Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Wikipedia and the Fragmented Mirror of Nature

Unlike many previous attempts at capturing some truth about the world, Wikipedia has elected to not impose a prejudicial barrier barring non-elites from joining the process of creating knowledge fit for an encyclopedia. Despite this drastic novelty, Wikipedia presents itself as nothing more than a traditional encyclopedic project, made to create a repository of verifiable, reference knowledge for the betterment of global, civil society. While the sphere of those who can contribute has changed in profound ways, Wikipedia operates on a fundamental principle that, in the end, no matter how many people or views inform the knowledge-creation process, there rests only one version of reality for everyone to attain.

Various Wikipedia writing guidelines suggest that particular viewpoints are limited versions of something much larger, a knowledge transcendent to all biases and blindspots, one that could embody knowledge from all perceivable angles and instantiations:

"...we can agree to present each of the significant views fairly and not assert any one of them as correct. That is what makes an article 'unbiased' or 'neutral' in the sense presented here. To write from a neutral point of view, one presents controversial views without asserting them...Disputes are characterized in Wikipedia; they are not re-enacted."
Many sociologists of knowledge have referred to this attitude as "the view from nowhere". For Wikipedia, this means an aspiration to divesting the most recent version of an article, as much as possible, from any one angle or perspective of a represented reality. This is not to say, however, that Wikipedia's designers do think it's actually possible to achieve neutrality:
"If there is anything possibly contentious about the policy along these lines, it is the implication that it is possible to describe disputes in such a way that all the major participants will agree that their views are presented sympathetically and comprehensively. Whether this is possible is an empirical question, not a philosophical one."
The author(s) of this guideline seem to be suggesting that neutrality is something that is, if not achievable, at least potentially workable, as if perfection stood at the end of a linear progression from blind, to aware, and finally, to all-seeing.

So when a backlog of unreconciled writing gets bigger and polarizes more and more Wikipedian users, the authors of the guideline assume, then, that people aren't yet ready or mature enough to embark on the Wikipedian mission intended to produce the holy grail to which all Wikipedian collaboration aims for: "the featured article": these are articles deemed by a committee to have met certain writing criteria. Neutrality is one those criteria, yet not a single featured article related to government or politics, that is worth fighting over, has ever made it to the prestigious list.

Empirically speaking, then, Wikipedia is not patching up the great ideological fissures that divide up the world's ideologues, and neutral writing strategies are failing to guide ideological antagonists towards a common place: one which includes, synthesizes, integrates, accommodates and is sensitive to the social situatedness of knowledge artifacts.

In this first section, my goal is to explicate the philosophical incompatibility that exists between Wikipedia's strategy for prescribing writing styles that effect a sense of total awareness (i.e. journalistic notions of objectivity) and an encyclopedic space that is structurally designed to produce monadic representations of reality.

Encyclopedias: structurally inhospitable environments for objective writing

There are many reasons why news media outlets, the original purveyors of disinterested description, are continually able to produce so-called "objective," written accounts of reality. Although this is quickly changing, a news report's purported truth doesn't disintegrate from the prolonged scrutiny of one hundred critical voices the way it can inside Wikipedia. To look at it quantitatively, the less heterogenic and populous the editorial environment, the less time it takes for a textual product to pass the vetting process. A news artefact can assert its own objectivity in the absence of dissenting views from individuals occupying elevated positions in the contemporary public sphere (this will change to the extent that bloggers will continue to acquire attention and respect). In short, the less consciousnesses inhabiting the same space, the less likely a particular impression of reality will encounter its challenge.

But more significantly, the content delivered through an encyclopedia article symbolizes something different than the knowledge claims carried in periodicals. The symbolic difference boils down to the fact that periodicals are "snap shots" of reality whereas encyclopedias are the exact opposite -- they are supposed to withstand the test of universal consensus accumulated over time.

This constraint relates back to the historical function encyclopedias had as tools of reference and introductory learning. Whereas encyclopedias attempt to cover the "aboutness" of a particular thing or phenomenon, a news report concentrates on immediate events that, by virtue of its sharp focus, won't need to address related or contextual information in much depth. Burdened with the ambitious task of integrating and structuring information into a holistic corpus of "human understanding", the information carried within an encyclopedia would be defined just as much by its relationship to other phenomena. In other words, while it may be possible to understand what something "is" by reading a news account, it is only until someone reads about it in an encyclopedia that they can get the sense of what something "is not". Naturally, this adds an additional burden to the task of encyclopedic representation since it would make sense that an integrated/structured/comprehensive picture of the world would be harder to achieve than fleeting snapshots and news reports that relate with/exchange less clearly to adjacent phenomena.

Yet a greater reason exists for why an all-encompassing, transcendent reality remains elusive to the encyclopedic project. The culprit lies in the encyclopedia's ambitious attempt to consolidate reality, by cataloguing it, taming it -- reducing it, from a vast, fluid and multi-perspectival phenomenon. The target is a distilled product, formatted to package information in a way that is topical, segmented, thematic, interlinked, chronological, linear, discursively coherent, consistent in tone and style, etc.


What makes Wikipedia the encyclopedia of its age is the almost militant desire to force the conceptual coherence of knowledge products on a global stage. If the Internet cut its globalized audience some slack by allowing ideas to co-exist under a loosely hyper-linked galaxy of documents, than Wikipedia asked from everyone the unthinkable: mass collaboration under claustrophobic conditions.


Encyclopedic initiatives point to an attempt by a group of individuals to corral a sea of information into a manageable textual body: an article. By tackling concepts and phenomena that mean many things to many people, the enyclopedia is responsible for capturing via description the polyvalency of its subject. In practice this might involve creating an article on the history of political violence related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The encyclopedist, as the Wikipedist, would believe it possible to create a a definitive account of this topic, no matter how volatile or centripetal the social forces may be that threaten to unravel the body of text into a thousand different ideological strands.

Lying underneath every encyclopedic operation is the act of filtering out information for a distilled knowledge product. There are many methods of arriving to an information-condensed account, be it through excision, elision, grafting, blending and other such acts of reduction.

The second operation is to introduce a structure and order to knowledge.


In Wikipedia this difficulty is demonstrated as competing editors disagree over how to arrange and organize certain facts in relation to others. How facts end up getting arranged will, in turn, have an effect on the way they are perceived in terms of significance and importance. This is not to say that in journalism, the structuring of information is trivial. To the contrary, a newspaper's pyramidal structure, with its headline and lead paragraph, can do much to determine the significance to a story's various facts. The issue is simply more pronounced and problematic in Wikipedia, where various communities will attempt to manipulate knowledge outcomes by the way articles are structured and named.

Circumventing Neutrality: loopholes at all levels

Loopholes in the encyclopedic structure

1.Incompatible ontology-knowledge categorization schemes
2.Proliferated/redundant nomenclature (titles/headers) and information (article body)
3.Proportional uncertainty of empirical content
4.Narrative options
5.Discursive chains of significance

to be continued...

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Global outcomes for politically volatile knowledge

"In the multiplicity of writing, everything is to be disentangled..."
-- Roland Barthes, 1977, The Death of the Author

Pictured above: a visual scheme of the epistemic threading that forms a Wikipedia knowledge product. Technologies such as Wikipedia that open up to globally diverse communities of knowledge producers can simultaneously achieve different textual forms out of the same knowledge body :

Refined Knowledge

Interlocked Knowledge

Fuzzy Knowledge

As a many-to-many, global network of Wikipedians add volume and dialogical rigor to the processes involved in representing the realities we consume as knowledge, it will become increasingly unsatisfying to read what provincial knowledge producers (monologuers) have to claim about socially and politically shared realities. Knowledges of mutual interest to multiple communities will increasingly be held to new standards and production processes in a public domain of kaleidoscopically diverse thinkers.

Much discussion has brewed from a desire to harness the "intelligence of masses" and to cross-pollinate our intellectual products with a wide-ranging perspectival, but as of yet there has been scant research observing the state of change affecting bodies of text currently being edited, blended, stitched, dissected or massaged on a daily basis by a new corps of global producers. As products fit for consumption, that the quality and accuracy of knowledge products have fared so well relative to Encyclopedia Brittanica is a promising sign from which to build upon.

Yet much that has been said about the textual products yielded from this wide-reaching collaboration has been negative, citing a tasteless prose that lacks the distinctness and authority of the individual's voice. Others have observed that parts of Wikipedia knowledge exhibit a tendency to be factualist, presentist, unprofessional and, overall, lacking the synthesizing abilities and literary flair in accounts written by well-regarded scholars. But why do these collaborative texts result in the ways observed? So far, no compelling explanations have been offered.

This essay proposes that there are three fundamental actions that will determine the form, style and character of politically volatile knowledge in a collision space of culturally divergent producers.

The main premise of my argument is that it does not suffice to raise issue with surface observations about form and style of Wikipedia textual products without discussing the underlying processes at the same time, which is what most commentators and researchers have thus far only succeeded in doing. This would be akin to seeing the colorful clash of sediment and rock in the Grand Canyon with a tour guide that won't explain the science behind the colors and shapes.

Process #1: refining epistemology

To refine, above many other attributes, means to selectively reduce, to narrow. It is a concept intimately tied to the scientific process which gathers multiple, competing theorems for the end purpose of eliminating all but the strongest of them. It is an impulse that runs deeply within the tradition of Western scholarly inquiry dating back to the days of Aristotle. Formal deductive logic, dialectics and agonistic reasoning are some among the many processes which have names all sharing a similar theme in spirit.

Refining actions are the plainest and most evident processes observable in any Wikipedia entry. WikiMedia software which enables Wikipedians to edit any part of of the text in question, makes it easy for users to isolate particular segments of text, essentially creating the laboratory-like conditions of the observer-analyst. In addition, because any contribution is vulnerable to change by anyone else, individuals must rely on communicated persuasion through reasoning to preserve contributions they believe should stay. If by definition knowledge is to be refined, than this means that there is a will to identify the candidate contributions for deletion, usually arrived at by first comparing two or more competing contributions and weighing their relative strengths and weaknesses vis a vis the other. The contribution deemed superior rises, the inferior is replaced.

It is not just strictly empirical/factual content that is easily refined in Wikipedia. Words, ideas, narratives and ontological categories of knowledge become fair game. Wikipedians are constantly reviewing contributions that mutually exclude each other and deciding as a group to banish that candidate contribution with the weaker justification.

In this sense, knowledge refinement fits perfectly into a collective intelligence theory which posits that given enough problem solvers, all imperfections can eventually be fixed ("given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow"). As of late 2007, we have no studies to suggest what percentage of Wikipedians feel that the primary motivation for editing is to distill for knowledge purity through a collective intelligence vetting process.

process #2: Interlocking epistemology

If interlocked knowledge can be proven to be a primary method of knowledge production, than this would do much to explain all the robust user activity surrounding representations of political and social realities, or what I will refer to from hereon as the politically volatile. After all, once a full description of an apolitical entry (say the history of the medieval garden plow) has been constructed, editors move elsewhere and the article stabilizes. Much more labor and intellectual energy must be spent in the deliberative spaces behind sectors of Wikipedia devoted to social knowledge. How much space Wikipedians decide to allocate within G.W. Bush's biography to his alleged cocaine abuse is very much the kind of question that is difficult to resolve with a refining action since different cultures will subscribe to their own preferred allotments of irreverent presidential knowledge.

Thus, the idea behind interlocked knowledge is that no global consensus for social knowledge can be achieved if it does not attempt to integrate in some fashion from the multiplicity of fragmented representational value systems. The key premise under this paradigm of knowledge construction is that true social knowledge is a product of intellectual negotiation via the interweaving of idea-concepts into Wikipedia knowledge products. This method is an expression, essentially, of the social constructionist theory of knowledge. Any Wikipedian working under this modus operandi, is not necessarily averse to knowledge refining actions. A social constructionist Wikipedian has no pre-constructed notion of what the eventual knowledge product must look like. Rather this type of user believes that the quality of the knowledge will reflect the processes that gave rise to it (i.e. determined by variables such as cultural make-up of a particular entries' user demographics and structure of the knowledge production space). Perhaps Wikipedia is an experimental space, like a crystal ball, where individual hope to test their limited view against a exalted form of consciousness, in this case, a body of thinkers synergized by the effects of collective co-construction.

It is much more likely, however, that politically volatile knowledge attracts intellectual antagonists who attempt to inflect knowledge products with a particular world view. The resulting consequence of multiple agents exerting a force onto a text is an inadvertent change to the textual product over time. In cognitive semantics, a creative conceptual blend caused by divergent, oftentimes clashing inputs is called a "double-scope blend."

In Wikipedia the metaphor of interlocked threading differs from a refined thread, since one strand of thread does not supress the other one. There is not pointed end to the interlocked thread metaphor, no refined point of truth at the tip. What we have with interlocked knowledge is a simple conceptual blend of two or more separate strands of thinking, interwoven for better or worse in a textual bind.

process #3: Fuzzy Knowledge

Another outcome entirely for massively authored writing projects could be the end of genealogically traceable encyclopedic representations. Whereas with interlocked knowledge the origins of the knowledge are somewhat traceable to a few users' blended inputs over time; with fuzzy knowledge, the many users' inputs are so vast, amalgamated and heteroglossic that the visible seamlines of difference within the text are smoothened out, no longer appearing as a patchwork of variegated segments.

At a later stage in this paper, I will demonstrate how massively authored texts can yield information-rich and shapeless bodies of text. Facts are orphaned from their parent narratives. Knowledge synthesis soon becomes impossible as there is little social agreement over how to embody and codify raw information into a coherent structure we can call knowledge. Without little refinement and blending processes in the works, uncontrolled fuzziness can lead to an unabated information glut. The information quantity no matter its vastness is observed, even reviewed and commented on, but no mechanism exists to digest or distribute information into its proper ontological resting place. When we have fuzzy knowledge, in essence, there is no floodgate in place to prevent a sea of voices from washing away the narrative structure.

Disorganization can exist at the foundation level as well. Take for instance an age old epistemological method used to organize raw information for the purposes of meaning construction: the knowledge topic; magnets of raw information, topics appear as headers, organized alphabetically from A-Z. In traditional knowledge spaces, facts tend to obey a few, non-contradictory journeys towards the support of larger categories. Since it has been argued that categories are essentially arguments in themselves, what happens when in Wikipedia we see no limit to how many categories and topics can be created? If two people cannot agree on what a fact means within the context of one article, the other person will simply design a friendlier atmosphere for the disputed fact by way of reframing the host topic. Readers under these kinds of fuzzy knowledge conditions may experience a read that is confusing, pointless or incoherent.

Given certain characteristics in textual features of politically volatile articles in Wikipedia that are analyzed later in this study, we must ponder whether Wiki collaboration is the technical realization of Roland Barthe's vision of a text that is decentred and liberated from particular voices and other situated collective consciousnesses. What may look like a long, amorphous and unelegant biography to historian Roy Rosenzweig, may actually be a text freed from the tyranny of authorial narrative.

In a strongly worded criticism of Wikipedia's textual quality, critic Jaron Lanier writes "reading a Wikipedia entry is like reading the bible closely. There are faint traces of the voices of various anonymous authors and editors, though it is impossible to be sure". Lanier, preoccupied by the threat to mono-authored literature, seems to fixate on an aesthetic critique, never once pondering how how semantic forms in the text may have shifted/mutated as a result of a many-to-many encounter.

Wikipedia's investment in objective encyclopedic representations

To believe in semantic changes afoot as a result of a globalized encounter between diverse knowledge producers is to be skeptical of Wikipedia's core belief in universally objective representations of reality achievable through its Neutral Point of View writing policy.

to be continued...