The Religion of Wikipedia

A few months back Robert McHenry, former editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, published an article criticising Wikipedia, "The Free Encyclopedia."  That got the pro-Wikipedia forces hopping mad.  In January, Aaron Krowne published a long rebuttal, which is gaining attention right now due to a post on BoingBoing.  (Links to the articles are below.)

Krowne scores a few points, but for the most part I think McHenry’s arguments are stronger.  Maybe I’ll do a little point-by-point analysis later, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort… Read the articles and decide for yourself.

A couple of quick observations:

By god Krowne is angry!  His first tack is to label McHenry — he’s one of them, a non-believer, a "FUD" as it’s called in the free software encyclopedia community.  From Krowne’s article:

For the uninitiated, FUD stands for “Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt.” It
is a term popular within the free software community, used to describe
the use of lies and deceptive rhetoric, aimed chiefly at free software
projects. It is an accurate term. In brief, the goal of FUD is to make
money when the free software competition cannot be defeated fairly in
the marketplace. This can be done by scaring consumers through wild
propaganda, or more recently, confusing courts through more subtle

So from the start, Krowne makes it clear that this is more than a debate on substance; this is a religious fight. (And that is an accurate term, or at least I say so. 🙂 )

I personally think that Wiki the technology (not the encyclopedia) is excellent.  It has clearly worked for some things, but it won’t make a good encyclopedia.  It works for narrow, uncontroversial domains with expert users — e.g., for collaboratively writing user manuals for open-source software, or for sharing information on a particular interest, like Sensei’s Library on Go.


Robert McHenry: The Faith-Based Encyclopedia

Aaron Krowne: The FUD-based Encyclopedia: Dismantling fear, uncertainty, and doubt, aimed at Wikipedia and other free knowledge resources

(via Boing Boing: Why Wikipedia works, and how the Britannica bully got it wrong)

Ellen Ullman on “Attentional User Interfaces”

Ellen Ullman has a great op-ed in the New York Times today about computers and attention:

"There are unused icons on your desktop": this message sometimes appears
in a balloon on the lower right-hand corner of my computer screen. I
can’t imagine why I should be alerted to this fact. The condition of my
personal workspace is my own business, as I see it. But no matter what
I might be doing at the moment – writing, reading, coding, thinking or
(God forbid) simply letting my thoughts trail off where they may – the
designers of the Windows XP operating system seem to think I should
stop right now and clean up my desk.

That is why I was surprised to read that Microsoft researchers now feel
confident that they can figure out when it’s all right to interrupt me.

Link to full article: The Boss in the Machine.

Computers and pseudo-A.D.D.

Speaking of distractions at the computer… This NYT story talks about the problem and some people studying it.

"It’s so hard, because of the incredible possibilities we have that
we’ve never had before, such as the Internet," said John Ratey, an
associate professor at Harvard Medical School who specializes in
attention problems. Dr. Ratey said that in deference to those who live
with clinically diagnosed attention deficit disorder, he calls this
phenomenon pseudo-A.D.D.

A growing number of computer scientists
and psychologists are studying the problem of diminished attention. And
some are beginning to work on solutions.

The article mentions possible technology-based remedies to distraction ("semantic e-mail", predictive interfaces that will guess when to politely interrupt), though

Many people, even the experts, have devised their own stopgap solutions to the attention-span problem.

But to call non-technological solutions "stopgaps" gets it backwards.  It’s not like  humanity has just been waiting, distracted and unproductive for millennia, or even since they’ve been sitting in front of computers, for some magical AttentionFocuser 1.0 software to come along.  These silicon-based technologies will never surpass personal, proven mental practices for improving concentration, whatever the form: from a simple routine for when to check e-mail to a strict meditation or yoga practice to train the mind.  And those will stay with you long after the software becomes obsolete.

Link: NYT > You There, at the Computer, Pay Attention


Negroponte’s Laptop Proposal

From the New York Times:

Nicholas Negroponte, the technology guru from the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology Media Laboratory, prowled the halls of the
World Economic Forum holding the holy grail for crossing the digital
divide: a mock-up of a $100 laptop computer.

… in partnership with Joseph Jacobson, a physicist at M.I.T., he
wants to persuade the education ministries of countries like China to
use laptops to replace textbooks.

… Mr. Negroponte said his experience in giving children laptop
computers in rural Cambodia had convinced him that low-cost machines
would make a fundamental difference when broadly deployed.

can just give laptops to kids," he said, noting that they quickly take
advantage of the machines. "In Cambodia, the first English word out of
their mouths is ‘Google.’ "

I’ve been looking for additional info on this project, but haven’t found it yet.  I think Bill Gates had it right in 1998:

[he argued] that it was more important to address basic life necessities –
health and food, for example – before connecting the world’s poorest
citizens to the Internet.

Why not just spend that $100 per child on more textbooks?

Link: The New York Times > Technology > New Economy: Taking the Pulse of Technology at Davos.

You might also like…

John Eklund writes in Inversion magazine about the marketing of books, including some observations about automated recommendations:

When I consider purchasing a book online, I’m supplied
by a shopping algorithm with a list of what else I might like,
based on what I have bought or what other people “like
me” bought.

… the “customer-recommends”
algorithm removes the pesky human from the interaction. And
it does the exact opposite of what it claims to do: far from
expanding my reading horizon, it contracts it. It doesn’t
show me new worlds, it tries to duplicate as closely as possible
the reading world I’m stuck in. When I’m offered
“more like this” I want to scream NO! Not more
like that. More like something else entirely, more like some
other reader I’m nothing like, more like some new and
different experience.

He sums up,

We are awash in great books, more than we could possibly
read. I have to laugh when I hear people bemoan a lack of
quality, or say things like “What a lousy season for
fiction.” To access the literary wealth we have to step
outside the paradigm of the Corporate New, where we are marketing
targets, and instead create for ourselves a Personal New,
a truly custom-designed inventory of the found, the overheard,
the stumbled-upon and the forgotten. Superb books are plentiful
in every bookstore and library. While the commercial publishing
conglomerates chase the next mega-selling piece of fundamentalist
pornography, literary treasures and surprises await those
with open eyes and ears.

Link: Don’t Point that Ad at Me: the business of books is bad for reading via

Cyberselfish in 2005

I recently read Paulina Borsook’s book Cyberselfish: A Critical Romp through the Terribly Libertarian Culture of High Tech.  It was published in 2000, so yes I’m a little behind the times.

It’s a fun read, unless you’re a very thin-skinned techie — check out the reviews on Amazon for a sampling of nasty reactions to the book, and of the culture of which she writes.  I hadn’t thought that closely about libertarianism in high tech before, but her analysis does explain a lot.

Has much changed since 2000?  I’d suspect that 4 years of Bush junior have turned at least a few technolibertarians into lefties, but I may be wrong.

The official site for the book is still up —, as is a fan site with many of Borsook’s articles.  Neither looks to have been updated since about 2001, though, and I haven’t found any more recent writings of hers on the web.  (If you know of anything, on-line or off, please let me know.)

This page: Freedom Through Technology (part of the "Critiques of Libertarianism" site) has some interesting articles on technolibertarianism from around the same time period.

Here is an amusing exchange between Paulina Borsook and Eric Raymond on Salon (his review of the book, and her response).

Raymond wrote (in 2000),

"Ultimately, it appears to me that what Borsook and Kakutani and their punditocracy ilk truly fear about hacker culture is in fact its libertarianism and what’s behind that, the liberating power of technology and free markets. Beneath that, I think they fear freedom itself …"

There you have it!  These critics of technology fear freedom!  I hope King George doesn’t hear about this.