Thursday, December 15, 2005

Told ya so

This morning on BoingBoing I learned that the science journal Nature recently compared forty-two different entries for identical subjects in the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Wikipedia and found that the latter averaged only one more error per entry than the former (4 errors to 3), which is not just a vindication for Wikipedia but a reminder that even supposedly "authoritative" sources such as Britannica must be read with caution.

Once again the scientific community gets it before everyone else does: Wikipedia may not yet be "the next Google", but it is a force to be reckoned with, and cannot be as dismissed so derisively as it has been thus far by the Ivory Tower. Open-source knowledge has officially come of age, and it will represent no less a threat to the academic-industrial complex than filesharing and cheap digital production capabilities have posed Hollywood at the turn of the millennium.

It's all up for grabs, kids -- entertainment, scholarship, and even politics have become truly interactive. The problem with collaborative media, however, is that it doesn't lend itself well to the business models we have inherited from the era of one-way relationships. How do you charge someone $19.95 a volume for an encyclopedia that anyone can contribute to? Conventional wisdom used to suggest that you needed paid professionals on board to create content that was accurate or entertaining. Open-source endeavors such as Wikipedia may have shattered that illusion decisively at last, but any close student of history could have told you that amateurs have played a critical role in shaping our culture since well before the dawn of the Information Age.

Professionalism was born out of a class-structured guild system which rewarded monopoly and secrecy and kept the hoi polloi marginalized from the Great Conversation, whereas the amateur spirit* is open and ecumenical. That the open-source phenomenon should mesh so well with the spirit of amateurism is hardly surprising, nor is the fear that Google, Wikipedia, and similar entities strike into the hearts of professionals of all stripes.

* Ironically enough, amateurism was itself born out of class hierarchies when the "men of leisure" sought to distinguish themselves from the lesser folk who actually had to work for a living, but the ascendency of the professional in modern times (not to mention the opening up of higher education to millions of middle and lower class students) has recast amateurism in a new postmodern role. Whereas the amateurs of old once practiced their "love" in lieu of work, today's amateurs do so in addition to whatever paying job(s) they might hold down. Now that's love!

No comments: