Monday, August 07, 2006


Last night I innocently read the featured article on Wikipedia:

I noticed that there was a dispute about the content so I clicked on the discussions and found myself again only several hours later.

Holy cow! I don't know what to think. I was impressed by the determination of the several contributors who seemed to have been carrying out a heated debate. It really brought home the amount of effort that goes into this open source project to build a comprehensive free encyclopedia. I'm thankful that so many people feel the spirit of voluntarism. I read about a guy last week who had contributed thousands of articles. This on top of his regular day job.

Traditional encyclopedias were written by people who we assumed were experts on the entries that they produced. We didn't really know who these contributors were but we knew that if their words were printed in the book then it must have had the authority of truth. Wikipedia allows you and I to write the entries and others to change them. There is still some notion of authority since we assume those contributing must know a great deal about the subject but the traditional power of the authority of knowledge is out the window. You are allowed to scrutinize the information, make suggestions, and ultimately rewrite the entry altogether.

Ideally, one would think that this process would bring us ever closer and closer to the truth. I will suggest that this is correct but not in the way one might suppose. The ideal of truth is an old Platonic notion that envisions truth as the ultimate reality that we only catch glimpses of in our progression towards it. If you subscribed to this approach then as long as all the contributors acted honestly then we would get closer and closer to the ideal of the truth of the matter. But I don't buy this approach to truth.

Truth can also be seen to be something less stable than a perfect ideal. It can be thought of as something that is more pliable, morphous, and temporal. It can change, be willed to change, and change over time. Truth can also be thought of as a social construct. Some things are true by consensus. If a group of people in a certain area of the world consider themselves to be of a certain ethnic variety then that is true for them by their social act of collectively saying that it is true. The notion of race is one of those ideas that are much more slippery, morphous and temporal than one would assume. I think if we think deeply about it, the idea of race seems to slip away perhaps entirely.

If you find yourself reading any Wikipedia entry at any time I would argue that you are always reading the truth... as it has been agreed upon by the consensus of those who can contribute to it. Since we can all contribute to it, that entry may be the closest thing we have to truth. It is a wonderful mix of authority and consensus.

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