Ramblings & ephemera

Wikipedia, freedom, & changes in production

From Clay Shirky’s “Old Revolutions, Good; New Revolutions, Bad” (Britannica Blog: 14 June 2007):

Gorman’s theory about print – its capabilities ushered in an age very different from manuscript culture — is correct, and the same kind of shift is at work today. As with the transition from manuscripts to print, the new technologies offer virtues that did not previously exist, but are now an assumed and permanent part of our intellectual environment. When reproduction, distribution, and findability were all hard, as they were for the last five hundred years, we needed specialists to undertake those jobs, and we properly venerated them for the service they performed. Now those tasks are simpler, and the earlier roles have instead become obstacles to direct access.

Digital and networked production vastly increase three kinds of freedom: freedom of speech, of the press, and of assembly. This perforce increases the freedom of anyone to say anything at any time. This freedom has led to an explosion in novel content, much of it mediocre, but freedom is like that. Critically, this expansion of freedom has not undermined any of the absolute advantages of expertise; the virtues of mastery remain as they were. What has happened is that the relative advantages of expertise are in precipitous decline. Experts the world over have been shocked to discover that they were consulted not as a direct result of their expertise, but often as a secondary effect – the apparatus of credentialing made finding experts easier than finding amateurs, even when the amateurs knew the same things as the experts.

The success of Wikipedia forces a profound question on print culture: how is information to be shared with the majority of the population? This is an especially tough question, as print culture has so manifestly failed at the transition to a world of unlimited perfect copies. Because Wikipedia’s contents are both useful and available, it has eroded the monopoly held by earlier modes of production. Other encyclopedias now have to compete for value to the user, and they are failing because their model mainly commits them to denying access and forbidding sharing. If Gorman wants more people reading Britannica, the choice lies with its management. Were they to allow users unfettered access to read and share Britannica’s content tomorrow, the only interesting question is whether their readership would rise a ten-fold or a hundred-fold.

Britannica will tell you that they don’t want to compete on universality of access or sharability, but this is the lament of the scribe who thinks that writing fast shouldn’t be part of the test. In a world where copies have become cost-free, people who expend their resources to prevent access or sharing are forgoing the principal advantages of the new tools, and this dilemma is common to every institution modeled on the scarcity and fragility of physical copies. Academic libraries, which in earlier days provided a service, have outsourced themselves as bouncers to publishers like Reed-Elsevier; their principal job, in the digital realm, is to prevent interested readers from gaining access to scholarly material.

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