The Longest Now

The self-organizing, self-repairing, hyperaddictive library of the future
Thursday February 17th 2005, 2:48 pm
Filed under: popular demand

In the March edition of WIRED, Daniel Pink has managed to turn a few personal meetings, a bit of leg-work (including a trip to the sparse Foundation headquarters in Florida), the stray historical quote and a bit of prognostication, into a poetic piece on Wikipedia. He refers to the project as the latest stage in mankind’s longstanding desire to “tame the jungle of knowledge”.

Titled “The Book Stops Here“, the piece’s layout runs to six pages, mimicing those of a gold-edged, leather-bound book. The frontispiece, showing Wales gazing levelly over a large stack of Britannica volumes and — are those the 2001 Florida Statues? — is coupled with a set of beautiful sketches of six active wikipedians (Angela, Bryan Derksen, Carptrash, Kingturtle, Ram-Man, and Raul654), whose stories are woven into the article.

Pink deals quite well with the nuances of community collaboration, good faith, administrators, stewards, and developers, and brilliantly captures vignettes of individual contributors and motivations.
Perhaps the one bit of internal culture he gets slightly off is the tone of the admiration community members show towards founder Jimmy Wales — the cheerful irony that accompanies the term “God-King” in wiki circles, is unlikely to carry over to an audience used to hearing the term associated with infallible emperors of times long past.

The one glaring omission in the article is an acknowledgement of the project’s unparallelled multilinguality. The only mention of other languages is a single sentence discussing the size of the encyclopedia — “Tack on the editions in 75 other languages, including Esperanto and Kurdish, and the total Wikipedia article count tops 1.3 million.” Surely that 60% of the project deserves more than a nod. Similarly, other Wikimedia projects go unremarked, though WikiCities gets a few paragraphs.

Charles Van Doren‘s 1962 essay, “The Idea of an Encyclopedia” in “The American Behavioral Scientist” is called in to wrap the piece up (Van Doren later became a senior Britannica editor):

“[T]he ideal encyclopedia should be radical. It should stop being safe…. what will be respectable in 30 years seems avant-garde now. If an encyclopedia hopes to be respectable in 2000, it must appear daring in the year 1963.”

Pink’s conclusion? “You can’t evaluate Wikipedia by traditional encyclopedia standards.” Nevertheless, he feels the project is “about to become respectable.”

Other great quotes from the article:

  • “The God-King drives a Hyundai.”
  • “Wikipedia requires that the perfect never be the enemy of the good.”
  • “Among the nearly half-million articles are tens of thousands whose quality easily rivals that of Britannica or Encarta.”
  • “One night he corrected an error in an article… his first inhalation of Wiki crack.”

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