Thursday, March 27, 2008

Beyond knowledge production: Wikipedia as cognosphere

(disclaimer: this blog posting is intended to be read similarly to a wiki article; it is a work-in-progress. I must turn this blog post into Master's thesis that I can defend by August 2008)

As with most literature on web 2.0 technology, words like “open source", "crowdsourcing" and “mass collaboration” are conceptually committed to industry and organizational management needs as well as product improvements. In a web 2.0 world that works right, communities of software engineers pool thought in order to debug problems and accelerate the pace of innovation; likewise, information workers in any venue can reap rewards from the way that these technologies effectively facilitate the distribution of labor. It is because web 2.0 technologies are seen as superior organizational tools, authors and critics tend to understand their function and impact through the narrow lens of producerism. Thus, you will find that these tools are evaluated for their ability to somehow improve the accuracy, profitability or usefulness of some research project (i.e. product refinement). It is no surprise, then, that an emphasis in the arena of Wikipedia research concentrates on questions of information credibility and usability.1

In a different paradigm of inquiry, however, these same technologies exist as something more than the internet's version of the product assembly line. The overlooked process is one where internet tools work like a bridge allowing different parts of the world to see and speak to each other. Wikipedia is to globalization what the corpus callosum is between the left and right brain hemispheres, a constant coordinator of disparate information that will, in turn, be sent out for higher-level processing.

Synthesis of separated elements, especially knowledge synthesis, in a collaboration age, is the production motif relevant to today's online projects. This should be contrasted to the closed-door intellectual exchanges between the information working elites of yesteryear. Such a comparison is done to examine the effects of dialogic thinking within online epistemic communities. With web 2.0 technologies the argument is that an online space will at least ground its production process in a wider, more pluralistic human perspective.

[expand on the idea of knowledge production 2.0 here. key words: refinement. symbiosis. dialectics. exlectics]

Writing Dump

Digitizing movements has become the first step necessary in the massive hauling of textual artefacts left by our predecessors to a new theatre. Accelerating the movement is Google as it continues to physically capture untold terabytes of printed knowledge that existed prior to the birth of its digital empire. A sea of old, dusty books await a new existence as potential nodes of a larger network. Metadata such as tags, RSS feeds, comments, and social bookmarks offer the potential to breathe life into texts that had no way of circulating and attracting the same type of attention in the physical world. While it is still unclear how exactly raw printed materials will be digested by mass internet communities, one thing is clear: fresh online output now grows from an informational base that is deeper and richer than ever before.

For Wikipedia, the exemplar for this new paradigm of content production, the job from the outset was to import a pre-constructed universe of knowledge, piecemeal fashion, into its collaborative encyclopedic format. Out of all the web 2.0 movements, it is currently the only one significantly supplanting, interrupting, or competing head-to-head with texts (books, reports, magazines, etc.) that are in the same business of distilling meaningful information about our known world. A less invasive version of Wikipedia might have limited the masses to commenting on the margins of authoritative texts. Instead, Wikipedia gave internet audiences prime textual real estate. This "encyclopedia" of our newly connected world also became the newest technology granting the public unprecedented managerial powers, instantly demoting authoritative sources to a function that was at most supportive or marginal.

Along with this newfound power, Wikipedians now assumed the burden of culling through a disorderly and contradictory repository of pre-existing texts through which they would collaboratively assemble realities of all kinds. One resulting consequence of collaborative production has been the explosion of knowledge articles covering everything from the mundane to the absurd. With Wikipedia viewing itself as a project to become the world's largest and best encyclopedia, activity and the deliberations backing it, appear purposeful and consensual, even with the full understanding that editors are often weighing their ideas against each other as is done in the scientific process (agonistic reasoning).

, much the way that NASA's search for extra-terrestrials included having users at home share some of their computer's processing power to crunch numbers.

Residing in the most socially sensitive areas in Wikipedia does one find

... could be summarized to the point of discernibility.

Writing Dump (please disregard everything below)

Observation of change in the shape and form of knowledge, supplemented by a history log which tracks every change made by anybody to an article, clue us into the key structures of knowledge that are vulnerable to re-negotiation. This thesis understands Wikipedia through a double lens which sees content being assembled as it is also torn down and re-structured.

This thesis sets out to observe areas of Wikipedia where distinct and novel textual outputs arise out of a dialogic interaction. By moving beyond the mainstream analytic framework of Wikipedia products, I no longer concern myself with evaluation criteria such as degrees of “good” or “bad”. With subtler evaluation criteria, at least an accounting can be made for the various textual shapes and colorings that result from diverse Wikipedians converging into globally central spaces of interaction. This would be to look into the internal composition and content of the “product” itself (the encyclopedic article), bearing in mind that the empty spaces where various editors imput thought is akin to a modern information-scape that is fluid and ever-changing. Behind every article is a collaborative work space, called the “talk page,” where, in correspondence with the editable article page itself, different systems of representation cohabitate, coalesce, blend or antagonize.

A Wikipedia article could be closed, “certified”, rendered into usable product. But that would just put a moratorium on underlying, dynamic processes that could play on indefinitely as more and more participants gain access to the Internet. These are the lesser understood consequences of a globally far-reaching dialogic interaction. It is a space that combines a multitude of culturally-sealed ideologies, discourses, grammars and concepts -- forcing encounters and collisions of an unprecedented scale.

This research arises out of a gap in the basic understanding of the Wikipedia's knowledge production process. A slew of questions don't wait for an explication of the process itself: Is Wikipedia more than just an encyclopedia? If so, what is it? How is global “knowledge” changing because of Wikipedia? How is human understanding being affected by dialogic interactions in Wikipedia? And finally, if we are to look at products, have we properly understood why and how usable texts are borne/evolve in this space? By focusing on socially controversial encyclopedic topics, I focus on areas of Wikipedia where diverse global inputs are most likely to compete and exchange. By doing so, perhaps a better measure can be used to understand how Wikipedia fares as a tool that meets the intellectual needs of the 21st century. Before embarking on an explication of knowledge production in Wikipedia, first, I offer a historical sketch of the pragmatic function encyclopedias served for the cognitive needs of societies that increasingly came into contact with each other.

The history of cognitive spheres and knowledge games

The encyclopedia has always done much more than simply serve as society's source for reference information. Ulterior agendas returned with a vengeance at the time of the Enlightenment, where elite men of letters strove to end the Church's stranglehold over truth in profound ways-- men such as Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d'Alembert who drastically restructured the shape, and therefore rhetoric, of the knowledge body. For one, they alphabetized all articles from A-Z, in a nod to the spirit of empirical rationalism. By ordering arbitrarily along the alphabet, the encyclopedists discarded with a metaphysical ordering of the universe.

As it usually went, knowledge systems were owned, controlled and operated by those in power. Oftentimes the most critical periods of transition between one major social or ideological system to the next related to how well certain ideological groups were able to interfere with a reigning knowledge system from within.

A method of a system's own survival entails the placement of gatekeepers that “certify” knowledge. Dictionaries and encyclopedias were one of these textual artefacts that helped to build a reality of record, preserving legitimized knowledge by pruning all linguistic and conceptual change arising from grassroots or extra-national forces. By controlling the epistemological means of production, elites would have liked to increase hegemonic powers, orienting and steering action, thought and behavior in the social realm.

With almost every encyclopedia project, one can find an individual or community with a system of thinking to promote, one that offered a way for societies to brand a set of abstract concepts and relations. The underlying power inherent in the task of mapping social realities is too great to ignore, and while many encyclopedists fit the historical label of the sincerely "curious" intellectual quite well, it is another thing all together to dismiss the powers associated information condensation, systematic excision, context stripping, and fixing dynamic phenomena into codified, digestible tracts. To systematize knowledge meant then what it means to today: the ability to superimpose a privileged conceptual map over what is a much denser and dynamic field of cognizable possibilities.

Encyclopedias are fitting to study as culturally-sealed systems of top-down thinking since the mode of knowledge production has always been historically centralized and exclusivist, its efforts usually attributed to elite textual communities or kings with political and ideological agendas. Encyclopedias could, at the very least, be seen as perfectly emblematic of a particular culture's official understanding of reality.

It is at this point that I would like to offer the metaphor of a gel capsule to explain the mobility and interaction of disparate ideas in the age of printed knowledge. Medicine in this capsular form is comprised of an admixture of pharmacologically-active granular agents held together by a gel encasing. The casing ensures that the pharmacological contents are delivered to its source with no chance of cross-contamination. In the context of the history of mass communications, certain technologies did to ideas and knowledge what gel capsules have done to pharmaceutical ingredients: ensuring the controlled diffusion of pre-formulated content.

Encyclopedias, in the context of this metaphor, are the ultimate gel capsule, packing a full admixture within the sturdiest gel encasing. Books, pahmphlets, handbills, plays, and social spaces of deliberation and gossip, of course, function similarly in that they encase processed content that is eventually diffused. The more hands are able to meddle into the "admixture" -- meaning, the degree of access individuals have in determining the outcome of the knowledge -- the less that particular medium resembles the traits of a gel capsule. In this sense books are efficient "capsules" since the the content within a book is assumed to be sufficiently settled so as to justify its closing page and hardcovers. It is the same with most print materials, which is tantamount, for economic and customary reasons, to closure of the case. The fact that a book's case can be reopened when two or more people gather at a coffee shop to weigh its ideas, proves that its "capsularity" is not absolute.

Encyclopedias are more insidious than print literature because they dealt with the business of first assumptions and primary concepts that are already naturalized in language and discourse thus making them more difficult to excavate for the purposes of critical inquiry.

This is to be contrasted with, say, the Tree of Cracow, the famous chestnut tree where numerous Parisians went to circulate gossip and news related to the tumultuous events leading to the French Revolution. This type of culture of oral communications could diffuse information as well, even if its effect was that singular knowledges, say emanating from the king or the pope, would then refract into a whirlwind of hearsay. At the same time, an actual space that allowed for deliberation was a space that facilitated listening and dialogue, allowed for the interpretation and re-processing of disparate information. Just imagine the people at the Tree of Cracow, opening and tampering with the gel capsule only to spill all its contents on the ground. The tree of Cracow did not operation in isolation, however. An explosion of books, pamphlets and newspapers in the last months of 1789 supplemented the grassroots rumblings, each medium doing its own job in propping up the spaces of thought and deliberation that would in turn capitulate the Old Regime and the Church.

[transition needed here]

It is also a given that a multiplicity of textual knowledge systems had to co-exist or compete with each other. In the case of Europe, it is clear that for the most part, knowledge flowed freely between capitals and countries, usually travelling along trade routes. Universal methodologies (via epistemological standards of the day) had it so that any philosophe from Madrid to Moscow could travel to Paris to collaborate in the processing of information into knowledge. The difference between knowledge systems, in Europe at least, could be less attributed to geographic difference than they could be to differences in school of thought: Humanists would compete with Scholastics and Enlightenment thinkers with the clergy. The intense hierarchy needed to achieve universal (european) knowledge implied that its processing would be by nature borderless (among what could be imagined as communities of reasonable men across Europe).

Yet cultural boundedness reveals itself better in instances of comparing knowledge systems separated by extreme geographic distance. European capitals functioned as epistemic centers that imported concepts brought in by voyagers to the far east, assimilating and adapting new concepts so that they could be absorbed into the larger knowledge body.

With particular reference tools being the semantic bedrock of particular localities, the globe, up until the age of the Internet, played host to a constellation of encyclopedias, each one projecting its own concept map of reality; each one colored uniquely enough to exhibit obvious disparities in the way nations chose to internally structure and semantically delimit representations of reality. In brief, the rise of national discourses made artificially intact and complete brought about the opportunity for conflicting encounters between massive meaning-systems, with cosmopolitan and border cities serving as the most likely agora or field where intellectual, discursive and linguistic currents would cross each other.

No comments: