More technological sensemaking

The debate about Wikipedia is moving into the mainstream (e.g., Gregory Lamb of the Christian Science Monitor, Online Wikipedia is not Britannica – but it’s close). It now may be reaching more people who previously new little and cared less about what the Wikipedia was and, for them, a shared sensemaking is taking place. What’s interesting about it is how technologies move from being compared to predecessors to being evaluated on their own merit. And that process involves the shedding of much of the political and cultural baggage of the past.

George Johnson of the NYT had this to say in his commentary The Nitpicking of the Masses vs. the Authority of the Experts:

It may seem foolish to trust Wikipedia knowing I could jump right in and change the order of the planets or give the electron a positive charge. But with a worldwide web of readers looking over my shoulder, the error would quickly be corrected. Like the swarms of proofreading enzymes that monitor DNA for mutations, some tens of thousands of regular Wikipedians constantly revise and polish the growing repository of information.

There is a subtle and fleeting moment early in the introduction of new technologies when society shifts from viewing these novelties in terms of their nearest existing analog and starts seeing them for what they are: when the automobile shifted from being a less-than-dependable horse and buggy to its own identity (and Ford stopped comparing the costs of each in his advertising); the electric light shifted from a fragile and expensive gas lamp to a new power source; the telephone from a bad telegraph; TiVo from an expensive VCR. The same could now be happening not just for the Wikipedia, but for open-source software and content in general (blogs, Linux, etc…).

Johnson concludes in words reminiscent of open-source pioneer Eric Raymond (to enough eyes, all bugs are shallow):

It seems natural that over time, thousands, then millions of inexpert Wikipedians – even with an occasional saboteur in their midst – can produce a better product than a far smaller number of isolated experts ever could.