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...

1 comment:

Joseph Reagle said...

Hi Said, to the extent that I understand the text -- critical lit type prose always prompts insecurity about their incomprehension, e.g. I'm unfamiliar with the term "perspectival" -- it sounds you'll be engaging particular types of collaborative interaction. You touch on the issues of distinguishing between the motivation of the contributors, the process of interaction, and the aesthetics of the consequent content, are all of these within the scope of your study? If so, how will you be relating these variables, and to what extent are your three types of knowledge (refined, interlocked, fuzzy) specific to one of these variables?

Unfortunately, it does not appear to be easy to find, but I mentioned how Levina attempted to define different types of knowledge production, as you can see in the references to her here: