personal, ruminations, world

The Mandarins

A few days ago I created a new text document on my desktop–the way I almost always jot down notes when I’m at the computer–and titled it “the mandarins” and put this inside:

I used to believe that the world was controlled by extraordinary individuals who were somehow different than people like me. I’ve come to realize that the world is filled with extraordinary individuals like me and run by no one.

As with all seemingly-profound insights I have, I quickly realized its flaws. The most glaring to me is how hollow this sentiment is in an authoritarian state. Perhaps those leading a state, Burma for example, are no more exceptional than their citizens but they are clearly and unquestionably running things.

The same can be asserted, to varying degrees, in all countries which currently exist. Perhaps George Bush doesn’t run the world, but it’s hard to deny that he could make life profoundly uncomfortable for almost anyone anywhere in the world should he be so compelled.

Though the idea fails to be easily reconciled to political reality, I don’t really think it was intended as a treatise on modern political realities. Much more so it was a way I viewed the world and average people (read: those that aren’t able to readily command large militaries).

Part of this is likely an outgrowth of the cultural zeitgeist. Like never before, previously average people can become knowledgeable, credible, and important experts on any topic. Perez Hilton, even if his expertise is incredibly trivial, does represent something of new paradigm. So does Wikipedia.

I also think it’s true that that text document represents a second end of parental infallibility. It’s a well-known and widely-understood stage of development: the revelation that your parents don’t know everything, can’t fix everything. This realization is similar. It’s the realization the much revered purveyors of culture and knowledge aren’t infallible and impossibly knowledgeable. They regularly make errors just like everyone else.

In this way, the document perhaps serves as visceral proof of my naivete. I’m okay with that possibility. I’ve known academically for some time that presidents can and frequently do make mistakes. So do CEOs, journalists, and academics. But the intellectual understanding of a fact is very different from active awareness of it.

Mostly I think the document was feeble attempt to convey one of my strongest conviction–which is perhaps both naive and mundane–that we’re all essentially the same. For a while this was my magic bullet, perhaps it still is. Somehow I was (and still am) convinced that if every person in the world understood this fact–viscerally not intellectually–we’d all live much better lives.

Maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe I’m right. Maybe I’m naive to think that we’re really all the same. Maybe it’s naive to think that everyone in the world could ever come to that realization. But as I said yesterday, naive and hopeless causes are my favorite kind.


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.