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.

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6 Responses to “My Point Exactly: In Defense of Wikipedia and Other Digital Media”

  1. As any “historian” should know, research demands the use of multiple sources as it should be accepted that any account of an incident in history, no matter how well written, comes with certain baggage on the part of the author. You need to dig up the same story from multiple sources hopefully written from differing points of view before you can even hope to uncover an idea of what must have really happened. Along those lines, Wikipedia should be afforded no more and no less weight than any other source in any other format.

  2. Tim Shanahan said

    I enjoy how this article relates to your earlier facebook comments about the obsession of ownership. But the obsession with these intellectuals seems to be one of authoritarianism more than capital gains. It would be interesting to see the history of these Wikipedia critics: were they the over-priviledged “trustafarians” of the campus, or the pot smoking, dorm room Marxists.

    Wikipedia represents a grand first step in the development of our collective consciousness. I think it also represents a free and unlimited ammunition which our proletariat can use to break the monopoly of corporate media. It just simply needs to be used by more people.

    • The suggestion that capital gains were the chief obsession applies more to the referenced moguls in the film, recording, and publishing industries. However, make no mistake: as an institution, education strives for profit as well. They make a killing on tuition and fees, and the professors, especially those at the research schools, thrive on publication. Of course, the illusions of “ownership” and “entitlement” still seem to be a more powerful force than money, and that’s what’s really stinging the old-school scholars. Thanks for reading.

  3. munkie said

    While studying in Germany, I was utterly shocked that Frau Professor XYZ suggested Wikipedia as a major source for our research project. This, to my mind, indicated a serious defect in the German educational system. But, perhaps it was a “cultural thing.” To this day, I am still unaware of any cultural stereotype that Germans “half-ass” their research.

    It all became clear during a presentation on the ’68ers in our Post WWII History course. Apparently, the generation after the occupation grew up with very little awareness of the true horrors perpetuated during the war and the genocide. When awareness spread in the late sixties, young people began to question the very foundations of their de-nazi-fied, but still quite authoritarian society. The ’68 movement brought about more accountability for war criminals, social liberalization, and the belief that it was time to air out “the hundred-year-musk” beneath the robes of Academia.

    My first reaction to my Professor’s words was, ‘how do I know if the opinions plastered across Wikipedia have any legitimacy?’ (I was well trained by my American professors to completely ignore the existence of Wikipedia) Now, I think, why limit my education to the agenda of American Academia? I’m a big fan* of Wikipedia. We could also benefit from similar reform.

    *Making an exception for the realization that a person who has time to write a wiki-article is by definition, a member of a privileged class. Note that the VAST majority of contributors are male. (I’m sure Academia would LOVE to do a study on other socio-economic parallels) Even so, Wikipedia is a step in the right direction.

    • Munkie,

      Thank you so much for sharing those comments. I’m glad my faith in the German reputation for academics has not been shaken! I really appreciate you painting Wiki in the context of a German (for example) society reacting to a system that had abused them and wanting to be more participatory. Excellent point. I also appreciate the very poignant detail that a Wikipedian is by nature a member of a privileged class, which only begs the question: what are the beard-scratchers in the Ivory Tower so upset about?

      As an aside, I wrote my first Wiki article while in college, a thing I can’t help being a little proud of still, though it’s been greatly improved upon since then. I e-mailed one of my professors, an expert on Russian history, asking her to check my work. At the time, I had yet to learn the level of disdain most professors have for Wiki. She wrote that it was “very laudable” that I contributed, but she never actually looked at the page. I used to think she was simply too busy to ever get around to it, which, with her own writing, I’m sure she was. Nevertheless, these days I can’t help wondering if there’s more to it than that…

      Thanks for reading, Munkie.

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