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The truth markets

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Charles Cooper of CNET New.com has a great piece about Wikipedia’s recent brush with precisely the kind of issue that most people bring up as an objection to the concept of an open collaborative resource.

In an op-ed published Thursday in USA Today, Seigenthaler wrote about his anguish after learning about a false Wikipedia entry that listed him as having been briefly suspected of involvement in the assassinations of both John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. The 78-year-old Seigenthaler–a former assistant attorney general working under Bobby Kennedy–got Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales to delete the defamatory information in October. Unfortunately, that was four months after the original posting.

One of the joys of arguing with people about the plausibility of online collective wisdom, the networked conversations and the peer review nature of the blogosphere is being able to point at Wikipedia as the living and breathing example that these things work. It is a very powerful example as there are many people who would otherwise offer very convincing and erudite arguments how such things cannot possibly work. Just like with anything that changes the parameters of what they know. Charles Cooper pins down the elusive evolution of the new landscape:

On your ride home today, try pondering a future where Wikipedia’s model of competing versions of the truth becomes the norm. Will the increasing influence of the wisdom of the crowd force us to rethink the nature of knowledge? With the proliferation of the Internet, more voices inevitably will become part of that conversation.

It’s the conversation meme again and rightly so. Interactions between individuals, for their own reasons and on their own terms, give rise to what Weinberger calls ‘multi-subjectivity’. The technology that enables us to collate, structure and retrieve those interactions and conversations gives ‘multi-subjectivity’ the clout that only objectivity used to be able to claim – it usually came on the back of a ‘certified’ medium or some worthy institution. But the ability to articulate, share and revise many opinions is just another way of getting to the truth. And a more realistic one, in my opinion. And that is why I agree with this:

You can argue that epistemological revisionism goes on all the time. As a kid, I remember thumbing through a 1920s encyclopedia when I found a discussion of different racial categories. Someone reading the entry decades later would have found the assertions in that article to be nonsensical, if not borderline racist. But when the book was published, the people who might have corrected the record had no power over the publishing company printing up the product line. With the Internet, anyone with an online connection can chime in.

We’re still settling into the new order, and the Seigenthaler episode highlights the challenge of fairly refereeing the debate. Ostensibly, the objective is truth. But questions about the nature of truth date back to Plato and Aristotle. It’s a vexing argument that continues to the present day.

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3 Responses to “The truth markets”


  1. scale|free
    on Dec 8th, 2005
    @ 13:15 pm

    Personal responsibility

    Adriana Cronin-Lukas points to a CNET piece about the recent Wikipedia incident. If we assume that the Wikipedia model isn’t going away, then we’re all going to have to assume a lot more personal, and active, responsibility for checking how


  2. Rob Halper
    on Dec 11th, 2005
    @ 7:27 am

    Don’t these kinds of errors undermine the legitimacy of wikis? The open conversation is a double edged sword it seems, for people like Siegenthaler.


  3. Adriana
    on Dec 11th, 2005
    @ 8:44 am

    No, I don’t think that – as the whole point of my article is to point out that these kind of errors do not undermine the legitimacy of wikis…

    On a more philosophical note, what source of information and knowledge does have ‘legitimacy’ and how would you define it? To me, wikipedia with it’s checks and balances (imperfect but functioning) is still closer to the way real knowledge emerges than the Encyclopedia Britannica or other top down system. That it is harder to digest and comprehend does not mean that it is not credible and legitimate.

    Sometimes I think the whole issue of ‘legitimacy’ is a shortcut for those who do not want to use their own judgement and cry for an easy solution to learning …

    Obviously, there is such a thing as authority and credibility but I’d rather have that emerge in a flexible context such as wikipedia than in a rigid, imposed system of ‘objective’ handed-down knowledge. Which doesn’t work anyway…

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