WIKIPEDIA DEMOCRACY, AND WIKICRACY

The critical context of editing Wikipedia articles

 

 Kristo Ivanov, UmeĆ University, (Nov. 2013, version 191011-1010)

 

 





TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

Introduction

Disclaimer

The case to be studied

Personalities and social context of Wikipedia

The Savant Syndrome

The theoretical alternative

 

 

Introduction

 

There is a wellknown quotation from Thomas Stearns Eliot's poem The Rock (1934):

 

"Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

 

One can check the popularity of the response to this already historical quotation by means of an Internet search: about 250.000 hits for only the second row. Interestingly enough, the line immediately preceding this selection out of the poem is seldom mentioned. But that would lead us too far in the text that follows.

 

An alternative formulation of the problem, with less philosophical depth but more focus on common-sense practice was offered by systems scientist Russell Ackoff in 1967 in an article on "Management Misinformation Systems". In a play of words that referred to a concept that was trendy at that time, management information systems or MIS, he emphasized that we were entering an era in which the problem would not be the lack of information but rather the excess of it. It would hamper our ability to use it because we did not know how to select and create the right kind of information. In a world of shortage of information we had to act selectively on the basis of consciously chosen information. Now we would be lost in the mid of too much available information or data of unknown quality. And this was what prompted me, under the influence of Ackoff's PhD advisor, and later colleague and friend C. West Churchman, to dedicate my PhD dissertation to Quality-control of information (1972.) Some years later (1976), Ackoff co-authored the presentation of the SCATT report about the Scientific Communication and Technology Transfer system in a book with the title Designing a National Scientific and Technological Communication System. Wikipedia writes on the origins of the Internet that the funding of a new U.S. backbone by the National Science Foundation in the 1980s, as well as private funding for other commercial backbones, led to worldwide participation in the development of new networking technologies, and the merger of many networks. So, the SCATT system was developed with support from the National Science Foundation's Office of Science Information Service. It is an interesting intellectual exercise to read it today in order to relate what was said above to what now looks as an early idea of a partially combined Google, Wikipedia and universal library before the era of the Internet, and to realize how some insights and knowledge of that time has got lost in today's information.

 

The events that reached and surprised the general public with the worldwide known cases of Wikileaks' Julian Assange and the NSA contractor Edward Snowden indicate that there is a general naēve attitude to these matters and the belief that computer supported information and communication (ICT) has a democratic potential transcending the power of daily old-fashioned politics and finance. This attitude may very well be a late version of the quasi-religious belief in the saving potential of modern science and technology of which the movement of  "Technocracy and the American Dream" (title of William Akin's book, 1977) was an eloquent review of. Robert Boguslaw's The New Utopians (1965) conveys a similar message. I have already addressed some of the political aspects of Wikileaks including their link to the Snowden affair in an article on Wikileaks, Information, and Systems. The focus here will be on English Wikipedia in general and a cluster case study in particular. The focus could have been on Google including Google Scholar, and it is is being done by others like Nicholas Carr who already in 2007 wrote "The rise of the wikicrats", from which I borrow a part of the title of this article. What has not been explicitly done is to relate these problems theoretically to information systems. My thesis will be to suggest how Wikipedia, a fantastic creation whose rough idea I myself drafted long before it had become technically feasible as suggested by the history of wikis, contributes to an unperceived blurring between information, knowledge and wisdom. This happens all along with the progressive reduction of wisdom to information, based on the neglect of politics as related to ethics. The reader is invited to testify whether the conclusion of the article will be, as I hope, the proposal of paying more attention to the ethical aspects of information and the difficulties or impossibility of doing it in view of the (mis)information explosion when conceived as an inherent, unavoidable aspect of technoscience. I consider the latter issue in another essay on Trends in Philosophy of Technology.

 

Disclaimer

 

The following thoughts focus on a cluster of related case-fragments and it is intended to be only a modest contribution to other cases that have been reported, for instance, in the list for "External criticism" below. My immediate purpose is not to present a typical text with a clear structure and conclusions but, rather, to share some concerns and furnish materials, which can be used by others in order to advance the study of the issues that are raised here. If I am allowed to guess, one conclusion could be that the present chaos of information explosion or exploded information indicates that it is not worth the effort of trying to understand it except in terms of philosophy of technology, and cultural criticism.

 

To begin with, I must state that I myself appreciate the "Faustian bargain" of the power of technology in general and Wikipedia in particular. This is testified by my extensive use and reference to Wikipedia as exemplified in the present text and both in my research and weblog pages. And there is no denying that Wikipedia considers and embodies complexity, for good and for bad, depending upon how complexity is and should be defined. That means, in my proposed frame of reference: systemic complexity, and as such a legitimate fruitful complexity if it can be conceived as a wise system according to a kind of systems approach like the one I describe elsewhere under the label of The Systems Approach to Design and Inquiring Information Systems. Wikipedia is not a kind of monolithic personality to be judged monolithically. It is, rather, an abstraction just as personality itself, or nation, society, in short: system.

 

I will initially consider Wikipedia's explicit complexity, which is less known by the general "user" and testifies its level of ambition. Many users have heard about a main feature of Wikipedia that is widely advertised but few are able to utilize: namely, that "anybody" can edit its contents with the intent to improve them. The truth is that disregarding certain controversial articles that are "protected" from the general public in order to avoid probable damage, edit warring or editings close to vandalism, editing itself requires substantial technical knowledge about the particular text editor. The basics for both editing and browsing can be found in a particular link of the left column of Wikipedia articles, under "Interaction", labeled "Help". The edits, however, can get canceled after only a few minutes by special "democratically" authorized gatekeepers, or as they are named according to the particular specialized Wikipedia vocabulary. In daily practice they often exert what in daily language is known as censorship, besides making occasional or systematic own positive contributions.

 

It is difficult to find a good summary of Wikipedia's organization and workings beyond the ambitious but at the same time critical account in the study of The Decline of Wikipedia, referenced further below. For the convenience of the readers who are not already familiar with the organization and workings of Wikipedia I submit the following selection of reference links that may well be perceived as overwhelming by the average reader who has not yet realized by means of concrete examples the import of the so called information explosion. For purposes of simplicity I take the liberty of not including the access dates, which are all about September-November 2013. The text in the links also indicates its subjects, which for some readers may be a presupposition for understanding the rest of the present article.

 

 

Introductory links:

Wikimedia Foundation

Wikimedia Foundation: Guest Projects

Wikipedia

Wikipedia: Wikimedia Syster Projects

Wikipedia Policies and Guidelines

 

Three core content policies:

Wikipedia: No Original Research

Wikipedia: Neutral Point of View

Wikipedia: Verifiability

 

Instructional material:

Wikipedia Help: Contents

Wikipedia Manual of Style

Wikipedia: How to Edit a Page

Wikipedia Projekt: Bibliographies

Wikipedia User: Gatekeeper/Editors Index

 

General policing :

Wikipedia: Administrators

Wikipedia: Review

Wikipedia: External Peer Review

Wikipedia: Peer Review

Wikipedia Project: LGBT Studies Peer Review

Wikipedia: Patrolled Revisions

Wikipedia: Sock Puppetry

Wikipedia: Administrators' Noticeboard

Wikipedia: Administrators' Noticeboard/Incidents

Wikipedia: Trust

Wikipedia: Blame

 

Internal Criticism:

Wikipedia is not a reliable source

Wikipedia: Conflict of Interest

Wikipedia: [Internal overview of mainly external] Criticism of Wikipedia

Wikipedia: Susan Gerbic - Criticism and Controversy

Wikipedia: Essjay controversy

The Signpost: The Decline of Wikipedia, Wiki-PR, Australian Minister

and especially

Wikipedia: Criticism - Commandeering or Sanitizing Articles

Wikipedia: Criticism - Complaints About Administrator Abuse

Wikipedia: Larry Sander - Nupedia and Wikipedia

Wikipedia: Susan Gerbic and Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia
Knowledge Engine (Wikimedia Foundation)

J.Lanier: Wikipedia and the omniscience of collective wisdom

 

 

External Criticism :

The Decline of Wikipedia

Wikipedia Criticism and Why It Fails to Matter

Harvard Guide to Using Sources: What's Wrong with Wikipedia?

Nicholas Carr: Rise of the Wikicrats

Nicholas Carr: Deletionists, Inclusionists and Delusionists

Nicholas Carr: The Amorality of Web 2.0 + Jimmy Wales response

Wikipedia: The Daniel Brandt Controversy

The Battle to Destroy Wikipedia's Biggest Sockpuppet Army

Wikipedia-Watch: Can you Sue Wikipedia?

Truth and the World of Wikipedia Gatekeepers

Wikipedia Woes: Pending Crisis as Editors Leave in Droves

WikiSpooks: Problems with Wikipedia

University of Toronto Assignment Annoys Wikipedia Editors

Ludwig von Mises Institute: About Wikipedia

The Jewish Hand behind Internet (140324) (cf. controversial source)

Wikipedia under Threat - The Rupert Sheldrake Controversy

WikipediaPlus - Alternative Narratives of Wikipedia Events

Wikipedia wars: Wikipedia and Guerilla Skeptics

Mike Adams: 10 shocking facts you never knew about Wikipedia (cf. controversial source)

Wikipedia: A "Free Encyclopedia" Controlled by Special Interest Groups

How Covert Agents Infiltrate the Internet (not direct ref. to Wikipedia)

Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia
Wikipedia Power Structure

The Wikipedia Review. And its entry in Wikipedia

Paul Craig Roberts: The Problem with Wikipedia and the Digital Revolution

Russia creating rival to Wikipedia

 

General: see in browser e.g.: <wikipedia+democracy>

Wikipedia: Democratization of Knowledge
The World's most Prolific Writer (original article, and other)

Aaron Swartz: Wikipedia's occasional contributors or "outsiders" vs. regular editors

Susan Gerbic - Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia - YouTube Workshop

 

The case to be studied

 

As most researchers I rely professionally upon the institution of the university and a network of colleagues who share some of my concerns and are available to both criticize me and to contribute as I myself do to our common research area of information science. In this context there have been a few people who were sufficiently knowledgeable to act as users-editors of Wikipedia and towards the end of year 2009 created in it a sort of biographical page in my name. I have been occasionally been briefed about it, as I have been asked questions, and have occasionally followed its development, appreciating the amount of effort that went into various modifications and additions up to April 2013. They were well portrayed by a fair amount of readers' evaluations as summarized in the evaluation table that used to figure at the end of Wikipedia standard pages' layout until about April 2013. Well conscious of Wikipedia guidelines for this type of pages, Biographies of Living Persons, I have obviously refrained from making own edits and have not had any serious factual objections to the text and the edits or the curtailings. Examples are the ones done by the user-administrator Mdd in March 2009. I got intrigued, however, for not understanding the rationale and context for one particular later deletion, which is the object of this case study for research purposes. This means that I am striving for a more general research issue about and beyond Wikipedia, rather than for a simple trivial revision or correction of the particular page, which would have started at the particular user-editor's Talk Page or at Wikipedia's Administrators' Noticeboard.

 

My attention was called upon the fact that on April 3rd, somebody who in the "Revision history" is identified as Dougweller (with a complex identity also in a "Japanese" version) had deleted a large amount of text from my Wikipedia page. Dougweller's action consisted of several fragmented deletions on the one same day of April 3rd, plus the addition of a template on the top of the page, with the label "Too Few Opinions". The fragmented deletions were motivated "telegraphically" with a few key words in the edit summary (see below.) The deletions included details that had been quite painstakingly gathered and contributed by a few different people, user-editors, during the past years. One of the supposedly self-explanatory edit summaries motivating the deletions claimed e.g. that a reference to my published PhD dissertation counters the Wikipedia policy of OR/NOR of not containing original research: "is OR – original version clearly written as an essay". Doughweller seems to ignore that Swedish dissertations were made available in a minimum of hundreds of copies, being examined and graded by several experts more deeply than in most peer-reviews, and defended by the author in public defense. They are available in libraries including the National Library and are submitted to further detailed evaluations by panels of international experts on occasion of contests for selection among candidates to university professorial chairs. So goes with the rest: two of the edit (deletion) summaries state tersely "more, and a fact tag", and the fourth states "stick with stuff by subject or that mentions subject". This seems to be motivated by the fact that Dougweller could not find the right terms in the references, e.g. about statistics, security-secrecy, and hypersystems.

 

The edit summaries may have some valid point in them concerning clarity but do not account for synonyms and immediate inferences from texts that require careful reading. The objections, besides of missing references to statistics, do not account either for the change of technological context and terminology in the 40 years that passed between the PhD dissertation in 1971 and the Wikipedia page created in 2009. It is not only the case of "management information systems" overlapping with later "knowledge management" (as in Wikipedia itself), or the concomitant misunderstanding of what statistics is about, but also the more subtle relation between security and secrecy that became ultimately evident after the cases of WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden.

 

On the whole, however, the edit-summaries of the deletions from my page may also appear as bureaucratic nit-picking. In practice also can be perceived as hyperactive harassment as stated in many Wikipedia-critical articles (ref. above). Dougweller seemed to read and destroy in 8 minutes what had required, say, 100 times this time to build up, and would require almost as much to explain and discuss. This is an often recurrent issue in the external criticism of Wikipedia, as if it were a sort of internal auto-vandalism. There are hundreds of Wikipedia biographies of living persons, and dead ones for that matter, who have similar shortcomings. One example among many I happened to notice is the Wikipedia page for professor Adam Grant, at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania: the introduction to "Academic career" presented (as per November 2013) huge claims and praise that were completely unreferenced. Just another example is the page for the feminist theorist, professor of political science at the University of California, Berkely, Wendy Brown, (also mentioned as partner of the queer theorist Judith Butler). I do not believe that it is different kinds of requirements in feminist and gender theory that explain why numerous achievements accounted by Wikipedia regarding Wendy Browns "career" are accepted without any references. Obviously many if not most cases of such Wikipedia pages do not attract the attention and motivation of some stranger to the article to implement in 8 minutes a 5-fold deletion of a sizeable part of a very informative text. It is a referenced and non-controversial text without huge claims and praise that is not likely to lead to any serious misunderstandings. It explains the connotations of the older wordings of the surveyed work, and must have taken hours to be written by editors in periods since year 2009, having been read by an average of 10-20 daily readers who had not expressed objections. As already mentioned it had also been explicitly evaluated by a total of about 15 committed readers in the final evaluation table at the end of the article that was standard and available for many Wikipedia pages until somewhen around April 2013. The deletion left the earlier version of the page bereft of important information on my core work about Quality-control of Information that would have been useful for future readers to understand also the text that was left.

 

As mentioned above, in 2010 I had found that some earlier deletions could be considered reasonable or a matter of judgment, having been made by a user-administrator who was especially concerned with a main area of my research – on systems. In my efforts to understand the possible intervention of Dougweller in an area in which, contrasted to Mdd, this user-administrator had shown neither interest nor familiarity with, I went on to check the traffic statistics for my page and his documented activity around the very same date of 3 April 2013.

 

To begin with, I noted that the date of April 3rd showed a remarkable upsurge of traffic statistics for my Wikipedia page. From an average variation between 10 and 20 accesses per day in the previous and following weeks there had been a top of 60 accesses exactly on April 3rd, suggesting a sudden increased interest for my page, possibly related to Dougweller's deletion since the page itself had not undergone any remarkable edits, and there were no events in my name that I know of. A new minor upsurge or 50 accesses to the page took place on April 14th, and I identify it as related to the objection raised by another user-reader coded "EnolaGaia" who on the Talk-page of the article had objected to Dougweller's deletion. His objection to the deletion (accessed 28 November 2013) has been until this time (November 2013) neither acknowledged nor responded by Dougweller who had not cared to bring his objection to the talk-page, and had ignored Wikipedia's own policy guidelines for his summarizing template "Too Few Opinions". The deletions were in practice a "Revert" that recalls the recommendations concerning bold editing, including "Wikipedia:Revert only when necessary" meaning that it is not the intention of  the Wikipedia guidelines on being Bold, Revert and Discuss (WP:BRD) to encourage reverting, and: "When reverting, be clear of your reasons in the edit." Dougweller lacks clarity and consideration for Wikipedia readers.

 

The Wikipedia instructions for the use of this template ("Too Few Opinions") state: "This article message box tags articles which may suffer from systemic bias by failing to include significant viewpoints. It will categorise tagged articles into Category:Articles needing more viewpoints. This tag should only be applied to articles for which significant, non-FRINGE different perspectives are reasonably believed to exist, e.g., for many articles about political economy, but not for many articles about chemistry. Please explain your concerns promptly on the article's talk page. If you do not identify the opinions that are missing, then any editor may remove this tag."

 

These official instructions put into evidence that Dougweller neither justified his edit nor followed up objections to his action, and indeed does not follow official instructions that should be well known by users-administrators. The fact that no other editor removed the template/tag may in goodwill, besides other obvious alternatives, be seen as demonstration of civility and courtesy combined with avoidance of time-consuming belligerent attitude. In the attempt to explain Dougweller's negative contribution to my page I checked his own self-presentation on his user page and on the net where he appears to be the object of some texts including an article titled Scandal at Wikipedia. I also checked his parallel simultaneous activity or his "user contributions" around 3 April 2013 that could explain the sudden interest in my page in an area for which no interest had ever been shown. His activity log showed that immediately before Dougweller's multiple operation on my page he (I assume is a he) had been involved in one on the page for Political Correctness. Did it mean something?

 

The way towards an explanation was unexpectedly confirmed, however, when I received a communication by a foreign informant who had got interest in my work. His user-contribution to the Wikipedia page on Political Correctness as identified by his IP-identifier 177.32.16.45 had also been rejected around 3-5 April by this very same user-administrator Dougweller in concert with a likewise extremely active North8000. They had been both involved in quite heavy polemics with others that happen to be well exemplified in Wikipedia. Both appeared prone to start edit wars against occasional common readers-editors. That is, wars which are paradoxically symptomatic for the concept of political correctness itself, since, as one user put it , the term itself is emotionally charged and allows no neutral point of view. Another user expresses it as "Whoa, this article is the product of a lot of emotional baggage". And the research issue is that it may be necessarily so, the more so when there is an ethical content where neutrality of point of view would imply the existence of a standard ethical personality (of editors) or a universally accepted worldwide religion.

 

That foreign informant, being interested in my work, had also made an edit of my page on April 3rd and had noticed that the very same Dougweller had intervened there that very same day. The informant's hypothesis for the otherwise nearly unexplainable event was that Dougweller had got annoyed and emotional by the fuss around the contribution of user 177.32.16.45 as further supported by the combative attitude of another user 90.229.133.145 on the talk page of Political Correctness. This would have led Dougweller to check their user pages, and especially the user page for 177.32.16.45 which was the only one with further information which could be useful for retaliation. There it could be seen that this same user also had worked on my page. This may have made it possible for Doughweller to quash parts of my page in which 177.32.16.45 also had shown involvement by contributing to. As a matter of fact if one looks into the previously mentioned user-contribution pages of Dougweller his daily edits, as those by North8000 and for other ambitious administrators like e.g. Rlevse, are so numerous that it is easily understood why most of them are quite superficially made, as in our "8 minutes". The number of edits is meritorious and deletions are easy, and speedy. Such edits will be barely followed up except when fueled by strong emotions that also can be misunderstood as intellectual commitment.

 

The idea of Dougweller's "retaliation" is consistent with comments to the article mentioned above about Scandal at Wikipedia. As the result of polemics or edits that per se are sometimes necessary and legitimate in Wikipedia, he is reported to have responded to mail by threatening to "permanently block from Wikipedia" his adversary. As mentioned, his name is found in similar controversial contexts on the net. One mail I received from readers of my page even advances the possibility of a worst case scenario: if this present essay of mine could be related to a user name or IP address it could retaliated by being blocked. Or worse: in the maze of Wikipedia policies and rules the bureaucratic-administrative means might be found for deleting the whole Wikipedia entry in my name. I cannot refrain from associating such extreme, exaggerate fears to psychological paranoia but they are meaningful in for the understanding of some Wikipedia problems that recur in criticism that has been directed against it. 

 

The last remark introduces us to a reflection about the type of personality of more prominent, active user-administrators and their social context, which are supposed to guarantee the open, democratic, participative workings of Wikipedia.

 

 

Personalities and social context of Wikipedia

 

What are we to do with the above? I know that the attitudes exemplified by the two mentioned user-administrators have been perceived as polemical, which may be sometimes justified with reference to the circumstances. They have also been perceived as outright arrogant, as suggested by the deletions from my page not having been brought to its talk-page, or as evidenced in the earlier mentioned dialog that involved the pair North8000 & Doughweller. Especially North8000 exemplifies an administrator-attitude, which is easily perceived as overbearing. One example is in Talk dialogue about political correctness mentioned above, where instead of responding to arguments, it is stated "Your post also indicates some misunderstandings in other areas. If you are new to Wikipedia, it is very easy for that to happen" or "You have misread the situation, and how Wikipedia works […] you reading way too much negativity into a routine process. Such is easy to do for new folks because Wikipedia editing is a really different place that takes some getting used to." The user with IP 90.229.133.145 mentioned above even symptomatically adduces a reference to the Wikipedia advising page WP:HUMAN labeled "IPs are human too", and quotes on the Talk Page of Political Correctness surveyed above (in vain): "Because of these misconceptions, edits by unregistered users are mistakenly reverted and their contributions to talk pages discounted. This practice is against the philosophy of Wikipedia and founding principles of all Wikimedia projects."  

 

And the overbearing words above were written without knowing anything about the person in question except for the identification of the user-page in terns of an occasional IP-number. This is, however, part of a much greater and deeper systemic issue that lately has surfaced in reports and articles, one of best being The Decline of Wikipedia.

 

In the context of the Wikipedia-scandal Wiki-PR, one of the commentators ("John" 2013/10/23) observes that many are discouraged from making corrections by "gatekeepers" while these gatekeepers may very well be being paid to enforce the status quo of "knowledge" – there is no way to tell. But the worst of it was reported in the context of another scandal that became well acknowledged after being publicly discovered. Wikipedia itself reports that in 2008 the pro-Israel activist group CAMERA launched a campaign to alter Wikipedia articles to support the Israeli side of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. The campaign suggested that pro-Israeli editors should pretend to be interested in other topics until elected as administrators. Once administrators they were to misuse their administrative powers to suppress pro-Palestinian editors and support pro-Israel editors. And in 2010 two pro-settler Israeli groups, Yesha Council and Israel Sheli, launched courses to instruct pro-Israel editors on how to use Wikipedia to promote Israel's point of view. A prize was to be given to the editor who inserted the most pro-Israel changes. All this can be seen as parallel to the type of conspiracies suggested by Grant F. Smith as published by "The National Summit to Reassess the U.S. - Israel Special Relationship", speaker transcript audio and video at the National Press Club, Washington D.C., March 7, 2014.

 

These examples are extreme, as it would be extreme to suspect, for instance, that Dougweller and North8000 are in practice "friends" acting as in an internal "meat puppetry" in supporting each other as if they were experts, all through several different pages of Wikipedia about the most varied subjects. As stated in Wikipedia itself about meat puppetry: "Do not recruit your friends, family members, or communities of people who agree with you for the purpose of coming to Wikipedia and supporting your side of a debate."

 

Such extremes, which are not applicable to our modest and trivial case may, however, be the top of an iceberg. For the purposes of the present essay, please compare with the section of Criticism of Wikipedia titled "Commandeering or sanitizing articles." Besides these extreme example there are other smaller events like one that was reported to me by a research colleague who in the course of his studies happened to note controversies in the editing of the Wikipedia page on American Jews: the case was the introduction of a reference to Bernard Madoff in that page's section on Finance, edited on 30 June 2009, as well as other edits of the same page 4 July 2009, which were promptly reverted by gatekeepers, followed by arguments on the "Talk page", under the labels on No censorship of "Bernard Madoff"  and From Madoff to Political Controversy. The stuff was wether Bernard Madoff was to be considered to be a notable American Jew only before he was incriminated and sentenced to jail. I will not take issue about who was "right". As it has been noted that user-administrators in Wikipedia will be neither requested nor verified to be experts, recalling what has been debated in terms of The Cult of the Amateur – the title of a book by Andrew Keen. I wish to expose by means of these references the painstaking process that went on between 30 June 2009 and 7 February 2010, and elsewhere might have been called "historical revisionism", as in former Soviet.  As Wikipedia itself writes about Historical revisionism (negationism): "The history of the Communist Party was revised to delete references to leaders purged from the party, especially during the rule of Joseph Stalin (1922–53)."

 

The Harvard Guide to Using Sources in a special section on "What's Wrong with Wikipedia?" spells that "Some information on Wikipedia may well be accurate, but because experts do not review the site's entries, there is a considerable risk in relying on this source for your essays. That is, experts do not review the site's entries and this means that Wikipedia has had to grow into a bureaucratic pyramid which is often believed by the general public to be vaguely "democratic" but may be more social-anarchic, which in certain systemic frames is supposed to be a self-referencing, self-policing, homeostatic, autopoietic, or emergent network. It has stimulated speculations, philosophical as in the problematic tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche's "self-reference", and such as in "Gödel-Escher-Bach" train of thought, or half-serious playful fantasies. These fantasies display, however, serious ambitions when one reads about them "how self-reference and formal rules allow systems to acquire meaning despite being made of 'meaningless elements'. Or, "recursion and self-reference, where objects and ideas speak about or refer back to themselves." Or, about emergence as "the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions." In fact such fantasies have been permeating the conception of not mainly Wikipedia but the whole Internet and pseudo-scientific ecological thinking, as critically illustrated e.g. in the second documentary titled "Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts" of the TV series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Not here, but in old good established control engineering there is a consciousness about the danger that systems, which apparently are self-referencing, homeostatic, etc. can run into unexpected destructive processes of positive feedback and resonance. Fortunately, at least on the Wikipedia page on self-policing there are revealing references in the section "See also" to Conflict of Interest, and Ethical Code. The Wikipedia organization itself including its core personnel also has its own interests, and more so: its own passions.

 

If it were not for the lack of knowledge of historical facts the matter should have incurred into the centenary discussion about bureaucracy or general administration, as well into the great issue of trust in general and in the search for truth in particular, not the least in science as considered, for instance, by Steven Shapin in A Social History of Truth. After an extremely well studied history of science Shapin reaches at the end of his book an anti-climax when he believes that personal relations of early science in the seventeenth-eighteenth century can be substituted by reciprocal social control or self-policing in the smaller communities of fragmented, specialized science.

 

We touch here one of the main points of this essay, the theoretical link to philosophy of science. In Wikipedia the main link relating to philosophy of science and scientific method is the policy page on Verifiability, where the history of its Talk Page, especially as highlighted by the research colleague involved in the Madoff question exposes in a symptomatic way the problematic scientific particulariy of Wikipedia in using the term in its own way. Under the undiscussed label of vague democratic organizational structure of supposed self-control there are unchallenged assumptions about truth, but also about democracy, which ignore political science, sociology, and systems theory, not to mention ethics.

 

Wikimedia defines the term Wikicracy in the following way, which in an eloquent way differs from Nicholas Carr's use of the term: Wikicracy, or Wikidemocracy is a model of government based on the open source and "wiki" concepts that have already been brought to the private sector, i.e. Wikipedia. Some people think it is the future of democracy. The idea, at its most basic level, is bringing common citizens to the law, and allowing for a transparent law process and maximum public input using the latest technology. The pinnacle of this theory is allowing community members in any given jurisdiction direct access to its laws. Using wiki style editing, people can actually edit their demands into laws. The whole idea is closely related to the so far poorly documented initiatives for metagovernment, about which the general public may have a general enthusiastic feeling but knows nothing except for the ambition that "Metagovernment's solutions are collaborative, consensus-based, and synthesis-oriented. In this way, we avoid the traditional limitations of direct democracy and allow everyone to be involved without degrading into mob rule, tyranny of the majority, or demagoguery." This recalls the possibility to adapt to Wikipedia what Claes G. Ryn writes (pp. 221ff.) in his book on Democracy and Ethical Life: "Yet, the institutions of constitutional democracy are endangered or destroyed in proportion as they are placed in the service of plebiscitary democracy".

 

Who cares about whether "plebiscitarianism" has something to do with the basic tenets of Wikipedia? We are very far from the kind of analysis of democracy, its requirements, limitations and dangers as found in political science or sociology or, for that matter as early as in the work of Alexis de Tocqueville – his fears for centralization of power in American democracy. If anything, Wikipedia's situation reveals a remarkable lack of historical and theoretical knowledge, and consequently a naivety regarding the essence and difficulty of the Wikipedia project. It is as if the renaming of democratic participative ideals into "wiki" will offset such shortcomings. And this happens in the same old spirit that was alive in the earlier mentioned technocratic movement, since it is the computer and ICT that are supposed to allow new possibilities and to avoid previously experienced but ignored historic difficulties.

 

This naivety, however, is concomitant to the fact that the scientific particularities of modern technologies in general and ICT in particular allow for the rise or, rather, the selection of particular personality profiles. Many user-pages of Wikipedia most active and therefore most experienced editors-administrators display such a frantic activity, easily about 60 edits per day of Wikipedia pages on the most different issues. They can be handled only be polymath experts who appear as geniuses, or by bureaucrats on the basis of networks of rules in the form of policies and guidelines. At its best this indicates a passion for truth, for competitive domination or whatever. At its worst recalls what psychologists name as compulsive behavior, most akin to bullying and gambling but also to checking, counting, repeating, and washing. The extreme is, of course the "Internet Addiction Disorder" of "wikipediholics" that, however, does not address retaliative bullying behavior. Ultimately it may be a question of personality disorders.

 

 

The Savant Syndrome

 

 

Right or wrong most people bear in themselves an image of the typical "scientist" or "university professor", e.g. as absent-minded or introvert. What kind of people are attracted to the "Wikiversity" bureaucracy to the point of risking turning into arrogant "wikipediholics"? ICT-operation requires logical and technical skills, which in turn often presuppose certain psychological aptitudes related to simpler formal skills in logic and mathematics, or "gymnastic" symbol manipulation, valuable for those whom Shapin calls "technicians" in the history of science (see below). It happens that the general public considers ICT people, not the least those who are conversant with Wikipedia's workings, as a sort of renaissance geniuses, as when top administrators run dozens of edits per day of pages on the most different cultural and scientific subjects. IIt is often the case, however, that certain brilliant aptitudes appear at the cost of serious detriment of other undeveloped aptitudes. This is sometimes evident in reports about people with high score on IQ-tests, exemplified by accounts of the deeds by Ronald Hoeflin with his claims in an article with the sensational ambitious title of Theories of Truth: A Comprehensive Synthesis, and Evangelos Katsioulis with his active membership in more than 70 "High IQ Societies" or accounts of phenomenal productive Wikipedia authors like Sverker Johansson as The World's most Prolific Writer. Different psychological theories have different perspective on this very same issue. For instance, according to the psychological types of Carl Jung the ICT-aptitudes require most probably the extraversion of the functions of thinking, and sensation, to the disadvantage of feeling and intuition, despite of intuition also being important in daily creative professional work. Some functions related to strong emotions can fall into the unconscious, running amok. My own experience indicates that there are close, if complex relations to the so-called Savant Syndrome, which is skillfully summarized by Darold Treffert in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (2009) as a contribution to a Discussion Meeting Issue "Autism and talent." Details, which require focused study also to ascertain whether it is a matter of degree (of "savantism") can be found in the same author's book Extraordinary People (1989.) It is common knowledge that many exceptional ICT-brilliant people have very peculiar personality traits that, if not savant-autistic, recall autism. Less favorable hypotheses are that "brilliancy" on the verge of genius can be found among borderline personality types, who show excessive preoccupation with and motivation for power, prestige, and vanity, with important organizational implications.The serious version of exceptional people who are not trivial "savants" is found in other works about serious scientists-mathematicians, as in Donald Albers and G.L. Alexanderson (eds.) Mathematical People, (1985). See especially about the relation between mathematics and computer science in the chapter on Donal Knuth (pp. 183-203), and compare with West Churchman treatment of "Leibnizian Inquiring Systems" in the context of his book The Design of Inquiring Systems.

 

These references are mentioned here, as others all over the present article, because in the spirit of my writing I do not aim at pronouncing categorical statements except inadvertently because of writing style, but mainly to offer hypotheses and hints for the study of these neglected matters. Savant or autism or personality syndromes mean that the concerned people have important shortcomings and difficulties, which cause important problems in organizations and society and require "the right man at the right place."

 

In this context related to talent and autism, mentioned above, it is interesting to note Steven Shapin's observation in his mentioned book (pp. 410ff.) that modern science has been characterized by depersonalization of research and loss of personal knowledge in the sense of knowledge of persons which is supposed to be replaced by trust in the organization. This is so despite of Shapin falling into the earlier mentioned trap (p. 414) of believing that this is today obviated by the homeostatic self-control arising within "small specialized communities of knowledge-makers", whatever "knowledge" and "small" means in the case of Wikipedia.

 

All this is a matter glossed over in the facile rejection of (even in Wikipedia itself) misunderstood ad hominem arguments. If we understand the problems of democracy we also learn to understand the importance of ethics. It is basically personal, and therefore it reflect itself in the importance of trust, a matter that is central in the mentioned work by Shapin. If, as in Wikipedia, most editors are supposed to work ideally, without payment, then it is probable that if they do not work for money they will work for advancing their "ideals" or, more prosaically, their own interests as related to their talents. If such interests are not pure logical-mathematical plays as in the mind of typical ICT-people and programmers (cf. Wikipedia technical infrastructure) or "networks of rules" loved by abiding top-editors-bureaucrats (cf. Wikipedia policies and guidelines), what is left is the play of emotional stuff that under the label of "truth" emerges in controversial matters exemplified by political correctness and American Jews. My own case, as I said, is comparatively very modest with the advantage that the emotional side of top editors is in a way still more visible when divested of strong political passions in matters of life and death. It appears in "childish" forms of systems of symbolic self-promotion and peer-recognition, which try to replace economic remuneration of "ideal" edit work and the inapplicable millennarian academic traditions, titles, and rituals of universities and international scientific societies. There is an overwhelming statistical display of activities (number or edits, etc.) and of various templates on their user pages, not the least Wikipedia's reciprocal peer-recognition, also in the visible forms of the magnificent list of Wikipedia Service Awards.

 

We can realize that the lack of a critical view of Wikipedia's theoretical difficulties is due to "that technicians' observational and representational labor was transparently subsumed into the workings of the instrument without attribution of assisting human agency." This is well illustrated by Shapin (pp. 362, 386) if we conceptualize bureaucrats (top editors who like mainly to control others' editings) and programmers under his historical label of laborants-laborators or technicians.

 

A reader of this present article may at the end ask what is the import of all the above theoretical ramblings, especially considering that the author himself confessed and showed that he uses many Wikipedia references. One answer to this is that such references are given when their content is not controversial for the issue at hand. An example is the link to ad hominem, above. Whenever an issue is controversial, or often socially important, then all the questions raised here become also important. That means that in the case of the ad hominem, for the further development of the argument I would have needed to resort to other references, which are much more difficult to identify, or then to develop the matter by myself.

 

 

The theoretical alternative

 

I mentioned at the beginning of this article that I come from a tradition of systems thinking influenced by West Churchman. It is well different from what goes under the label of knowledge management, which could also be thought of as an approach to the issue treated in this article. If the analysis of Wikipedia, to begin with, had followed Churchman's steps as outlined in his The Systems Approach (1968, 1984) it would have emphasized, among other dimensions, the question of measure of performance, clients, and decision makers. I assume, despite of not having seen it discussed publicly, that Wikipedia "internally", whatever that should mean, discusses the measure of performance. One should that it is not be only one or the mix of several among items such as the number of "Google hits", daily accesses, number of articles, number of edits, number of voluntary non-paid editors in proportion to the number of pages, accuracy (whatever that is in view of the above reference to "verifiability") etc. And this is much more than the Composition, Accuracy, and Coverage of the "Flagged Revisions Review" that years ago was considered in "wikibooks.blogspot.se".

 

In order to identify legitimate measure(s) of performance it is necessary for "someone" (but who?) to identify legitimate clients or stakeholders of the system, and they must be guaranteed to be properly represented by the actual decision-makers. In the case of Wikipedia it is not clear whether the privileged editors acting as decision makers and not being "elected" by readers really represent them with the consequence that they also act as clients. The decision makers must in turn be guaranteed the resources necessary to run the system and co-defining its environment. This includes the influence of external financers, and the editor-manpower issue that, for instance, the present Wikimedia Foundation's executive director Sue Gardner should consider to be one main problem. Or, as "John" states in the comments to her statement in blog.wikimedia.org on October 21, 2013: Many are discouraged from making such corrections by said “gatekeepers”. If Wikipedia wishes to live up to its ideals, it needs to allow much greater liberty in the information presented. It would definitely benefit from allowing and presenting public debate of those issues. While the truth may not always be immediately evident, given time and effort it will come out… If allowed.

The caveat is that this is not recognized to stand at the interface between ethic and politics in a field that ignores basic issues of scientific method. Probably it also ignores relations to basic tenets of library science before its ICT-reinterpretation, as historically perceived by studying classics like, say, Gabriel Naudé's Avis pour dresser une bibliothèque [Guidelines for Developing a Library.] Naudé makes a "pre-Hegelian" case, for instance, about the importance for libraries to acquire books that are seldom borrowed or are weird, a thought that also permeates my "quality-control of information". The ignorance, if not disregard, of scientific method is also patent when considering those Wikipedia gatekeepers who allow themselves to practice an "editing" that consists mostly of deletions. They represent a denial of one basic tenet of what Wikipedia should be about: the communication between writers and readers of its articles. As V.H. Howard and J.H. Barton from the Philosophy of Education Research Center of Harvard University formulate it the book Thinking on Paper (1986, p. 24) "Editing presupposes a text to edit." Such gatekeepers may foster the accumulation of their own internal Wikipedia service awards in terms of amount of edited (=deleted) text but in this way they do not contribute to the creation or improvement of existing text, ignoring even Wikipedia's own guidelines such as about how to Improve Articles. Still worse, they frustrate and discourage the long-term recruitment of goodwilled new users-editors, while at the same time destroying the collective good reputation of conscientious gatekeepers-editors. Most of these problems could have been identified with a front line application of the systems approach in general, and measures of performance in particular where gatekeepers would not allowed to be confused with legitimate beneficiaries or clients of Wikipedia, the less so when occasional contributors or "outsiders" to Wikipedia contribute more to its contents than regular editors and gatekeepers appear to do (ref. Aaron Swartz's investigation).

 

At the time of my own PhD dissertation on quality-control of information I did not dare to go into the issue, but it stands as a rationale for my late blog-skepticism about "debates", and about all the rest leading to my own brand of skepticism under the banners of "evangelization or apocalypticism". If anything my idea of not only allowing but even fostering public debate and its documentation not only in "Talk Pages" but also in the main body of the articles of Wikipedia pages indicates that approximation to truth within the idealized frame of a "hypersystem" should be a main dimension of the system's measure of performance. But this discussion implies the mind-blowing hubris of conceiving a paradoxical "system of chaos" of the information explosion, and indicates the limits of our legitimate investments and commitments to Wikipedia. We would meet what West Churchman called the enemies of the systems approach, especially politics, morality, and religion, and that would take us too far, as it should. It confirms at the end of this our article its initial poetic quotation about the wisdom we have lost in knowledge, and knowledge we have lost in information. Wikipedia is a dream, the latest expression of the old dream of the "enlightened" encyclopedists.