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, writes Mark Pesce at Cosmos Weekly.
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.
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?”
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.
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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.
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