In Defense of Wikipedia

For those not following closely, it’s probably news that Wikipedia’s management structure–Wikipedia has a management structure?–is being critiqued because of what The Register, an online technology newspaper, said was new evidence that “the site’s top administrators are using a secret insider mailing list to crackdown on perceived threats to their power.” You can read all the details elsewhere, because this piece has nothing to do with the encyclopedia’s politics–however full of secrecy and intrigue–and everything to do with its usefulness.

People have denigrated Wikipedia from the beginning. First, they couldn’t believe anyone but well-groomed academicians could write about anything. Then they were sure that it was too easy to deface it with baldfaced lies. Now–though those earlier critiques are still regularly heard–people say that teachers–and especially the infallable “college professors” docks points for citing it. None of these critiques are completely unfounded, but all of them are insufficient to mean that society should abandon Wikipedia as a valuable and free encyclopedia.

Most of the trouble people have with Wikipedia is that they misunderstand how traditional encyclopedias are written. Britannica or World Book are written by a diverse and geographically-distant team of writers. Surely they aren’t “amateurs,” after all they’re paid by the encyclopedia they write for, but they’re hardly universally recognized experts in the field about which they write.

Wikipedia, like these, is written by people who know enough about a topic to explain its basics, but aren’t spending their time learning every possible detail. This is the fundamental reason that the third critique I cited falls flat. Every college professor, and potentially every high school teacher, should forbid their students from ever citing an encyclopedia. They’re great introductions to a given topic, but are terrible at exposing the complexity and nuance of things.

But this is no more a flaw with Wikipedia as it is with World Book, Britannica, or a common dictionary. Every resource that aims to be comprehensive must necessarily also be brief. Anyone who’s seen one of the dozens of biographies of Abraham Lincoln knows that Wikipedia’s article contains far less information. But so does every other encyclopedia.

To the complaint of vandalism and inaccuracies, I find it hard to say that they’re any more numerous than those found in any other encyclopedias. Without going into the detail–which I admittedly don’t know–Wikipedia’s mandarins do a fairly solid job of assuring that any blatant vandalism is both removed, and the perpetrating account put on watch. General inaccuracies are a problems that only the most expert people in a field can assure are never made. This doesn’t mean that Wikipedia is free of errors, but at least one study by the science journal Nature (BBC article, Nature‘s is behind a paywall) found the number of errors on Wikipedia to be comparable with traditional encyclopedias.

I would never categorize Wikipedia as a “repository of all knowledge” or a “perfect source of truth” but failing to reach these unrealistic standards is hardly a reason to condemn it. It is a great step toward the democratization of knowledge–even if its writing can sometimes be muddled and difficult–and that can’t be a bad thing. I don’t think anyone but encyclopedia publishers yearns for the days when a working man would buy Britannica one volume at a time so that his children could have access to an encyclopedia’s knowledge. Today all he needs is an internet connection–which isn’t free, but is much more affordable than Britannica was–and he can get as much or more knowledge than Britannica ever offered.

big ideas, politics, world

Africa, Development, and Bono

man fishingSome headlines scream so loud something so shocking that you can’t ignore them. “Africans to Bono: ‘For God’s Sake Please Stop‘” from The American is just such a headline.

I’ll admit that at first I thought ‘this must be a joke.’ But upon closer examination, it’s a reasonable argument made rather convincingly by it’s purveyors and the article’s author (and blogger), Jennifer Brea.

The essential argument is not that Africans universally undervalue the role of outside aid in jump-starting development. Rather, they argue that what they want is development, not innumerable checks for solving immediate problems.

Aid is not useless, but its not the path toward a rich and sustainable future. If Africa’s only form of foreign “investment” comes from money being dumped into the continent to feed hungry children, prevent malaria, and build modest infrastructure, little true and self-driven development can occur. There is a need to investment in local companies, to develop industries that create jobs and products that can be sold both locally and around the world.

Aid in its current form can disempower both governments and their citizens, making governance easy by allowing it to do nothing, or even allowing it to work against its citizens’ best interest. As Ms. Brea says, the current modality of aid “seems to deny Africans a role as agents of their own transformation. We [outsiders] can save Darfur. We can save Africans from disease. We can even save Africans from themselves. Africa can be saved if we just try hard enough.”
Not only are certain problems endemic to the way in which aid systems currently function, but much of the means to itself are disempowering.

Aid is often pleaded for, rarely by Africans themselves, by portraying the continent as a helpless and wild continent unable to do anything to enrich or help itself. As you can no doubt guess, even if these images of the distended bellies of hungry children covered is flies is based on reality, it undercuts the appearance of progress on the continent.

It is also fundamentally disempowering to a continent and people that are trying hard to find a new and novel way toward their own future.

For closing words, Ms. Brea:

Aid can alleviate immediate misery and that is why we love it. Charity is a profoundly human response to all those images that pull on our heartstrings. But all evidence points to the maddening conclusion that, in the long run, aid not only has no positive effect on economic growth, it may even undermine it.

The only way Africa will develop and create wealth is if it can attract foreign capital and trade its goods on the world market like every other economically successful country does.

But investors are jittery. And considering what we think we know about Africa, who would blame them?

Branding Africa as barbaric and hopeless or glamorous and chic may sell magazines and get us to open our purse strings once in awhile. But neither myth is true or useful.

Here’s a radical idea: if we really want to help, why not ask Africans, not their governments, how they perceive the challenges before them, the dreams they have for the future, and the resources they think they need to realize them?

Instead, we let a well-intentioned Irish rock star, a Jewish-American economist, and their Hollywood cohort become the voice and face of Africa.

And in the process, the story of the other Africa, the Africa that is dynamic, creative, and wants to work as a partner and the leader of its own future, is being drowned out by the clarion cry of the anti-poverty glitteratiand our own appetites for gripping, salacious headlines of war, poverty, and grief.