Knowledge to rely on?

On 18 January 2012, (English) Wikipedia shut us out in protest at proposed US legislation. I was deeply upset by this, and wrote the following piece in response. I have only adjusted its paragraphs, and have not altered its content in any other way.

I started collecting books at the age of three, and there is not a room in the house (other than the bathroom) that does not shout that in volumes. In parts the house has been completely taken over by built-in bookcases, fully-laden extra-strong metal racking, and stacks from the floor to eye level.

These books bring not only entertainment and knowledge, but enlightenment and occasionally deep wisdom. They are culled from the lists of Amazon, its secondhand service AbeBooks, Waterstones, many independent booksellers, and pilgrimages to local bookstores the world over.

Despite these, I have long been an avid browser of Wikipedia, and have praised its goals and strengths on previous occasions. Wikipedia is partly to blame for my addiction to books, because it not only provides valuable web links, but also rich leads into the printed literature: the spark to another multi-page shopping basket on Amazon.

The information contained in my books and Wikipedia is not, of course, totally accurate. I disagree with many of my specialist medical works, and they with one another. Anyone who has used Wikipedia much will know that there are some subjects that fall short of its generally high standards, although unlike my books, Wikipedia is only too happy to admit to those shortcomings.

Over the years, it is Wikipedia’s honesty, openness, neutrality, and worldwide collaboration that have made it particularly endearing and valuable. My books are always to hand, once I can recall where I have stacked each one that I want, and have physical properties that can be startling, sumptuous, or even seductive, but Wikipedia has proved an ideal complement. When I travel, and can only carry a few carefully-chosen volumes together with electronic libraries, wherever I can get online I know I can settle back with the largest encyclopedia in the world.

I could, until 18th January.

Then, when Wikipedia blacked out its pages to ‘raise awareness’ over the perceived threats from SOPA and PIPA, two bills in progress through the organs of US democracy, I realised that it has cast aside its high ideals. Just as when Amazon pulled copies of some ‘purchased’ books by George Orwell from Kindles, the provider had shown itself to be too flawed to be trusted.

It was not that I had been personally inconvenienced when Wikipedia brought its black screen down over the one entry that I tried to access on 18th January. Rather it was the principle that a few people who manage Wikipedia could stop millions of us around the world accessing the pooled knowledge and insight of its host of contributors.

Wikipedia has turned what used to be a global community service into a commercial product, pulled from under us whenever its leaders think fit. It was only appropriate that this was the same day that the doctors’ trade union announced that it might take strike action, as if they were stevedores or steel-workers.

Wikipedia’s action on SOPA and PIPA was apparently agreed following a discussion of “over 1800 Wikipedians”, a tiny fraction of the “tens of thousands” who have contributed material to Wikipedia over the 11 years since it started. Wikipedia did not disclose how many of those “Wikipedians” had made substantial contributions to its content, nor the fact that there was no attempt to canvas its 16 million registered users as to whether the blackout was merited or mistaken.

Given that one of Wikipedia’s few avowed policies is that “we avoid advocacy”, this is heretical, and has transformed a remarkably neutral treasure into yet another political campaign platform.

I think that is very sad.

The original was first published in MacUser volume 28 issue 05, 2012. Wikipedia’s account of this is here. Ironically, just as many people have been accused of altering their entries in Wikipedia, so Wikipedia has been accused of not representing the proposed legislation accurately. Wikipedia has not attempted any similar protest since.