In the 6th century, Saint Isidore of Seville set out to write a book containing all human knowledge. That’s quite an ambition! The result was astonishing: 20 volumes with 448 chapters with the title Etymologiae.
And talk about longevity. The book was a “bestseller” for 1,000 years. To put this in context, this would be like you turning to a book written in 1017 to find out what’s what. Let’s just say some information would be missing.
After the printing press, the task of writing encyclopedias became easy, but the method remained the same: a leading expert would dispense knowledge to everyone else.
Wikipedia was founded January 15, 2001, a beautifully symbolic date – a new millennium! – to signal the new way we discover, cumulate, and iterate information flows in the digital age.
The expertise of one person was fine, so long as this was all that our tools permitted. But now we can crowdsource and collaborate. This creates a new form of expertise, a new kind of global knowledge base, one that extracts diffuse information from manifold sources into a single shared portal that can be universally distributed. And more importantly: mistakes can be corrected. Forever. And ever. This is in essence of an adaptive complex system. There is no end state. There is endless progress.
As of this writing, Wikipedia has 27 billion words in 40 million articles in 293 languages. Did I mention that it is free? Yes, this does disemploy the once-famous door-to-door encyclopedia salesmen.
Proof of Concept
We love and adore Wikipedia, the world over. We also know that it is not the final source or authority. It is a starting place for our research. When known errors are discovered, they are fixed. You’ve got a problem with an entry? Take the initiative and fix it. It is not perfect, but every discovery of imperfection is an opportunity for change. This is the way, one day at a time, one edit at a time, that Wikipedia has become a wonder of the world.
It was not always so. For the first ten years, the platform was ridiculed, put down, denounced, sneered at, dismissed. Then one day we awoke and realized: wait, this thing has become amazing. (Wikipedia has a nice entry on the critics through the years.)
The founder of Wikipedia is Jimmy Wales. He is the featured speaker at FEEcon, June 15-17, 2017, in Atlanta, Georgia. FEE is deeply honored to have him. His innovation has changed the world.
The insight that made Wikipedia possible is not an accident. Wales was a student of F.A. Hayek’s work, in particular, “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” Hayek explained the impossibility of centralizing reliable, true, operational knowledge. He explained that this is why markets work. They rely on the localized, specialized, and carefully calibrated knowledge – it’s the best we have – of the endpoints in the system. Acting and choosing, people draw on knowledge that is decentralized and diffuse. The knowledge that makes what we call society possible is not given unto a single mind, whether an intellectual or a planning agent. It is inarticulate and even inaccessible to everyone but the actor.
Wikipedia took this source of power within markets and built a platform that created a market for knowledge. As Wales explains it, the old way of gathering reliable information was to gather it from the outside in, and then the expert sorted through what is valuable and became the distribution source. The new way gives opportunities for anyone who knows anything to contribute to building.
Where Are the Rules?
The very first impulse for any critic was to say: this can never work because there are no rules. But remember the first rule of adaptive systems: problems elicit answers. The results has been an evolving set of norms. You might think of this as a market for law. Unlike state law, it is adaptive to change, rooted in humility, and elicits compliance through willing acquiescence. It is something we choose.
The contrast with old-world encyclopedias is striking. The editor would assign a leading expert to write an entry to reflect the consensus of the experts. The results were frozen until the next edition came out. There was vast slippage since nothing could be challenged or changed. The latest scholarship made no difference. They were wonderful for what they were but now we have something better.
FEE would love to invite St. Isidor as a speaker. Unfortunately, that is not really possible. But he is now the patron saint of the Internet.
Jimmy Wales is a great substitute.