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...


Jon Awbrey said...

Thanks for this hilarious bit of "Cult Fiction". When you get ready to deal with the reality of what goes on in Wikipedia, instead or recycling their e-soteric religious tracts as quasi-journalism, please be invited to visit the good folks at The Wikipedia Review.

Said Kassem Hamideh said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Said Kassem Hamideh said...

As far as the empirical side of things goes, Mr. Awbrey (by the way, are you the famous banned sockpuppet abuser, John Awbrey?), you don't know what I know about Wikipedia. When my findings come out, however, you may need to comb through three years of talk page deliberations from a particular article on the Israeli Palestinian conflict before responding back.

Jon Awbrey said...

Thank you for the preview of coming attractions. That makes for a more thrilling overture than all the pretty bubbles one can blow in the air — and though I would be the last to choose between Mozart and Beethoven I think that the age of the former has passed when comes to the Wikipedia song and dance.

I can only hope that your probing of the facts in future will dig a bit deeper into the truth than your continuing echo of the Wikipediot hymnal has so far foreshadowed.

Moulton said...

The characters in a drama each speak in their own voice, from their own idiosyncratic perspective. In general, no single character speaks in the voice of the playwright. Rather the play itself speaks in the voice of the playwright.

Said Kassem Hamideh said...

By the way John Awbrey, do you have a way of communicating that is less "flamebait"-ish?

If my thesis appears to be wallowing at the surface of things from the start, it is only because I am attempting to set up "the problem" in way that your average reader could understand by explaining what the NPOV rule aims to do. Unless you back up your insults with what would be your first substantive comment to me about my own work, I don't think that talking about NPOV ideals as a naive journalistic ethic is a waste of space. You have to understand that as long as meta-Wikipedians continue to talk about how to resolve longstanding edit wars between ideological antagonists, looking into NPOV theory remains a useful venture.

Jon Awbrey said...

Goodness Gracious, perhaps someday you will realize that the only things that might have been insulting about my appreciations here were the kid gloves that I put on so as to be on my best beehivior in someone else's parler [sic].

I was giving you all the benefit of the doubt that I could on account of the fact that a person would quite naturally begin with a more elevated tone in the first few chords of introduction, but a few notes of anticipatory realism would not be entirely out of place, even if at the cost of a minor dischord or three.

As for substance, all in good time — but elsewhere — as this space is too cramped and not my usual box.

Said Kassem Hamideh said...

Moulton, I agree with you if what you are saying is that the end product Wiki text has a distinct, collective voice of its own that cannot be reduced to the sum of its individual contributors.

Complex Event Processing said...

Utopia, in the Greek, has a literal meaning of both "good place" and "no place." Found a funny [citation needed] in the first paragraph of the "Criticism and Influences" section of the Wikipedia article on "Logical Positivism."


The 27 December, 2006 Wikipedia entry on "Modern Times" included the passage:

'Modern Times' was one of the last silent films made, although it does include sound effects, music, singers, and voices coming from radios and loudspeakers.