Wikipedia is the knowledge we have all agreed to agree is true.
When six years old, I remember my parents making a significant investment in a massive, twenty-five volume set of ‘World Book’ encyclopedias. I read them, from start to finish, and without question they helped make me the endlessly curious intellectual I remain more than a half a century later.
A child of six or seven intellectually resembles a sponge; in my case, absorbing a condensed snapshot of the entire corpus of human knowledge, circa 1968. Did I understand everything I read? Certainly not. I remember going to my father with the entry for ‘Santa Claus’, which marked down His Jolliness as a ‘mythical being’ – and led to a rather uncomfortable conversation. Yet exposure to the breadth of human knowledge opened my mind, and in more than one direction – not just science or art or nature or history, but all of it, all together.
This demythologising of the world, paired with a broadening of perspective, marked the encyclopedia as a dangerous and potentially ruinous innovation. Almost immediately upon publication in 1752, Denis Diderot’s massive, comprehensive Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers found itself stripped of its printing license. The Parliament of Paris banned its publication, believing that no good end could be served by the widespread dissemination of knowledge. Maîtresse-en-titre to Louis XV, Madam de Pompadour – who had liberally provided support for a project she saw as essential to the greatness of the nation – cleverly produced her copy at a dinner party attended by the King. “…the party was kept amused for the rest of the evening,” reports Nancy Mitford. Thereafter, the King permitted private owners of the Encyclopédie to keep their copies.
This demythologising of the world, paired with a broadening of perspective, marked the encyclopedia as a dangerous and potentially ruinous innovation.
Because they attempt to encompass everything, encyclopedias have always been massive and expensive to curate, print, and distribute. In the post-War era, parents like my own believed that the sacrifices they made to bring an encyclopedia into the home would pay off in a world where knowledge served as the handmaiden of achievement. But even after this partial democratisation of access, encyclopedias remained constrained by their inescapable physical mass. A comprehensive encyclopedia was in no way portable: you went to it, found what you needed, and went on with life.
At an event in 2002 celebrating the life and achievements of Douglas Engelbart – the frustrated and frustrating genius who invented much of modern computing, including the mouse, copy-and-pasting, hypertext and video conferencing (!) – someone whispered to me, “Have you heard of Wikipedia?”
I had not.
A comprehensive encyclopedia was in no way portable: you went to it, found what you needed, and went on with life.
In itself, that wasn’t surprising: at that point in time Wikipedia had only around 15,000 subject entries, similar to a single-volume encyclopedia for children. Interesting, enough to answer a few simple trivia questions, but not much more.
Yet behind the scenes a revolution as profound as that feared by the Parliament of Paris had already taken place. A small-but-dedicated crowd of ‘Wikipedians’ scoured the world for knowledge they could pour into the online encyclopedia, including, crucially, the out-of-copyright 1903 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica. This gave Wikipedia a broad and deep foundation for Wikipedians to build upon – and offer the world.
As soon as Wikipedia became ‘good enough’ to settle a debate or answer a casual question, it engendered a virtuous cycle of content editing and creation. Someone would search Wikipedia for something, and either add or modify what they found based on their own knowledge of the subject. Wikipedia tapped the implicit expert within all of us, and this touched the heart of the matter. A tradition of experts and institutions which ring-fenced their expertise could not easily encompass a new world view, where ‘the power of numbers’ could rival any individual or institutional capacities. There be dragons, they argued – or worse, chaos.
Wikipedia shows us that the democracy of knowledge – of separating fact from convenient fiction – is not about any specific end product, but about the process which creates it.
Anyone reasonably plugged into mid-21st century civilisation knows that the line between fact and ‘truthiness’ resembles trench warfare: endless, fruitless, and with neither an observable exit nor any achievable goals. Today, we regard all sources of truth with some degree of trepidation – except Wikipedia. Although it represents a very particular and didactic way to represent what we know, we trust it. This is less because it ‘looks’ like an encyclopedia, than that its contents emerge from an open but fiercely-moderated process of debate and consensus-building. Wikipedia is the knowledge we have all agreed to agree is true. It is not simply received from on high. After the motto of the Royal Society – ‘Nullius in verba’ – Wikipedia takes no one at their word, but instead asks them to provide deep justifications for their contributions. Wikipedia shows us that the democracy of knowledge – of separating fact from convenient fiction – is not about any specific end product, but about the process which creates it. That it has survived, basically unscathed, across increasingly incendiary ‘truth wars’ indicates that Wikipedia’s foundations lie deeper than any ideology of knowledge. That doesn’t make it perfect, but does make it important.
Important, and potentially fragile. Simply blocking a URL means that since 2019, access to Wikipedia within the People’s Republic of China has been cut off. Knowledge is power, and power rarely surrenders its perquisites. Other countries modulate access to Wikipedia to keep a lid on their nation’s ability to know, organise, and act. The Parliament of Paris understood that, 270 years ago.
That it has survived, basically unscathed, across increasingly incendiary ‘truth wars’ indicates that Wikipedia’s foundations lie deeper than any ideology of knowledge. That doesn’t make it perfect, but does make it important.
Power and fragility paired marks Wikipedia as a resource that must not simply be used, but protected and amplified. How? Obviously, financial support is important (I am a regular donor, and heartily encourage all of you to throw a few dollars at their efforts) but we also need to think about how we might operate in a world without Wikipedia – at least, as we use it today, bathed in continuous and unfiltered connectivity. That’s why I recently downloaded Wikipedia and installed it on my smartphone. In its English language edition, it runs to sixteen and a half million entries, six and a half million images, and clocks in at just under 100 gigabytes. If you have the space on your smartphone (and many would) why not take the plunge and install it? Once there, it can’t be censored, blocked, or thwarted. Its facts can power your own revolutionary activities – or simply inspire and delight the six year-old within all of us.
Also in Cosmos Weekly Issue 78: Predicting the unpredictable: how computer modelling is helping plan disaster evacuation
Mark Pesce invented the technology for 3D on the Web, has written seven books, was for seven years a judge on the ABC's "The New Inventors", founded postgraduate programs at USC and AFTRS, holds an honorary appointment at Sydney University, is a multiple-award-winning columnist for The Register, pens another column for IEEE Spectrum, and is a professional futurist and public speaker. Pesce hosts both the award-winning "The Next Billion Seconds" and "This Week in Startups Australia" podcasts.