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.