and, in these days, Credentials) and can thus provide the answer.

Rhetoric has traditionally been described as the opposite of Philosophy, and given that Sanger and I (and probably most of my colleagues in the English department) begin with completely different world views about what (K)knowledge is and how we get there, I just don’t get where he’s coming from at all. Sanger would probably feel the same way about me.

At some point on Thursday night, Sanger made one of those “off-the-cuff” comments that really has stuck with me: he said he imagined Citizendium as being kind of like those old county fairs, where article writers would be like the farmers presenting their wares and the academic experts would be like the judges picking the winners. Well, this– and the call for politeness and decorum and order that came up again and again– just struck me as nostalgia. And like most things that are based on nostalgia– the genre of the western, for example– it is a longing for a more perfect past that never actually existed in the first place. In that sense, I think that Citizendium is a beautiful and futile dream.

8 thoughts on “The opposite of what I think”

  1. A passel of corrections:

    On CZ, everyone, not just real experts, can “vet” articles. Experts can approve articles; perhaps that’s what you meant by “vet.”

    I do see CZ in part as an antidote to the bad elements of anarchy and chaos online (including Wikipedia), while retaining the positive “creative chaos” of any bottom-up, open community. But it is much more than that; our project is not well defined as an “antidote” to anything other than, perhaps, sheer ignorance.

    Marshall’s narrative about my time on Wikipedia was rather simplistic. If you want a more colorful, fuller account, read my own memoir, which appeared on Slashdot. I’m not sure I am an “angry guy,” or at least, not angrier than most. I have rarely been accused of being terribly an angry person, anyway. You might prefer that I be an angry and hence irrational person, because that would make me easier to dismiss. Sorry to disappoint. :-)

    What’s the point of encyclopedias? That’s a puzzling question; use your imagination. Reference works have various uses, don’t they? Would it have a point only if you could allow your students to cite it? Why assume that?

    Friend, speaking as philosopher to rhetorician, let me assure you that you know absolutely nothing about what I think of philosophy, neutrality, or knowledge. Suffice it to say that Plato is one of my least favorite philosophers, though I love Socrates.

    The comparison of CZ to a county fair, and things like expert review and politeness, cannot seriously dismissed as “nostalgia.” That’s just silly. Academia itself takes its own review processes and dialectical decorum very seriously: you wouldn’t say it’s “nostalgic” to describe such processes and decorum, would you? Anyway, if you spent time on CZ, you would recognize (perhaps only grudgingly) that we do indeed have in fact what you dismiss as “nostalgia.” If it’s a dream, we’re livin’ the dream! :-)

  2. I don’t want to belabor this Larry, but your comment here is kind an example of what I mean. You’re not trying to engage me in conversation; you’re trying to “correct” me. This doesn’t surprise me since this is what I think you were trying to do for the most part when you were on campus, “correcting” various folks asking you questions rather than engaging in dialog.

    Despite that, I thought I’d comment on some of what you are saying here.

    I think the internet in general and tools/sites like google and wikipedia in particular have made general knowledge encyclopedias more or less obsolete. My parents used to have an encyclopedia set, and I remember when I was a kid, 30 or more years ago and long before I was messing with the Internets, looking stuff up in there I was curious about. Look up “Elephant,” and there’s the entry on elephants– at least some general information. Now, I look up “Elephant” online, and I get my general info from all kinds of different sites, including wikipedia and CZ, and I can find both general and much more specific and much more current information.

    So while I suppose it’s worthwhile to strive to make something like CZ as accurate or as good or whatever as possible, it seems to me like you’re trying to invent a better mousetrap when the current mousetrap seems to work pretty darn good. Or, taking the view that all general interest encyclopedias are inherently cannot be truly viable/always reliable/authoritative, it seems to me that CV is trying to be a better fast food mean than wikipedia. I am not sure that’s necessary.

    As for the county fair thing: that’s a comparison that you made, not me, and, intentional or not, I took your comparison as an image of a past that really didn’t exist. That’s nostalgia.

    If you think that academic publishing is always a process full of dialectical decorum and without arguments, politics, bad feelings, and even “flames:” well, then I can say that you have never been the victim of a particularly nasty blind review, you have not been included/excluded from a book collection based on a personal relationship rather than the merit of the work, you have not argued about the inclusion of a point in an article with an editor, you have not been that editor who has had to have that argument with a writer, and you have not been on a tenure and promotion committee that wondered if a colleague’s work actually constituted “real scholarship” or not. I have literally seen or been in all of these different spots over the last 15 or so years. I think it’s fair to say that academic decorum generally limits/prevents the “potty mouth” and “I know you are, but what am I?” sort of conversations that often appear on Wikipedia. But the academic review process is far from pure, believe me.

    And the academic review process and what constitutes an academic publication has been under question for some time now. I’ve published about this in a couple of different places/forums. I think that Poe’s effort at self-publishing many years ago now was a good example of that. The online peer review going on with Grand Text Auto is a good example of that. In short, I think folks interested in things like media studies, composition, culture studies, etc., are pursuing a lot of different ways of publishing that’s different from the old school process.

  3. Steve, it sounds to me like, basically, you don’t want the Citizendium to work–even if it does work, and even if it results in something more useful and more reliable than Wikipedia. Is that about the size of it? Join the club. There are many people, some no doubt with po-motivations, who just hate the very idea of CZ. Rather, they hate their caricature of CZ, which is almost always wrong in essentials. I think this is because they are committed radical epistemic egalitarians (, and they think that any Web 2.0 project that makes any special role for experts is for that reason anathema.

    I agree with you that traditional encyclopedias are mostly replaced by the Internet–especially Wikipedia, and in a few years, CZ. Why not build a better mousetrap? If CZ can’t aspire to more than “better fast food”–which I think deeply underestimates our potential–why not better fast food, then?

    As to the county fair/nostalgia thing, I’m sorry, but this is silly. I used the metaphor, but I did not advert to “nostalgia”–you did. And I disagree. I went to a county fair last fall and saw lots of people having fun and generally behaving themselves well. I’m sure I’ll go to many more in the years to come. Calling it “nostalgia” is a lame attempt to sidestep the necessity of an argument. The implied conclusion is that CZ represents failed methods of the past. But it does not; if you think it does, sorry, you are simply uninformed about what our methods even are.

    As to your criticisms of me not “engaging in conversation”–you’re just whistling dixie. If posting words that directly respond to you isn’t conversation, then what is? Moreover, I announced what I was doing was correcting you–because you got a long wrong, which you did. Then you said “that’s wrong”–and then proceeded to do much the same thing yourself, as far as I can tell. This meta-discussion is unnecessary. But then, as a rhetorician, you must love this, so don’t let me stop you. ;-)

  4. Not much time for a response to this for now, but three things:

    * I wish everyone associated with CZ the best of luck, but now I’m kind of puzzled: if CZ is all about radical epistemic egalitarianism, then what is Wikipedia? I suppose you explain this in this essay that I don’t have time to read now….

    * I think CZ is “nostalgia” in the sense that the film genre of “the Western” is about “nostalgia” because it is recalling a past that never existed. I think the basic goal of CZ as I understand it– to get to a document is “more true” through a process that has “more decorum” — is in this sense nostalgic.

    * Here’s an interesting link about “soft peer review,” which has come up in a couple of things I’ve read lately about “open source” peer review:

    I haven’t had a chance to read this yet either….

  5. My syntax must not have been clear enough. I’m not saying that CZ is committed to radical epistemic egalitarianism, but its critics (who also often seem to think Wikipedia can do no wrong) often are.

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