Monday, December 05, 2011

Wikipedia and the Enlightment

A debate is raging in Wikipedia about why their 'valued articles' are not very good, and hence not very valuable. You can follow it on their mailing list here.  The list of 'Valued Articles', which is itself not very good, because it omits many obviously vital articles (such as Theology) is here.  The obvious answer (which seems to have occurred to no one) is that there is a shortage of editors who know about these subjects. Take one of the vital articles on their list, Age of Enlightment.  It begins
The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason) was an elite cultural movement of intellectuals in 18th century Europe that sought to mobilize the power of reason in order to reform society and advance knowledge. It promoted intellectual interchange and opposed intolerance and abuses in church and state. Originating about 1650–1700, it was sparked by philosophers Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677), John Locke (1632–1704), Pierre Bayle (1647–1706), mathematician Isaac Newton (1643–1727) and Voltaire (1694–1778). Ruling princes often endorsed and fostered figures and even attempted to apply their ideas of government. The Enlightenment flourished until about 1790–1800, after which the emphasis on reason gave way to Romanticism's emphasis on emotion and a Counter-Enlightenment gained force.
This is horrible and clumsy and fails to explain what the Age of Enlightenment was really about. First of all it was a period rather than a movement, which is in fact why it is called the 'age' of enlightenment, lasting from about 1740 to 1780, although its ideals persisted for long after that, and I would like to think or hope that this blog embodies some of them.

Secondly, the Enlightenment is essentially a set of values shared by prominent writers and thinkers of the period. Their guiding principle was that the increase of knowledge, the use of reason, and the application of the scientific method would improve the condition of humankind. Its outlook was a belief in the possibility of progress: human beings are essentially good, and people can better themselves and society by education and the application of reason.

The introduction to the Wikipedia article doesn't really get us there at all. I'm not sure that enlightenment thinkers regarded themselves as an 'elite'. One of their basic principles was that reason is the property of all humankind, and not of some self-elected elite. To say the movement 'promoted intellectual interchange' may well be true, but is true of many other movements. The third sentence about princes "endorsing and fostering figures" and "applying their ideas of government" makes no sense. And the final sentence is horribly 1066-ish.

The problem is simple: the theory of "crowdsourcing" doesn't work. According to this theory, 'anyone can edit' an article, and by some Darwinian process the good edits will survive and the bad ones will perish and become extinct, and so we will end up, after 10 years of Wikipedia, with an absolutely perfect and flawless article about the Age of Enlightenment.  That theory is clearly false. It is a crime that the gang of illiterates who have taken over Wikipedia should have let such a noble project - one which should have been the very embodiment of the ideals of the Enlightenment - languish and decay so lamentably.


J said...

""Enlightment ""

Enlightenment-- translation of Kant's.."Aufklarung" iddnt it (lit. "clearing-up"/explanation).

The article seems mostly in the HS encyclopedia style but some balance is offered. The writer does stress the elitism--then, wasn't say Voltaire an elite--but it's not worthless. Or are you detecting a bit of.....a marxist vibe, Ock? At times ah've thought the Wiki gang had some bloody Trots workin' for em.

J said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
William M. Connolley said...

OT, but if you want to take this piss out of wikipedia, you could look at, and the anon edits, and then look at the blog which was the source, and realise someone has mistaken a caption above for one below...