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Jos de Mul. The Wikipedia Religion: A Sinner’s Account. Invited lecture at the conference Technology and Transcendence. Enschede: University of Twente / NWO, November 18, 2016.

Let me begin with a confession. I’m a sinner, too. According to Michael Gorman, former president of the American Library Association, “A professor who encourages the use of Wikipedia is the intellectual equivalent of a dietician who recommends a steady diet of Big Macs with everything” (quoted in Reagle, 2010b, p. 138). To make my case worse, I not only encourage my students to use Wikipedia, but I’m also guilty of using Wikipedia myself quite frequently. However, I immediately like to add that I hardly ever eat Big Macs, and almost ever read and discuss primary texts and reliable secondary literature with my students.  

So why do I sin? Well, probably the most obvious reason is the overwhelming amount of information to be found on Wikipedia. The English version alone already has reached 5,285,797 articles yesterday, and if we include the number of articles written in the 287 Wikipedia’s in other lanuages, the number exceeds 40 million. Moreover, no other encyclopedia is so up to date (the fact that I know that the English version of Wikipedia reached exactly 5,285,797  million yesterday, was because the Wikipedia lemma on Wikipedia has been updated three days ago). No wonder that I’m not the only sinner: as of February 2014, Wikipedia has 18 billion page views and nearly 500 million unique visitors each month! A second reason I love Wikipedia is the free-access and free-content character of this encyclopedia, offering – worldwide - millions of people, many of them deprived of books and libraries, a wealth of information, knowledge, and sometimes even wisdom.

It seems that Wikipedia even has a divine ring. It promises to provide us with an omniscience that once was attributed to God. Together with technologies like telepresence and virtual reality – which express the human desire to obtain two other divine qualities: omnipresence and omnipotence – Wikipedia promises to guide us right through “the pearly gates of cyberspace”.

Why then this guilty feeling when I use Wikipedia? Well, maybe my feeling to be a sinner is not the result of violating my beliefs, but rather of catching myself believing. After all, I do not have a real talent for religion, both in its sacral [seekral] and profane forms. Being an academic, having digital culture as one of my research subjects, I’m well aware of the drawbacks of Wikipedia. Most of them are related to the fact that Wikipedia is a crowd-sourced project, so that every user in principle can be an editor as well. The English version alone has about 130.000 active editors (out of 27 million registered users) and more than 1300 hundred administrators (editors who have been granted the right to perform special actions like deleting articles, blocking malfunctioning editors etc.). Because of this open character Wikipedia lacks, according to its critics, accuracy and reliability. There is, for example, no methodological fact-checking. Moreover, there is a rather uneven coverage of topics, the quality of the writing often is poor, and the are many cases of deliberate insertion of false and misleading information and other types of ‘intellectual vandalism’. Other issues that has raised criticism are explicit content (like child pornography), sexism, and privacy violations. Indeed, for many reasons the Wikipedia community resembles a church.

And the list of drawbacks I just gave is far from exhaustive. For a more complete list – oh irony - it is worthwhile to visit the lengthy and well-documented Wikipedia lemma’s ‘Criticism of Wikipedia’ and – especially for this learned community – ‘Academic studies about Wikipedia’;-).

Instead of giving an exhaustive overview of drawbacks, in my talk I want to focus on one essential characteristic of Wikipedia, which has led to much controversy: its collective character. According to enthusiast supporters of Wikipedia, this project is a paradigmatic example of the so-called Wisdom of the Crowds. According to this idea, popularized by Surowiecki’s [Soerowijekki’s] book with that title from 2005, group decisions are often better than could have been made by any single member of the group. As the accuracy of the crowd wisdom largely depends on the crowd’s size and diversity, is it not surprising, according to Wikipedia supporters, that a survey of Wikipedia, published in Nature that same year, which was based on a comparison of 42 science articles with Encyclopædia Britannica, found that Wikipedia's level of accuracy closely approached this esteemed encyclopedia (Giles 2005, cf. Arazy, 2006). The diversity of the crowd guarantees the neutral point of view, which is one of the key editorial principles of Wikipedia, aiming at a fair and proportional representation of all of the significant views on the topics.

However, more critical minds rather see Wikipedia as a result of the stupidity of the crowds. According computer scientist and computer philosophy writer Jaron Lanier – who, as one of the pioneers of virtual reality, cannot easily be accused of hostility against digital culture - the most questionable aspect of Wikipedia is what he calls digital Maoism and the Oracle illusion. In You’re not a Gadget (2010) Lanier he argues that, just as in the heydays of cultural revolution in China, in Wikipedia the majority–opinion perspective rules. Despite of the open character of the Wikipedia project, that, in principle at least, can be joined by everybody and welcomes a variety of opinions, in reality controversial topics often evoke so-called ‘edit wars’, in which particular entries are updated at a rapid-fire rate by representatives of competing political, religious or ethnic ideologies. Actually, however, the majority, having the loudest and most persistent voice, rules. Or rather, we must say, a particular majority rules, as Wikipedia exhibits systemic bias. The Wikipedia community is heavily dominated by young, male, white, wealthy, English speaking techno-geeks, whereas women and non-white ethnicities are significantly under-represented. Moreover, according to Lanier “open culture, [especially] the web 2.0 designs, like wikis, tend to promote the false idea that there is only one universal truth in […] arenas where that isn’t so”. As a consequence, Wikipedia’s digital Maoism evokes what Lanier terms the Oracle illusion. As he explains in his book You’re not a Gadget (2010): “Wikipedia, for instance, works on what I call the Oracle illusion, in which knowledge of the human authorship of a text is suppressed in order to give the text superhuman validity. Traditional holy books work in precisely the same way and present many of the same problems. This is [one] of the reasons I sometimes think of cybernetic totalistic culture as a new religion. The designation is much more than an approximate metaphor, since it includes a new kind of quest for an afterlife. It’s so weird to me that Ray Kurzweil wants the global computing cloud to scoop up the contents of our brains so we can live forever in virtual reality. When my friends and I built the first virtual reality machines, the whole point was to make this world more creative, expressive, empathic, and interesting. It was not to escape it.”

The phenomenon Lanier refers to is also known as the hive mind, as we find it in social insects, whose ‘mind’ rather than a property of individuals is a ‘social phenomenon’, as it has to be located in the colony rather than in the individual bees (Queller & Strassman 2009). In a sense, human individuals are social phenomena, too, as our bodies also are societies of cells that function together to make us walk, clean our blood, digest our food, think, etc. And even the cells in our body actually are a collection of organelles, or tiny organs, like the energy-producing mitochondria. And if we look at human life on a larger scale, tribes and cities can also be conceived of as superorganisms, displaying hive minds. Thus, both on the micro- and on the macro-level, humans in a very basic way we are dividuals rather than individuals. At the macro-level, we could regard the technical infrastructure of Wikipedia as (a tiny part) of an emerging global brain, and the practice of editing and using this global encyclopedia as part of the accompanying ‘hive mind’.

An interesting question is what would inspire a group of multicellular organisms like ants or humans to form a superorganism? “In their book The Superorganism The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies, biologists Hölldobler and Wilson argue that it is a complex process involving genetic evolution and environmental pressures. Generally, a group of insects like bees will move from behaving as individuals to forming colonies when they are storing food (like honey or pollen) that comes from multiple sources. At that point, a colony has a better chance of surviving than an individual.” (Newitz, 2012). This criterion seems to be satisfied by humans than with social insects. However, as population genetics suggests, another precondition for the emergence of superorganisms is a strong genetic similarity. This is the case with social insects like ants and bees, and also with the cells in our bodies, but much less the case with human individuals. For that reason in human interaction is characterized by conflict as much as by cooperation. Wikipedia is a good example here, though a paradigmatic example of global cooperation, the aforementioned drawbacks like the edit wars, uneven coverage of content, underrepresentation of women and ethnic groups, the deliberate insertion of false and misleading information show a ‘generous’ variety of conflicts as well. This seems to make the emergence of a real superhuman unlikely. As Joan Strassman, an authority on superorganisms, states it in an interview: “‘That [the emergence of a human superorganism] could happen with higher relatedness. But right now, there's far too much conflict.’ She pointed out that the best kinds of cooperative groups for forming an organism are clones, and humans are far from being genetic clones of each other” (quoted in Newitz 2012).

However, it is precisely Lanier’s fear that Wikipedia is a symptom of a mental clonization which threaten to eliminate diversity and individual perspectives.  For the ‘trekkies’ in the audience, in Lanier’s view Wikipedia functions like the Borg in the Star Trek Saga, the extraterrestrial species aiming at assimilating all life in the universe, famous for their standard greeting: “We are the Borg. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile”.  

Wikipedia as the pinnacle of ‘the wisdom of the crowds’ or as ‘the spectre of a Maoist hivemind’. It is clear that at least with regard to this question there is conflict rather than agreement in the discourse on Wikipedia. How to evaluate these sharply contrasting views on Wikipedia?  In the remainder of my talk I will try to find a way out of this controversy by analyzing Wikipedia from the perspective of the cognitive evolution of mankind, focusing on the role computers networks play in this development.

Information technology in evolutionary and historical perspective                            

The emergence of information technologies can be regarded as a milestone the cognitive evolution of mankind, comparable to the two other major transitions of the cognitive structure of the genus Homo: the development of spoken language, and writing. In his book Origins of the Modern Mind. Three Stages in the Evolution of Culture and Cognition (1991), the neuropsychologist Merlin Donald gives a fascinating reconstruction of this cognitive evolution of Hominids. Donald   distinguishes three stages  in this evolution, characterized respectively by a mimetic, a linguistic and an external symbolic cognition.

In his view the highest primates from which man is descended had an episodic cognition, that is to say, non-reflexive, concrete, and situation-linked, and taking place in a continuous present. At least from Homo erectus on, however, a mimetic cognition emerged, characterized by the production of conscious, self-initiated representations which were intentional but not (yet) linguistic. According to Donald this evolution had important social implications. Not only did mimetic capability lead to the development of group rituals and bonding in the prehistoric tribes, phenomena that characterize the behavior of small groups right up to the present day, it also resulted in a great increase in mutual communication and cooperation, as well as in the transfer and conservation of knowledge. This resulted in what we might call a ‘hivemind light’, which probably played an important role in the reproductive success of the genus Homo and its distribution all over the globe.

Linguistic cognition made its appearance with Homo sapiens. In the course of evolution, the ability to (re)combine basic actions (which,  among other  things,  had  developed through the working of stones) shifted to the production of sound, making articulated language possible. As opposed to mimetic communication this language makes use of arbitrary symbols, and is characterized by semantic compositionality, which – in comparison with earlier types of animal and human communication, enabled Homo sapiens – at least in principe - to utter an infinite number of different sentences with a limited number of words [‘John loves Mary’, ‘Mary loves John’, ‘My brother thinks that John loves Mary’, ‘I know that my brother thinks that John loves Mary’ etc.)  The implication of this development was another substantial increase of bonding, communication, and cooperation. Moreover, it also was closely connected with the increasing speed of the development, transfer and conservation of new knowledge and technologies.  A hypothesis shared by many biological anthropologists, is that linguistic cognition has played a crucial role in the marginalization and eventually extinction of the "archaic" varieties of the Homo sapiens (such as the Homo erectus, denisova, and neanderthalensis)

In the context of Wikipedia, the third transition, from linguistic to symbolic cognition, is of particular importance. Symbolic cognition is used here as an umbrella term for cognition mediated by external symbols. Although the origin of this kind of cognition can already be located in archaic Homo sapiens (think about body painting, markings in bones, which date to at least 300.000 years), this kind of cognition especially emerged in our own species, Homo sapiens sapiens. From the cave paintings (ca. 40.000 years ago) on, in the last 6000 years it resulted via the icon-based Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese ideograms in the modern phonetic alphabet. Especially the invention of writing gave the cultural development of humankind an enormous momentum. The power of written culture with respect to the preceding oral culture lies in the fact that it is no longer so difficult to retain and pass on knowledge vital for survival, but such knowledge can now be recorded in an External Symbolic Storage System, duplicated and consulted to an almost unlimited degree.

The transition from oral culture to symbolic culture is a fundamental cognitive transformation. This transition implies that one of the key elements of cognition, memory, was transferred (or perhaps a better word in this context is: outsourced) to a non-biological and culturally shared medium. It not only makes man to use an expression of biologist and philosopher Plessner, into a species that is artificial by nature (to phrase it differently: from the very beginning being Homo sapiens sapiens, has been a cyborg: partly organic, partly technological), but it also implies the emergence of the first material building block of the global brain of a superorganism.

This development had profound cognitive implications: in order to connect the individuals to the External Symbolic Storage System, new skills, such as writing and reading, had to be developed (a development made possible by the plasticity of the human neocortex). Freeing the thinking from the rich but chaotic context of the mainly narrative speech that characterized mythic culture - of which we still find an echo in the written version of originally oral narratives such as the Odyssey, the oral encyclopedia of the ancient world (Parry and Parry 1971) - also allowed thinking to become more precise and abstract. For this reason, Donald argues that written culture was also a theoretical culture. Moreover, as have been argued by a number of scholars from the McLuhan school, such as Eric Havelock (1963, 1976, 1986), and Walter  Ong  (1982, 1967; cf. De Mul 2010), with the medium also the message changed. This can clearly be seen in Plato’s philosophy, which according to Havelock reflects the transformation from oral to written culture. Whereas the fleeting oral culture reflects the transient character of everyday reality, due to the fixation, abstraction and decontextualization brought forth by writing, in Plato’s philosophy this transient everyday reality is supplemented by a world of eternal and unchanging Ideas.

Just like the emergence of mimetic skills and speech, symbolic cognition increased the reproductive success of the human species. It played a major role in the transition of hunting and gathering tribes into agricultural societies, characterized by – among other things – the emergence of cities, states, social hierarchies, and the revolutionary development of new forms of abstract knowledge and technologies. It also played an important role in social organization. One of the basic problems of agricultural civilizations was the fact that the size of its populations were so huge that the type of personal bonding that still was possible in the prehistoric tribes no longer was possible. For that reason, as it has been argued by Egyptologist Jan Assmann (2006), it is no coincidence that agricultural civilizations gave rise to monotheist religions, functioning as institutions of social control and repression. Tribal intolerance replaced by fundamentalist intolerance, characterized by a belief in a universal truth and moral. Writing played an important role in this process, as this ‘monotonotheismus’ (Nietzsche) is closely connected with holy books. In this sense Jaron Lanier’s linking of Wikipedia’s ambition to become a kind of universal encyclopedia with the superhuman validity of holy books is not that strange. Or is it? In order to answer that question, we have to take a look at a fourth, more recent cognitive transition, the one from theoretic culture to information culture, characterized by computer-mediated cognition.

Merlin Donald published The Origin of the Modern Mind in 1991, and although he devotes a couple of pages to the question which impact the computer might have on human cognition, and even includes a figure to illustrate his point, it is understandable, that he – two years before the launch of the world wide web – wasn’t able to dig deep into this impact: “The very recent combination of this new architecture with electronic media and global computer networks”,  we read, “has changed the rules of the game even further. Cognitive architecture has again changed, although the degree of that change will not be known for some time. At the very least, the basic ESS [External Storage System] loop has been supplemented by a faster, more efficient memory device, that has externalized some of the search-and-scan operations used by biological memory (Figure 8.8). The computer extends human cognitive operations into new realms; computers can carry out operations that were not possible within the confines of the old hybrid arrangement between monads and ESS loops shown in the last few figures. For example, the massive statistical and mathematical models and projections routinely run by governments are simply impossible without computers; so, more ominously; are the synchrony and control of literally millions of monads. Control may still appear to be vested ultimately in the individual, but

this may be illusory. In any case, the individual mind has long since ceased to be definable in a meaningful way within its confining biological membrane” (Donald 1991, 358-59).

Now, almost 25 years after the publication of The Origin of the Modern Mind we are in a somewhat better position to point at some fundamental elements of this fourth transition (although I must immediately add that, because we are still at the beginning of this major transition, every analysis of it can only be tentative). I would like to point at three fundamental characteristics, and relate them to Wikipedia and the hivemind.

In the first place, whereas in writing the products of thinking are outsourced to an external memory, in the case of computer-mediated though thinking itself – at least those aspects that can be expressed in computer algorithms – are outsourced to an external device. Of course, the computer can also be used as a memory device, but its distinctive character lies in the fact that it functions as an external symbolic processing system (EPS) This is already the case with the search-and-scan operations Donald is already mentioning (Google being the most obvious example), but we should also think of expert systems, and –in the Big Data age – of all kinds of data mining and profiling.

Second, just as in the case of the transition from oral culture to writing culture, the nature of the human thinking transforms. As the outsourcing not only concerns the products of thinking, but the thinking process itself, the result is not so much a fixed product, but rather a virtual space for thinking, an interactive database that enables the user to combine and recombine the elements in infinite way. Computer games are a good example. They do not so much offer a story (as the novel in writing culture does), but rather a story space, through which the gamer follows his or her own narrative path. In the same way the scholar in information culture does not present a single argument (such as is the case with the journal article), but rather offers a argumentation space, in which the user creates his own lines of though. One might think of simulations of organisms, economical  transactions, or historical events, which enable the user not only to discover all kinds of hidden patterns in the domain of study, but also to make the transition from reality to possibility. Just like the post-mimetic arts, modal natural sciences (Emmeche 1991) like artificial physics, synthetic biology, and artificial intelligence not so much aim at a theoretical imitation of reality, but rather at the creation of new realities. But we could also think of a Wittgenstein 2.0 database, in which the user can recombine the thousands of remarks Wittgenstein himself hoped to connect in a flexible network in order to go beyond the fixed character of traditional writing (this was one of the main reasons why he never finished a real book).

Third, whereas in Theoretic Culture the connection between individuals and the External Symbolic Storage System is still loose, the connectivity between individuals and the External Symbolic Processing System in the emerging Information Culture becomes increasingly more tight. Whereas the traditional mainframe computer was still clearly separated from the users, with the PC, laptop, smartphone, and smartwatch, man and computer come ever closer. And if we think of the fast developing field of implanted computer interfaces, we seem to be at the edge of the materialization of the hive mind.

Let me return to Wikipedia and conclude with the following observations and predictions.

1. Although Wikipedia so far has been quite successful as collective, interactive project, the resulting product in many ways still resembles the products in the External Symbolic Storage System of Theoretic Culture. In spite of its hypertextual form and the outsourcing of all kinds of tasks to computer programs – according to  Dariusz Jemielniak, author of Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia (2014), the English version of Wikipedia alone at present has at least 50,000 bot editors, for example one that add lemma’s with the name of villages from China, including their geographical location, to Wikipedia - it offers the visitor a encyclopedia that still in many respect resemble the encyclopedia projects that has been launched from the Enlightenment on to the Encyclopædia Britannica.

2. As such Wikipedia also remains prone to the Oracle illusion Lanier is warning for. Although the continuous process of updating of Wikipedia will prevent the user form believing in timeless truths, the fact remains that at the moment of visiting one particular truth prevails. This violates the fundamental principle of information culture, that possibility stands higher than reality. At this moment, so called point of view forks - attempt to evade the neutrality policy by creating a new article about a subject that is already treated in an article - are not permitted in Wikipedia. Although there is a good reason for this policy (avoiding confusion) and the attempt to collect all viewpoints on an issue in a single article, there is also the danger of digital Maoism, of ending in the middle of the road of knowledge.

Although the indicated dangers are not hypothetical and the formulated drawbacks must therefore be taken seriously, it seems sensible to me to remember that in Phaedrus Plato used practically the same arguments against writing. In this dialog he criticizes writing because in using this medium memory–in oral culture the pre-eminent human power–is transferred to  a  non-human medium. Furthermore, Plato expresses his concern about the adverse effects of writing on the memory. The irony, however,  is  that  without  the  outsourcing  of  the  memory  function  to writing, the theoretical culture of which Plato was one of the founders would not have been able to develop. I remarked above that it might be expected that outsourcing our analytical skills will be compensated for by the development of new cognitive skills. Of course, this is not to say that this development will have purely positive consequences. Just as with every evolutionary development there will be  a  price  to  pay  for  this expansion of the cognitive structure. But this will probably make it no less inevitable (see De Mul 2010).

 

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