Wikipedia: Kitsch Knowledge?
Eric Bugyis June 18, 2008 - 4:22pm
The June 7th issue of the Economist contains a very interesting article on the philosophy of Wikipedia founder, Jimmy Wales. In it, Wales describes his early interest in Ayn Rand's brand of hyper-individualistic capitalism, which understood reality as "fixed and objectively knowable." The article suggests that Wikipedia "seems to fit well with Rand's contention, elaborated more fully by libertarian thinkers such as Friedrich von Hayek, that decentralized markets work best because they are so much more efficient than centralized bureaucracies at digesting information." The article notes that, in this instance, the object of the market is knowledge rather than, say, the price of corn. Claims to efficiency aside, the question I found intriguing concerns whether the commodity won on Wikipedia's virtual capitalist battleground is in fact knowledge.The article reports, quoting Wales, "I think that reality exists and that it's knowable,' he says adding that Wikipedia aims not for truth with a capital T but for consensus. You go meta,' he says, meaning beyond' the disputes and to the underlying facts.... Through this process, says Mr. Wales, Wikipedia articles eventually reach a fairly steady state called the neutral point of view,' or NPOV.... Wikipedia resolves the postmodern dilemma of truth by ultimately relying on process,' says Gene Koo of Harvard Law School's Berkman Centre for Internet and Society. Its process is both open and transparent. The levers of power or not destroyed-Foucault taught us that this is impossible-but simply visible.' To which Mr. Wales responds, more simply, the NPOV is a way of saying: Thanks, but, um, please let's get back to work.'"What struck me about this is the fact that Koo seems to think Wales' pragmatism, which seeks to get "beyond" dispute for the sake of efficiency, can somehow be reconciled with Foucault's insight that knowledge is produced precisely in the breach of contestation. This is to say that conflicting views of "fact" are always already interlaced with power dynamics and other interests such that the "truth" of the matter must always be situated somewhere in a continuing discussion. For example, check out the entry on Roman Catholicism, does it capture the truth or the facts? Whose facts does it convey? It seems to me that what gives one cause to worry about Wikipedia is not that it contains potentially inaccurate information, but rather, that it suggests the illusion that "facts" can be offered irrespective of a point of view and that "reality" is one and the same with "consensus." Furthermore, it elides spirited discussion in favor of dispassionate forensics-the former being the real stuff of human inquiry and the latter a task any monkey could do.On that note, check out the website 1000000monkeys.com, which is premised on the old joke that a million monkeys on an indefinite typing spree could produce Shakespeare. Here we have literature being produced in the same Wiki-way. Is it art? Again, where is the conflict, the soul, the passion, the risk? In the end, I worry that when conflict becomes consensus, everything becomes kitsch.
About the Author
Eric Bugyis teaches Religious Studies in the Division of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs at the University of Washington Tacoma.