The Future of the Free Internet
I AM—I flatter myself—a truth-seeker. That is part of the reason I have spent so much of my life studying the standards of truth. So, when given the opportunity to start a free encyclopedia, I began to philosophize about free encyclopedias; I developed a vision. The task is fascinating since an encyclopedia is, after all, a compendium of truths.
You might well think my vision came to fruition. After all, Wikipedia now stands triumphant, seemingly, as the largest, most popular, most global encyclopedia in history. But, like a reflection in a funhouse mirror, my vision appears to me in a twisted, monstrous form, which I disown. Wikipedia is of no great help to truth-seekers. I would prefer to be known as the project’s ex-founder.
Wikipedia now defends Establishment views, and the Establishment loves it for that reason. But it began as an idealistic, democratic project, one that would bring the world together to represent all of human knowledge, in all its messy, fascinating glory, on a neutral playing field. No more. It has been transformed into a thuggish defender of the epistemic prerogatives of the powerful. It began as an outgrowth of the open source software movement and its deeply decentralizing and democratic tendencies. In time, its operations became a black box, an enigma thriving on anonymity and the dark arts of dishonest social games and back-room deals. It is a mockery of an “encyclopedia anybody can edit.”
Wikipedia’s moral decline—for its decline is as much moral as epistemological—reflects that of the larger Internet. The short text and visual nature of social media is a poor replacement for the relatively long-form intellectual discussions we used to have on blogs, Usenet, and mailing lists. This is not necessarily what all users wanted, but it is what Big Tech corporate executives pushed on us with their careful experiments in gamification and user experience. It is a machine, of which so many of us are cogs, brilliantly and dangerously addictive and attention-hogging, dumbing us down, radicalizing us,1 and amplifying voices in our ideologically separate silos. This state of affairs is similar to that of Wikipedia, which promotes a single silo, that of the Establishment. It absolutely refuses to consult the opinions and needs of readers, and in so doing, radicalizes its true believers and would simplify our grasp of complex many-sided truths, if we let it.2
Even more fundamentally, what the decline of Wikipedia and social media have in common is the concentration—the centralization—of authority on the Internet. This centralization of Internet authority has many and terrible consequences. It turns out that placing so much power in the hands of Internet executives undermines us, our relationships, our minds, even our sanity, and ultimately our politics. Who knew this would happen, even ten years ago? Some open source software stalwarts foresaw some of it. But as to the general public, they had little notion, perhaps beyond a vague inkling. It is all too plain now. [more]
Larry Sanger, Essays On Free Knowledge, Ch. 12, “The Future of the Free Internet”