On the Purposes of the Internet

SISCTI 34
February 28, 2009
Monterrey, Mexico

Introduction

I am going to begin by asking a philosophical question about the Internet. But I can hear some of you saying, “Philosophy? What does that have to do with the Internet? Maybe I will have a siesta.” Well, before you close your eyes, let me assure you that the question is deeply important to some recent debates about the future of the Internet.

The question is: what is the purpose of the Internet? What is the Internet good for? Perhaps you had never thought that something as vast and diverse as the Internet might have a single purpose. In fact, I am going to argue that it has at least two main purposes.

To begin with, think about what the Internet is: a giant global information network. To ask what the Internet is for is about the same as asking what makes information valuable to us, and what basic reasons there might be for networking computers and their information together.

 

The two purposes of the Internet: communication and information

I think the Internet has at least two main purposes: first, communication and socialization, and second, finding the information we need in order to learn and to live our daily lives. In short, the Internet is for both communication and information.

Let me explain this in a simple way. On the one hand, we use the Internet for e-mail, for online forum discussions, for putting our personalities out there on social networking sites, and for sharing our personal creativity. These are all ways we have of communicating and socializing with others.

On the other hand, we are constantly looking things up on the Internet. We might check a news website, look up the meaning of a word in an online dictionary, or do some background reading on a topic in Wikipedia. These are all ways of finding information.

I want to explain an important difference between communication and information. Communication is, we might say, creator-oriented. It’s all about you, your personal needs and circumstances, and your need for engagement and recognition. So communication is essentially about the people who are doing the communicating. If we have no interest in some people, we probably have no interest in their communications. This is why, for example, I have zero interest in most MySpace pages. Almost nobody I know uses MySpace. MySpace is mainly about communication and socialization, and since I’m not actually communicating or socializing with anybody on that website, I don’t care about it.

Information, on the other hand, is not about the person giving the information but about the contents of the information. In a certain way, it really does not matter who gives the information; all that matters is that the information is valid and is of interest to me. And the same information might be just as interesting to another person. So, we might say, communication is essentially personal, and information is essentially impersonal.

I say, then, that the Internet’s purposes are communication and information. In fact, the Internet has famously revolutionized both.

The Internet is addictive largely because it gives us so many more people to talk to, and we can talk to them so efficiently. It allows us to compare our opinions with others’, to get feedback about our own thinking and creative work. In some ways, the Internet does this more efficiently than face-to-face conversation. If we are interested in a specific topic, we do not need to find a friend or a colleague who is interested in the topic; we just join a group online that has huge numbers of people already interested, and ready to talk about the topic endlessly.

Online discussions of serious topics are often a simplistic review of research, with a lot of confused amateur speculation thrown in. We could, if we wanted to, simply read the research—go to the source material. But often we don’t. We often prefer to debate about our own opinions, even when we have the modesty to admit that our opinions aren’t worth very much. Discussion is preferred by many people; they prefer active discussion over passive absorption. Who can blame them? You can’t talk back to a scientific paper, and a scientific paper can’t respond intelligently to your own thoughts. The testing or evaluation of our own beliefs is ultimately what interests us, and this is what we human beings use conversation to do.

But the Internet is also wonderfully efficient at delivering impersonal information. Search engines like Google make information findable with an efficiency we have never seen before. You can now get fairly trustworthy answers to trivial factual questions in seconds. With a little more time and skilled digging, you can get at least plausible answers to more many complex questions online. The Internet has become one of the greatest tools for both research and education that has ever been devised by human beings.

So far I doubt I have told you anything you didn’t already know. But I am not here to say how great the Internet is. I wanted simply to illustrate that the Internet does have these two purposes, and that the purposes are different—they are distinguishable.

How the Internet confuses communication and information

Next, let me introduce a certain problem. It might sound at first like a purely conceptual, abstract, philosophical problem, but let me assure you that it is actually a practical problem.

The problem is that, as purposes, communication and information are inherently confusable. They are very easy to mix up. In fact, I am sure some of you were confused earlier, when I was saying that there are these two purposes, communication and information. Aren’t those just the same thing, or two aspects of the same thing? After all, when people record information, they obviously intend to communicate something to other people. And when people communicate, they must convey some information. So information and communication go hand-in-hand.

Well, that is true, they do. But that doesn’t mean that one can’t draw a useful distinction fairly clearly. Here’s a way to think about the distinction. In 1950, a researcher would walk into a library and read volumes of information. If you wanted to communicate with someone, you might walk up to a librarian and ask a question. These actions—reading and talking—were very different. Information was something formal, edited, static, and contained in books. Communication was informal, unmediated, dynamic, and occurred in face-to-face conversation.

Still, I have to agree that communication and information are indeed very easy to confuse. And the Internet in particular confuses them deeply. What gives rise to the confusion is this. On the Internet, if you have a conversation, your communication becomes information for others. It is often saved indefinitely, and made searchable, so that others can benefit from it. What was for you a personal transaction becomes, for others, an information resource. This happens on mailing lists and Web forums. I myself have searched through the public archives of some mailing lists for answers to very specialized questions. I was using other people’s discussions as an information resource. So, should we say that a mailing list archive is communication, or is it information? Well, it is both.

This illustrates how the Internet confuses communication and information, but many other examples can be given. The Blogosphere has confused journalism, which used to be strictly an information function, with sharing with friends, which is a communication function. When you write a commentary about the news, or when you report about something you saw at a conference, you’re behaving like a journalist. You invite anyone and everyone to benefit from your news and opinion. Perhaps you don’t initially care who your readers are. But when you write about other blog posts, other people write about yours, and you invite comments on your blog, you’re communicating. Personalities then begin to matter, and who is talking can become more important to us than what is said. Information, as it were, begins to take a back seat.

Moreover, when news websites allow commenting on stories, this transforms what was once a relatively impersonal information resource into a lively discussion, full of colorful personalities. And, of course, online newspapers have added blogs of their own. I have often wondered whether there is a meaningful difference between a newspaper story, a blog by a journalist, and a well-written blog written by a non-journalist. That precisely illustrates what I mean. The Internet breaks down the distinction between information and communication—in this case, the distinction between journalism and conversation.

Why is the distinction between communication and information important?

I’ll explore more examples later, but now I want to return to my main argument. I say that the communication and information purposes of the Internet have become mixed up.

But—you might wonder—why is it so important that we distinguish communication and information, and treat them differently, as I’m suggesting? Is having a conversation about free trade, for example, really all that different from reading a news article online about free trade? To anyone who writes about the topic online, they certainly feel similar. The journalist seems like just another participant in a big conversation, and you are receiving his communication, and you could reply online if you wanted to.

I think the difference between information and communication is important because they have different purposes and therefore different standards of value. When we communicate, we want to interface with other living, active minds and dynamic personalities. The aim of communication, whatever else we might say about it, is genuine, beneficial engagement with other human beings. Communication in this sense is essential to such good things as socialization, friendship, romance, and business. That, of course, is why it is so popular.

Consider this: successful communication doesn’t have to be particularly informative. I can just use a smiley face or say “I totally agree!” and I might have added something to a conversation. By contrast, finding good information does not mean a significant communication between individuals has taken place. When we seek information, we are not trying to build a relationship. Rather, we want knowledge. The aim of information-seeking is reliable, relevant knowledge. This is associated with learning, scholarship, and simply keeping up with the latest developments in the news or in your field.

Good communication is very different from good information. Online communication is free and easy. There are rarely any editors to check every word you write, before you post it. That is not necessary, because these websites are not about creating information, they are about friendly, or at least interesting, communication. No editors are needed for that.

These communities, and blogs, and much else online, produce a huge amount of searchable content. But a lot of this content isn’t very useful as information. Indeed, it is very popular to complain about the low quality of information on the Internet. The Internet is full of junk, we say. But to say that the Internet is full of junk is to say that most conversations are completely useless to most other people. That’s obviously true, but it is irrelevant. Those who complain that the Internet is full of junk are ignoring the fact that the purpose of the Internet is as much communication as it is information.

Personally, I have no objection whatsoever to the communicative function of the Internet. In fact, it is one of my favorite things about the Internet. I have had fascinating conversations with people from around the world, made online friendships, and cultivated interests I share with others, and I could not possibly have done all this without the communicative medium that is the Internet.

But, as I will argue next, in making communication so convenient, we have made the Internet much less convenient as an information resource.

Communicative signal is informational noise

You are probably familiar with how the concept of the signal-to-noise ratio has been used to talk about the quality of online information and communication. A clear radio transmission is one that has high signal and low noise. Well, I’d like to propose that the Internet’s two purposes are like two signals: the communication signal and the information signal. The problem is that the two signal are sharing the same channel. So I now come to perhaps the most important point of this paper, which I will sum up in a slogan: communicative signal is informational noise. That is at least often the case.

Let me explain. The Internet’s two purposes are not merely confusable. In fact, we might say that the communicative function of the Internet has deeply changed and interfered with the informative function of the Internet. The Internet has become so vigorously communicative that it has become more difficult to get reliable and relevant information on the Internet.

I must admit that this claim is still very vague, and it might seem implausible, so let me clarify and support the claim further.

The basic idea is that what works well as communication does not work so well as information. What might seem to be weird and frustrating as information starts to make perfect sense when we think of it as communication.

Let me take a few examples—to begin with, Digg.com. In case you’re not familiar with it, it’s a website in which people submit links for everyone else in the community to rate by a simple “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” This description makes it look like a straightforward information resource: here are Internet pages that many people find interesting, useful, amusing, or whatever. Anyone can create an account, and all votes are worth the same. It’s the wisdom of the crowd at work. That, I assume, is the methodology behind the website.

But only the most naïve would actually say that the news item that gets the most “Diggs” is the most important, most interesting, or most worthwhile. Being at the top of Digg.com means only one thing: popularity among Digg participants. I am sure most Digg users know that the front page of Digg.com is little more than the outcome of an elaborate game. It can be interesting, to be sure. But the point is that Digg is essentially a tool for communication and socialization masquerading as an information resource.

YouTube is another example. On its face, it looks like a broadcast medium. By allowing anyone to have a YouTube account, carefully recording the number of video views and giving everyone an equal vote, it looks like the wisdom of the crowd is harnessed. But the fact of the matter is that YouTube is mainly a communication medium. Its ratings represent little more than popularity, or the ability to play the YouTube game. When people make their own videos (as opposed to copying stuff from DVDs), they’re frequently conversational videos. They are trying to provoke thought, or get a laugh, or earn praise for their latest song. They want others to respond, and others do respond, by watching videos, rating videos, and leaving comments. I suspect that YouTube contributors are not interested, first and foremost, in building a useful resource for the world in general. They are glad, I am sure, that they are doing that too. But what YouTube contributors want above all is to be highly watched and highly rated, and in short a success within the YouTube community. This is evidence that they have been heard and understood—in short, that they have communicated successfully.

I could add examples, but I think you probably already believe that most of the best-known Web 2.0 websites are set up as media of communication and socialization—not primarily as impersonal information sources.

But what about Wikipedia and Google Search? These are two of the most-used websites online, and they seem to be more strictly information resources.

Well, yes and no. Even Wikipedia breaks down the difference between a communication medium and an information resource. There has been a debate, going back to the very first year of Wikipedia, about whether Wikipedia is first and foremost a content-production project or a community. You might want to say that it is both, of course. That is true, but the relevant question is whether Wikipedia’s requirements as a community are actually more or less important than its requirements as a project. For example, one might look at many Wikipedia articles and say, “These badly need the attention of a professional editor.” One might look at Wikipedia’s many libel scandals and say, “This community needs real people, not anonymous administrators, to take responsibility so that rules can be enforced.” Wikipedia’s answer to that is to say, “We are all editors. No expert or professional is going to be given any special rights. That is the nature of our community, and we are not going to change it.” The needs of Wikipedia’s community outweigh the common-sense requirements of Wikipedia as an information resource.

Please don’t misunderstand. I am not saying that Wikipedia is useless as an information resource. Of course it is extremely useful as an information resource. I am also not saying that it is merely a medium of collaborative communication. It clearly is very informational, and it is intended to be, as well.

Indeed, most users treat Wikipedia first and foremost as an information resource. But, and this is my point, for the Wikipedians themselves, it is much more than that: it is their collaborative communication, which has become extremely personal for them, and this is communication they care passionately about. The personal requirements of the Wikipedians have dampened much of the support for policy changes that would make Wikipedia much more valuable as an information resource.

Why do we settle for so much informational noise?

Let me step back and try to understand what is going on here. I say that Web 2.0 communities masquerade as information resources, but they are really little more than tools for communication and socialization. Or, in the case of Wikipedia, the community’s requirements overrule common-sense informational requirements. So, why do we allow this to happen?

Well, that’s very simple. People deeply enjoy and appreciate the fact that they can share their thoughts and productions without the intermediation of editors or anything else that might make their resources more useful as information resources. And why is it so important to so many people that there be no editors? Because editors are irrelevant and get in the way of communication.

The fact that Web 2.0 communities are set up for communication, more than as information resources, explains why they have adopted a certain set of policies. Consider some policies that Wikipedia, YouTube, MySpace, and the many smaller Web 2.0 websites have in common.

First, on these websites, anyone can participate anonymously. Not only that, but you can make as many accounts as you want. Second, when submissions are rated, anyone can vote, and votes are (at least initially, and in many systems always) counted equally. Third, if there is any authority or special rights in the system, it is always internally determined. Your authority to do something or other never depends on some external credentials or qualification. University degrees, for example, are worth nothing on YouTube.

The result is that, on a website like Wikipedia, a person is associated with one or more accounts, and the performance of the accounts against all other accounts is all that the system really cares about.

To Internet community participants, this seems very rational. A person is judged based on his words and creations alone, and on his behavior within the system. This seems meritocratic. People also sometimes persuade themselves, based on a misinterpretation of James Surowiecki’s book The Wisdom of Crowds, that ratings are an excellent indicator of quality.

But these systems are not especially meritocratic. It is not quality, but instead popularity and the ability to game the system that wins success in Web 2.0 communities. High ratings and high watch counts are obviously not excellent indicators of quality, for the simple reason that so much garbage rises to the top. There is no mystery why there is so much time-wasting content on the front page of YouTube, Digg.com, and many of the rest: it’s because the content is amusing, titillating, or outrageous. Being amusing, titillating, and outrageous is not a standard of good information, but it can be a sign of successful communication.

The less naïve participants, and of course the owners of these websites, know that Internet community ratings are largely a popularity contest or measure the ability to play the game. They don’t especially care that the websites do not highlight or highly rank the most important, relevant, or reliable information. The reason for this is perfectly clear: the purpose of these websites is, first and foremost, communication, socialization, and community-building. Building an information resource is just a very attractive side-benefit, but still only a side-benefit, of the main event of playing the game.

The attraction, in fact, is very similar to that of American Idol—I understand you have something similar called “Latin American Idol,” is that correct? Well, I have been known to watch American Idol. It is a television competition in which ordinary people compete to become the next Idol, who earns a record contract, not to mention the attention of tens of millions of television viewers. The singing on American Idol, especially in the early weeks, is often quite bad. But that is part of its entertainment value. We do not watch the program to be entertained with great singing—that is, of course, nice when it happens. Instead, we watch the program mainly because the drama of the competition is fascinating. Even though the quality of the singing is supposed to be what the program is about, in fact quality is secondary. The program’s attraction stems from the human element—from the fact that real people are putting themselves in front of a mass audience, and the audience can respond by voting for their favorites. The whole game is quite addictive, in a way not unlike the way Internet communities are addictive.

But let’s get back to the Internet. I want to suggest that the information resource most used online, Google Search itself, is also a popularity contest. Google’s PageRank technology is reputed to be very complex, and its details are secret. But the baseline methodology is well-known: Google ranks a web page more highly if it is linked to by other pages, which are themselves linked to by popular pages, and so forth. The assumption behind this ranking algorithm is somewhat plausible: the more that popular websites link to a given website, the more relevant and high-quality the website probably is. The fact that Google is as useful and dominant as it is shows that there is some validity to this assumption.

All that admitted, I want to make a simple point. Google Search is essentially a popularity contest, and frequently, the best and most relevant page is not even close to being a popular page. That is a straightforward failure. But just as annoying, perhaps, is the prevalence of false positives. I mean the pages that rank not because they are relevant or high-quality, but because they are popular or (even worse) because someone knows how to game the Google system.

Does this sound familiar? It should. I do not claim that Google is a medium of communication. Clearly, it is an information resource. But I want to point out that Google follows in the same policies of anonymity, egalitarianism, and merit determined internally through linkings and algorithms that machines can process. As far as we know, Google does not seed its rankings with data from experts. Its data is rarely edited at all. Google dutifully spiders all content without any prejudice of any sort, applies its algorithm, and delivers the results to us very efficiently.

I speculate—I can only speculate here—that Google does not edit its results much, for two reasons. First, I am sure that Google is deeply devoted the same values, values that favor a fair playing field for communication games that many Web 2.0 websites play. But, you might say, this is a little puzzling. Why doesn’t Google seek out ways to include the services of editors and experts, and improve its results? An even better idea, actually, would be to allow everyone to rate whatever websites they want, then publish their web ratings according to a standard syndication format, and then Google might use ratings from millions of people creatively to seed its results. In fairness to Google, it may do just this with the Google SearchWiki, which was launched last November. But as far as I know, SearchWiki does not aggregate search results; each individual can edit only the results that are displayed to that user.

So there is, I think, a second and more obvious reason that Google does not adjust its results with the help of editors or by aggregating syndicated ratings. Namely, its current, apparently impersonal search algorithm seems fair, and it is easy to sell it as fair. However much Google might be criticized because its results are not always the best, or because the results are gamable or influenced by blogs, at least it has the reputation of indeed being mostly fair, largely because PageRank is determined by features internal to the Internet itself—in other words, link data.

Google’s reputation for fairness is one of its most important assets. But why is such a reputation so important? Here I can finally return to the thread of my argument. Fairness is important to us because we want communication to be fair. In a certain way, the entire Internet is a communicative game. Eyeballs are the prize, and Google plays a sort of moderator or referee of the game. If that’s right, then we certainly want the referee to be fair, not to prefer one website over another simply because, for example, some expert happens to say the one is better. When it comes to conversations, fairness means equal consideration, equal time, an equal shot at impressing everyone in the room, so to speak. Communication per se is not the sort of thing over which editors should have any control, except sometimes to keep people polite.

The fact that Google has an impersonal search algorithm really means that it conceives of itself as a fair moderator of communication, not as a careful chooser of relevant, reliable content. And a lot of people are perfectly happy with this state of affairs.

Conclusion

In this paper I have developed an argument, and I hope I haven’t taken too long to explain it. I have argued that the Internet is devoted both to communication and information. I went on to say that communication and information are easily confused, and the Internet makes it even easier to confuse them, since what serves as mere communication for one person can be viewed later as useful information for another person. But what makes matters difficult is that we expect communication, and the websites that support online communication, to be as unconstrained and egalitarian as possible. As a result, however, the Internet serves rather well as a communication medium, as a means to socialize and build communities, but not nearly as well as an information resource.

I can imagine a reply to this, which would say: this is all a good thing. Information is about control. Communication is about freedom. Viva communication! Should our alleged betters—professors, top-ranked journalists, research foundations, and the like—enjoy more control over what we all see online, than the average person? The fact is that in the past, they have enjoyed such control. But the egalitarian policies of the Internet have largely removed their control. In the past, what those experts and editors have happened to say enjoyed a sort of status as impersonal information. But all information is personal. The Internet merely recognizes this fact when it treats allegedly impersonal information as personal communication.

This is the common analysis. But I think it is completely wrong.[1] First, the elites still exert control in many ways, and there is little reason to think the Internet will change this. Second, the radical egalitarianism of Internet policies does not disempower the elites so much as it disempowers intelligence, and empowers those with the time on their hands to create and enjoy popular opinion, and also those who care enough to game the system.

If more people were to emphasize the informative purpose of the Internet more, this would not empower elites; it would, rather, empower everyone who uses the Internet to learn and do research. We would have to spend less time sorting through the by-products of online communication, and could spend more time getting solid knowledge.

In fact, I think most people enjoy the Internet greatly as an information resource—at least as much as they enjoy it as a communication medium. But most of the people who create websites and Internet standards—the many people responsible for today’s Internet—have not had this distinction in mind. But I think it is very fruitful and interesting way to think about the Internet and its purposes, and—who knows?—perhaps it will inspire someone to think about how to improve the informational features of the Internet.

In fact, if my fondest hope for this paper were to come true, it would be that those building the Internet would begin to think of it a little bit more as a serious information resource, and a little bit less as just a fun medium of communication.

[1] As I have argued in a recent paper: “The Future of Expertise after Wikipedia,” Episteme (2009).


Is it time to establish Internet user unions?

Since everybody and his grandma have gotten on the Internet in a big way in the last few years, the social influence of giant Internet companies has skyrocketed. Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Amazon, Twitter, and many more wield enormous power over us.

We have given them that power. Their success is built on participation, and we willingly participate.

For those of us who have watched the Internet grow from the time we had to dial in to local bulletin boards, or log onto big mainframes, these are somewhat troubling developments. Facebook makes decisions that are deeply consequential to all of us, but without consulting us. They violate our privacy expectations and too readily share our information with people who might abuse it. Another example is Wikipedia. People who find lies about themselves on Wikipedia pages, who otherwise might have recourse to libel law, are often forced to participate in an arcane and often unfair system. Wikipedia also lacks any filter for their enormous porn holdings, while its representatives continue to tout it as a great resource for school children.

I could go on, but this is not just about Facebook or Wikipedia, or any one website. This is about participatory Internet companies that are so huge that their users--and the broader public affected by them--essentially have no meaningful input in their governance. But shouldn't they? We live in a democratic age. If we participate in a community, we expect to have a say in how that community operates; the community becomes, in a real sense, ours.

The patriots of the American Revolution said, "No taxation without representation." Now, participation and use are not exactly taxes, but they are obviously very valuable to Internet companies, and those companies are now in a position to abuse what is so freely given to them. Why shouldn't we say: no participation without representation!

I don't propose an online revolution. These are issues that must not be left in the hands of the state, wielding "the blunt instrument of the law." If the state were to address these issues, it would be making itself into an editor, and the state cannot edit without censorship. Rather, these issues should be left in the hands of civil society--in free associations of free people.

But civil society lacks effective institutions and mechanisms to deal with these problems. Let me propose one: Internet user unions.

In the 19th century, when economic influence consolidated in the hands of factory owners, the union movement sought to give a voice to workers who, individually, had no way to negotiate with their employers.

In the 21st century, we find social influence consolidating in the hands of website owners. Shouldn't there be corresponding unions of Internet users to negotiate with the websites that they participate in and use?

A Facebook User Union might call Facebook executives to the negotiating table about any significant changes to policy, or else face days of boycotts. That union's nuclear option would be, after an open, transparent process, to recommend that masses of users abandon Facebook for any number of competitors.

A Wikipedia User Union might represent the voices of Wikipedia's users, which have never been represented within Wikipedia's insular decisionmaking processes. They might influence Wikipedia to install a porn filter--or to admit that they have an "adult" website.

In addition to unions for participating websites, there could be unions for special issues. There might be an Internet User Union of Families, which represents the interests of children online. There could be scholarly unions, which blow the whistle on media companies and others online, who get facts wrong and who organize their users' collective influence to engage in their essential role of teaching. There could even be, simply, an Internet User Union, although they would have to think hard about what their goals are, precisely.

But let's be careful about what we wish for. These would be inherently political organizations. The consequences, at least in some cases, could be as troubling as companies acting on behalf of users without adequate user input. One can imagine a "rogue" union--like Anonymous, but bigger--coordinating cyber-attacks. One can also imagine openly political unions that use their influence to flood ideological opponents' forums with hostile comments.

To my mind, however, the best effect that Internet User Unions might have is to organize people to build things that are useful to everyone. I have been thinking about the enormous untapped potential of people working together online since before I spearheaded Wikipedia in 2001. The Big Problem, not really solved by Wikipedia itself, is getting enormous numbers of people to agree upon a well-designed system. Wikipedia would be dwarfed by a system that I imagine is really possible, one that is appealing to a much broader cross-section of the public than Wikipedia itself is. An Internet User Union might develop the idea for such an organization, launch it with many thousands of people ready and raring to go, as well as find enough funding to keep it independent and non-profit.

If you're interested in this idea, let's start talking about the philosophical, social, and broadly technical issues. This is something new. We do not want to go off half-cocked.


An assortment of things that should exist

Occasionally I wish I had time to write a book to explain these ideas in detail. (Some of these are actually book ideas. Some of them are project ideas.)

1. A tutorial system, independent of any university, managed via a neutral online database; and an expanded system of degrees by examination.

2. Textop! I love this idea whenever I think about it!

3. A medium-sized secular (but not anti-religious) chapter book explaining for elementary-aged children, in non-condescending but easy language, why various virtues are virtues and their corresponding vices are vices. It should also explain why moral relativism is silly, which of course it is. I've looked for such a book, hard. I've started to write such a book, but never find enough time to finish. I truly believe such a book would be an enormous best-seller.

4. A system of non-fiction e-books, roughly similar to what you can find here, but which have more intelligently-written scripts, like some of these videos and these powerpoints. I hope to start such a system using the ReadingBear.org software as a platform.

5. This is going to be very hard to explain briefly, and it will sound half-baked, but since when did that ever stop me? Actually, the rough idea (not my version, but something vaguely like it) comes from a Heinlein novel (I forget what Heinlein calls them and where--maybe someone will tell me) combined with my original idea for neutrality on Wikipedia (and before that, Nupedia). I think that civilization could use a society of people who are meticulously and publicly committed to neutrality. Somewhat like judges, but who operate in the public sphere, they do not make any public judgments on controversial issues of any sort. Their role in society would be, rather, to summarize "what is known"--or what various people take themselves to know--about this and that, according to some clear and deeply studied rules of scholarship and neutrality. If someone, or a group, required a neutral, expert analysis of a question, a field, or a situation, they would provide it. These people would have to be experts in ideology, logic, and the arts of communication, understanding when a statement is the slightest bit tendentious, and be able to quickly formulate a more neutral one. These people would be perfect candidates to write neutral Congressional reports as well as serve as expert witnesses in trials. There would have to be a fairly elaborate system of professional ethics for this group, and members would no doubt have to be regularly evaluated by their peers. Among other things, they would not be able to serve in politics, as attorneys or judges, or as corporate executives. They could serve as journalists and scholars, but under stringent rules that do not apply to most journalists and scholars. -- Why such a profession? Because the world has gone insane, and it desperately needs people who are professionally committed to explaining obvious things to crazy people. Do you really think that people well-qualified and publicly committed in the way I've described would lack for work? They'd be extremely well employed as consultants, internal and external.

6. A website+app with spaced repetition questions that teach basic facts school students (preK and up).

I've had quite a few more. I'll make another post later, perhaps, with more of the same.

Feel free to swipe any of these ideas and do a world of good by bringing them to fruition. You might or might not get rich, but if well-executed, you certainly could help a lot of people.


Why online conversation cannot be the focus of a new pedagogy

One of the most commonly touted features of a new, digitally-enhanced pedagogy, championed by many plugged-in education theorists, is that education in the digital age can and should be transformed into online conversation. This seems possible and relevant because of online tools like wikis and blogs.  There has been a whole cottage industry of papers and blogs touting such notions.  Frankly, I'm not interested in grappling with a lot of this stuff.  Actually, I wish I had time, because it's kind of fun to expose nonsense to the harsh light of reason.  But for now, let's just say that I've read and skimmed a fair bit of it, and I find it decidedly half-baked, like a lot of the older educational theories that hoped for various educational "reforms."  Some reference points would include fuzzy buzzwords like connectivism, constructivism, conversation, the social view of learning, participatory learning, and many more.

I am interested in briefly discussing a very basic question that, I imagine, underlies a lot of this discussion: can online conversation serve as the focus of a new pedagogy?  I've already written a bit about this in "Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age," but I wanted to return to the topic briefly.

A lot of educators are--not surprisingly--very much struck by the fact that we can learn a lot from each other online.  This is something I've been aware of since the mid-90s, when I ran some mailing lists and indeed did learn a lot from my fellow early adopters.  I continue to learn a lot from people online.  Quora is a great way to learn (albeit it's mostly light intellectual entertainment); so are many blogs and forums.  And of course, wikis can be a useful source of learning both for writers and readers.  These all involve an element of online community, so it of course makes sense that educators might wonder how these new tools could be used as educational tools.  I've developed a few myself and actively participate in other online communities.

But when we, adults, use these tools and participate in these forums, we are building upon our school (and sometimes college) education.  We have learned to write.  We have (hopefully) read reasonably widely, and studied many subjects, giving us the background we absolutely require to understand and build upon common cultural references in our online lives.  But these are not attainments that school children share.  (My focus here will be K-12 education, not college-level education.)  You are making a very dubious assumption if you want to conclude that children can learn the basics of various subjects by online participation modeled after the way adults use online tools.  Namely, you are assuming that children can efficiently learn the basics of science, history, geography, and other academic subjects through online tools and communities that are built by and for educated people.

Of course they can't, and the reason is plain: they usually have to be told new information in order to learn it, and taught and corrected to learn new skills.  These are not "participatory" features.  They require that a teacher or expert be set up to help, in a way that does not correspond to the more egalitarian modes of interaction online.  Moreover, except in some fields that are highly interpretive such as literature or philosophy, the relevant information cannot be arrived at via reflection on what they know--because most children are quite ignorant and much in need of education.  To be able to reflect, they need input.  They need content.  They need food for thought.  They need training and modeling.  They need correction.  We adults don't experience these needs (at least, not so much) when we are surfing away.  We're mostly done learning the concepts, vocabulary, and facts that we need to make sense of conversation in the forums that interest us.

So the reason online conversation cannot be the focus of a new pedagogy is that online conversation, as used by adults for learning, requires prior education.

I have nothing whatsoever against K-12 classes putting their essays or journals on blogs, or co-writing things using wikis, or in other ways using online tools to practice research, writing, and computer skills.  But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that when children do these things, they are doing what we adults do, or that they're learning in the ways we do when we use blogs, wikis, etc.  They aren't.  They're using these as alternative media for getting basic knowledge and practicing skills.  We adults mainly use these media to expand our knowledge of current events and our special interests.  The way we use them is radically different from proper pedagogical uses precisely because our uses require a general education.

Are you skeptical?  Well, I expect that if you're reading this sentence right now, you're pretty well educated.  So consider, please.  What would it be like to read a science blog, or Quora answer on a scientific question, without having studied high school mathematics and science?  Pretty confusing.  What would it be like to read any of the bettter blogs out there--the ones in your own blogrolls or feeds--if you had not read a lot of literature and in other ways learned a lot of college-level vocabulary?  Difficult and boring.  What would it be like if you had to read the news, or political blogs or Wikipedia's current affairs articles, having only minimal knowledge of geography and civics?  Puzzling at best.  Could you really hold your own in a blog discussion about politics if you had an elementary student's grasp of history and politics?  Would you find it easy to write a forum post coherently, clearly, and with good mechanics and spelling, even just to ask a question, if you had not practiced and studied academic writing and grammar as much as you did?  I could go on, but you get the idea.  You can't do these various things that make you an effective, articulate, plugged-in netizen without already having a reasonably good liberal arts education.

I imagine it's sort of possible, but conversation online among your fellow students would be an incredibly inefficient way for you to learn these things in the first place.  Why spend your time trying to glean facts from the bizarre misunderstandings of your fellow 10-year-olds when you can get an entertaining, authoritative presentation of the information in a book or video?  And I'll tell you one thing--someone in your online study community, the teacher or the class nerd, will have to have read such "authoritative" media, and reveal the secrets to everyone, or you'll be "learning" in a very empty echo chamber.

At this point, someone is bound to point out that they don't really oppose "mere facts" (which can just be looked up), declarative knowledge, or "elitist" academics, or books, or content, or all the other boo-hiss villains of this mindset.  They just want there to be less emphasis on content (memorization is so 20th century!), and more on conversation and hands-on projects.  Why is that so hard to understand?  But this is where they inevitably get vague.  If books and academic knowledge are part of the curriculum after all, then in what way is online conversation the "focus" of the curriculum?  How are academics, really, supposed to figure in education--in practice?

My guess is that when it comes down to implementation, the sadly misled teacher-in-the-trenches will sacrifice a few more of the preciously scarce books in the curriculum and use the time for still more stupid projects and silly groupwork assignments, now moved online using "cutting edge" tools because that's what all the clever people say where "the future" lies.  As a result, the students will learn little more about computers and online communities than they would learn through their own use of things like Facebook, and they'll get something that barely resembles a "reasonably good liberal arts education."

EDIT: I greatly enjoyed this literature review/analysis article:

Kirschner, Paul A., John Sweller, and Richard E. Clark, "Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching," Educational Psychologist 41 (2), 75-86: http://www.cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kirschner_Sweller_Clark.pdf


25 Replies to Maria Bustillos

In a recent essay, in The Awl ("Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert"), Maria Bustillos commits a whole series of fallacies or plain mistakes and, unsurprisingly, comes to some quite wrong conclusions.  I don't have time to write anything like an essay in response, but I will offer up the following clues for Ms. Bustillos and those who are inclined to nod approvingly with her essay:

1. First, may I point out that not everybody buys that Marshall McLuhan was all that.

2. The fact that Nature stood by its research report (which was not a peer-reviewed study) means nothing whatsoever.  If you'll actually read it and apply some scholarly or scientific standards, Britannica's response was devastating, and Nature's reply thereto was quite lame.

3. There has not yet been anything approaching a credible survey of the quality of Wikipedia's articles (at least, not to my knowledge).  Nobody has shown, in studies taken individually or in aggregate, that Wikipedia's articles are even nearly as reliable as a decent encyclopedia.

4. If you ask pretty much anybody in the humanities, you will learn that the general impression that people have about Wikipedia articles on these subjects is that they are appalling and not getting any better.

5. The "bogglingly complex and well-staffed system for dealing with errors and disputes on Wikipedia" is a pretentious yet brain-dead mob best likened to the boys of The Lord of the Flies.

6. It is trivial and glib to say that "Wikipedia is not perfect, but then no encyclopedia is perfect."  You might as well say that the Sistine Chapel is not perfect.  Yeah, that's true.

7. It is not, in fact, terribly significant that users can "look under the hood" of Wikipedia.  Except for Wikipedia's denizens and those unfortunate enough to caught in the crosshairs of some zealous Wikipedians using the system to commit libel without repercussion, nobody really cares what goes on on Wikipedia's talk pages.

8. When it comes to actually controversial material, the only time that there is an "attempt to strike a fair balance of views" in Wikipedia-land is when two camps with approximately equal pull in the system line up on either sides of an issue.  Otherwise, the Wikipedians with the greatest pull declare their view as "the neutral point of view."  It wasn't always this way, but it has become that way all too often.

9. I too am opposed to experts exercising unwarranted authority.  But there is an enormous number of possibilities between a world dominated by unaccountable whimsical expert opinion and a world without any experts at all.  Failing to acknowledge this is just sloppiness.

10. If you thought that that Wikipedia somehow meant the end of expertise, you'd be quite wrong.  I wrote an essay about that in Episteme. (Moreover, in writing this, I was criticized for proving something obvious.)

11. The fact that Marshall McLuhan said stuff that presciently supported Wikipedia's more questionable epistemic underpinnings is not actually very impressive.

12. Jaron Lanier has a lot of very solid insight, and it is merely puzzling to dismiss him as a "snob" who believes in "individual genius and creativity."  There's quite a bit more to Lanier and "Digital Maoism" than that.  Besides, are individual genius and creativity now passe?  Hardly.

13. Clay Shirky isn't all that, either.

14. Being "post-linear" and "post-fact" is not "thrilling" or profound.  It's merely annoying and tiresome.

15. Since when did the Britannica somehow stand for guarantees of truth?  Whoever thought so?

16. There are, of course, vast realms between the extremes of "knowledge handed down by divine inspiration" and some dodgy "post-fact society."

17. The same society can't both be "post-fact" and thrive on "knowledge [that] is produced and constructed by argument," Shirky notwithstanding.  Arguments aim at truth, i.e., to be fact-stating, and truth is a requirement of knowledge.  You can't make sense of the virtues of dialectical knowledge-production without a robust notion of truth.

18. Anybody who talks glowingly about the elimination of facts, or any such thing, simply wants the world to be safe for the propagation of his ideology by familiar, manipulable, but ultimately irrational social forces.  No true liberal can be in favor of a society in which there are no generally-accepted, objective standards of truth, because then only illiberal forces will dominate discourse.

19. Expert opinion is devalued on Wikipedia, granted-and maybe also on talk radio and its TV spin-offs, and some Internet conversations.  But now, where else in society has it been significantly devalued?

20. What does being a realist about expertise--i.e., one who believes it does exist, who believes that an expert's opinion is, on balance, more likely to be true than mine in areas of his expertise--have to do with individualism?  Surely it's more the romantic individualists who want to be unfettered by the requirements of reason, including the scientific methods and careful reasoning of experts, who are naturally inclined to devalue expertise per se.

21. Wikipedia does not in any plausible way stand for a brave new world in which competing arguments hold sway over some (fictional) monolithic expert opinion.  There have always been competing expert views; Wikipedia merely, sometimes, expresses those competing expert views when, from some professors, you might hear only one side.  Sometimes, Wikipedia doesn't even do that, because the easy politicization of collaborative text written without enforceable rules makes neutrality an elusive ideal.

22. Um, we have had the Internet for more than 20 years.

23. The writing down of knowledge is more participatory now, and that's a fine thing (or can be).  But knowledge itself is, always has been, and always will be an individual affair.  The recording of things that people take themselves to know, in Wikipedia or elsewhere, and findable via Google, does not magically transfer the epistemic fact of knowledge from the recorder even to those who happen to find the text, much less to all readers online.  Knowledge itself is considerably more difficult than that.

24. Ours is an individualistic age?  Don't make me laugh.  People who actually think for themselves--you know, real individualists--appear to me to be as rare as they ever have been.  It is a delight to meet the few who are out there, and one of the better features of the Internet is that it makes it easier to find them.  The West might be largely capitalist, but that doesn't stop us from being conformist, as any high school student could tell you.

25. The real world is considerably more complex than your narrative.


Should Science Communication Be Collaborative?

Plenary address at PCST-10 (10th conference of the International Network on Public Communication of Science and Technology), Malmö University, Malmö, Sweden, June 25, 2008.  A slightly abbreviated version of this was delivered.

I. The question, and some distinctions

Should science communication be collaborative?  There are two ways to understand this question, and so also two very different reactions to it.  One reaction is that science writing already is very collaborative.  Scientific articles are typically co-written by labs or by other collections of colleagues, because most experiments cannot be done by just one person; scientific discoveries are now typically made by several or many people cooperating.  So, of course science communication should be collaborative.

The other reaction understands me to be talking about collaboration in the wiki sense, or what I call radical collaboration.  And to that question there are typically mixed reactions.  On the one hand, what Wikipedia has done is very exciting, and if scientists can tap into the same sort of collaboration, perhaps great things will result.  On the other hand, scientists and scholars in general are very suspicious of the notion that anybody can edit our words.  Many scholars scoff at Wikipedia's motto—"you can edit this page"—as incontrovertible evidence that it cannot be very reliable.

The question I am interested in is actually the latter one: should science communication be radically collaborative?  So let me define this piece of jargon.  Collaboration is radical if it goes beyond two or more people merely working together.  In addition, the collaborators are self-selecting; they determine what they are going to do, and are not assigned their roles.  Finally, there is equal ownership or equal rights over the resulting work, or in other words, there is no "lead author."

So, should science communication be radically collaborative?  I cannot give you any simple answer to this question, but I do want to say that radical collaboration is part of our future, and will probably result in some amazing new scientific resources.  I'll be asking how big a part of our future it should be—as well as what we should not expect radical collaboration to do.

But first, it will be useful to draw a distinction between two kinds of scientific communication: original and derivative.  Original communication is aimed at advancing knowledge in the field with never-before-published findings, discoveries, first-hand accounts, survey data, theories, arguments, proofs, and so forth.  Typically, such communication takes the form of papers in peer-reviewed journals and online pre-print services, as well as conference presentations, posters, and some other things.  By contrast, derivative communication merely sums up what is already known, and takes the form of news and encyclopedia articles, textbooks, and popular science books and magazines.

I don't pretend that the distinction between original and derivative communication, if one examines it carefully, is easy to make.  One reason that it is difficult is that, whenever one reports scientific and other scholarly findings, analysis almost inevitably occurs; and sometimes, an analysis can be as interesting, challenging, and pathbreaking as the findings reported on.  So I imagine that such interesting analysis can be a borderline case between original and derivative communication.

There is another reason the distinction is difficult.  Frequently, we want to criticize certain published papers, which purport to present original findings, as being almost wholly derivative—they do not really advance the field at all.  I am told that this happens much more than it should, in scientific publishing.  So I admit that sometimes, purportedly original communication is actually derivative.

In fact, I will admit something more: it is far from clear what constitutes an advance in any given field.  If someone merely deduces something from previously published experimental findings, is that an advance?  Sometimes, sometimes not.  If someone does an experiment that is only trivially different from any of many already-published experiments, and obtains similar results, is that an advance?  Not necessarily, it seems to me.  If someone merely applies an established paradigm to a domain of knowledge for the first time in a published article, is that an advance?  Perhaps; but perhaps not, if the application was simply obvious.

So there are, I realize, several reasons to be critical of the distinction between original and derivative communication.  That admitted, I do think there are many perfectly clear cases of both original and derivative communication; in fact, I think most scientists and scholars would not have trouble classifying most communication in their fields as either original or derivative.  When Watson and Crick originally described the double helix, that was definitely original.  When Wikipedia, or a biology textbook, describes the double helix, that is definitely derivative.  And where we are uncertain, on philosophical grounds, about whether some finding really is original, at least we can tell whether the author is treating it as original.

I draw this distinction because I think that we might actually wish to give different answers to the question, "Should science communication be collaborative?" based on what type of science communication we're talking about.  In particular, I think it is very plausible that derivative science communication, like encyclopedia articles and science news reporting, are much more amenable to collaboration than original science communication.  I think, moreover, that in explaining this we will uncover some very interesting insights, or at least questions, about collaboration and perhaps even about science communication itself.

II. Derivative science communication

Let me begin with derivative science communication—again, things like encyclopedias, science news reporting, and textbooks.

Over the last few years, I have conversed with dozens of scholars and scientists about how to set up wikis or other collaborative knowledge communities.  There is a fascinating pattern to these conversations.  They go like this.  The scientist, impressed by the vast quantities of information in Wikipedia, tells me: "It is amazing what can be accomplished when many people come together, from around the world, to sum up what is known.  What would happen if we tried this in our field?  The resulting resource could be a central, authoritative clearing-house of information for everyone in the field, as well as for the general public.  So, what is the best way to set up ‘a Wikipedia' in our field?"

This is an interesting question, but it is not the question that they end up answering.  Instead, the scientist goes off and consults with his colleagues, and then I hear this: "We have a couple of concerns.  First, we are concerned about lack of credit in the Wikipedia system.  The careers of scientists depend on names being on their publications.  So we want to make sure that authors are properly named and identified on articles.  Second, we are a little nervous about the idea that just anybody can edit anybody's articles.  We understand that it's important to be collaborative, but we think it is reasonable to nominate a lead author or lead reviewer for each article, and restrict participation to experts.  So, what do you think of that?"

I think that the scientist and his colleagues are confused in a fascinating way.  I try to be diplomatic when I say this, of course.  But the scientist seems not to realize two facts:

  1. If you name authors, you award lead authorship or editorship for articles, and you carefully restrict who may participate, then you are not building a collaborative community in anything like the radical sense.  You are merely using a wiki to replicate an older sort of collaboration, common in scientific writing.
  2. It is precisely the newer, more radical sort of collaboration that explains Wikipedia's success.  Wikipedia is successful in large part precisely because everyone feels empowered to edit any article.  If you disempower people, they won't show up.

As a result, there is no reason to think that the scientist's group will enjoy success anything like Wikipedia's, because they have actually rejected the Wikipedia model.

I am not saying that using wiki software to replicate old-fashioned systems won't work at all. In fact, in 2005, I helped set up such a system myself, called the Encyclopedia of Earth, and it seems to be working reasonably well so far—but, as far as I know, not much actual collaboration goes on, and a large part of the few thousand articles that they have were imported from other sources.  Another scientist-run encyclopedia, Scholarpedia, has a somewhat similar set of policies, and has produced even fewer articles.  To be sure, the quality of the articles produced by these projects is good.  But it seems to me that the articles have little chance of ever fulfilling the original, high hopes of the project designers.  Many of them won't be incredibly detailed, balanced, authoritative, and a pleasure to read, which is what one might hope to get from a large group of experts coming together to work on a piece of text. Nor do such projects have any chance of achieving the depth of coverage that Wikipedia has.  In short, as far as I can tell, the most that projects like the Encyclopedia of Earth and Scholarpedia can hope to achieve is to produce a free version of old-fashioned sorts of encyclopedias.  I do not mean to say that there is something wrong with that.  I merely claim that they will not enjoy the advantages and potential that a radically collaborative project has, the advantages and potential that made them imitate the Wikipedia model in the first place.

This, then, raises a question.  Do those scientists, who have rejected the Wikipedia model, have a legitimate complaint about it?  Or have they made a mistake in rejecting it?  I think they are partly right in rejecting the Wikipedia model, but also partly mistaken.  Let me clarify, first by explaining what they have gotten right.

Essentially, the scientists I've advised are quite right to reject the wide-open Wikipedia model, according to which anyone can alter any article regardless even of whether the person has logged into the system or is using his or her real name.  Wikipedia's rock-solid commitment to anonymous contribution explains many of its problems, in my opinion.  It explains why Wikipedia has so much vandalism and people editing abusively and in bad faith; it also explains why the Wikipedians have never been able to enforce some of their own basic principles, such as neutrality and politeness.  Scientists and scholars generally are very well justified in rejecting Wikipedia's anonymity policy.  I have argued for this thesis elsewhere,[1] and can't spend the time to explain arguments now.

So that's why my scientist colleagues were right to reject the Wikipedia model.  But they are also mistaken to believe that articles must be signed by their authors, that they must have lead authors, and that participation should be restricted to experts.  They believe they must adopt these policies because, otherwise, the result will be unreliable or of poor quality.  They appear to think that, since all trustworthy encyclopedias in the past had signed articles, lead authors, and participation restricted to experts, there is no way to design an encyclopedia project that changes these features.

Now, I don't have time in this paper to argue for this point in detail, but I simply want to point to the example of the Citizendium, which is a wiki encyclopedia project I started a year and a half ago.  We do not sign articles; we do not have lead authors; and we open participation up to anyone who can make a positive contribution to the project.  But we do make a role for experts.  Despite the fact that we reject so much of the traditional model of content production, the quality of our articles is remarkably good, especially for such a young project.  The articles that have been approved by our expert editors, in particular, are extremely readable, as well as being authoritative.  My point, then, is that it is possible to have a radically collaborative system that produces high-quality, credible content.  So if my scientist colleagues rejected radical collaboration because they thought the results would necessarily be of substandard quality, they were simply mistaken, as our experience with the Citizendium shows.  Moreover, I should point out that we are far more productive than Scholarpedia or the Encyclopedia of Earth; we have over 7,000 articles and are growing daily.

I can imagine a reply to this, however.  One might concede that the Citizendium's articles are, or will be, of reasonably good quality.  But will they be better than articles written by small groups of experts?  Not necessarily, of course.  Still, I would like to give you some general reasons to think that they could be better.  More precisely, I want to answer this question: is there something about radical collaboration per se that improves the quality of articles?  I think so.

Given enough time, an article that is written with a large and diverse set of authors—particularly if it is under the gentle guidance of experts—can be expected to be lengthier, broader in its coverage, and fairer in its presentation of issues, than an article written by a single or a few hand-chosen authors.  It will be longer, because many collaborators will compete with each other to expand the article.  It will be broader in its coverage, because the collaborators often can fill up gaps in exposition that others leave.  It will be fairer in its presentation of issues, because self-selecting collaborators in a very open project will tend to have a diversity of views, and they must compromise in order to work together at all.

In short, radical collaboration naturally pushes articles in the direction of being longer, more detailed, and fairer.  When the collaboration is gently guided—not led and controlled—by experts, and when the collaborators respect the experts and are willing to defer to from time to time and when necessary, the resulting articles can be outstanding.  A number of the Citizendium's approved articles are outstanding for these very reasons.  We have quite a few outstanding unapproved articles as well.

So far, I have spoken only about one kind of derivative communication: encyclopedias.  But there are other kinds, as I said: journalism, textbooks, and popular science writing, for instance.  I could discuss each of these, but again I lack the time.  Instead, I want to make a general point about all of them.

Often, in expository writing and even more in fiction writing, we derive value from the text precisely because it is personal, because it presents a single, unique point of view that we find compelling.  We find the writing interesting because we find an individual mind interesting.  Why are we fascinated by the minds of Stephen Hawking, Richard Feyman, Stephen Jay Gould, or Steven Pinker?  (And for that matter, why are so many famous scientists named Stephen?)  Well, it seems that, in works by these authors, the addition of another author might subtract from the value of their text.  Why is that?  Why is it that we find individual minds interesting?  It is not because their thoughts are more accurate or more exhaustive.  Rather, a text with a single author, especially one who is expressing his personality, is a window into another mind, and so it represents how we, each of us individually, might also want to think.  Only an individual seems to be able to serve as a credible model of how to think about the world; and, for whatever reason, we do take other thinkers as models.  Collective productions can convey useful information, of course, but they necessarily do not express the views of any one person.  They are largely useless as complex, full-bodied, human models after which we can pattern our own thinking.

But almost all encyclopedia articles,[2] most news articles, and some textbooks are used just to get information, not to serve as an entrée into an interesting perspective on the world.  Idiosyncracy and personality are annoying when we merely want information.  When it's bare information we want, we don't care about persons—only facts.  The point, then, is that radical collaboration is suitable for gathering impersonal information.  That, we might say, is its proper function.

III. Original science communication

Up to this point, I've been talking about whether derivative science communication should be collaborative; the answer, in short, is yes and no.  So now let me talk about whether original science communication should be collaborative.  But first, I think we need to examine whether, and in what sense, original science communication, such as papers that express new research findings, can be radically collaborative.  Maybe a better question is this: to what extent can original science writing be collaborative?  We already know that scientific research can be collaborative in the old-fashioned sense, because it is so often is, in fact.  What is the feasibility of making it more collaborative?

Applying certain aspects of the Wikipedia model to original science communication—and even the Citizendium model—strikes me as simply impossible.  For instance, if research papers were not signed, but instead were attributed to a nameless collective, the traditional motive of scholarship—personal glory, the honor of one's peers and of history—would disappear.  In short, I very much doubt scientists would participate at all in a researech collective without definite personal credit.  We may not need prominent personal credit to create derivative works collaboratively, but original works are another matter entirely.  Indeed, the economics of the two kinds of communication are different, because our motives are different.  Many scholars and scientists will not write an encyclopedia article, news article, textbook, or a popular science book without some compensation.  But the same people routinely publish much more difficult research papers and monographs with no monetary compensation.  The glory and honor of discovery is the motivation for such work.  Wiki work is just not that glorious, or at least, not in the same way.

Another aspect of radical collaboration is open authorship, that is, the authors select themselves.  This again seems impossible, or very difficult at best, for original science communication.  For one thing, original communication expresses original thoughts, and such thoughts necessarily tend to be controversial and difficult.  To open up authorship of original work very wide would, hence, permit the participation of persons who disagree with the conclusions or who don't even understand them.  But if participation is limited to like-minded scholars who understand the research, the collaboration can no longer be called "radical."  It's just a variant on old-fashioned collaboration.

In fact, beyond issues of feasibility or difficulty, I detect an incoherence in the very idea that original research might be radically collaborative.  The act of publishing a research paper does more than merely convey some findings; it also stakes a claim, that is, it has the force or effect of attaching some definite name or names to the findings.  To make original science communication radically collaborative would be to nullify the act of taking credit.  If we were to list as co-authors people who are not responsible for the research, the author list would not longer be honoring those people actually responsible for the finding.  It would just be a list of people who happened to work on the paper that summed up the research, even if some of the people listed had none of the thoughts or conclusions contained in the paper.

One might say that open collaboration on communication of original research would help to elaborate the full range of arguments and analysis releated to the research.  But that already happens, I suppose, in the give-and-take of scientific and scholarly conversation that happens before and after a paper is published.  Indeed, it has often been observed that science and scholarship generally are massively collaborative in the sense that researchers build on each others' work; it was Newton who pointed this out when he said that he saw farther only because he stood on the shoulders of giants.  I have no doubt that new Internet methods can and already do facilitate this very old sort of scientific collaboration.  But I see no need, in addition, to permit others, who had nothing to do with some research, to participate in the writing itself of original research findings.

That said, there is at least one way that original science communication might be amenable to radical collaboration: I mean what has been called "open research" and "open science."  As I understand it, this involves inviting others to participate actively in a study—not merely collaborating on the writing, but actually doing the research for, designing, and performing experiments, surveys, and so forth.  This is something I know very little about, and I will not embarrass myself by pretending to know more than I do.  An example of such research, perhaps, was the lightning-fast investigation in multiple labs that identified the avian flu virus.  Such research can be somewhat open and self-selecting.  So perhaps that is one sense, and a very interesting sense, in which original science communication can be radically collaborative.  I'm afraid I can't presume to say anything else about that, though.

IV. Conclusion

So, to sum up, should scientific communication be collaborative?  I've made it clear, I hope, that it depends on the type of communication.  Derivative communication that merely aims to express impersonal information can, and in some cases perhaps should, become radically collaborative; the Citizendium system shows how.  But when a specific personality, or point of view, forms an important part of the value of the communication, collaboration is denaturing and devaluing.[3] And original scientific communication should be collaborative only to the extent that the research it reports has been collaborative.

In the interests of keeping this paper short and provocative, I have not answered many important questions.  Perhaps the most important unanswered question is: what constitutes a contribution to knowledge?  Also, I said that some derivative communication should not be collaborative, because its value depends on its coming from an individual mind; I said that the productions of individual minds sometimes have some special value because they "model" how to think about the world.  What do I mean by that, and what is valuable about it?  I also asserted that scientists would not participate in research programs without the expectation of credit.  That seems obvious, but perhaps I should have explained why not; that is really a core issue.  Finally, I only barely glanced at the prospects of open research, or open science.  What is such research, really?  Is it radically collaborative in anything like the wiki sense, or is it merely the practice of making our research available to others for free, and talking a lot?

Without having given clearer answers to these fundamental questions, I can't say I have adequately discussed whether science communication should be collaborative.  Clearly, this is a big question, with many ramifications.  But I do hope I have at least introduced a few of the salient issues and given you something interesting to think and talk about.


[1] "A Defense of Modest Real Names Requirements," delivered at the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology 13th Annual Symposium: Altered Identities, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 13, 2008.  Available at http://www.larrysanger.org/realnames.html

[2] Diderot's Encyclopedie and the 11th Encyclopedia Britannica could be notable exceptions.  Those encyclopedias, perhaps the best-known encyclopedia editions in English, both featured articles by famous contemporary thinkers who expressed their own idiosyncratic views.  To be sure, some people reject all notions of objectivity and neutrality and prefer the openly personal and idiosyncratic, even in encyclopedias.  This is not the norm, or the ideal at least, for reference work today.

[3] Lawrence Lessig's attempt to make a wiki out of his second version of his book Code (called Code 2.0), demonstrates the difficulty of watering down the ideas and voice of an interesting person.