Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Dr. Larry Sanger's talk

Dr. Larry Sanger visited the University a couple of weeks ago to give a talk about the politics of information in the digital age. He is a cofounder of Wikipedia along with Jimmy Wales, but now he has become one of Wikipedia's most vocal critics. He expressed in his talk his concern how the lack of deference to experts and the ability of anyone to contribute anonymously has plagued Wikipedia and is its chief flaw. Even people banned from Wikipedia can circumvent procedures to block them. Dr. Sanger aimed to start up another project that would indeed give deference to experts, with anonymity being impossible.

His project, Citizendium, is run on the same software that Wikipedia uses, but to activate an account, one must submit a short biography. This eliminates Wikipedia's problem of credibility and anonymity. Yes, Wikipedia can be completely anonymous. Though I.P. address can be traced to people that don't register an account, all one needs to do to really post anonymously is create an account with a nonsensical name, and the I.P. won't be traced.

Because of the required information on Citizendium, no one is anonymous. Consequently, vandalism is simply not present in the project. The possibility that this could grow to anything comparable to Wikipedia's popularity is frightening to Sanger, as it would mean that the sum of all information would be reliably and freely available on the Internet. This would be pushing human civilization in a direction never considered before. It's certainly a noble and incredible goal, but worthy of fear nonetheless.

Dr. Sanger's primary fear though, is that as online communities like Wikipedia grew more powerful, governments would feel the need to intervene if abuse flagrantly continues, abuse like the vandalism Wikipedia suffers from every day. This isn't so far fetched. Germany shut down the German Wikipedia temporarily for a scandal involving the naming of a deceased computer hacker. Myspace has been used by the government to target convicted sex offenders. A fear of government intrusion into online communities does not arise out of a vacuum.

Wikipedia's irresponsibility would serve as the entry point for government regulation. Of course, Dr. Sanger wouldn't wish this on anyone, including Wikipedia, but has himself taken on the initiative to create a community that would avoid this pressure, because of excellent self-regulation.

The outlook is cynical. Innovation should be driven by a desire to succeed and create a superior product, and advance the greatness of civilization for its own sake, not out of a fear that the government might try to step in and assume control by force. How can anyone expect to innovate under such stressful conditions, by a threat in the back of their mind that they're close to being slaves of the state? No, this motive is weak. Citizendium is a great project and the goals are laudable, but neither Sanger nor anyone should create and innovate out of fear of the government. Such a mindset would be symptomatic of a far greater problem than Wikipedia's irresponsibility.

No comments: