Can Wikipedia Save the World?

The unnerving rise of ‘fake news’ and digital manipulation has called into question how we evaluate truth. While political deception is far from new, the Internet permits ‘false’ or corrupting information to circulate with ease, threatening the ideals once promised by the World Wide Web at its launch: free-flowing knowledge, connectedness, and global understanding.

However, things got a little more complex, as Evgeny Morozov explains, the Internet “celebrates post-truth and hyper-truth simultaneously.” With truth, it could be argued, the world will be set free from corruption or contention, as long as this truth is freely shared amongst all and remains unbiased. This sentiment is core to the objective of Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation: “We are guided by a vision of a better world.” In the face of Trumpism and growing data surveillance, can Wikipedia – or at least the mindset it advocates – really change our world for the better? 

Of course, ‘better’ is an uncertainty in itself. For Wikipedia, inclusion is key to bettering our reality: “Our vision is about more than providing universal access to all forms of knowledge. It’s about creating an inclusive culture.” This approach seeks to foster constructive, inter-cultural discourse upon a digital platform that all can access and contribute to. Although, Morozov posits, “there are two ways to be wrong about the Internet. One is to embrace cyber-utopianism and treat the Internet as inherently democratising. Another, more insidious way is to succumb to Internet-centrism. Internet-centrists happily concede that digital tools do not always work as intended and are often used by enemies of democracy.” There is another glaring limitation of Wikipedia’s digital presence. Only around half of the global population has access to the Internet, with studies predicting universal access might only be reached in 2050 due to lack of funding, infrastructure and education in more remote, impoverished areas.

While Wikipedia aspires to establish itself as a democratising online space, there are many ways it currently fails to live up to this utopian standard. The shortcomings of the site’s editorial procedure have been largely documented, from societal bias inevitably skewing the ‘neutral voice’ of its content to a noticeably inequitable record of world history. Likewise, Wikipedia’s shrouded bureaucracy has also come to light, particularly in the recent, arguably unjust, banning of a prolific editor. 

Wikipedia’s mission to better the world through amassing the sum of knowledge faces more than just practical issues. The assumption that worldwide inequalities are simply the cause of misunderstandings or ignorance, rather than a complex, evolving socio-political power struggle, paints out a far too simple relationship between knowledge and ‘equality’. With Wikipedia often held up as a shining example of positive digital collaboration, Morozov contests the superficial conclusion that it serves as “just another reminder that Internet logic is the correct way to run the world”, assuming a “coherent logic to the Internet and its many components”, stating that “some problems… can only be mitigated – never solved – through bargaining, because those problems emerge from competing interests, not knowledge gaps.” 

In contrast, a 2020 Wired article declares Wikipedia as the “last best place on earth”, insisting it “shines by comparison” to the data-looting, monopolising approach of other technological ventures. The article claims that Wikipedia “does not plaster itself with advertising, intrude on privacy, or provide a breeding ground for neo-Nazi trolling.” While this is certainly an oversight of the more subtle ways ideological bias can make its way into Wikipedia, the writer rightfully acknowledges that the Wikimedia Foundation are actively discussing these problems “often in dedicated forums for self-critique.” Interestingly, the article considers Wikipedia mostly a reflection of “the personal interests and idiosyncrasies of its contributors”, which appears to negate the objective, neutral voice encouraged of its editors.

This points to a very timely solution of our modern world. What if humans weren’t in charge of writing Wikipedia?

MIT Technology Review, 2014

In fact, bots have already been writing Wikipedia pages, including Swedish physicist Sverker Johansson’s “Lsjbot”, who is responsible for creating a substantial portion of the Cebuano Wikipedia edition. In his discussion with Seeker, Johannson views the use of bots as a way to make the platform more inclusive: “too many Wikipedia entries are written by white male “nerds”…on Swedish Wikipedia, there are more than 150 characters from The Lord of the Rings, but fewer than 10 profiling people from the Vietnam War.” 

Although artificial intelligence holds potential to remedy some of our human problems, it is not as pure and objective as we had hoped. The developments of AI are discussed in this Harvard Business Review article, stating, it “can help identify and reduce the impact of human biases, but it can also make the problem worse by baking in and deploying biases”. Thus, the application of AI, algorithms and data in assessing ‘fairness’ in the world is also encumbered by the subjectivities of human beings. The bleak conclusion offered by this Vice article regarding the use of AI for Wikipedia, “it can lead to credible concerns over its quality but is also hugely better than nothing”, encapsulates what Morozov warned against – succumbing to Internet-centrism despite its failures. 

On the other hand, it is worth noting that the ‘nerd’ culture prevalent within Wikipedia is perhaps what has ensured its longevity. According to Wired, Wikipedia’s “innovations have always been cultural rather than computational… this remains the single most underestimated and misunderstood aspect of the project: its emotional architecture.” Maybe it is the “idiosyncrasies” of Wikipedia editors that drive its cause, rather than a quest for objectivity.

In Chris Bateman’s exploration of what Wikipedia means for knowledge, he argues that “truth is not some foreign land of objectivity that we have to struggle to reach… it is something for which we all possess a uniquely individual familiarity” (63). This revision of seeking truth is based upon our reliance on a collective pool of expertly gathered knowledge, as we are merely “relying on someone else’s experience of it… we trust a reliable witness of the truth, or rely upon a spokesperson for objective knowledge” (63).

As we examine Wikipedia through this lens, it certainly reinvigorates the idealism once inspired by the Internet. Yet, it is important not to surrender to such wishful thinking that this alone can bring forth global change or a better world. Bateman’s suggestion that “perhaps you can simply accept that we are all equally stupid” (60), serves as a better gauge of what we can achieve with the pursuit of knowledge.

Even if Wikipedia amounts to something close to the haven of collective truths it envisions, we must remain skeptical that this exclusively will solve all our problems or ‘better’ the world. As Morozov clarifies: “Ideas on their own do not change the world; ideas that are coupled with smart institutions might.” Societal change is a slow, ongoing process, of which collective and collaborative knowledge plays a significant – but not sole – part in attaining.

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