Peter Murray-Rust is a chemist at the University of Cambridge and a vocal campaigner for open knowledge. He will be speaking at this year’s Wikimania conference which will take place in London on 8-10 August. He was recently awarded a fellowship by the Shuttleworth Foundation “to make a real difference to the world”. The following is adapted from a post on his personal blog and is reproduced under its CC-BY licence.
Wikipedia is one of the great and lasting achievements of this century and typifies the Digital Enlightenment. It epitomises so much – cooperation, democracy, meritocracy, innovation, challenge to authority. It represents the dream of the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. [Note – I’m using “Wikipedia” to include Wikimedia, Wikispecies , Wikidata, etc.]
Note, I’ve used Wikipedia to reference these people and their creation. They are massive. You should read the pages.
I have. I now use Wikipedia as my primary source for much of my knowledge.
What??? an academic relies on Wikipedia? Sacrilege! Disaster! You should use your library. You should buy textbooks. You should sweat to get your knowledge. Wikipedia isn’t written by academics but common people. It must be rubbish.
This was an almost universal reaction from academia when Wikipedia started. Lecturers banned students from using it and required them to read out-of-date textbooks instead. Only a few academics embraced the ideas. Here was the infrastructure for the Digital Enlightenment (I don’t know whether this phrase is in common use, but it should be).
What’s the Enlightenment? Why is it in Capitals?
Let’s look in Wikipedia. (We know it’s rubbish, but it might give us a tip). The Age of Enlightenment.
The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason) was a cultural movement of intellectuals beginning in late 17th- and 18th-century Europe emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition. Its purpose was to reform society using reason, to challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith, and to advance knowledge through the scientific method. It promoted scientific thought, skepticism, and intellectual interchange. The Enlightenment was a revolution in human thought. This new way of thinking was that rational thought begins with clearly stated principles, uses correct logic to arrive at conclusions, tests the conclusions against evidence, and then revises the principles in the light of the evidence.
and this applies equally to Wikipedia. When the cultural history of this century is written (the pre-Singularity bit, at least, if machines value history) Wikipedia will have the same place as the Encyclopédie. I’m pleased that I’m on record as supporting Wikipedia – See John McNaughton, The Observer [newspaper] 5th April 2009. When asked whether I trusted Wikipedia I replied:
“The bit of Wikipedia that I wrote is correct”
Now, of course that is immensely and unacceptably arrogant in the Wikipedia community and I only used the phrase to shock the complacency of academics. In Wikipedia there is no “I” but only “we”. There is no “correct” but only “as good as our energy and resources can make it at the present time”. After all most pages start as single sentences. The article on Diderot has been revised 500 times in the last 4 years. None of those is final – all are as good as possible.
In science Wikipedia is massive. Huge amounts of species, compounds, theorems, physics, stars, … up to date and in many cases pretty comprehensive. And where it’s too massive there are links to authoritative resources. What’s not so known is the growth of complementary resources:
- Wikimedia Commons
I wonder where I can find out about them?
I shan’t know what I am going to say till I stand up in front of the Wikimanians. It depends on what I do tomorrow – NO! what WE do tomorrow. August is web-years away. I’m hoping I can put demos in front of US. Get US involved in changing the world.
At the start of the Digital Enlightenment.