My Point Exactly: In Defense of Wikipedia and Other Digital Media
April 29, 2010
This article springboards off recent allegations of academic fraud levied against late historian Stephen E. Ambrose to form the basis of an argument against the infallibility of traditional academic sources of information and in favor of the digital proliferation of knowledge and creativity, especially via the free on-line encyclopedia, Wikipedia.org.
There is tremendous disdain for, even hostility towards, Wikipedia in the academic community. At both the secondary and post-secondary levels, instructors not only forbid citations from the site, but they fiercely admonish their students for even considering the site as a possible source of information, and they treat it as though even browsing the site is tantamount to indulging in internet pornography. In general, Minions of the Ivory Tower work diligently to discredit the site as disreputable, based solely on the fact that it is not “peer reviewed” (by their peers, of course) and that it is susceptible to infiltration by absolutely any person, regardless of that person’s academic qualifications. Clearly, the Minions do not share Rousseau’s faith in the general will, and their complaints are sufficient evidence that Wikipedia’s information is not only unreliable, but is in fact blatantly false. They would have us instead rely strictly on traditional publications, exclusively from the Ivory Tower Press, New York, New York.
Every once in a while, something wonderful comes along that corrodes the Tower’s pristine enamel. This time, it has recently come to light that the highly-acclaimed, late historian Stephen E. Ambrose, who in 2002 was accused of plagiarism in his book The Wild Blue, now posthumously faces accusations of having completely fabricated “hundreds of hours” of personal interview time with former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Rest assured, minions, this comes not from some “bogus” Wikipedia article, nor from some dubious Deep Throat. It’s hot off the presses from the New Yorker and the Guardian, among others. Paul Harris of the Guardian writes, “Given that the lives of former presidents are meticulously detailed by their staff, there is almost no chance Ambrose could have held interviews with Eisenhower that went unrecorded” (Harris, 2010). Meanwhile, Tim Rives, deputy director of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, confessed that this new evidence “should be something that would be a concern for scholars” (Harris, 2010). Of course it should be. After all, one of their own has demonstrated that their sacred covenant with research is not incorruptible. And suddenly, the impenetrable armor of academic authority, infallibility, and most of all, accuracy, brandished so smugly by the Ivory Legions seems riddled with holes, while digital democracy gains subtle credibility.
Wikipedia is one of the greatest public services – one of the single greatest technological developments – in the history of mankind. It embodies the promise that rests at the heart of internet technology: namely, that all the knowledge of the universe now lies at the tips of our fingers. Never before has so much information about so many topics been so readily available to the general population of the earth. This level of intellectual proliferation is unprecedented in human history, and it will only contribute to the most profound event of cultural diffusion our species has ever known, thereby increasing not only the general education of mankind but also, by consequence, raising the global standard of living. If these sentiments weren’t enough, the site’s very premise is founded on altruism, and it relies on the general good and a core sense of community that exists in our better natures. Put simply, Wikipedia takes the best side of humanity, and makes it better.
So why do scholars hate it so much? Any attempt to claim that they alone possess “reliability” is refuted by Mr. Ambrose’s example (and certainly he isn’t the only scholar who has ever “fudged” his notes a little). Any attempt to claim that, despite their own shortcomings, Wikipedia is nonetheless unreliable because of its democratic design is likewise refuted for two reasons. First, any factual errors or discrepancies the site may contain are no more grievous than what might be found and contradicted in any so-called “scholarly” publication. Furthermore, Wikipedia holds the advantage in that such discrepancies can be immediately addressed, while scholarly publications can only eventually be replaced by subsequent editions – editions which may contradict but which actually fail to eradicate the errors of their predecessors. Second, and derived from the first, those who would attempt to tamper with the accuracy of the site’s information, or who simply abuse the site for purposes of advertisement or petty digital vandalism, are fiercely regulated by a faction of society for whom no better name applies than Wikipolice. These are laudable citizens who may or may not hold some academic degree, but nonetheless persevere to ensure the integrity of the free, public site by flagging and/or simply deleting dubious posts on a minute-by-minute basis. Any Ph.D. who felt defending his dissertation was the most grueling experience of his life has not had to contend with the vicious scrutiny of the Wikipolice.
These are not the reasons scholars hate Wikipedia. Scholars hate Wikipedia for the same reason that music executives hate mp3s. The same reason that motion picture companies hate video pirates. The same reason that traditional book publishers hate print-on-demand houses. It’s quite simple. Digital technology is breaking the intellectual and artistic monopolies that have dominated the 19th and 20th centuries. Digital technology is proving that the monopolists don’t have the final word in what is fit to publish, and making it so that average citizens can access the intellectual and artistic markets as fully as any full-fledged scholar or executive, and without the expensive degree on their wall or the indignity of being judged by the semi-qualified. For centuries these people have hoarded their knowledge or products (and the money that goes with them), and dangled these things before the public like carrots on sticks. Digital technology is changing the world and the way people live as dramatically as the Agricultural Revolution or the Industrial Revolution once did. We are living the transitional period right now, and one day, historians like Ambrose will look back and heuristically choose some arbitrary date to mark the beginning of the Technological Revolution (and they’ll fabricate “interviews” they held with our grandchildren). As we enter the 21st century, digital technology has given us access to the halls of power and to the stairs of the Ivory Tower, and the monopolists are realizing something that terrifies them:
We don’t need them anymore.
This touches on ideas previously explored in Not Everyone Is an Alpha and in imperative #6 of End Totalitarian Teaching. First of all, academic knowledge is not the most precious commodity in the world; there are far more practical ventures than academia. Second, for what benefits academic knowledge does provide, we as teachers do not “own” knowledge. Knowledge is free and easy to come by, and it is only becoming more so. The role of a teacher is not to provide knowledge. It is only to package the knowledge in the kind of dressing that will make it appealing to the students, for once the students are engaged, they will seek the knowledge on their own, and that is when we have succeeded. In the past, the practice of hoarding knowledge has given the Ivory Legions a kind of power over people, and now, that power is being undermined. What’s worse: they’re losing money in the process. So of course they’re going to discredit these new technologies. They’re in their death throes. And those who do not or will not adapt to both the technological and ideological changes of the 21st century will go the same way as every other dinosaur in history. When is the last time the Remington Typewriter Company made a killing on the NASDAQ?
Should Wikipedia be used exclusively as a source of information? Of course not, but when does any reputable research rely only on a single source? Can Wikipedia be disputed? Of course it can, but no more than any other source. And are the more than 12 million (as of this writing) Wikipedians credible authors? Well, they’re certainly no less credible than the esteemed Stephen E. Ambrose. So thank you, Mr. Ambrose, for all your decades of hard work in the field of U.S. History. And thank you… for proving my point.