Authority and autonomy


Martin Wattenburg, IBM Research
Originally uploaded by blackbeltjones.

Lots being written at the moment about the authority of Wikipedia, after aspersions were cast recently by a journalist.

I don’t have anything to add other than the suggestion that both critics and it’s rather stung-sounding supporters are confusing authority with autonomy, in the principia cybernetica sense: “Self-asserting capacity of living systems to maintain their identity through the active compensation of deformations”

At DIS2004, Martin Wattenburg gave an impressive demonstration of this using a real-time java visualisation of the wikipedia: HistoryFlow, which I’ve written about here before.

Focussing on controversial subjects, Martin visually demonstrated the self-regulation, recovery from attack and consensus- generation the system manages in a remarkably short, you might say, biological time frame.

After seeing it illustrated with HistoryFlow, I don’t think that the harshest of critics could doubt the wikipedia‘s resilience and self-moderation.

It’s “authority” though might be a different matter.

The wikipedia’s structural strength and resilience confered by its form, also condemns it to be being in the constant flux of the wikinow – and that immediately erodes it’s ‘authority’ in traditional terms or perhaps ‘timelessness’ would be a better word.

As Liz Lawley comments on Joi Ito’s post (the comments are where the action is on that post, btw):

“while the back-and-forth of community editing may, over time, result in information with significant balance and validity, there’s also the very real potential of an unsuspecting user coming across an article during a pendulum swing. With print reference sources, that back-and-forth occurs as well, but it’s typically invisible to the end-user, who always receives the post-debate version.”

Another correspondent further down in the comments remarks:

“Encyclopedias are supposed to give information seekers correct information at any given time, not prove that they are self-repairing knowledge-building processes.”

Authority is a slippery, socially-constructed thing conferred over time, and the most authoratitive texts in our language once only had the authority most dubiously viewed by an establishement, that conferred by the dilligence of volunteers, just like the wikipedia.

This from Simon Winchester’s “The Surgeon of Crowthorne”:

“The undertaking of the scheme, he [Dean Trench] said, was beyond the ability of any one man. To peruse all of English literature – and to comb the London and New York newspapers, and the most literate of the magazine and journals – must be instead ‘the combined action of many’. It would be necessary to recruit a team – moreover, a huge team, one probably comprising hundreds and hundreds of unpaid amateurs, all of them working as volunteers.

The audience murmured with surprise. Such an idea, obvious though it may sound today, had never been put forward before.

But then, some members said as the meeting was breaking up, it did have some merit. It had a rough, rather democratic appeal to it. It was an idea consonant with Trench’s underlying thought, that any grand new dicitoonary ought to be itself a democratic product, a book that demonstrated the primacy of individual freedoms, of the idea that one could use words freely, as one liked, without hard and fast rules of lexicial conduct.

Any such dictionary certainly should not be an absolutist, autocratic product, such as the French had in mind: the English, who had raised eccentricity and ill-organisation to a high art, and placed the scatterbrain on a pedestal, loathed such Middle European things such as rules and conventions and dictatorships. They abhorred the idea of diktats – about the language, for heaven’s sake – emanating from some secretive body of unaccountable immortals. Yes, nodded a number of members of the Philological Society, as they gathered up their astrakhan coats and white silk scarves and top-hats that night and strolled out into the yellowish November fog; Dean Trench’s notion of calling for volunteers was a good one, a worthy and really rather noble idea.”

Jimmy Wales, of the wikipedia gave some talks yesterday in London, and if anyone has notes if would be very grateful if they could point me to them.

0 comments
  1. Echoes of the gasps of horror when Encyclopedia Britannica was sold to gold-digging US publishers. Frankly I’m astonished that anyone has the tenacity to suggest traditional edited-paper projects have any greater or lesser authority.

  2. The Italian language distinguishes between the terms “autorità” (the ability to arbitrarily hold power over people’s thoughts/opinions/behaviors) and “autorevolezza” (having “autorità” derived from people’s recognition that somebody is knowledgeable and trustworthy about a certain topic).
    A king wields autorità, a sage autorevolezza.
    Both have the ability to exert power over others.

    The Wikipedia might appear to have less autorità because of its very nature (and lack of traditional “brand image” perhaps), but that does little to diminish its potential to be autorevole (to wield autorevolezza).

  3. Thanks for the great article. And to think I almost skipped it over because I got the wrong impression from its title!

  4. nick said:

    I’m going to pick up Fabio’s point and run with it a little: there’s a blurring between ‘arbitrary’ authority and expertise when ad hoc hierarchies arise.

    What kind of authority should Wikipedia have? What sort of factual model should it aspire towards? Is it possible to establish that by consensus, or do cut-offs need to be stipulated? At what point should the Wikipedia say ‘look, this is beyond our reach — now go and look at the detailed, dedicated sources’?

    And it’s worth remembering that the factual model of Encarta is very different from that of, say, the 1911 Britannica. We expect less of encyclopaedias these days, because we have access to more.

    Do we want gemstones or seed crystals? Perhaps it’s good to combine both: to create a readerly and writerly text, for which we can indicate degrees of trust?

    Can that be done visually? Typographically? Indicate the extent to which a text is a palimpsest? Perhaps so. It occurs to me that you could tweak the opacity of text based upon how long it has been left to stand. And perhaps to introduce an unobtrusive peer review element whereby you can say ‘I’ve checked this and this is factually accurate’ to elements of entries.

    Ultimately, textual authority is both as absolute and fragmentary as personal identity.

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  9. mearc said:

    what an amazing point made by Fabio Sergio, so clear to see when put like that. And anyways, if you weigh it up, there’s no way you can have such a massive amount of knowledge 5 seconds away from your fingertips, without maybe a few mistakes. Like in the point made, it’s how trustworthy that matters to the masses. Even if they don’t know it themselves! It’s very important that the truth has an accessible outlet, otherwise we’re in trouble! If people sometimes believe things, escpecially important things about politics, medicine and science without doing deeper and wider reaching research then so be it, but I doubt it’s going to be used for anything deeply important on it’s own, will mostly be used for the average joe like myself to gain knowledge each day, which hopefully 99% of the time, I have found anyways, is so detatiled and so organic, that I would never ever dream of going back from it now – no way. Plenty of people, so many, watch sky news, bbc news, CNN and read lots and lots of newspapers – myself included, and now my heads a complete mess – ok I would not say that they ever lie, just to stay in the safety zone🙂 but do you ever get the feeling, maybe even only a tenth of the time but thats enough, that it’s one sided towards trying to keep up a good constant flow of fairly bad news, and also, it’s written by one person and probably only checked by another two, also before maybe a full story has come out and in the excitement of a headline!!! Is that information, that’s fed to us every day whether we want it or not, accurate? And is the latest science reports contained in the encyclopedia I got about 10 years ago? Nay way🙂 So to anyone who might read this who moans about wikipedias integrity (but big shout out to the supporters🙂 – do everyone a favour and go and get a life, as it’s one of the best things to happen on the internet so far, it’s free and it helps the whole world out, if you don’t already know how grateful some faraway places are maybe you can look it up on wikipedia?🙂 Have a good day.

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