Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Citizendium, and the necessity of Public Domain Knowledge

There are those rare, unforgettable times when a cat gives birth to a dog. There are those even rarer times when this blog gets posted to. But it lives on, akin to some low-budget B-movie terror that just. won't. die. Apparently cosmic forces have aligned themselves once again.

Larry Sanger has launched a fork of Wikipedia called Citizendium ("sit-ih-ZEN-dee-um", apparently). (Picked up via smartmobs.) The aim of the fork is to encourage a greater role for experts in contributing to and editing the knowledge base. Larry has written an accompanying essay over at titled "Who says we know: on the new politics of knowledge". I thought some thoughts on it were relevant here, as knowledge is one of the bedrocks for participation and discussion, and is increasingly more important for political debate.

To summarise the article a little (ok, quite a lot)... Larry breaks his essay up into 4 sections: the first outlines the nature of knowledge, and the evolution of authority over knowledge (i.e. who gets to say what is knowledge); the second looks at the pros of getting both the (non-expert) "public" and experts involved in contribution; the third defines "dabblerism" and explores the difference between the "wisdom of crowds", and the necessity for experts - or at least why the former may not necessarily apply to content publishing; the final part takes issue with the moral arguments for egalitarianism put forward by wikipedia supporters, ultimately highlighting that experts are still a necessary dependency for wikipedia, and as such, should be more closely integrated.

The debate is interesting to me as I'm looking a lot these days into the role of knowledge within political discussion, especially discussion of scientific matters that seeks - or is forced - to include the less expert, less formally-trained demographic. Over at the related discussion, George Dyson notes H. G. Wells' vision of a global encyclopedia, wherein the knowledge of humanity is made available to humanity. While there are differences between the version foreseen by Wells, and what's happening in Wikipedia, I think certainly the new electronic networks we now rely upon have opened up forms of knowledge assembly that weren't possible before, and it's these collections that are now shaping the structure of discussions.

Sanger notes that one of the main differences between experts and non-experts is the dimension along which content develops. To broadly generalise, but somewhat truthfully I believe, non-experts contribute breadth of topics more easily, while experts are in a position to provide depth to subjects. This is partially why comparing Wikipedia to the Encyclopedia Britannica is like comparing Charlie Parker to the Beatles - each draws on a fundamentally different group of contributors, for a different aim. In that sense, there's a gulf between the two, which is why it's good that efforts such as Citizendium are at least willing to explore it.

This difference in aims, however, highlights an important part of political progress in the last 15 years or so, and mirrors to some extent sociological efforts to "undermine" the universal authority of scientific knowledge, as undertaken by Brian Wynne and Sheila Jasanoff. Sanger alludes to this new social, democratic nature of information-led decision-making when talking about Wikipedia, and its effect on where we get out information from:
"No doubt the main philosophical reason for epistemic egalitarianism is, like the reason for egalitarianism generally, the now-common and overarching desire for fairness. The desire for fairness creates hostility toward any authority—and not just when authority uses its power to gain an unfair advantage, but toward authority as such."

This fairness becomes embedded in processes - which we, as a public, then relate to more closely with than the information itself. To borrow from McLuhan, "the medium is the message" - in other words, how knowledge is collated is more important than what that knowledge says. Or, in a way, wikipedia is more relevant to us, as a "public" (rather than as experts) because we can identify with the mode of production, even if the knowledge contained in the structure is less "validated".

Furthermore, I think this is a theme that ripples through the wikipedia discourse. There is often - especially in the Citizendium discussion - far too much emphasis on collective wisdom, and emergent knowledge: the idea that opening up the structure to many people means that so long as everyone does a tiny bit, something great reveals itself. There is an important, over-looked flipside to this, which I think is often left implicit, or shied away from in discussion among"experts" - this vast silo of information is also available to anyone. The smartmobs link adds that the ability to fork these databases is highly important, but it's this same openness that again makes Wikipedia more relevant to the public than other sources.

Think about it - where else can a member of the general public gain access to such a realm of information easily? While Wikipedia is compared to Encyclopedias by those concerned about authenticity, and to other mechanisms such as expert peer review by academics (interesting that the peer review systems must now be differentiated), both of these are prohibitively expensive to the likes of Mr and Mrs Average. Encyclopedias are costly and take up space, and going to a library takes time. Academic journals are insanely expensive, and even once access is gained, there's very little in the way of a formal system to inform unknowing readers which journals are "good" and which are "bad".

The push towards a "knowledge economy" is a sharp, two-faced drive for "progress". The term itself implies a paradox. We are all "part of the economy" as individually we stand to gain from it - mainly financially, but also technically, and therefore socially (supposedly). But it is also clear we are talking about a specific form of economy, namely "knowledge capitalism" - a perhaps-inevitable offspring to follow mercantile capitalism and industrial capitalism. Under this scheme, knowledge is owned, it is a private good, subject to intellectual property regimes and dramatic fortification. If this paradox becomes reality (a paradox in itself, maybe), then we apparently stand to gain from knowledge in some way, but not to actually control it - or even have access to it.

From a pro-discursive engagement point of view, this is surely unacceptable. The increased privatisation of knowledge actively restricts the knowledge available from a public perspective. In other words, knowledge is a resource, and if the supply of this resource is limited, the discussions that we are able to have, from a non-expert, non-professional perspective, are similarly curtailed.

From this, we can sketch a point of transition, where we currently stand trying to work out where we're going. Implementation of greater public engagement relies upon both ubiqitous networks and ready access to information - the "how" and the "what". Huge efforts to incorporate the former are being undertaken on a daily basis. But where's the corresponding drive to incorporate the latter? Why is Wikipedia still seen as a "bad source to cite" in academia circles (which it is), rather than a tool for knowledge amongst those who are outside all other "knowledge elites"?

That's not to say that Wikipedia is necessarily the best tool for the job. Citizendium is one attempt amongst many to improve that. But in terms of free access to large amounts of information, it's the best thing we currently have. A path is formed by laying one stone at a time, and no doubt further development, such as "epistemic responsibility" (as put forward by Gloria Origgi) would emerge somewhat spontaneously and rather quickly following initial steps.

The sad thing, I think, is that if this isn't at least attempted, collective information sources will effectively be "de-fanged" under a more private approach to information, taking with it the bite that is necessary in our public engagement circles.

See you in a month ;)