Photo: Flickr user lifeontheedge

Friday, June 02, 2006

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Compare the Bill Clinton articles at Wikipedia and the new Congresspedia.

Congresspedia's is mediocre -- and will likely continue to be, because the site's allowed only logged-in users to edit pages. That might work once the site's past a certain level of quality, but it won't get there under this system becauase (and the circle is complete) nobody wants to register for a mediocre site. (Update, June 9th: I'm not so sure about this anymore: Clinton is not, after all, a congressman, so he's outside congresspedia's mission. The site might fill a useful niche. I still stand by the following paragraph, though.)

There needs to be more innovation in the wikipedia-clone area -- don't just start a parallel project: instead, code some greasemonkey, snatch a database mirror, and build a plugin that makes wikipedia itself more dynamic.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Pundling is an activity common to all domestic cats whereby, when in a state of contentment, they knead the surface on which they reside with their front paws. This may have an origin going back to their wild ancestors who would have had to tread down grass or foliage to make a temporary nest in which to rest.Wikisnips_

In "Digital Maosim", at Edge (a really good website, by the way), Jason Lanier writes:

In the real world it is easy to not direct films. I have attempted to retire from directing films in the alternative universe that is the Wikipedia a number of times, but somebody always overrules me. Every time my Wikipedia entry is corrected, within a day I'm turned into a film director again. I can think of no more suitable punishment than making these determined Wikipedia goblins actually watch my one small old movie.

Twice in the past several weeks, reporters have asked me about my filmmaking career. The fantasies of the goblins have entered that portion of the world that is attempting to remain real. I know I've gotten off easy. The errors in my Wikipedia bio have been (at least prior to the publication of this article) charming and even flattering.

Reading a Wikipedia entry is like reading the bible closely. There are faint traces of the voices of various anonymous authors and editors, though it is impossible to be sure. In my particular case, it appears that the goblins are probably members or descendants of the rather sweet old Mondo 2000 culture linking psychedelic experimentation with computers. They seem to place great importance on relating my ideas to those of the psychedelic luminaries of old (and in ways that I happen to find sloppy and incorrect.) Edits deviating from this set of odd ideas that are important to this one particular small subculture are immediately removed. This makes sense. Who else would volunteer to pay that much attention and do all that work?

The problem I am concerned with here is not the Wikipedia in itself. It's been criticized quite a lot, especially in the last year, but the Wikipedia is just one experiment that still has room to change and grow. At the very least it's a success at revealing what the online people with the most determination and time on their hands are thinking, and that's actually interesting information.

No, the problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it's been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods. The fact that it's now being re-introduced today by prominent technologists and futurists, people who in many cases I know and like, doesn't make it any less dangerous.

. . .

The collective isn't always stupid. In some special cases the collective can be brilliant. For instance, there's a demonstrative ritual often presented to incoming students at business schools. In one version of the ritual, a large jar of jellybeans is placed in the front of a classroom. Each student guesses how many beans there are. While the guesses vary widely, the average is usually accurate to an uncanny degree.

This is an example of the special kind of intelligence offered by a collective. It is that peculiar trait that has been celebrated as the "Wisdom of Crowds," though I think the word "wisdom" is misleading. It is part of what makes Adam Smith's Invisible Hand clever, and is connected to the reasons Google's page rank algorithms work. It was long ago adapted to futurism, where it was known as the Delphi technique. The phenomenon is real, and immensely useful.

But it is not infinitely useful. The collective can be stupid, too. Witness tulip crazes and stock bubbles. Hysteria over fictitious satanic cult child abductions. Y2K mania.

The reason the collective can be valuable is precisely that its peaks of intelligence and stupidity are not the same as the ones usually displayed by individuals. Both kinds of intelligence are essential.

I disagree with Lanier — in particular, he treats the concepts of "individual" and "collective" as binary and opposite, when the reality's much more complex — but ... er ... who doesn't disagree with him? He's still worth reading.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Paul Xavier Gleason (May 4, 1944 - May 27, 2006) was an American actor. Gleason is perhaps best remembered for his role as the gruff disciplinary principal named Richard Vernon in the 1985 movie The Breakfast Club. He reprised that character several times, including in an A*Teens music video, on the television show Boy Meets World (although he was a dean on BMW) and in the Not Another Teen Movie film.