Review: The Penguin and the Leviathan

I have a review of Yochai Benkler’s new book up at The Atlantic today. Here’s the gist:

Benkler had described and classified the possible motivations driving Wikipedians in his 2006 tome The Wealth of Networks, in which he analyzed the Internet’s impact on the economics of information. In his new book, The Penguin and the Leviathan, Benkler builds on the lessons of Wikipedia to explain why humans cooperate, and to debunk the notion that we are compelled singularly by mere selfishness. The book is, in his terminology, a response to Wikipedia’s greatest gift. In taking aim at selfishness, Benkler puts in his crosshairs a fundamental tenet of modern economics, and this, ultimately, is what lends the book its relevance and gravity.

It’s a good book, and here’s my bottom line:

Benkler’s guidelines are useful at the micro level, but they are not far enough along to provide much guidance at the macro level. Whatever the merits of the Washington Consensus, it is an actionable macroeconomic agenda in a way The Penguin simply is not. This is not a criticism of Benkler himself, as he has done as much as anyone to push forward these lines of inquiry. But, given his framing, one cannot help but feel frustrated knowing that universal selfishness is both empirically wrong and yet necessarily at the heart of how we make decisions about economic policy.

Benkler’s work is both a formidable refutation of the assumption of narrow selfishness and a useful guide to building successful cooperative projects. And while the false assumption of selfish rationality will for now continue to guide the formal modeling of the macroeconomy, The Penguin and the Leviathan equips readers to begin changing the public conversation on the question of how humans work together. It is comforting to be reminded that most of us are not fundamentally selfish. It is long past time that our institutions in business and government realized as much.

I have some related thoughts to blog on this that I couldn’t fit into the review, but in the meantime, I wrote about much the same subjects last year in my post Markets and Networks.


Who Wikipedia trusts

Lots of digital ink has been spilled on the trustworthiness of Wikipedia, and the circumstances in which it’s appropriate to use it as a source. Much more interesting, in my view, is the opposite question: what sources does Wikipedia trust? In our age of Truthiness, sorting good information from bad may be more critical than ever. It’s for that reason that factcheckers seem to be making a comeback. So how, exactly, does Wikipedia manage that sorting process? Do they differentiate between The New York Times and the National Review? Does the Congressional Budget Office count as more reliable than the Heritage Foundation? Than the Brookings Institution?

To try and find out, I visited Wikipedia’s Identifying Reliable Sources page. And while it didn’t answer many of my questions, I gleaned several interesting nuggets about Wikipedians’ idea of reliability. For instance:

  • “In general, the more people engaged in checking facts, analyzing legal issues, and scrutinizing the writing, the more reliable the publication.”
  • “When available, academic and peer-reviewed publications, scholarly monographs, and textbooks are usually the most reliable sources.”
  • “Mainstream news sources are generally considered to be reliable. However, even the most reputable news outlets occasionally contain errors. Whether a specific news story is reliable for a specific fact or statement in a Wikipedia article is something that must be assessed on a case by case basis. When using news sources, care should be taken to distinguish opinion columns from news reporting.”
  • “The statement that all or most scientists or scholars hold a certain view requires reliable sourcing that directly says that all or most scientists or scholars hold that view. Otherwise, individual opinions should be identified as those of particular, named sources… Stated simply, any statement in Wikipedia that academic consensus exists on a topic must be sourced rather than being based on the opinion or assessment of editors.”
  • “Anyone can create a website or pay to have a book published, then claim to be an expert in a certain field. For that reason self-published media—whether books, newsletters, personal websites, open wikis, blogs, personal pages on social networking sites, Internet forum postings, or tweets—are largely not acceptable. This includes any website whose content is largely user-generated, including the Internet Movie Database,,, and so forth, with the exception of material on such sites that is labeled as originating from credentialed members of the sites’ editorial staff, rather than users.”

More than anything, I was struck by how conservative these guidelines are. Wikipedia wouldn’t trust itself, for instance, being a user-generated project. On the one hand, that should put many of its more traditionally-minded critics at ease. On the other, it offers few new ideas about reliability.

Wikipedia’s reliability guidelines raise as many questions as they answer. But I think it’s important, as we all struggle to determine what’s reliable and what’s not, to look to innovative and successful collaborative projects like Wikipedia for guidance. There may not be much new there, but it’s not a bad starting point for discussion.

One point of interest to me: not only do Wikipedians maintain significant skepticism towards the press, they specifically don’t go in for the classic reporter’s line “many economists think”.

Bonus: PolitiFact has a post outlining their fact checking system here. I wish they would have gone further in identifying how they deal with reliability of sources. Perhaps I’ll ask them more about it.


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.