The Cult Of The Amateur

The essence of WikiCulture and more generally of the WebTwoPointOh culture according to its critics, most notably Nick Carr:

Not really, he spends all of his time talking about Wikipedia in particular, although the parallel to other freely-editable sites is clear.

His conclusion: "Wikipedia might be a pale shadow of the Britannica, but because it's created by amateurs rather than professionals, it's free. And free trumps quality all the time. So what happens to those poor saps who write encyclopedias for a living? They wither and die."

Really? Just like Microsoft and Oracle have withered and died due to competition from free software? I don't think so. Britannica ran into business problems long before wikipedia was even begun, which is why it was sold for a song ($200M IIRC) by a rich enthusiast who wanted to preserve it (which he has, although he hasn't been much of a turn-around specialist).

Carr also mentions newspapers - but they have been encroached upon by each new medium that comes along. When radio news gained some popularity, newspapers were hit. When movie newsreels became common, newspapers were hit. When television news became common, newspapers were hit.

Newspapers have been in decline from such competition for a century. (It doesn't help that they're a nuisance; non-smudge ink is expensive and non-biodegradable, so most newspapers continue to use biodegradable inks that make one's hands filthy - but they still waste trees in vast numbers.) For the less organized, they pile up into clutter.

It's also very important to note that professional news in all media sucks so very badly that the comedy show "The Daily Show" is widely considered in polls to be the best source of news, while the "fair and balanced" Fox news is widely considered to be outright lying propaganda. (Yes, yes, AmericanCulturalAssumption, go ahead with your own notes on Argentinian and Ugandan media.)

Anyway, the bottom line is that, as the famous phrase said, "freedom of the press goes to he who owns a printing press", and all that has happened in the modern "Web 1.0/2.0" era is that amateurs now have "printing presses" that partially rival those of rich publishers.

That doesn't mean that amateurs are eliminating professionals; it just means that a new ecological niche is opening up, where both can coexist. Is that reason for reporting with alarm, or is it no different than the coexistence of amateur and professional sports?

WikiWikiWeb and Wikipedia and the like have their faults, but also great strengths: note the irony that we are even discussing the issue here, as amateurs.

-- DougMerritt

And their faults might greatly outweigh their merits if they grow to be a form of intellectual imposture. While the amateurs are conscious of their amateur condition that's fine, but while they pretend to be "professional" through hype and other means of promoting ( this wiki has never done it to my knowledge, but WikiPedia cannot be vouched for) then imposture occurs, and imposture and the argument of the masses is dangerous for the health of the culture. The nuisance is manageable as long as the elites at the top and the next few level (going maybe all the way to frehsman students) don't confound the two sets of values. But on the other hand there's also the social danger that knowledge and culture might dissolve under the pressure of amateurism. History has plenty examples of cultural involutions. So the role of critics like Nicholas Carr is to provide a counter balance to TheCultOfTheAmateur. If WikiPedia as a culture, and through it's most representative figures would show enough humility and CriticalSpirit to guarantee a socially healthy environment for the promotion of knowledge, then critics like Nicholas Carr would have less of a point. -- CostinCozianu

I accept your points and your critiques, it's just that it's not clear what follows from that.

For example, the EncyclopaediaBritannica and similar sources attempt to avoid imposture by recruiting only world-class experts to write their articles. It has always been, in fact, an honor to be invited to write for the most elite information sources, such as Britannica and OED. That doesn't rule out error and bias, of course, but it does relatively minimize it compared with purely amateur sources.

Then again, when it comes to new paradigms, "science advances one funeral at a time", and arguably sources like Britannica suffer by filtering out too much.

WikiWikiWeb and WikiPedia suffer the opposite fault, they filter too little (skipping many issues, for the sake of the argument).

Now let's look at local stuff that obviously has bugged you: those of us who are not as deep experts in relational theory as you, read something that CC says, and then something that Top says...and guess what, we may not have your expertise, but it's relatively easy to see that you do, and Top is just a hack (sorry, Top, but that's what you get for not studying academic theory).

So although it obviously bugs you that nonsense is said here on multiple topics, the more important underlying point is that most people are not fools; mistakes may be made, but on average, people will zero-in on high-signal sources. -- DougMerritt

I guess you are overoptimistic. WikiAddicts? might zero in on reliable sources because they get to know who's who and what's what and they wasted their energy over time building filters, etc. From the point of view of WikiReaders instead, the situation looks deplorable because the little knowledge there is on wikis can be extracted at a high cost from the mountains of chaff. For most of the things in life, people do not want to make "informed choices", that's not how life works. If it was so your brain would hurt terribly. Instead people rely on networks of trust to build good enough default choices for them, and only want to make informed choices for things that matter to them - which are very few. This actually is established science, it was recently published in an economical study, I'll have to dig out the reference. Wikis do not allow the build up of such networks of trust, because they're not a free market, they're a TragedyOfTheCommons.

Don't dig up web of trust references on my account, I've been a fan for decades; see e.g. my mention of them in the context of trusting software in a 1993 Cypherpunk post,

This 1991 paper talks about personal filtering of information without mentioning web of trust, but the author took for granted that web of trust was the starting place, and that further filtering would be necessary on top of that (which I know from discussions with him while he was writing it; I'm in the acknowledgements)

Anyway, point taken, there are limits to the degree people want to make informed choices. Without sources with some degree of trust, gathering even minimal amounts of information is exhausting.

I agree that wikis have a TragedyOfTheCommons element, and that they hardly encourage building webs of trust, but I disagree that they make them outright impossible. For instance, on certain topics, I have a high degree of trust in what you and certain other people here say, and some related degree of trust in e.g. authors you tell me I should trust on a topic.

So, I dunno, maybe I'm being too optimistic; to me it just seems like a middle of the road point of view. -- DougMerritt

I'm okay with being an amateur, as long as I get paid for it. -- GarryHamilton

:-) Cheap shot, but it needed to be said.

Cult or Culture

Could it be a matter simply of how one looks at the world? If one trusts systems, one turns to systems, if one trusts ThePeople, one turns to the people.

Three cults or cultures Babblemedia, may not pass "professional muster", or "peer review", or receive the approval of those who are considered the information elite, but it does seem to accumulate multitudes of consumers and participants.

Cults and Cultures frequent the marketplace People buy into what meets their needs I do not think this is a question of printing versus Internet. Printing is just a very sloppy and antiquated method of getting the consumer of knowledge to pay the producers. When it'll no longer work economically (probably some time very soon), it'll be replaced by something else. Maybe I'll have all my "books" stored on the size of my current iPod nano, but I'll still be paying something. And it's not in its very essence a question of publishing and distribution. It can hardly matter what you buy in the local bookshop, most of it is pretty junk (disposable knowledge at best), and when it would matter that would be truly a reason to worry. The question is one of the best economical organization and intellectual culture that conserves, promotes, creates knowledge. In spite of the amazing advancements in the 20th century, it should be not taken for granted that knowledge and culture will always grow, that they're guaranteed to be on an ascendent trend "no matter what". A bad organization of society, a bad economical mechanism, and the whole thing can go down the drain before you know it. Human civilization is incredibly fragile.

A very humbling lesson in this regard was provided recently by the History Channel, which ran a documentary on the history of the bathroom technologies. Some things that stuck with me: Roman Engineers mastered the art of aqueducts, most of the Romans had running water in their home, took baths daily and visited public bathrooms as well. They went about their needs in their home, and a permanently flowing water circuit, separate from the regular water, would take their excrement to some place out of town. With the decadence of the Roman Empire, the engineering knowledge was lost. It simply disappeared from society. Now fast forward a millennium later, and when one of the marvels of modern architecture was designed, namely the Versailles, it was designed with no bathrooms. And when kings gave monster parties with lots of guests, lots of food, lots of drinks, the guests would go about their needs underneath the interior stairs (it was relatively more private, presumably). The next day the servants would work to clean the versailles of the manure just like they did it in stables. The Versailles filled with pestilential odors, which is one of the reason they used perfumes so heavily and why the industry of perfumes grew so big in France - they needed to cover their smells and, by the way, one bath a year was considered enough at the time. There are many other instances of societies decapitating their elites, losing knowledge through negligence, inculture, imposture, bad management, but this one I found this story particularly telling. Eventually modern bathrooms developed in the 19th century, but up to that point the state of affairs with regards to bathrooms and personal hygiene in general was so decrepit in comparison to what was in the Roman Empire, that it constitutes in my opinion a very humbling lesson vis-a-vis the fragility of culture and civilization. Another lesson that I'm personally acquainted with is the degradation of cultural values under communism, but that is not as clear cut as the history of bathroom technology. There are positive lessons in history as well, for example the incredible history of the Jewish people who managed to maintain and develop their culture under incredible external pressures. So what I draw from these lessons is that unless a society is conscious of its values and actively maintains the efficient mechanisms for maintaining and developing knowledge and culture, there's a non-trivial danger that involution may occur. Sometimes it may have catastrophic consequences. The Western style scientific and cultural institutions (universities, academies, peer reviews, journals, government grants, etc) have proven fairly reliable, so while some people may try to view them as outdated, just considering the role they played in advancing the culture and civilization in the last few centuries, it's an incredible feat. As far as the situation stands now, I don't see for the life of me how TheCultOfTheAmateur can be a sustainable alternative to the traditional mechanisms that sustained modern culture and civilization. So a scenario where, say, academia (academic publishing, academic sources of authority) would be minimized in favor of Wikipedia and other Web 2.0 non-sense, would be, in my opinion, a nightmare scenario. On one hand there are some worrying signs (just today somebody referred to WikiPedia as a source of authority on programming related stuff, other things have been mentioned by Nicholas Carr and other critics), but on the other hand, such worrying signs can be either bleeps on the radar screen or a reflection of a healthy situation of dynamic equilibrium. The competitive pressure from WikiPedia and Web 2 is likely to be very healthy. If there is to be a dynamic equilibrium (which is probably the best bet), critics and criticism of Wikipedia play a very important role. -- CostinCozianu

Other criticism along the same lines: From :

SO WHAT, exactly, is the Web 2.0 movement? As an ideology, it is based upon a series of ethical assumptions about media, culture, and technology. It worships the creative amateur: the self-taught filmmaker, the dorm-room musician, the unpublished writer. It suggests that everyone - even the most poorly educated and inarticulate amongst us - can and should use digital media to express and realize themselves. Web 2.0 "empowers" our creativity, it "democratizes" media, it "levels the playing field" between experts and amateurs. The enemy of Web 2.0 is "elitist" traditional media.

Hey, I'm getting deja vu here. Another quote:

Sounds familiar? It's eerily similar to Marx's seductive promise about individual self-realization in his German Ideology:

"Whereas in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic."

SpecializationIsForInsects == Communism?? RobertHeinlein must be rolling in his grave!

He probably should. Who's that guy, by the way? Oh, never mind, it seems there are societies where SF writers still have some cultural standing.

Yes, like this one, as almost any WikiZen would attest. Are you sure about that?

Another thought, quoted from slashdot: "I've linked to the Encyclopedia Britannica [EncyclopaediaBritannica] above because the article about Planck's constant is very short. The article in Wikipedia is long. I've frequently seen the Encyclopedia Britannica be misleading because of the severe limitation placed on size of the articles due to paper costs. Wikipedia does not have that problem."

(I.e. in this case he wanted a short article, but is claiming that the longer ones can be better.)

This is independent of the amateur issue discussed above.

Actually I do think that an article on Planck's constant should be very short. But while visiting the wikipedia article (a very short one by wikipedia standards), I found the same style mishaps that are now a hallmark of TheCultOfTheAmateur on wikipedia: "In addition to some assumptions underlying the interpretation of certain values in the quantum mechanical formulation, ... ", "There are a number of other such pairs of physically measurable values which obey a similar rule". You just have to love the construct "some assumptions underlying the interpretation of certain values". Anyways, googling to find the Wikipedia entry, I found this brilliant article on the web that beats probably any encyclopaedic article: This jewel (I think it's not accidental that google ranks it first) communicates knowledge at the appropriate level (no professional that have to do with physics are in need of looking up Planck's constant on the web or in an encyclopaedia) very effectively and in PlainEnglish. My conjecture follows: on any subject you'll find openly accessible articles that are way better than WikiPedia. The only question is appropriate collection, indexing and tagging. BTW the EncyclopaediaBritannica article in question is

The wikipedia:

See also SockPuppet


CategoryDiscussion CategoryStory? --

View edit of April 3, 2012 or FindPage with title or text search