Our New Knowledge

How Wikipedia is Changing the Way We Share Wisdom

Opinion | Margaret Childs | July 2007

In the olden days, the encyclopedia was a series of volumes, helpful for verifying dinner debates or writing a report on salamanders.

All the articles were written in the same omniscient voice.

This is where Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger step in. The co-creators of Wikipedia, launched in 2001, rocked the traditional encyclopedia’s boat by creating a new one open to anyone for additions and editing. Although this raised the specter of online pranksters editing professors or a playground fraught with urban legend, it has in fact, for the most part, succeeded. Scholars and academics all over the world have composed over 4.5 million entries in over 200 languages, reaching far beyond the bindings of our beloved Encyclopedia Britannica.

Started by computer geeks in the 1990s, the idea of community knowledge began as an effort to perfect software by publishing an unfinished code online and inviting other geeks to edit it. The geeks discovered that people would help, and they could all profit from the communal experience and expertise.

Wikipedia was simply the projection from software onto epistemology. And the result raises important philosophical questions about the nature of truth.

The fact that the "Wiki" community decides makes us all question how we define what we know for sure.  We tend to think that the truth is "out there." The sky is blue and we just discover it.  Wikipedia suggests a different definition of truth. The community decides that the sky is blue by consensus. This also means that if the community changes its mind and decides it was wrong and the sky is really green, the sky then becomes green. And while it is highly unlikely that the community would make such a choice about the sky, it might very well, as it has recently, change its mind about the urgency of global warming.

The idea of communal knowledge has been around for a long time. Countless philosophers have muddled about as to how to come "closer to the truth." Wikipedia, as a source, will for instance always be more comprehensive than a traditional encyclopedia because it will always be more up to date, and it will always have more contributors adding and editing than any traditional encyclopedia could afford.

There have been many who have been skeptical of the knowledge portal, open to anyone interested in making information public. While some academics are euphoric about this new knowledge tool, critics attack the page’s principle of truth. Wikipedia defines their "truth" as "verifiability." This means that the information can be verified by a reliable source, be it The New York Times or A.J.P. Taylor’s History of WWII. The critics say that this makes the encyclopedia less informative and less free, as the author of an article cannot bring independent insight to the article on Kant’s imperative, but must base the entry on "verifiable" printed sources, or Kant’s writing. Wikipedia does not print first hand journalism.

These critics have missed an important factor. Encyclopedias have always been comprised of "verifiable" knowledge. No one rewrote the history books because they had and instinctive feeling that Caesar might have been a nicer guy.

Not everything on Wikipedia can be called "true," and a research paper or newspaper article should not rely on it alone, for the same reasons you wouldn’t rely solely on the Britannica.

What is revolutionary is that, no matter how you spin it, many minds will always know more than few.  For the same price as an Encyclopedia Britannica you can buy a computer and an Internet connection and never need to buy the annual supplement. Wikipedia opens the world of common knowledge to vast numbers of new minds than ever before, and many times more than those who contribute to it.

This is perhaps what scares the critical, intellectual elite the most.

Other articles from this issue

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  • Brief Encounter: July / August 2007

    Columns | Margaret Childs
  • Hungarian Folklore in Grand Style

    On The Town | Matthias Wurz
  • All articles from this issue

    the vienna review July 2007