Excerpted from Maria Bustillos:
“Wikipedia is the foreshock of an epistemological earthquake to rival the one set rumbling by Johannes Gutenberg ca. 1439.
Bob Stein, founder and co-director of the Institute for the Future of the Book (and co-founder, in 1984, of the Criterion Collection company) has been writing persuasively in this vein about Wikipedia for years now. I asked him recently to give an update on his views, and he said that if I wanted to understand the significance of Wikipedia, I should read Marshall McLuhan.
“Go back and study the shift in human communication, what McLuhan called ‘the shift to print,'” he said. “The place where an idea could be owned by a single person. One of McLuhan’s genius insights was his understanding of how the shift from an oral culture to one based on print gave rise to our modern notion of the individual as the originaator and owner of particular ideas.”
According to McLuhan, Bob explained, “the ownership of an idea” was made inevitable by the invention of printing; it is this era that we are outgrowing, as McLuhan foresaw. “If the pr
inting press empowered the individual, the digital world empowers collaboration.”
All these elements—the abandonment of “point of view,” the willingness to consider the present with the same urgency as the past, the borrowing “of wit or wisdom from any man who is capable of lending us either,” the desire to understand the mechanisms by which we are made to understand—are cornerstones of intellectual innovation in the Internet age. In particular, the liberation from “authorship” (brought about by the emergence of a “hive mind”) is starting to have immediate implications that few beside McLuhan foresaw. His work represents a synthesis of the main precepts of New Criticism with what we have come to call cultural criticism and/or media theory.
How neatly does this dovetail into a subtle and surprising new appreciation of the communal knowledge-making at Wikipedia?! It’s no wonder that McLuhan is among the patron saints of the Internet.
It’s no accident, either, that from grad school onward McLuhan was involved in collaborative projects that drew in a wide variety of disciplines, institutions, students, and paths of inquiry. If the results were chaotic (and they often were) they were also vital and thrilling. He worked with educators, corporate executives, computer scientists and management theorists; he helped develop high-school media syllabi, designed a study relating dyslexia to television watching, and conducted sensory tests for IBM. (For more on McLuhan, I can highly recommend Philip Marchand’s fine biography, The Medium and the Messenger.)
McLuhan’s insights, though they are being lived by millions every day, will take a long time to become fully manifest. But it’s already clear that Wikipedia, along with other crowd-sourced resources, is wreaking a certain amount of McLuhanesque havoc on conventional notions of “authority,” “authorship,” and even “knowledge.”
“Those who are wringing their hands over Wikipedia are those committed to the idea of some uncomplicated ‘truth” he said, going on to characterize the early controversy between Britannica and Wikipedia as “an anguish regarding authority … that there are no guarantees to truth.” He continued: “The threat to Britannica from Wikipedia is not a matter of dueling methods of providing information. Wikipedia, if it works better than Britannica, threatens not only its authority as a source of information, but also the theory of knowledge on which Britannica is founded. On Wikipedia “the author” is distributed, and this fact is indigestible to current models of thinking.
“Wikipedia is forcing people to accept the stone-cold bummer that knowledge is produced and constructed by argument rather than by divine inspiration.”
By empowering readers and observers with transparent access to the means by which conclusions are reached, rather than assembling them in an audience to hear the Authorities deliver the catechism from on high, we are all of us becoming scientists in this way, entering into a democracy of the intellect that is already bearing spectacular fruit, not just at Wikipedia but through any number of collaborative projects, from the Gutenberg Project to Tor to Linux.
But there continues to be resistance to the idea that expertise itself has been called into question, and we can expect that resistance to continue. Experts, understandably, are apt to be annoyed by their devaluation, and are liable to make their displeasure felt. And the thing about experts is that a lot of people still feel disinclined to question them.
Experts, geniuses, authorities, “authors”—we were taught to believe that these should be questioned, but until now have not often been given a way to do so, to seek out and test for ourselves the exact means by which they reached their conclusions. So long as we believe that there is such a thing as an expert rather than a fellow-investigator, then that person’s views just by magic will be worth more than our own, no matter how much or how often actual events have shown this not to be the case. For us to have this magic thinking about “individualism” then is pernicious politically, intellectually, in every way. That is not to say that we don’t value those who can lead the conversation. We’ll need them more and more, those “who are able to marshal the wisdom of the network,” to use Bob Stein’s words. But they might be more like DJs, assembling new ways of looking at things from a huge variety of elements, than like than judges whose processes are secret, and whose opinions are sacred.
And there’s so much more to this. If my point of view needn’t immediately eradicate yours—if we are having not a contest but an ongoing comparison, whether in politics, art or literary criticism, if “knowledge” is and will remain provisional (and we could put a huge shout-out to Rorty here, if we had the space and the breath) what would this mean to the quality of our discourse, or to the subsequent character and quality of “understanding”?
Maybe disagreement doesn’t have to be a battle to be fought to the death; it can be embraced, even savored. Wikipedia as it is now constituted lends enormous force to this argument. The ability to weigh conflicting opinions dispassionately and without requiring a “decision” is invaluable in understanding almost any serious question. That much is clear right now. There are many, many practical political, pedagogical and epistemological benefits yet to be investigated.
“Learning” no longer means sitting passively in a lecture hall or on in front of a television or in a library and waiting to receive the “authoritative” version of what the experts think is up as if it were a Communion wafer. For nearly 20 years we have had the Internet, now grown into a medium of almost infinite paths, where “learning” means that you can Twitter directly to people in Egypt to ask them what they really think about ElBaradei (and get answers), ask an author or critic to address a point you feel he may have missed (ditto), or share your own insights in countless forums where they will be read and admired (and/or savaged.) Knowledge is growing more broadly and immediately participatory and collaborative by the moment.
The results of these collaborations, like Wikipedia, represent not just new methods of packaging knowledge, but a new vision of what might come to be meant by “knowledge”: something more like what Marshall McLuhan called “a galaxy for insight.”
“The sadness of our age is characterized by the shackles of individualism,” Bob Stein said. But are we throwing off those shackles, even as we speak?”