Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Wiki way to ignorance

I love Wikipedia.

It's the first reference that I consult when I need information on-line in a hurry, and I generally get the background, pictures, and links that I need for a quick insight. 

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For example, someone suggested that I see the Goya etchings exhibit at the Petit Palais in Paris last Sunday.  The art was thoughtful,  powerful, and disturbing: The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters (right, courtesy of Artchive) is a typical example.  Afterward, I had a quick browse of the article on Wikipedia to put a bit of context around it.  All well and good.

Or is it?

  Wikipedia is a consensual source: Truth is what everyone agrees to.

One of my business school teachers made the point that each generation has it's own source for authoritative answers.  People in their 50's and 60's tend to look to experts: they read the Economist, consult textbooks, listen to podcast lectures, attend a class.  Those in their 30's and 40's, she asserted, looked to people that they personally knew, liked, and trusted, following pundits to a greater degree. Today's 20-somethings tend to ask their friends and go with the consensus.  The lesson was that we had to tailor our customer communications to fit the channels that people use.  But the notion that Truth could be discovered through consensus troubled me.

A recent Windows Weekly podcast asked why expertise has become so undervalued.  His example compared TV cooks Julia Child, who studied French techniques diligently before teaching them, to Rachel Ray, who today prattles mindlessly around a kitchen (or a country, if you follow her travel show).  Why, he argued, do we accept advice from someone who knows less than we do?  'simply easy time spent sharing perspectives with an engaging personality?

Susan Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason) suggests in the Washington Post that it stems from a combination of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism.  Not only do people lack knowledge, but they have become arrogant about it: "The problem is not just the things we do not know; it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place".  This attitude is prevalent from talk-show pundits to the President, and it has a significant impact on public discourse and policy decisions, as well as infecting easy targets like media, entertainment, and conversation.

  ...and I wonder if it corrupts Wikipedia.

     To return to Goya, "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters".

        How many monsters, today, are a simple result of ignorance and indifference?

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