A fascinating article in the latest issue of MIT Technology Review details some of the challenges facing Wikipedia, the wildly popular online encyclopedia whose ambitious goal is to “compile the sum of all human knowledge.” In short, Vannevar Bush’s memex on mega-steroids.
The sixth most popular website in the world, Wikipedia is totally unlike the others in the top ten, mostly because it has never been commercialized. Run by a leaderless collection of dedicated volunteer editors bound by a byzantine set of operating guidelines, every month it gets 10 billion (yes, that’s a “b”) hits in the English version alone, and it has grown to over 4 million entries. Although it continues to be decried by dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists who question the value of crowd-sourced knowledge, it has nonetheless managed to establish itself as an authoritative voice, so much so that Google (another internet powerhouse) and Siri often pull information directly from the massive site as though it is accepted fact.
If you are like me, you have come to rely more and more on Wikipedia as a quick-and-dirty way to find info the info you need. It is not unusual for me to query the site several times a day, and I even use it professionally (if carefully) in my teaching and research. So it pains me to learn that the number of editors has declined, that new editors are being discouraged from contributing, that the contributor’s interface remains decidedly un-userfriendly, and that the coverage continues to be heavily skewed toward the interests of the current editors and administrators, who are estimated to be 90% male. That translates into obsessive detail on individual Star Trek episodes (and, according to the author of the Technology Review article, female porn stars), but scant coverage on things like poetry, art, literature and any number of topics that fails to stand out on the average geeky male’s radar screen.
Wikipedia represents the highest hopes of those who originally envisioned the personal computer and the internet: authoritative knowledge freely available to anyone connected to the web, carefully curated by an self-less community of committed volunteers striving to continually improve on its quality and quantity. No commercials. No paywalls. No monthly fees. Of course, the reality of Wikipedia has always been much more complicated than that, but it would be a shame if that dream were allowed to completely wither and die.
Apropos to our discussion in the New Media Seminar yesterday, here’s a link to a recent post in Slate about how quickly students learned to hack school-supplied iPads. There’s also some discussion about how much they can learn simply by being allowed to explore on their own. Who’d a thought that could happen?
The excerpt for this week from Ted Nelson’s Computer Lib/Dream Machines, first published in 1974, was in many ways a breath of fresh air. While the passages from Bush, Engelbart, Licklider, and Weiner were all interesting and enjoyable in their own right, they lacked the decidedly playful spirit and joyful ebullience of Ted Nelson’s writing. I knew immediately from a quick glance at the cover that this was a totally different time and this was a very different guy. Clearly not an engineer, scientist, or a mathematician, like our previous authors, but someone who was broadly educated and read, had a wonderful sense of humor, and was not just celebrating the potential of the machine but also critiquing it and the larger society in which it was embedded. For example, his gripes with our educational system in Computer Lib seemed spot on, perhaps even more so today, with increasing levels of assessment driving nearly every moment in the K-12 classroom, slowly strangling every ounce of curiosity of our children and treating them like empty pitchers into which knowledge can be poured (and then regurgitated back out, on command). Nelson clearly inhaled deeply in the anti-establishment haze that pervaded American society in the rambunctious, rebellious ’60s and ’70s. And given the appearance of the book’s pages, with their drawings and handwritten text, I was not too surprised to learn that he was associated with Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, one of the quintessential counter-cultural documents of this period (and incidentally, one I spent quite a bit of time perusing when I was a young teenager, as much for its frank, hippy dippy discussions of sexuality as its promotion of creative lifestyles, an environmental ethos, and alternative technologies).
That is not to say, however, that Nelson did have a mean geek streak as well. While he was not an scientist or engineer by training, Dream Machine is populated with a variety of creative new ideas for using the untethered computer workstations that were just coming on the market at the time. Nelson’s keen sense of the importance of user-friendly hardware and software (though I don’t think he used either of those terms himself) pervades the book. And some of the particular “dreams” he presents are awesome. Take, Stretchtext, for example. This is a form of imagined hypertext that would allow the user to access condensed or progressively expanded versions of a given text, using a throttle to make it longer or shorter “on demand.” So, a reader could use a condensed version of the text to get the gist of a given paragraph, page, chapter, or book, and then expand it as needed whenever he or she wanted more detail. How cool is that?
I was in some ways heartened by the humanity evident in parts of Norbert Weiner’s “Men, Machines, and the World About.” While his vision seems to share some of the technocratic exuberance of Vannevar Bush, Weiner also seems a bit more cautious, especially toward the end of the essay, when he offers a series of warnings about the need to make “many changes in the way we live with other people,” to seriously consider the importance of leisure in our lives, to counter growing governmental secrecy, and to turn machines to human advantage.
In the last paragraph, he turns to a folk tale to drive home his point about the potential dangers of new computing machines that can learn. More specifically, he recalls the story of the fisherman and the genie, a powerful figure that is quite irked at being long imprisoned in a bottle and seeks to take out revenge on the fisherman who has inadvertently released him. Although, the fisherman eventually manages to talk the genie back into the bottle, Weiner ends his speech with a dire warning: “Gentlemen, when we get into trouble with the machine, we cannot talk the machine back into the bottle.”
This view of technology as a genie out of its bottle seems to recur frequently in the 1950s and early 1960s, a particular cultural moment when, living in the shadow of the bomb, it was nearly impossible not to be concerned about the potential negative consequences of “progress.” It was the image that Walt Disney turned to in “Our Friend the Atom,” a segment from his weekly television show that was first broadcast in 1956, just two years after Weiner’s essay, and later widely shown in schools. While Disney, a technological booster, sought to reassure his audience about the beneficence of nuclear power, his use of a genie in the film also raised the specter of unintended consequences for more alert viewers. Six years later, when John Kennedy was decrying the stalled US-Soviet negotiations to halt atmospheric testing on nuclear weapons, which were spewing radioactive fallout across much of the globe, he also passingly mentioned that the “genie was out of the bottle” and he openly wondered whether we would be able to put it back. He returned to that powerful image when he presented the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty to the Senate for ratification in 1963, declaring the newly negotiated agreement an “important opening wedge in our effort to ‘get the genie back in the bottle.'”
Weiner’s warning at the very end of his speech suggests a call for thinking long and hard about the potential unintended consequences of technological development, a call that seems to have largely fallen on deaf ears.
The past couple of days I’ve been giving some fleeting thought to my own personal relationship to digital technology and technology more generally. At the first meeting of our New Media Seminar, I introduced myself by saying that I was generally a “late adopter” of new technology, whether digital or otherwise. After listening to others in the group characterize their sense of whether they readily embraced or shunned the latest whatever and giving it a bit more consideration, I think it’s actually more accurate to say that I am more of “selective adopter” than a dyed-in-the-wool Luddite (though I have to admit do have some Luddite tendencies as well).
I guess my general starting point is one of initial suspicious of the “Latest Big Thing That Is Going to Revolutionize Your Life.” As a historian of science, I have seen that most times the initial promises simply don’t pan out and almost invariably there are unforeseen consequences–social, economic, environmental, and more–associated with the adoption of any new technology. At the same time, I find the planned obsolescence that is at the very core of contemporary technology to be both irritating and incredibly wasteful. Nowhere does this seem more true than with computers and software, when models are released or updated every few months, new operating systems constantly produced, and new software ubiquitous. It is nearly impossible not to update everything fairly regularly, even if you have a robust system that seems to meet your needs entirely. It’s planned obsolescence taken to its logical and more ridiculous extreme.
But while I am suspicious from the get-go about new technologies of various sorts, I do selectively engage with them, and I don’t mind admitting when my initial qualms about a given technology were mistaken. Take the cell phone, for example. I was initially quite wary of getting one, because of cost, because I didn’t want to be readily available to the world 24/7, and because I saw no particular need to have one just because it was the latest “must have.” Since finally making the plunge almost three years ago, however, I have to say that I really like this technology–well, most everything except for the cost (which I continue to think is a bit excessive), dealing with Verizon (which, along with the cable companies, seems to always devising new ways to scam consumers), and the fact the phones seem to have a relatively limited lifespan. I really enjoy the opportunity to quickly touch bases with my wife by text a few times a day and to keep in touch with our kids and other family members. They are also super convenient when traveling.
I guess the trick is trying to figure out which technologies ultimately enrich our lives, like I think the cell phone has done, and which simply burden us (and ultimately our natural world) with more expensive, time-sucking, fleetingly fashionable, and soon-to-be-obsolete junk.