the World Brain

Quotes and links at least I can do.

The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual. And what is also of very great importance in this uncertain world where destruction becomes continually more frequent and unpredictable, is this, that photography affords now every facility for multiplying duplicates of this – which we may call? – this new all-human cerebrum. It need not be concentrated in any one single place. It need not be vulnerable as a human head or a human heart is vulnerable. It can be reproduced exactly and fully, in Peru, China, Iceland, Central Africa, or wherever else seems to afford an insurance against danger and interruption. It can have at once, the concentration of a craniate animal and the diffused vitality of an amoeba.
This is no remote dream, no fantasy. It is a plain statement of a contemporary state of affairs. It is on the level of practicable fact. It is a matter of such manifest importance and desirability for science, for the practical needs of mankind, for general education and the like, that it is difficult not to believe that in quite the near future, this Permanent World Encyclopaedia, so compact in its material form and so gigantic in its scope and possible influence, will not come into existence.
. . . And its creation is a way to world peace that can be followed without any very grave risk of collision with the warring political forces and the vested institutional interests of today. Quietly and sanely this new encyclopaedia will, not so much overcome these archaic discords, as deprive them, steadily but imperceptibly, of their present reality. A common ideology based on this Permanent World Encyclopaedia is a possible means, to some it seems the only means, of dissolving human conflict into unity.
This concisely is the sober, practical but essentially colossal objective of those who are seeking to synthesize human mentality today, through this natural and reasonable development of encyclopaedism into a Permanent World Encyclopaedia.

suspiciously wiki

Wonderful post by Tim Carmody over at Snarkmarket about what I think of as a useful new word — or a new use of an already existing word. Someone had said of a piece of information given by someone else, “This story sounded suspiciously Wiki to me.” And as Tim points out, we all know exactly what the person means:

The obvious colloquial analogue would be “the story seemed fishy.” But note the distinction. A “fishy” story, like a “fish story,” is a farfetched story that is probably a lie or exaggeration that in some way redounds to the teller’s benefit. A “wiki” story, on the other hand, is a story, perhaps farfetched, that is probably backed up by no authority other than a Wikipedia article, or perhaps just a random website. The only advantage it yields to the user is that one appears knowledgeable while having done only the absolute minimum amount of research.While a fishy story is pseudo-reportage, a wiki story is either pseudo-scientific or pseudo-historical. Otherwise, wiki-ness is characterized by unverifiable details, back-of-the-envelope calculations, and/or conclusions that seem wildly incommensurate with the so-called facts presented.

I’m going to start using this word in commenting on student papers.I love Wikipedia — I use it every day — but it yields farfetched stories sometimes because people who write many of the articles rely on outdated information. Sometimes way outdated. For instance, in the generally useful article on the codex we find this passage:

The basic form of the codex was invented in Pergamon in the third century BCE. Rivalry between the Pergamene and Alexandrian libraries had resulted in the suspension of papyrus exports from Egypt. In response the Pergamenes developed parchment from sheepskin; because of the much greater expense it was necessary to write on both sides of the page.

No citation is given, and I found myself wondering where this information had come from and whether it is true. It sounded suspiciously Wiki to me. A day or two later, I happened to discover the origin of the claim: Pliny’s Natural History. Modern historians see no evidence for the story.

an assignment

In relation to my earlier post on academic genres, here’s an assignment that I’ve been thinking about using: a critical response to a Wikipedia page. Students would be asked to read a Wikipedia page on an author or a book, say, and evaluate it for accuracy and fairness — but then they would also look into the history of that page. Such histories can be very illuminating, because they tell us what’s at stake in the conversation about that author, what debates are common. And one of the really interesting things about Wikipedia pages on literature is that they are edited by both academics and fans: there aren't many places in our culture where those two groups come together, because they so rarely have the same agendas. Here’s an interesting case in point: on the home page of the W. H. Auden Society you may find this message: “A highly accurate, thoroughly revised version of the entry on Auden is now available. This site strongly recommends that online researchers make reference to the archived version of the page, in the link above, rather than to current versions, which may be less accurate or may be subject to vandalism.” (I’m pretty sure Edward Mendelson, Auden’s exemplary literary executor and a brilliant critic in his own right, oversaw those revisions.) So that “officially approved” page could become the standard by which the whole revision history could be evaluated — though who knows? Perhaps an enterprising student would find edits that improved upon the standard. An assignment like this would be an example of what Gerald Graff calls “teaching the conflicts”, but it would have the advantage of going beyond the boundaries of the academy. Yes, it’s a tad meta, and an assignment like this shouldn't replace close attention to the literary texts themselves — but I think it could be very useful.

addendum on Nicholas Carr

Regarding the post just below: Carr refers to Wikipedia as “a single source of information” — but is it? It’s a single conduit of information, but a conduit is not a source. What are the sources of information that emerge through the Wikipedia conduit, having undergone the Wikipedia filters? Well, there’s a great deal of dispute about that. Aaron Swartz — who not incidentally is instrumental in the creation of a more-or-less alternative to Google Books — wrote a fascinating and much-debated essay on this topic a couple of years ago. Check it out.

it’s Google’s world; we’re just living in it

Much of the Robert Darnton article I linked to in an earlier post is concerned with the power that Google now has over access to books, through its massive digitization project and, especially, the recent agreement it has reached with publishers to continue and expand on that that project. Darnton:

The settlement creates a fundamental change in the digital world by consolidating power in the hands of one company. Apart from Wikipedia, Google already controls the means of access to information online for most Americans, whether they want to find out about people, goods, places, or almost anything. In addition to the original “Big Google,” we have Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Images, Google Labs, Google Finance, Google Arts, Google Food, Google Sports, Google Health, Google Checkout, Google Alerts, and many more Google enterprises on the way. Now Google Book Search promises to create the largest library and the largest book business that have ever existed.Whether or not I have understood the settlement correctly, its terms are locked together so tightly that they cannot be pried apart. At this point, neither Google, nor the authors, nor the publishers, nor the district court is likely to modify the settlement substantially. Yet this is also a tipping point in the development of what we call the information society. If we get the balance wrong at this moment, private interests may outweigh the public good for the foreseeable future, and the Enlightenment dream [of a true Republic of Letters] may be as elusive as ever.

Nicholas Carr has some of the same concerns, only more so, because he would cross out Darnton’s “apart from Wikipedia” concession. Carr has been running a set of Google searches repeatedly since 2006, and while Wikipedia was prominent in the search results from the start, it now provides the first option for every single search in the series. Carr:

The first thing to be said is: Congratulations, Wikipedians. You rule. Seriously, it’s a remarkable achievement. Who would have thought that a rag-tag band of anonymous volunteers could achieve what amounts to hegemony over the results of the most popular search engine, at least when it comes to searches for common topics.The next thing to be said is: what we seem to have here is evidence of a fundamental failure of the Web as an information-delivery service. Three things have happened, in a blink of history’s eye: (1) a single medium, the Web, has come to dominate the storage and supply of information, (2) a single search engine, Google, has come to dominate the navigation of that medium, and (3) a single information source, Wikipedia, has come to dominate the results served up by that search engine. Even if you adore the Web, Google, and Wikipedia – and I admit there’s much to adore – you have to wonder if the transformation of the Net from a radically heterogeneous information source to a radically homogeneous one is a good thing. Is culture best served by an information triumvirate?

A thoughtful response to at least some of the concerns of Darnton and Carr comes from Tim O’Reilly. Note especially this point:

There has never been more competition either in electronic books, or for books, in the broader electronic ‘republic of letters.’ . . . In short, there’s a strong economic motive for publishers to release digital editions of their books, and to treat Google Books as only one possible channel. . . . Frankly, I’d be far more worried about Darnton’s wished-for utopia, in which the government had funded the equivalent, mandating that all publishers participate. That might well have nipped the competitive ebook landscape in the bud. . . . As it is, we see lots of different competing approaches to bootstrapping this market. I’d say it’s opening up very nicely!

I don’t know who’s closer to being right here. It’s likely that O’Reilly is too sanguine and Darnton and Carr too worried. But I have just enough Richard Stallman in me to distrust Google’s power. I’ve been trying lately to disentangle myself to some degree from Google’s services — though I’m not likely to shift from Gmail — and to diversify my online investments, so to speak. I’m also thinking about retrieving some of my stuff that’s now “in the cloud” and confining it to my desktop. But I have to admit, I use Google Books more and more and more, for reasons such as the ones noted here.


Writing below about the now-defunct web services Stikkit and I Want Sandy, I remarked that, as far as I could tell, Rael Dornfest and the other makers of those services never even tried to come up with a revenue model. Certainly they never asked their users to contribute to the maintenance of the service. Instead, Stikkit and Sandy were offered for free until (I suppose) that became unsustainable, and then they were simply shut down. James Surowiecki, writing recently in The New Yorker, points out that the newspaper industry is in a curious situation, because industries usually fail when people lose interest in their product. But, Surowiecki points out, “people don’t use the [New York] Times less than they did a decade ago. They use it more. The difference is that today they don’t have to pay for it. The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product.” “For a while now,” he continues, “readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime—intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on—and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.” This is no doubt true, and not just for traditional journalism. Consider this: Wikipedia — or, more accurately, the Wikimedia Foundation — is trying to raise a bunch of money to keep the service going. And they probably will succeed: even if they don’t raise all the money they want, Wikipedia is unlikely to be shut down as Stikkit and Sandy were. But the point is, it could happen. In a very short period of time, Wikipedia has become a fixture in people’s lives, something we all expect to be there whenever we want, something we are confident we can count on — just the way people for many decades thought of General Motors. But nothing is forever, and in tough economic times, we may discover just how fragile some of the economies of the internet really are.