Sunday, February 03, 2008

Wikipedia and Knowledge and Lafayette Commons

Food for Thought Dept.

Every once in an while I put up something that is more for chewing on in the context of Lafayette and Fiber than it is on those topics directly. Sunday Thoughts. Food for Thought. Those are the usual tags long-time readers will have noticed. Today the pointer is to a new bit from Kevin Kelly; an intellectual hero of sorts for me.

Kevin Kelly has changed his mind about Wikipedia. It works. Most folks that "knew anything" knew it wouldn't work. Kelly knew it wouldn't work. And knew why. He, and they, were wrong. I think a lot of folks have made that admission. But few are as rigorously self-critical as Kelly. He tries to understand which of the assumptions that he brought to the table mislead him—and asks what other judgments of his might be based on those now-disproven assumptions.

His conclusion about Wikipedia:
How wrong I was. The success of the Wikipedia keeps surpassing my expectations. Despite the flaws of human nature, it keeps getting better. Both the weakness and virtues of individuals are transformed into common wealth, with a minimum of rules and elites. It turns out that with the right tools it is easier to restore damage text (the revert function on Wikipedia) than to create damage text (vandalism) in the first place, and so the good enough article prospers and continues. With the right tools, it turns out the collaborative community can outpace the same number of ambitious individuals competing.
This makes Kelly—who calls himself an individualist with a deeper sense of what that means than most—rethink his individualism and ask if there is a new and desirable sort of community emerging:

The Wikipedia has changed my mind, a fairly steady individualist, and lead me toward this new social sphere. I am now much more interested in both the new power of the collective, and the new obligations stemming from individuals toward the collective. In addition to expanding civil rights, I want to expand civil duties. I am convinced that the full impact of the Wikipedia is still subterranean, and that its mind-changing power is working subconsciously on the global millennial generation, providing them with an existence proof of a beneficial hive mind, and an appreciation for believing in the impossible.

That's what it's done for me.

Read carefully this post points to the way that Wikipedia's basic structure, its architecture, its rules, its algorithmic frame, encourage real, competent, participation and discourage and make inconsequential sabotage and ignorance. You just don't need a controlling hierarchy if you get the architecture right. It turns out that the "undo" command might be a critical social invention, or at least that's the way I read it. Maybe that('s why we should prefer a digital world. Wanna know what "undo" has to do with it? Read the article. It's well worth it.)

That's really interesting. And maybe it's something that is not only interesting globally but locally—here in Lafayette. We here in this little place will have the monster bandwidth of our generous intranet connection (100 megs or more to all!—locally) and the absurdly cheap storage that comes with our era. What can we do with big storage and unthrottled bandwidth—more what can we do that is worth doing? We on LPF, and the Lafayette Digital Divide Committee, have floated the idea of a Lafayette Commons—a deliberately vague notion about a site that would aggregate information and provide on-network resources to our community. Now our community doesn't need an encyclopedia...it needs something more focused on local needs, local events, and local, timely knowledge. We need to know what's going on down the block, who is hot in the local bar scene, what the real skivvy is on the district four councilman's connections, how to get funding for a new pocket park...and a lot of other things that I can't but you can imagine. The knowledge and understanding is out there. It is only getting the architecture of making it accessible right that stands in the way of our turning an amazingly fast and cheap local infrastructure into a something really valuable.

And it might be that Wikipedia—and a new generation that thinks Wikipedia is normal—is worth learning from. Kelly remarks:
When you grow up knowing rather than admitting that such a thing as the Wikipedia works; when it is obvious to you that open source software is better; when you are certain that sharing your photos and other data yields more than safeguarding them — then these assumptions will become a platform for a yet more radical embrace of the commonwealth.
What sort of common wealth could we create? If we can just get the architecture right.

Interested?

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