The epistemology of Wikipedia

The Atlantic tech has a great feature for Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary, featuring thoughts from a number of excellent contributors, including Shirky, Benkler, Zuckerman, Rosen and more.  Check it out.

One point of interest for me was a contrast in epistemologies offered by novelist Jonathan Lethem and Clay Shirky.  Lethem:

Question: hadn’t we more or less come to understand that no piece of extended description of reality is free of agendas or ideologies? This lie, which any Encyclopedia implicitly tells, is cubed by the infinite regress of Wikepedia tinkering-unto-mediocrity. The generation of an infinite number of bogusly ‘objective’ sentences in an English of agonizing patchwork mediocrity is no cause for celebration

Now compare that to Shirky:

A common complaint about Wikipedia during its first decade is that it is “not authoritative,” as if authority was a thing which Encyclopedia Britannica had and Wikipedia doesn’t. This view, though, hides the awful truth — authority is a social characteristic, not a brute fact.

So far, that’s basically the same critique that Lethem offers.  But unlike Lethem, Shirky offers a pragmatic version of epistemology:

Authoritativeness adheres to persons or institutions who, we jointly agree, have enough of a process for getting things right that we trust them. This bit of epistemological appraisal seems awfully abstract, but it can show up in some pretty concrete cases.DARPA, the Pentagon’s famous R&D lab, launched something in late 2009 called “The Red Balloon Challenge.” They put up ten red weather balloons around the country, and  said to contestants “If you can tell us the latitude and longitude of these balloons, within a mile of their actual positions, we’ll give you $40,000.” However, because the Earth is curved, DARPA also had to explain the Haversine forumla, which converts latitude and longitude to distance.

Now, did DARPA want to write up a long, technical description of the Haversine formula?  No, they did not; they had better things to do. So they did what you or I would have done: They pointed to Wikipedia. DARPA, in essence, told contestants “If you want to compete for this $40,000, you should understand the this formula, and if you don’t, go look at this Wikipedia article.”

Shirky’s account strikes me as the kind of pragmatism advocated by Richard Rorty, of whom I’m a big fan.  What makes something true in a post-metaphysical world?  Well, how about whether or not it helps you track down the balloons and win $40K?  Hurray, pragmatism!

I recognize all of the above is less about Wikipedia and more about philosophy…so thanks for indulging me this post. But do go read The Atlantic’s package.  Particularly Benkler’s response.  I’ll leave you with this Benkler nugget:

That, to me, is the biggest gift Wikipedia has given us; a way of looking at the world around us and seeing the possibility of effective human cooperation, on really complex, large projects, without relying on either market or government processes.