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Mmm technology, not merely man-made, but made of men!

Old Lady Who Swallowed A FlyI couldn’t come up with a title for this post while writing it, but kept thinking of that great line from David Nobel’s America by Design:

For technology is not simply a driving force in human history, it is something in itself human; it is not merely man-made, but made of men.” (1977, xxi-xxii

I’m indebted to John Labovitz for his comments on my wiki lament and for pointers to two articles about efforts to build a better wiki. The first, “Meet the uber-wiki”, is about WikiProfessionial’s WikiProteins, a wiki with structured data, automatic updates of related pages and alerts. The second is a piece by Tim O’Reilly about a recent NSF award to the University of Colorado to research and create a “New Generation Wiki” that goes “beyond existing wikis.” (It’s gotta be vaporware when one of the specifications is “utilize new paradigms.” As if simply “using” them weren’t enough. “Use”, “utilize,” do you know the difference?)

Even though these projects seem to respond to many of the concerns I had with wikis as groupware, for me they call to mind the children’s song about the old lady who swallowed a fly. That is, in terms of the ailment I described as wiki-mania, these cures may simply be more of the disease. The problems to which I point–of creating meaningful order collectively–are not, I think, chiefly problems of software but of socialization. From that standpoint, the fact that wikiware is the object on which the talk centers is itself indicative of the problem, namely, the tendency to see collaborative representation and storage of knowledge primarily in technical terms. There’s a saying that any problem in computer science can be solved by another layer of indirection, but this problem is simply bumped along to each new layer. Users are part of the system, you always get to them in the end, and there’s no system so robust it can’t be thwarted by ignorant armies, or subverted by clever ones. Right about now is when the techno-faithful (friends and colleagues) usually protest “but you shouldn’t have to be an expert” and I counter, “Yes, silly, but there’s a whole spectrum out there, why dash to an extreme?” Because “plug-and-play” isn’t the only alternative to expertise, no matter how those “Exegesis for Dummies” books would have it.

Focus on perfecting the wiki will not get at the concerns I was raising which were more along the lines of acknowledging that inculcating users in habits of mind and protocols is vital to any wiki project. Of course, to take that on sincerely requires swimming upstream against a strong cultural current that views meaningful social order as something that arises automagically from myriad individual transactions. Evidence of this current, as well as the social relations within which wikis work, can be found in this blog about Wikipedia edit-wars (start at the bottom).

Here, Parker Peters, a (former?) Wikipedia admin, expounds with great detail and vigor on the tactics by which, as he sees it, “Wikipedia turns ‘consensus’ into ‘groupthink’.” What interests me most is his notion that legitimate consensus is threatened the instant individuals act in concert. It comes forth most clearly in the post Lesson #3: Organize, Organize, Organize where he writes: “First of all, the idea of “consensus” is thrown under the bus as soon as an organized group shows up trying to push their own point of view.”

I understand where Peters is coming from and feel his frustration because, whatever the particulars in contention, I wouldn’t suppose that an artifact such as Wikipedia could be anything other than a social construct (with all that that implies). It’s a point Stephen Colbert gets across more pointedly and mirthfully in Wikiality, The Truthiness Encyclopedia

One of my newbie complaints of Wikipedia was, in fact, that articles didn’t include anything about who’d authored them, so that I might understand on what bases they advanced their claims to knowledge? But the aspiration to “neutral point of view” is one Peters shares with Wikipedia. His critique basically calls project admins to task for acting against values they purportedly have in common.

It is these values in which I’m interested, or rather, the conceptions of the social they bespeak. How do you distinguish between “groupthink” and shared values you do, or do not, happen to share? What are the bounds of consensus? The conditions of community? In what size and kinds of groups does legitimate discourse take place, that is, what distinguishes a cabal from a public? Though such questions may seem far afield from my complaints of wiki-mania, the connecting thread I’m tracing is a backgrounding (and even eclipsing) of the social work entailed in collecting and representing knowledge of any sort. It’s never merely a matter of technicalities, so when you background all thinking about what records or articles should consist of, or move from a world of pages, to one of feeds, without much attention, let alone discussion, of what habits of mind can be translated or rendered in the new media, you quickly run into all sorts of problems. You can throw all the “New Generation” and “uber” warez you want at these problems, but the trend toward field specific wikis (WikiProfessional) and initiatives like Citizendium which “aims to improve on the Wikipedia model by adding “gentle expert oversight” and requiring contributors to use their real names,” indicate their deeply social and conventional nature.

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