Steve Jankowski’s Master Thesis (Wikipedia and Encyclopaedism: A genre analysis of epistemological values Click Here!) is proof that a supervisor (me) can learn more from his student than the student from his supervisor. And I’m not speaking here about learning some interesting facts or methodological tricks. When reading the final version of the thesis, I truly learned about new, relevant and important ideas pertaining to digital humanities and post-colonial epistemology.
The main theme of Jankowski’s work is the “epistemological conservatism” of Wikipedia. This conservatism can be seen in two important features of this encyclopedia: its categorization system and its general theory of knowledge.
First, based on rigorous scientific methodology, this groundbreaking research shows that the paratextual headings of the famous online encyclopedia are very close to those of the 19th century Britannica. Since headings and disciplines form the meta-data system of the encyclopedia, or its chief categorization apparatus, we can say safely that it is one of the place where its tacit epistemology is hiding.
Second, based on a thorough historical study of the encyclopedic genre, Jankowski shows that the theory of knowledge officially followed by Wikipedia is also the theory of knowledge stemming form the movement of enlightenment and developed by modern Europe in the 19th century. According to this general framework, there is an “objective” scientific truth, that is produced by the scientific community according to its own academic rules (the primary sources) and a vulgarization of this objective truth by the writers and editors of the encyclopedia. Vulgarization is understood here as a kind of synthetic compendium of scientific knowledge for the “cultivated public” (meaning in fact: people having at least a secondary education).
These two discoveries are important for several reasons.
Wikipedia is one of the most consulted sites of the Internet and it is the first place where journalists, students and professors alike, go to find some basic information on any subject. This means that any epistemological bias in Wikipedia has more influence on the contemporary public mind than those exerted by the news outlets. A deeper influence, indeed, because Wikipedia is not only about facts, news or events but also about the basic structure of knowledge.
The idea that Wikipedia is epistemologically conservative may be counter-intuitive for many. Is not Wikipedia completely open and free? Don’t we know that anybody may write and edit this encyclopedia and that the editing process itself is transparent? Isn’t Wikipedia a fantastic example of international collective intelligence and one of the big successes of crowd-sourcing? Of course! But the big lesson of Jankowski’s work is that all this is not enough. There are still some emancipatory efforts to be made.
Wikipedia has opened new grounds by using hyper-textual tools, a crowd-sourced editorial process and an open intellectual property. These are all good and each should be pursued to further develop collective intelligence in online environments. But Wikipedia also contains within its DNA the typographic epistemology and the categorization system of good old colonial Great Britain.
In an increasingly data-centric society, when mastery of knowledge is the main asset of cultural, economic and military power, epistemology is key to the new politics. In this regard, Jankowski implicitly asks us two strategic questions. How can we build an organic and unified compendium of knowledge allowing as many categorization systems as possible? How can we integrate the different point of views on a given subject in a perspectivist way instead of imposing a “neutrality” or “objectivity” that reflects inevitably the dominating consensus? These sort of questions address epistemology’s crucial role in the new politics and within personal and collective identities.