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.

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