Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Net Reduction or a Net Expansion: on the outcome for representations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Wikipedia

1.1 Introduction

We know that change in the multiplicity of knowledges is inevitable as the boundaries of epistemic production become porous enabling the interaction of culturally bound conceptual systems. This study is concerned with the extensional meaning of knowledge representations that interact in a textual sphere accommodating multiple discursive systems. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is amenable to this analysis since concepts involved in its representation tend to resist a universal format that everyone can agree on. Yet Wikipedia lets very little get in the way of its need to forge a picture of reality, no matter how improbable the chances. Currently the disparate narratives, images and stories of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Wikipedia have been forced to meld, or at the very least, be "stitched together incoherently like a Frankstein monster". To date there is nothing coming close to a study on the outcome of politically volatile or conflicted knowledges that are forced into coherence as a universal representation.

One key discussion in particular keeps this paper grounded in the theories of contemporary knowledge production (hereon: "KP") online. It is a discussion of the residual effects exhibited in universalized knowledge after it is dissected, played with and restructured as a result of this special type of dialogic production process which will be explicated in the theoretical section. This study was motivated by my desire to discover new and singular effects imposed on knowledge artefacts by collaboration technologies that faciliate unprecedented types of participant configurations. This study, by focusing on Wikipedia, will interrogate what I identify to be dual forces in the future direction of knowledge. On the one hand I note the transcendentalist vision which strives for a knowledge that can be produced and consumed in a universally consistent manner. The opposite kind of thinking encourages the factoring in of bottom-up perspectives and culturally contingent knowledge categories that push to extend, color and texture the character of reality's representations.

This study focuses on Wikipedia in hopes of inspiring a series of investigations into other technologies (semantic web, Flickr, blogosphere, tagging, social bookmarking, Google) where an exciting and novel form of dialogic interaction plays a critical role in the production of knowledge. In specific, I am concerned with this theoretical polarity of knowledge production: namely, epistemological actions that usurp, reduce and constrain the meaning of concepts (dialectical epistemology) versus those actions that loosen, extend and deepen (exclectical epistemology).

A separate series could focus on other qualitative attributes of knowledge change in Wikipedia that are not confined to spatial metaphors. This study, however, shall focus on the ability for knowledge to expand or shrink in conceptual capacity as a consequence of the interactive spaces relied upon at Wikipedia. In doing so, I will examine the spaces of knowledge production that deal in mutually exclusive decisions, e.g. the politically volatile. The focus is on one article that tackles highly controversial representational constructs belonging to a Wikipedia articled titled "Zionist Terrorism". This provides a way to determine whether humans are successfully expanding the conceptual boundaries for a type of knowledge that inhabits antagonistic, winner-takes-all settings.

First, an explication on the main concepts:

1.2 The conceptual capacity of knowledge

The conceptual capacity of knowledge refers to the spaces hosting particular concepts. Capacity, in this sense, refers to the accommodation of more than one signification system operating within a particular textual space. A common clash of signifying systems would attempt to depict the same Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but both would do so in way that supports different, larger ideological propositions about that reality. A common example of this is the pro-Palestinian "human rights" discourse that competes with the Pro-Israeli "national security" discourse for explicative power. In narrating what may have happened during an event, both may be referring to the same thing, but the "facts" comprising the event will be selected and handled differently in a way that suggests a larger representational reality.

As far as the individual concept-words go, the more semantically determined a particular word is, the lower the chances are that it will be interpreted in different ways. Of course, this has everything to do with concepts and their relationship to a larger system of meaning. In spaces where it is difficult for just one coherent meaning system to semantically determine its constituent concept-parts, then one could say that the space has a higher conceptual capacity. Since the immediate and extensional meaning of a concept is ultimately determined by its relationship to other concepts co-habitating in the same text, then it is possible to disrupt a network of meaning-relations in a space that invites ideologically diverse participants to edit a text as they please. An extensional meaning is another way of saying the external shape and contour that comprises the scope of a definition or perspective. It is what demarcates what a meaning is and is not. As is the case with politically volatile knowledge, many concepts "float" around and do not have an obvious home or anchoring within one particular discursive system.1

Words or concepts with immediately contested definitions will be used in production spaces equipped with a high and low conceptual capacity. A single author polemic, for example, will handle semantically volatile concepts like "terrorism" in ways that do not allow its usage in that text to "run against the grain" of the author's main thesis in any way. The conceptual capacity of any space in a mono-authored book is low, since books, even digital ones, do not yet offer "edit buttons" that allow anyone to disrupt a linear sequence of text with contra-indicative content. In Wikipedia, the fact that a "discussion" page is built into every space for the collaborative co-construction of a knowledge article means that there is already a mechanism in place that anticipates the handling of polysemic terms. It's relatively easy access for many diverse participants to make additions, omissions and modifications to a text means that there will be multiple agendas wrestling for dominance within the space. Wikipedia spaces of production, in this sense, have the capacity needed to examine and manage a plurality of worldviews (these worldviews, that in turn, spawn discourses and other types of "sealed" symbolic systems).

Speaking beyond Wikipedia, it is understood that web 2.0 technologies are in the business of embedding knowledge objects with complex categories and therefore portend a liberating effect on semantic straightjackets. Much less discussed, however, is the possibility for a technology to dominate minority perspectives even when an online epistemic space is designed to achieve semantic-expansive effects. The same technology, in its attempt to open up the possibilities, has actually propagated and fossilized a semantic hegemony.



1.3 Semantic-expansive knowledge

Expansion, in this context, not only refers to the quantitative proliferation of data, but to the qualitative complexity and meaning-possibilities of knowledge. An expansion embraces a number unique sets of semantic or conceptual criteria promoted by multiple, often competing, knowledge communities. Expansion, within the purview of knowledge, however, has its limits. Too much information and knowledge ceases to become useful, meaningful even. “Semantic-expansive knowledge,” could be viewed as an oxymoron in that knowledge engages in the aggressive attempt at filtering information for the purposed of distilling a coherent product.

It is because of the ideological harmony of a group acting in concert that makes possible such wide divergences across epistemic communities that all try depicting the same phenomenon. Under conditions of forced dialogue that leads to the semantic-expansion of knowledge, it is possible for a crisis of coherence in the text to be unleashed which threatens to unravel or fragment the unity of a singular meaning (Bakhtin speaks of the "centrifugal forces" of language). Texts produced under monologic conditions are said to be held by a centripetal force, a Bakhtinian term denoting how all signifiers in the text are being pushed towards a central point by an underpinning ideology. Semantic expansion does not imply a necessary unraveling of the textual coherence, however, since it is possible and commonplace for an individual or a group acting in concert to expand on its own knowledge.

When antagonistic communities co-construct knowledge in a way that consistently deepens and extends the semantic possibilities, a univocal “signal” cease to be so readily discernible. What some might consider "cacophony," Mikhail Bakhtin coined "polyphony" to describe the multiplicity of different voice emanating from a single text. The text rather than function as a simple, one-way conduit of ideological thinking to its audience, has now turned inward on itself. The text has now become a space for the enactment of inter-group discursive battles in the struggle for a coherent and one-sided meaning-outcome.

Case in point, this thesis will investigate how an encyclopedic article wishing to catalogue and describe all acts of "terrorism" perpetrated by so-called "Zionist" or "Israeli" elements would generate intense friction after the attempt was made to expand the definition of Israeli acts of terrorism to include the 1972 massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon.2 Had the Wikipedia article only been written by "user: Guy Montag" and other users advocating positive images of Israel, there would have been no impetus to associate Israel with this historical event, even if it were to be done in a tangential manner. In subsequent discussions, they would maintain that there was not sufficient evidence directly implicating the Israeli government in this massacre, and, therefore, to even mention it, would be considered biased. There was never even supposed to be an article carved out to isolate any phenomenon that would require a title containing the words "Israel" and "acts of violence" in it.

The article originally titled "Israeli Terrorism" was, in fact, initiated by "user: Mustafaa" who was distressed by what he viewed as a disproportionate catalaguing of Palestinian acts ot "terrorism". The Israeli Terrorism article, would at least, in his mind, hold Wikipedia accountable for nurturing a consistent and thorough application of the "terrorism" concept in all its potential instantiations. After all, it had been pointed out that many potential systematic irregularities are a reflection of Wikipedia's predominantly anglo-Western base. This would belong, in Mustafaa's mind, to another effort at regulating bias by expanding definitions to accomodate a plurality of meanings, in this case, a definition that did not limit the "terrorism" nomenclature to non-state actors of political violence.3

Wikipedia keeps a careful log of all discussions used to make editorial decisions about any encyclopedia article. What can be read below is an excerpted transcript of the debate to expand the Israeli Terrorism article to incorporate the Sabra and Shatila massacre:

19:28, 14 Jun 2005 (UTC)

However, I'm not fine with the removal of Sabra and Shatila, a longstanding part of this article with support from three of four people who have voiced opinions on this page. Let's restore the status quo ante - Mustafaa

23:03 14 Jun 2005 (UTC)

Absolutely not. You have not proven that this was a direct Israeli action. - Guy Montag

23:11, 14 Jun 2005 (UTC)

I have not argued that this was a "direct" Israeli action, nor has anyone else. You have not explained why its being "direct" is relevant. - Mustafaa

23:44, 14 Jun 2005 (UTC)

Because you don't list actions of Lebanese Phalangists under something entitled Israeli terrorism. You can't hold Israel responsible for the acts of it's allies. It's just as simple as that. Everyone is responsible for their own actions. Note that the article already explains fairly well why this is generally considered and indirect Israeli action: so why are you including it? The simple question is this. Did the IDF go into the camps and do the killing? The answer is no. So it doesn't belong,. It belongs in the Lebanese Civil War article, not here. - Guy Montag


It is at this point that Mustafaa imports a quote from a supporting source:

23:16, 14 Jun 2005 (UTC)

"The Israelis surrounded the camps and sent the Phalangists into the camps to clear out PLO fighters, and provided the Phalangists with support including flares, food, and ammunition. An Israeli investigation found a number of officials (including the Defense Minister of that time, Ariel Sharon) "indirectly responsible" for not preventing the killings..." - Mustafaa

23:46, 14 Jun 2005 (UTC)

Alright, as long as it is mentioned that direct responsibility lies with the Phalangists, I can live with it. - Guy Montag


Within Guy Montag's sentiment, "I can live with it," lies the crux of globalized epistemology. In Wikipedia, knowledge expansion seems to be powered by the very heat and friction that arises from this kind of dialogic interaction where one side must learn to "live with" intellectual inputs that are foreign to the group. It is obvious that Mustafaa was "writing against the grain" of any understanding Guy Montag would rely upon.4 To Guy Montag, the inclusion of the Sabra and Shatila anecdote does not advance the cause of what he imagines to be a neutral article on "Israeli Terrorism" (an article whose existence he believes is not justified). Nevertheless, Guy Montag's adversarial function plays just as important a role as Mustafaa (who set the agenda for expansion this time) in the resulting addition of the Sabra and Shatila segment. This particular friction fomented between the Guy Montag-Mustafaa axis, in fact, has been responsible the co-construction of various representations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in various iterations as an expansive or reductive version of itself (depending on how the community chose to make all the pieces fit together).

What to make of these growth phases? In science, it is considered proper methodological form to derive propositions and research conclusions out of large samples of information. With encyclopedic knowledge, it is no different; it is a better use of refining actions to start with a lot of data, than to refine something that is already refined from the outset. At the very least, the chances of yielding something unexpected are greater in the former scenario.

From a semantic perspective, however, the expansion of meaning doesn't necessarily carry the same positive connotations. Jaron Lanier, in a well real article, criticized Wikipedia prose for its lack of a discernible voice which he says prevents him from accessing the "full meaning" of a text. "Reading a Wikipedia entry," he says, "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."5 Indeed, tracing a line of thought or narrative path throughout a Wikipedia text can be a daunting task. It is in the fecundity of complex, multi-layered, and difficult-to-navigate knowledges , however, that so many people gain an opportunity to test out their talents at editing, snipping, excising, stripping and modifying their way to a reality of their choosing.


An alternative paradigm of knowledge, based in postsructuralist thought, however, repudiates Lanier's implicit yearning for stable, singular and "full meanings". In this paradigm, language is inadequate in its ability to precisely encapsulate meanings of events and phenomena (above all when experientially shared across different groups). It is in this paradigm that the singularity of knowledge is rejected since representations of reality are always situated and destined to fragment into a multiplicity of perspectives.

Had Lanier read the article on "Israeli terrorism", he may have not necessarily detected anything bizzare in the mention of the massacre at Sabra and Shatila massacres (in the latest version that qualified who was directly and indirectly involved in it). Chances are, however, that the article lacked a certain crescendo leading to the gratification of a crystal clear narrative or coherent story. What we have in this article, because of both sides exerting pressures against the other, are more facts to handle, the facts that have been often been needled through, to just barely get accepted in. If anything, what Lanier has witnessed is an act of collaborative exclectics. It is the attempt by several people to put their minds "around" an expansive reality by teasing out the fullest meanings from concepts that operate on a wide spectrum of diverse subjectivities.

1.4 Dialogic interaction and growth cycles in knowledge

Predicated on a many-to-many network of communication, social media are inherently dialogic in the sense that knowledge is co-constructed between users who, institutionally-speaking, are for the most part theoretically equals in the participation process. This study asks whether the increase in dialogic activity leads, in effect, to richer information sets that factor into the production of knowledge. In Wikipedia, dialogic interaction translates into a scenario where user A imports perspective X into the interactive space of knowledge-production while user B imports perspective Y. At a certain point in time, and depending on the interactive space that structures utterances between the two users, the event would process a richer set of information than it would have had with one less user. The process will have it, nevertheless, that knowledge cannot simply deepen in semantic complexity as users add input. There are two principal epistemological actions that explain how a group of knowledge producers come to make decisions regarding all new inputs. The first is called "agonistic reasoning", or put simply, "argumentation." In this model, competing or mutually-exclusive ideas are counterposed in the hopes of offering a comparative view, thereby giving participants in the deliberation process a better informed method of weighing the individual merits of each side. Decisions in favor of one side will come, to whatever degree, at the expense of the inferior, competing idea. This type of epistemology has been associated with the sifting and winnowing of ideas -- an act of data reduction from a surface-level view. In the realm of ideas, it is still possible, however, that the refinement of a knowledge product arising out of argumentation would actually yield semantically richer data since, in the process, the surviving knowledge has historically interacted or "conversed" with losing inputs. Thus, the semantic complexity of a refined argument hinges on the ability for the reader (or more likely, the researcher) to trace its latent genealogy. The common experience is that the average reader will not go to this extreme measure of tracing the intellectual genealogy of an article. In this situation, a line of reasoning that loses out in the agonistic reasoning process never resurfaces and, thus, the moratorium for that strand of thought is a certain one.

Dialogue, in its alternative goal, however, is an attempt at interweaving conceptually different inputs or "negotiating" meaning in way that automatically factors all the inputs into the outcome. It is an epistemic action related to constructivism that presumes a reality which does not exist outside of a human's ability to conceive it. While this paradigm is still controversial in its application within the emprical sciences, it has gained widespread influence in the qualitative study of media and representation systems. It so happens that this second connotation of "dialogue" is to be associated with the semantic-expansive effects of knowledge since any new input will, in theory, increase the number of perspectives built into any representational construct, without invalidating the competing perspectives.


1.5 Interwoven strands of individuated thought and reasoning (Habermasian win-loss model) or collective mind (irreducible conceptual blends, similiar to Benhabib's universal particularism)? (Ferrero's collective agency class)

2.1 Hypothesis

H1: What explains attributes of Wikipedia knowledge outcomes better: exclectically conceived (loose, fuzzy, indeterminate) end-product or a dialectically conceived (refined, specific, narrowed, determined) end-product?

H2: Does this knowledge resemble a Habermasian vision of a communicative ethic or a Benhabibian vision?


3.1 Theoretical Justification

4.1 Research problem/methodology section

One way to measure the degree of exclecticity vs. dialecticity is to measure how determined the textual components are. I can do a discourse analysis of certain lexemes. I can do a narrative analysis to see if the text lends itself to coherent narratives or if it does the opposite, dilute the narratives (with what i call narrative fuzziness).

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Joseph Reagle said...

My colleague Biella Coleman is also fond of Bakhtin.
http://gabriellacoleman.org/blog/?p=1230