Workers Vanguard No. 888

16 March 2007


Wikipedia: A Million Monkeys Typing

Editorial Note

Since Wikipedia was launched in 2001 with the professed aim of providing a “free encyclopedia to every single person on the planet in their own language,” it has grown explosively. With the number of visitors doubling every four months, it has become the third most popular “news and information” source on the Web. Nearly anything searched on Google returns Wikipedia as one of its top hits. Wikipedia exists in over 200 languages—including, get this, Klingon!—and the English site alone boasts nearly 1.7 million entries. By way of comparison, the Encyclopedia Britannica does not exceed 120,000 entries.

But Wikipedia is no encyclopedia. A menace to historical knowledge, it is a New Age fraud that often provides a sanctuary for libel and character assassination. The software tool called “wiki” (derived from a Hawaiian term for “quick” or “informal”) enables anyone to create or edit entries whenever whatever enters their minds. The New Yorker (31 July 2006) observed, “The user who spends the most time on the site—or who yells the loudest—wins.”

A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes, as the old proverb says. As scandals grow over the disinformation in many of Wikipedia’s entries, criticism has mounted in bourgeois academia and the media. Last month, the History Department of Middlebury College in Vermont became one of the academic institutions to bar students from using Wikipedia citations.

As Marxist materialists, our worldview is rooted in historical and scientific truth. Thus Workers Vanguard has had a strict, years-long policy of not using Wikipedia as a factual source of any kind.

Most ominously, beginning in 2004 Wikipedia has been cited in over 100 judicial rulings, including at the appellate level just below the U.S. Supreme Court. Right-wing judge Richard A. Posner of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago recently gushed that “Wikipedia is a terrific resource…. Partly because it [is] so convenient, it often has been updated recently and is very accurate” (New York Times, 29 January). Posner speaks like a true believer in the Bush administration, whose idea of “accuracy” can be gauged by its lies about Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction.”

One Jimmy Wales, an options trader who became the founder and guru of Wikipedia, tours the world promoting his “volunteer community” of “open participation.” Wales explicitly rejected scientific peer review of entries because it was “intimidating; it felt like homework.” There is no such oppressive authority in “wikiality,” to borrow a term from Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report. “I love Wikipedia,” Colbert said in a July 2006 episode. “Any user can change any entry, and if enough other users agree with them, it becomes true.”

Wikipedia is not just low farce. The New York Times (24 December 2005) notes “dozens of accounts of people editing entries to suit their own business or personal interests, or their biases.” Nazi white supremacists alter terms such as “racist” to “white nationalist,” while corporations hire bloggers to write favorable entries on their companies.

Anonymous libelers attack from behind Wikipedia’s apparent immunity. One prominent target was John Seigenthaler, former editor of the Tennessean in Nashville, who in September 2005 discovered that for four months Wikipedia had been carrying the smear that he was implicated in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. This was meant to wound and defame, as Seigenthaler had been one of Robert Kennedy’s pallbearers. Seigenthaler wrote in USA Today (29 November 2005) that due to federal law, “unlike print and broadcast companies, online service providers cannot be sued for disseminating defamatory attacks on citizens posted by others.” A local man later came forward as the author of the smear, saying that he thought Wikipedia was a “gag” Web site. Jimmy Wales himself could read how some Wikipedist in 2005 concluded Wales’ biographical entry with the tale of his murder “at 18:54 EST on December 12” by three shots to the head.

The anonymity on which Wikipedia prides itself recently flared up into a scandal in the media when one of its most respected administrators, known previously only as “Essjay,” turned out to be a fraud. For years he had thrown around credentials of a “tenured professor of religion” with “a Ph.D. in theology and a degree in canon law,” when in fact he is a 24-year-old with neither advanced degrees nor teaching experience. Wikipedia’s mendacity was further proven when Wales cynically welcomed the self-confessed liar onto his staff, only to drop him a week later after getting blowback.

The Web is a powerful and useful tool. But it also has a lot of garbage. The New Yorker article remarked that Eric Raymond, the open-source software pioneer whose work inspired Wales, stated that “‘disaster’ is not too strong a word” for Wikipedia. A founding partner of Wikipedia who has since extracted himself described what he left behind as “difficult people, trolls, and their enablers.” What better habitat for the dregs of yesterday’s Spartacist-hating “Marxism” and “Trotskyism” Internet newsgroups, the kind of people who probably have not left their computers, bathed or seen sunlight in weeks? As for cyberspace frauds, we are reminded of David North’s Socialist Equality Party, an organization of dubious political bandits that years ago liquidated its paper in favor of the “World Socialist Web Site”—a medium through which it can rewrite its history when convenient.

The Web is often lauded as a means of mass participation and democracy. But neither facts nor scientific laws are determined by such methods, much less by an anonymous, multiplayer, fantasy computer game. Science is the product of hard work and a rigorous critical assimilation of the achievements of past cultures and epochs, and it is embodied in the work of authoritative figures and institutions. This does not suit the petty-bourgeois Wikipedia crowd, which is thriving in a period dominated ideologically by the bourgeoisie’s “death of communism” myth and the attendant growth of religious superstition. Wales himself is an Ayn Randist free marketeer. Whatever resentments Wikipedia’s fans have of the genuine ills of bourgeois academia have been twisted into a secular variant of George Bush’s faith-based idiocy.

In the period of its revolutionary ascent, the bourgeoisie fought for knowledge as crucial for economic progress and as a weapon against feudalist clerical tyranny. Diderot’s Encyclopedists helped to ideologically arm the Great French Revolution of 1789-93. Today, capitalism in its death agony creates a barrier to the expansion of the means of production while dragging culture back into a new dark age. What quality education the U.S. bourgeoisie maintains is increasingly restricted to elite universities. The growth and influence of Wikipedia occurs in a period when public education is in tatters and masses of ghetto and barrio youth rot in today’s Bastilles.

Embracing science and the scientific method, we Marxists understand that only the revolutionary overthrow of the decaying bourgeois order by the proletariat will pave the way for the elimination of scarcity, making mankind’s great achievements and knowledge available to all.