Wikipedia & the Democratization of Knowledge

When Timothy Messer-Kruse, a labor historian, found a factual glitch in a Wikipedia article on the Haymarket riot, he dutifully posted a correction—backed up by substantial primary evidence to support his case. His correction was quickly rescinded. Since his data were the result of a decade of scholarly research he tried again, convinced he could “win simply through sheer tenacity.” And again, his scholarship was rejected, accompanied by a stern warning from the Wikipedia gatekeepers.

So what gives? How can one ever expect to correct an error in a Wikipedia entry, if the veracity of the article is predicated on the “majority” view as represented by accepted secondary sources (Wikipedia’s stated policy)? On first blush, this sounds like a Catch 22 enigma enforced by the heavy-handed intervention of an undereducated, overzealous—and anonymous—volunteer Wikipedia editor. One wields great power when shielded by the anonymity of the internet.

But that blade cuts both ways. In the Wild Wild West that is the World Wide Web, it is difficult to ascertain a poster’s bona fides; in the virtual world, perverted middle-aged men pose as nasty little girls and pencil-necked geeks become uber-warriors. Perhaps the gatekeeper in question didn’t know who Timothy Messer-Kruse was—an esteemed academician. Or someone in cyberspace posing as that person.

Messer-Kruse complained about the situation in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog, noting that the Wikipedia folks advised him that he was welcome to pursue his discourse on the “talk” page associated with the article—that’s what it’s provided for. But that didn’t mollify the professor, and after he had published his own book on the subject two years later, he tried again—and again was rebuffed. This time, the “Wiki-cop” (his term) responded, “I hope you will familiarize yourself with some of Wikipedia’s policies, such as verifiability and undue weight. If all historians save one say that the sky was green in 1888, our policies require that we write ‘Most historians write that the sky was green, but one says the sky was blue.’ … As individual editors, we’re not in the business of weighing claims, just reporting what reliable sources write.”

Actually, that sounds perfectly reasonable to me. There can be no doubt that specious history should be challenged, but that conversation should result in an open discourse that yields fresh interpretations. Citing primary documentation is not the end-all; over the course of four decades of studying Civil War history, I have seen many examples of such primary citations being taken out of context by highly-regarded academic historians to bolster their pet thesis. And historians are not without bias. Indeed, a female labor historian on my thesis committee took me to task for not including any references to female saddlers in pre-industrial America. I’ll grant you, that’s an area of research that has been sorely neglected. It had no legitimate place in my thesis, but it had everything to do with her personal bias, and she was a tenured professor whom I had to satisfy to secure my degree. If any of you are old enough to remember Elliott Gould in the 1970 film, Getting Straight, you’ll know what I mean…

Since the promo blurb on the dust jacket of Messer-Kruse’s The Trial of the Haymarket Anarchists: Terrorism and Justice in the Gilded Age calls the work “controversial” and suggests that the author “rewrites the history” of the Haymarket affair, it seems only reasonable that his interpretations should withstand some critical assessment before being taken at face value. You can’t have it both ways, professor. The dust-up managed to land Messer-Kruse a spot on National Public Radio today—that ought to sell some books.

If Messer-Kruse feels that Wikipedia’s policies and methodology are flawed, he is free not to consult that source. His tantrum only serves to illuminate his inability to adapt to the changes we are all faced with. Wikipedia isn’t infallible; it is by definition a work in progress—an ongoing conversation rather than a proclamation. The “wiki” movement is an amazing example of the democratization of knowledge, and that can only be a good thing.

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.

Digital Humanities. Literally.

dig-i-tal. adj. 1: of, relating to, or resembling, a digit, esp. a finger <digital dexterity>; 2. performed with the fingers; 3. of or relating to a device that can read, write, or store information that is represented in numerical form (i.e. a computer).

Want to be more creative with your digital projects? Try engaging your head, heart, and hands.

That’s what a recent article on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog recommends. The piece highlights the need for aspiring knowledge workers (aka “college students”) to roll up their sleeves and get some dirt under their fingernails. Author Scott Carlson opines, “… maybe it’s time that instruction—at least at some colleges—included more hands-on, traditional skills.”

He has a point. Once upon a time, we were a nation of inveterate tinkerers; it was the magical synthesis of creativity and manual know-how that yielded that uniquely American character trait known as “Yankee ingenuity.” But for the past several decades, our educational system has been progressively tacking away from teaching manual skills that buttress intellectual achievements. We are now a nation of specialists, a trend that has only been exacerbated by our growing dependence on computers and other digital devices. We are rapidly becoming a culture that is incapable of and unwilling to sew on a button, drive a nail, change an oil filter.

The growing chasm between manual laborers and knowledge workers has produced unexpected consequences. An over-reliance on “book larnin’” has served up a generation (or two) of designers and engineers who have no idea how their products are actually manufactured or how they function in the Real World. I’ll bet you’ve experienced this for yourself: You’re trying to use some device or other, and it just doesn’t perform as it should; you utter a few expletives and wonder aloud, “Didn’t the engineer who designed this thing ever actually use it?” According to Carlson, liberal arts students, too, are experiencing this disconnect.

The irony is that the generation who suffered through the Depression and World War II—an amazingly self-reliant and resilient lot—did everything in their power to build a future in which their children and their children’s children would never have to earn a living by the sweat of their brow. Our prosperity was their legacy.

And in an equally ironic twist, it turns out that working with your hands actually enhances your intellectual capabilities. Neuroscientists report that such creative tactile occupation triggers activity in areas of the brain quite apart from the hyper-rational left-brain sectors, generating new neural networks. “Information,” pronounced Albert Einstein, “is not knowledge.”

I was lucky. I grew up in the post-war decades, when virtually everyone’s dad had a well-appointed shop in the garage and spent lots of time in his “man cave.” I learned how to use (and care for) all of my pop’s tools, both manual and power. He encouraged me to tackle a variety of projects, inculcating me with a respect for good tools and the confidence that I could design and build things on my own. He paid incredible attention to detail and quality—a fetish I am glad to have acquired. Naturally, I was expected to go to college, but the time spent at the workbench contributed materially to my “interdisciplinary education.”

Years later, as a material culture historian, I learned to observe and analyze artifacts and place them in their appropriate social context. But I could never resist the urge to figure out how they were made; the tools, materials, processes, and techniques involved—the artisanal mindset. Without any nineteenth-century master saddlers around to teach me the intricacies (“mysteries”) of their craft, I did the only thing I could—I taught myself. I compiled reams of notes drawn from hands-on surveys of thousands of artifacts, and over a period of years (my “apprenticeship”) painstakingly acquired the requisite manual skills to produce museum-quality replica saddles and tack.

I devoted over two decades to my alter ego of pre-industrial artisan. During that time, I learned a great deal more than simply how to build a saddle by hand; I indulged my unquenchable thirst for knowledge. It was not enough to be able to simply identify the esoteric physical attributes and nuances of these objects—I wanted to know how and why things worked. I developed an eye for detail and the patience to stick with a problem until I had solved it. It was a practical course in critical thinking.

In using my own products on a daily basis, I also learned the strengths and weaknesses of the originals. I had many “Eureka!” moments, when my intuitive approach to a knotty problem proved to mirror the same path taken by the saddlers with whom I shared such a deep kinship. In those synergistic flashes of comprehension, I felt like I was channeling my artisanal forebears.

The take-away lesson here is that every saddle I produced made me a better digital humanist.

I heartily endorse the idea of tempering one’s liberal arts education with a healthy dose of hands-on subjects—what nineteenth-century Americans termed the “useful arts”—but sadly, the teaching of such practical courses largely remains the purview of community colleges and trade/tech schools. You shouldn’t let that prevent you from jumping in on your own; self-reliance is, after all, the point of the exercise.

Take a more holistic approach to your own personal development. Use all the tools at your disposal—you have to engage your mind, body and spirit to create real art. Adopt a hobby or extracurricular activity that suits your personal proclivities and you’ll soon discover how working with your hands improves the work you do with your mind. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “digital humanities.”

the DW-P

Aden Nichols is an independent editor and writer. He is available for print and digital projects: books (academic, narrative/creative nonfiction, memoir, speculative/alternate history, etc.), websites/social media, and business communications. Visit his website (www.LittleFireEditorial.com) or email him at: Aden@LittleFireEditorial.com.