The Marketplace of Ideas Online – good or bad?

July 17, 2006

Is having multiple anonymous editors on projects such as Wikipedia or having say, anonymous blogs or “myspace” pages a good or bad thing? What does it actually say about the changing ways in which humans interact, access and interpret information? I’ve only just had a chance now to listen to the Philosopher’s Zone from last week with Jaron Lanier talking about why Wikipedia and similar projects are actually a bad idea.

Lanier’s thesis seems to be that it is dangerous to rely on the “Collective” averaging out all points of view and then coming to a sort of “truth” about certain subjects. He thinks that in the case of projects like Wikipedia, the expertise factor of individuals is lost to the averaging out of the collective and we are all the worse for it. I agree with him up to a certain point, but I think his reaction may be a little too knee-jerk also. I must admit that Wikipedia and projects like it, whilst being far from perfect, do excite me. I like the idea of having multiple contributors and points of view competing to complete an entry of information. Really, just because the “mob” has access to it, does this mean that the quality of the information is going to be less? Afterall, what of the competition of academics over the last few centuries trying to get their articles into the Encyclopedia Britannica? Is that not the same issue? What if one academic got to write the article on say consciousness over another with a different view of what consciousness is. Britannica has always been taken as an authority as far as Encyclopedias go. So really, the academic with one view on consciousness has always won out over the other academic with a different view of consciousness in their battle to be the authoritative author of the consciousness article in Britannica.

Wikipedia is just an expanded version of this competition and marketplace of ideas. I think Wikipedia far outstrips Britannica in this regard though because at least you can access the “talk page” for each article and you can see the decision making process in regard to the information that ends up in each article. Of course, the wiki process is definitely not perfect, but who has ever claimed that it is? It’s yet another evolved form of information access and communication to have been borne out of the internet.

I also think that Lanier doesn’t give the reader or the consumer of this information enough credit. When I visit Wikipedia, which I do probably several times a week, my critical thought process goes into overdrive. I am fully aware of what I am accessing and the potential inaccuracies, fabrications or any other nasties that it may contain. Coincidentally, this is the same thought process I use when I read books or the newspaper though and I suspect that many other people have a similar thought process when interacting in the marketplace of ideas, whether they’re online or not. Surely this is a good thing.


One comment

  1. aaah! very interesting! makes me feel better cause i was sad to see that there are so much stupid people who don’t realy use their brain to think..
    the question ” is it in human nature to destroy themselves?” is really difficult to answer, and i think too that there are as much different people as different points of view.. (sorry my english is kind of strange cause i’m from france)

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