Monday, July 07, 2008

Wiki wiki whak

Whenever I read the pronouncements of Jimmy Wales, I want to slap the smug fuck. His recent article in the Guardian provoked no different a feeling. Let's take a look at it:

The world is rich with languages and cultures, and because of this some contemporary thinkers doubt the possibility of any genuine collaboration in pursuit of truth.

Ah, what is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer. Which shows Pilate to have been wiser than he's often painted, because truth is much more slippery than Wales would have it.

Some things are true by convention. Moscow is the capital of Russia, and you would be wrong to deny it. But it is not true in the same sense to say that Moscow is a beautiful city. (And before we start assuming that the convention that a capital is whatever the government of the nation it is capital of says it is, note that there are several disputed capitals--either because it is disputed that a place is capital of its nation, or because the legitimacy of the nation is disputed: so Jerusalem is what Israel thinks is its capital but many countries do not agree, and Tiraspol is the capital of Transnistria, which not everyone agrees is a country.)

In the commerce of humanity, few truths are conventional; most are matters of judgement. Postmodernism's great gift to human thought was to formalise the idea that what's true for you is not necessarily true for me.

And anyone who visits Wikipedia will quickly find that much of its content is the outcome of a war of truths, which, like most wars, is generally won by the side with the greater strength. Such is truth in our world: most often it belongs to the strongest, and the weaker must accept it, no matter how false it seems.

Laughably, given what Wales says here, his own encyclopaedia runs on the principle that it doesn't concern itself with the truth: The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth.

And, given its policies on sourcing (which were written specifically to have this end), this means that Wikipedia contains the truths of the powerful, and despises the truths of those without access to means of publishing, whether books or newspapers.

Articles should rely on reliable, third-party published sources with a reputation for fact-checking and accuracy.
IOW, articles should be built upon sources that were created by those who could afford to check the "facts".

While in principle this might seem a good idea, the policy goes on specifically to exclude eyewitnesses ("primary sources") and to promote the use of newspapers. I lol at the notion that newspapers are much concerned with facts, or for the most part bother checking them. (SlimVirgin, who wrote much of the body of this and other policy documents, is or was a journalist, so she has a higher opinion of hacks. But she is cynical enough to have fought for the inclusion of newspapers as "reputable sources" because they often support her positions in politics, and she is aware that as tools of the rich, they do not often support the disempowered and disenfranchised. In particular, she is a hardcore Likudnik, and American newspapers in particular steer clear of being critical of Israel.)

Humans are portrayed as irrational captives to their background and identity, unable to be objective. I do not share this view.

Clearly, Wales does not read Wikipedia, which demonstrates very clearly that humans are exactly that. Contentious issues are battlegrounds, on which people show no objectivity at all. Indeed, in Wikipedia, "objectivity" is measured by how much support you have. I've edited a fair bit in the (very biased) Israel-issue pages. Here, editors who relentlessly push a pro-Israel line are lauded as "objective". Given Wikipedia's strong US bias--the vast majority of editors are Americans, as you would expect--those who espouse orthodox American views are readily seen as not being biased. Few people in Wikipedia stop to think that the objective "facts" they hold to are themselves subjective, that they themselves are biased, sometimes in ways they are not aware of.

After all, valuing knowledge is itself a bias. A Taoist will tell you that knowledge is the ruin of the world.

Seven years ago, I founded Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia in which any reasonable person can join us in writing and editing entries on any encyclopedic topic.

Notice the weasel word "reasonable". Is that an "objective" word? I think not. If "reasonable" does not mean "agrees with me", it at least means "disagrees with me in a way I find agreeable". But let's be clear, if your frame is biased, your discourse is biased. If you set bounds on what you consider "reasonable" discourse, you bias that discourse.

So Wales does not require that everyone agrees with him on the specifics (although he's willing to engage in politics to harm those who do not), but he certainly requires that everyone agrees with him on the framework within which the specifics will be discussed. This is not objective. It's central to grasping the wrongness of Wales's worldview to grasp that bias does not just reside in which facts you present, but in how you present them.

We are a charitable humanitarian effort to create and distribute a free high-quality encyclopedia to every single person on the planet.

Leaving aside Wales's execrable English (how do you create something to someone else?), allow me to lol at this flat lie. Wikipedia is many things to many people, but what it is to Wales is a means to make himself richer and more famous. Wales rides on the volunteer effort that has made Wikipedia to provide himself with business opportunities and a jetset lifestyle.

Already, we are the biggest, fastest-growing, and most popular general reference work in the world.

The careful reader will note that what is missing is "the best".

Wikipedia attracts 683m visitors annually, with more than 10m articles in over 150 languages.

Very nice. It's great what can be achieved by a site that (inadvertently) games Google's search algorithm (which ranks sites by links, so a site that interlinks its own pages is at a huge advantage). Of course, Wikipedia has also succeeded because it forms a central repository of all the bullshit that is otherwise spread all over the web (and it would be a far better "encyclopaedia" if it contained more stuff, rather than pretending to be a second-rate Britannica). If you want to find out about something, you can visit the Wikipedia article and follow links to better-informed sites.

Today, there are around one billion people online. In the next five to 10 years, the next billion people will be joining the great global conversation by coming online to participate in blogs, mailing lists and, of course, Wikipedia itself. If we look beyond the languages of Europe plus Chinese and Japanese, most Wikipedia projects are small but fast growing.

Why would that be though? Hmmm, let me think.

Most languages outside Europe, China and Japan are somewhat small, with relatively few speakers, so they are not necessarily going to have had wikipedias long. You see where I'm going, obviously: start from a small base and your growth is likely to be very impressive. Percentage increases are misleading, because if you have a hundred things, 10 percent growth is a lot easier to attain than it is if you have a million things. (People who astonish themselves with the growth in the Chinese economy should note the same; although, to be fair, it's more complicated than that, because the number of people creating the increase is also a factor: the Chinese economy grows hugely if all the Chinese increase their economic activity just a small bit.)

Where the German Wikipedia is today, with more than a half million articles, the Hindi and Swahili editions of Wikipedia will be in just a few short years.

I fail to see what that proves. Most wikipedias are knockoffs of the English version, filled with transcluded articles. And Wales remains resolutely oblivious to the truth that more is not always better.

If we were to take seriously the ideas of those who view all human activity through a lens of irrationalism and conflict, we would imagine that all of this would be impossible.

Erm, what?

I view the history of the world through a lens of irrationalism and conflict, but that doesn't mean that I can't see that there are nations of millions of people who have built roads, monuments, whatever. They have built their nations largely because of conflict and irrationalism, not even in spite of them.

And why should there be less where there is conflict and irrationalism? There's tons of conflict on the Uselessnet, and most of it is barely rational. Yet it's enormous: there are tons of posts.

Ah, Wales will say, but the wikipedias are collaborative. But they are mostly not, any more than the Uselessnet is. You could say that I collaborated with Nancy Ahern to make long threads of bullshit and you'd have the same model, more or less, as Wikipedia's. It even has gangfucks: factionalism is rampant.

In any case, the model is not collaborative at all, but accretive. People bicker, but rarely discuss anything. They just add layers of bullshit to the existing bullshit, and others pare and sculpt the bullshit.

I suppose to a hardcore capitalist like Wales this looks a bit like collaboration, but it's not. Most collaboration that actually does take place does so in the backchannel, as the empowered work together to ensure that their views prevail. I know whereof I talk: the aforementioned SlimVirgin has enlisted my help before now, to push points of view she wants represented, and I don't doubt, given how active she is and how willing to manipulate others in whatever way, that many others can say the same; and she's far from alone. (I don't have a problem with it, particularly. I see social networking sites like Wikipedia as roleplaying games as much as they are anything else, and Slim has proven to be successful in playing the game, much to the chagrin of her enemies.)

But my experiences with Wikipedia have given me great optimism – optimism grounded in direct observation of the facts of reality – that the vast majority of people around the world are comfortable with the idea of working hard to present facts objectively.

Most people are quite happy to bicker endlessly over their version of the truth.

I note at this point that Wales's worldview is quite clear: there is a real world, full of facts, which people can, if they wish, see clearly and promulgate in the Wikipedia. Well yes, no doubt this is true to some extent.

Take George W. Bush (no, really, take him, please--ker-tish!). There are facts about him: he was born in such and such a place at such and such a time; he said and did this and this; he looks like this when viewed from this angle or that. But there are many more "facts". Wikipedia could have restricted itself to the first kind of fact, and then possibly Wales would have a point. But it does not. And even if it did, he still wouldn't.

Note this sentence (and ignore that it's gibberish): "Since entering office, President Bush has undertaken a number of educational priorities."

This sentence can be read either as saying that he has had some priorities in education that he has pursued, which is probably true (his priority would be to transfer as much government cash to the private sector as he can as quickly as he can), or that education has been a priority for him. This is not true, of course.

Much of the article is like this. It's a list of facts presented in a certain way (in horrible writing, mostly).

From Bangkok to Bogota, people can exchange ideas and share experiences.

Erm. Yes, they can try. But they'll get their experiences and ideas deleted unless they match the WASPocentric orthodoxy's notion of what an encylopaedia should be.

To the extent that we are thoughtful and reflective, we can learn from the best among us.

Of course, most of us can learn from the worst too. But why is Wales saying that we can learn from the best? Two reasons, I think. First, he has a growing obsession with "trolls": this is Wales's code for people who do not agree with him, mostly (and again, we do not necessarily mean those who do not agree with him on the specifics, but those who do not agree with him on the broader picture). If you agree that "rationality" can construct a utopia, you are not a troll. If you believe that conflict and disturbance are breeding grounds for achievement, you are. Second, Wales does not miss a chance to stroke the egos of the nerds and social misfits who make up Wikipedia's cadres. They are on the whole fucking horrible people, up themselves in a way that demands years of practice and an inability to see yourself as others see you that's rare in even the most self-absorbed. Wikipedia is a magnet for people that make you think "you twat" almost every time they trip over their keyboard to spew some ill-thought-out blather. Above all, they are largely unsuccessful, unloved fools, shutins, fatties and ugs.

To the extent that we are committed to reason and the non-initiation of force as fundamental organising principles for a free world

Whoah! Where did that come from, and why does Wales think these are the fundamental organising principles of a free world?

Well, Wales is a Randian, that dismal species of being that adores Ayn Rand's "philosophy" of fuckyoujackism. Randians equate "reason" with "thinking like I do", of course. What they despise, above all, is emotion. Because they are horrible shitheads, who lack empathy, mostly. Actually, scrub the "mostly". Entirely. They are people who are scared of doing the right thing because it feels good, and need to do endless wrong things that hang together in a framework built by reason.

Anyone who has loved a child can tell you that emotion trumps reason though. And that same capacity for love is what makes us get all weepy when we see stick-thin African kids, so much so that we lose sight of reason, which would inform us that in a world with scarce resources, someone needs to be fucked if we are going to have plenty.

Randians are into the noninitiation of force thing because they are, like all reactionaries, deathly scared of someone taking what they have from them. They worship property, and conveniently ignore that all property is theft, having originally been taken from someone else by the initiation of force. What Wales, and others like him, opposes is justice, particularly if it is imposed on him. Most libertarians are status-quoists: they would like the world frozen as is, so that they can maintain the privilege that they benefit from.

Well yeah. But it's not philosophy. It's just greed rationalised. Those poor African kids wouldn't be suffering so, and wouldn't need fucking free encyclopaedias, were we living in a world in which it wasn't possible to make a ton of money by trading options. Not making anything, not even facilitating the making of anything. Nope. Gambling.

I do not knock making a living from gambling. I just don't pretend to be Gandhi.

we can come together to create values that would be impossible for people dedicated to eternal class or ethnic conflict.


Hang on. Do you have any fucking idea what class conflict is, and why it happens? Let me clue you in, you buffoon. There are these super rich people, right? Who go poncing round the place in jets, starting up websites, exploiting the labour of others, and generally having it easy. Then there are these not so rich people, who labour all their (usually quite short) lives, mostly to the benefit of the aforesaid super rich people.

No wonder you don't want conflict, Wales. Because trolls would be the least of your fucking problems if all those poor people woke up to the truth that they so greatly outnumber you and your greedhead brethren that they could just take it from you.

Some are concerned about the erosion of local culture in the face of a world of hyper-connectivity.

Are they? Poor fools, eh?

But the evidence so far suggests that people everywhere are rational enough for this to take place when it is a good thing, and to not take place when it is a bad thing.

Yes, people just rationally choose to drink Coke in India, rather than tea, and not because Coke spends a huge amount of money and effort promoting fizzy, sugary water. The people of Tonga rationally abandoned their reasonably healthsome diet of fish and taro for the not so healthy alternative of fried chicken because they reasoned that goddamn, this stuff is more fucking tastier than that horrible taro pap.

In Wales's world, we are all making rational choices, deciding to adopt American culture not because America is so rich and powerful that we can't escape it but because hey, who liked that noseflute shit anyway?

As people become more educated, more in tune with the idea that knowledge is a good thing, they tend to throw out the worst elements of their culture (such as rights violations and ignorant prejudice) and preserve that which has genuine value (such as science and art).

It's a fucking wonder that he can write this with a straight face. Almost the opposite is true and I'm going to explain why.

Famously, Indian kids are pushed to excel academically by their parents. But why? Is it because Indians are more in tune with the idea that knowledge is a good thing? No. Like most people, they put little value on knowledge in the abstract, but see it as a means to an end. They want their kids to learn stuff that will help them make a living later in life. They want their kids to learn to be doctors, lawyers and accountants, not beach bums with a thirst for lifelong learning.

America is a powerhouse of knowledge. And what does it do with it? Builds better guns and bombs. To do what with? To pursue rights violations and ignorant prejudice. Or just to make more money.

I believe we are already beginning to see the fruits of this change worldwide. China has been widely, and properly, criticised for their extensive censorship of the internet, but it is not the criticism that is causing them to begin to dismantle that censorship. It is rather, I believe and hope, a growing understanding and appreciation for the power of a culture of communication both for prosperity, but also for the valid preservation of what is valuable in local culture.

Either that or they realise that the cost of imposing censorship is not matched by any benefit, and that they have other, more immediately useful ways of preventing the outside information's having impact: for example, jailing dissidents more assiduously.

In an effort to begin to resolve the long-standing Tibetan problem, China has recently committed, in partnership with the Louise T Blouin Foundation, $70m to Tibetan cultural preservation. In my view, this reflects

a total whitewash? an attempt to buy influential voices in the Western media? a cynical attempt to seem to give a shit about Tibet, while continuing to occupy it and oppress its people?

a preliminary but increasing understanding on the part of the Chinese leadership that free expression, particularly of the type fostered by projects such as Wikipedia with a kind focus on a loving effort to share knowledge, will lead to a stronger China.

Oh. Well yes, they think it will strengthen China. But "cultural preservation" (carefully packaging Tibetan culture so that it cannot be used as a rallying point for a minority you seek to disempower) is not the same thing as "free expression". Mr Wales is cordially invited to express freely the view that China is a vicious imperialist power and see whether China welcomes debate by allowing him a visa so that he can express that view in China itself.

I hope that they will soon recognise the right of the Chinese-speaking people to assist in explaining China to the world by ending their ban on participation in Wikipedia.

"If I kiss the yellow man's arse enough, maybe he will free his people so that they can further aggrandise me."

Wikipedia is booming in the languages of the developing world. People are writing in their own languages.

Well, you know, they will, won't they? Especially if they don't speak any others.

This is the opposite of the monolithic culture which would have been the product of a top-down broadcast-oriented media. One important fact about participatory media is that people will participate in their own ways, expressing and preserving the best things that they care about.

Yes. And hurting and oppressing others for not sharing their viewpoints.

I advocate for the value of a universal encyclopedia which is accessible to everyone and which rationally puts forward the basic facts about various arguments and controversies in such a manner that newcomers to an issue can understand what the disagreement is about. Don't tell me what to think, don't feed me one side of the story; give me actual facts and I will think for myself to decide. And I respect you as a human being enough to return the favour.

Wikipedia tends to be written by people who are significantly more educated than average, by people who are passionate about ideas, about getting it right. This is a good thing. Because thinking is not automatic, the avoidance of bias is not automatic. A ruthless precision in thinking is a great virtue in the project. And you have to bring that kind of precision because, unlike the comfortable writers of a classic top-down encyclopedia, you are likely to be contacted and challenged if you have made a flawed argument or based your conclusion on faulty premises. Such is the virtue of the marketplace of ideas.

On any Wikipedia entry, if you wonder who wrote it and why, you can click on the history tab and see every change made to the article and who made that change. You can visit that person's user page and ask them a question. You can, for the first time, directly engage in the validation of the work before you. Or, just as we are normally too busy to attend jury trials, you can take comfort in the fact that there is a process, a system, a genuine social design behind the project which seeks to empower and preserve the possibility of improvement when there is an error.

The overall lesson of Wikipedia is one of great humanitarian opportunity and hope. Tyrants and politicians have traditionally divided us and pushed us into war. People have been enslaved and abused in countless horrific ways. Ignorance and poverty, which go hand in hand with totalitarianism and control, continue to be widespread. And yet it turns out that as we have given a voice to millions of people with a mission to build "the sum of all human knowledge", nearly all of them are able to do so with kindness, compassion, and thoughtfulness.

Genuine collaboration is possible, and comes natural to us. Aristotle defined man as "the rational animal" and he was right. And when we set out in a spirit of genuine inquiry and respect for humanity, we can achieve great things. Each of us, coming to a project like Wikipedia for our own reasons, can help to build something that, I think, shows the promise of the future, our dreams of peace, to be within reach.

I can't do any more. The tears of laughter have become so hard to see through. What a vain and pompous man Wales is. He seems almost entirely unaware that his encyclopaedia was built by accretion, not collaboration, and that much of it is patrolled by people who ensure that it does not fairly represent all views, but is strongly biased.

Well, so are all encyclopaedias. But here's the difference: Britannica does not pretend that it's not written by people with certain views. Britannica is a centrepiece of the modernist worldview: it's basically the world as seen from the ivory tower. It is not, and does not claim to be, the last word. Wikipedia does. God help us if it is.


At 3:17 pm, Blogger Father Luke said...

Already, we are the biggest, fastest-growing, and most popular general reference work in the world.

The careful reader will note that what is missing is "the best".


At 6:45 am, Blogger Gregory Kohs said...

Dr. Zen, I have no idea who you are, but this was a brilliant summary. If you are not already active on the site, I hope you will accept this invitation (plea?) to come share your views there.

I am one of the banned users (banned by Jimbo, in fact) who just isn't "rational" according to Jimbo. According to the 400 or 500 different people who know me well enough to form an opinion, I am probably perceived as being "very rational" or perhaps "highly rational".

My irrational behavior, according to Wales, was to wish to create new content for Wikipedia, in exchange for payment by second parties, in the bright disinfecting sunlight of full disclosure. Wales had a different plan that he insisted I use -- to create my paid content on my website, release under the GFDL, then notify trusted Wikipedians that it was available for scraping.

Well, Wales went bat-fruit insane when he learned that trusted Wikipedians would actually scrape paid-for content that didn't contain hateful, anti-corporate screed sections in the base article.

He would say I am mischaracterizing how our relationship went south. You decide who is telling the more truthful (and verifiable!) side of the story.

Again, well done. Bravo!

At 6:59 am, Blogger Gregory Kohs said...

Oh, goodness. I also now see you're a PokerStars player. Me too! I hope I see you in my next $11 + $1 turbo 180-seater.

At 7:24 am, Blogger $Zero said...

bicker bicker bicker.

tsk tsk.

At 7:35 am, Blogger P. said...

Dr. Zen, I have no idea who you are


At 6:04 pm, Blogger Dr Zen said...

Greg, thanks for your kind offer. Sadly, the lovers of free speech and valiant fighters against abuse of power have, erm, abused their power and refused me the right to speak on their board. Also, I pretty much find whining about the way things are on social networking sites to be a waste of everyone's time. As far as your dispute with Jimbo goes, I think you know as well as I do that it's his view that the only person who should make money out of the wiki is Jimmy Wales.

At 12:11 am, Blogger P. said...


At 12:14 am, Blogger P. said...

Oh and Greg, if you ever tire of sycophantic subscribers, I am always available for less intellectual discussions, such as how big is your cock?

At 12:57 am, Blogger Gregory Kohs said...

Okay, so I didn't do research and learn who Dr Zen is, and that Wikipedia Review might not be a welcome forum. Still, this was a really thoughtful post, and I'm gald to have read it. As for my "big"ness, p., I'm over 6-foot-2 overall, and I have big hands and size 11 feet. You can interpolate from that, I hope.

At 2:06 am, Blogger P. said...

I didn't do research

Oh well. Maybe St. Peter will let you into heaven on the basis that ignorance is bliss. Don't bank on it though - even Mandela's made emergency reincarnation plans.

As for my "big"ness, p., I'm over 6-foot-2 overall, and I have big hands and size 11 feet. You can interpolate from that, I hope.

I can interpolate from anything, me, Greg. Sadly for you, my talents also extend to a nose for penis-bullshit.

At 12:30 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave your idea of free speach only extends to what you agree with. Holocaust denier should go to prison! remember. Hypocrite.


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