“Imagine a world in which every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge,” was the presumably utopian mission statement issued by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales last Thursday night, at the beginning of his PowerPoint presentation hosted by the New Museum. Wales, who was honored as part of the museum’s ongoing Stuart Regen Visionary Series (an annual series that began in 2009 with choreographer Bill T. Jones as the inaugural honoree), is founder of the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, the archive edited by unpaid amateurs guided by “traditions” of objectivity and neutrality.
Wales’ presentation was set up in the midst of the museum’s current exhibition, “Skin Fruit: Works from the Collection of Dakis Joannou.” While the artworks in “Skin Fruit” explore the simulated human form (figurative sculptures by Maurizio Cattelan and Robert Gober, among others, are psychic interpretations of the uncanny), Wales’ talk was washed clean of anything overtly-or one could say problematically-human. Much of his marketing-savvy lecture (replete with grandma-friendly heart-shaped cloud graphics) was pure 1950s, whitewashed optimism.
Yet a compulsion to collect bodies, be it in web “clicks,” seems to unite Wales with Joannou. Wales delights at the growth of Wikipedia: “Tell students to not use Wikipedia? You might as well tell them to not listen to rock ‘n roll,” he exclaimed, harkening, not untruthfully, John Lennon’s infamous proclamation that “The Beatles are bigger than Jesus.” His good-humored excitement seemed to infect the crowd with an equal desire to see Wikipedia “win”—much of Wales’ discussion centered around just how ubiquitous his network was. Following the grandiose promise of his aforementioned mission statement, that gave the museum’s downstairs lecture center the air of a pep rally. Like art collections and museums, web sites that share and deliver information are not free of the ideologies of their founders. And in the case of Wales, one has to wade through a lot of rhetoric and media-savvy lingo to get to what those ideologies really are. PHOTO COURTESY THE NEW MUSEUM
Wales began his talk with “proof” that culture was getting “smarter”—and that the rise in popularity of infotainment sites like Wikipedia proved how our culture was intent on bettering itself via consumable chunks of amateur-built knowledge disseminated on the web. Wales chose, in an attempt to verify the ascent of our group intellect in web-based education, to ground his theory in television. His message? Where we once watched television shows like I Love Lucy and Dragnet, claimed Wales, we now watch relatively complicated programs like Lost and The Sopranos. Certainly this proves that sometimes television—replaced by the Internet as the Beezlebub of cultural degradation—provides its viewers with relatively sophisticated approaches to narrative and not just slapstick or camp. More than providing evidence that our culture is smarter because contemporary television is (minorly) more erudite and less shallow, this seemed like a chance for Wales to plug Wikia, his for-profit site which allows people to contribute information to various fan-site Wikis. Lostpedia, a site devoted to Lost fans, is featured prominently on the site.
If there is a singular mind behind Wikipedia, it is Wales’. While philosopher Larry Sanger is credited as a co-founder, he has distance himself from the site, and is now Editor-in-Chief of the Citizendium, the Citizens’ Compendium, which his website describes as “A wiki encyclopedia project that is expert-guided, public participatory, and real-names-only”—i.e. very different than the amateur-guided, anonymous Wikipedia.
Wales went on to make impassioned, culturally, politically and intellectually informed statements when discussing Wikipedia’s place in the censoring internet climate of China. Wales desired to hold Google’s “feet to the fire,” for “compromising to participate” in China’s policies of censorship, saying he felt Google did this “just to make money” (he also considers Microsoft’s complicity “unconscionable”).
Critique of Wales’ ideologies of online culture can be found in early Virtual Reality pioneer and techonologist Jaron Lanier’s recently-published critique of internet culture, titled You are Not a Gadget. Lanier specifically targets Wikipedia for working on what he describes as an “oracle illusion,” in which “knowledge of the human authorship of a text is suppressed in order to give it superhuman validity. Traditional holy books work in precisely the same way and present the same problems.”
When Wales discussed Wikipedia’s place in global culture, he cited statistics about the interests of respective nations. Analyzing data depicted on bar graphs, he made sure to point out that Germans had a significant interest in geography and the Japanese in pop culture—while the French did not research sex very much because “they were probably too busy having it.” The comments were obviously flip, but the underlying expectation is that one shouldn’t argue with statistics. It was chilling to witness a leader in new technology using information to endorse cliches—particularly when the facts are based on faceless, quantitative studies.
During the talk, Wales said he hoped Wikipedia would help journalists with their craft. He recounted how often he had been asked when he founded Wikipedia, which he found to be annoying—he felt they should’ve looked that up beforehand. And here we come to the fundamental discrepancy between journalists—professionals trained with a skill—and the undifferentiated authors of Wikipedia entries. Journalists often ask their interviewees questions they may already know the answer to, because they are trying to engage a discursive discussion that would lead to something new, something interesting. Journalism, like invested scholarship, is not merely objective info-gathering. It is, at its best, an in-depth exploration of a subject that yields new “knowledge”—sometimes by treading back over the known facts and posing questions from different angles.
As the 45-minute talk wound down to the question-and-answer period (which was defined by softballs and accolades), I posed to Wales an audience head-swiveling question: “Why is his mission statement so grandiose? Instead of a site that provides every single person with the sum of all human knowledge, why can’t Wikipedia be described as a tool that a certain kind of person (i.e. one with the desire to use Wikipedia and Internet access) could use to gain access to a certain kind of knowledge, not unlike an online dictionary? Wales answered that being grandiose was “his job”—he wanted his statement to “capture people’s imagination.” He quipped that his “sum” was actually “a summary,” and not the whole, but the gist. Spectacle may be spectacle, in the hands of CEO magician. But how does the everyday user of Wikipedia, which is unfailingly the first answer to every question posed on Google, distinguish a form of amateur-produced information from true scholarly stuff?