Friday, June 17, 2005

Open Source = Closed Minds?

UPDATED below.

"Open Source" is software speak for computer based intellectual property created and maintained by a voluntary collective, made widely available normally without charge. The concept was a conscious marrying of "hacker" and libertarian cultures starting in the 1970s, often to challenge or avoid copyrights (and thus fee-based licensing) for software. The "root-level" politics combine leftist collectivist utopianism with an aversion to corporate control.

Open source most commonly connotes operating systems for personal computers, especially -- since the early 1990s -- the Linux operating system in competition with Microsoft Windows. This fight acquired religious and philosophic overtones, including demonization of conservatives and over-heated accusations about morality. The progress (Linux market share probably 12 percent to 17 percent) and eventual outcome of the battle remain hotly contested--use caution before revealing preferences in Palo Alto watering holes.

Open source techniques also have spurred various encyclopedias and reference repositories. The largest and most famous project is Wikipedia, a collaboratively written, free content encyclopedia. Its name stems from Wiki, adopted by the first collaborative Internet organization in Portland Oregon, supposedly from the Hawaiian "wiki wiki," meaning "quick" or "informal"--in particular, an island airport shuttle bus of that name. Wiki proponents, especially Wikipedia fans, tout advantages including cost, broad access to specialized knowledge, huge content growth rates and ease of use.

As with most "free" goods, it ain't all good. Since anyone can author or edit an article, some writers are cranks, trolls or children whose contributions subtract, not add, knowledge. Writing in Wired, Daniel Terdiman calls openness a drawback:
[T]here is no final authority who signs off on the accuracy of entries; veracity is assumed to come from the self-policing nature of the community.

Yet that lack of official vetting is central to many of the questions facing Wikipedia today. To academics like Danah Boyd, a graduate student and instructor at the University of California at Berkeley, that is precisely the problem: Wikipedia, for all its breadth of coverage, cannot claim that each and every one of its entries meets any bottom-line standard for accuracy.

"Usually there's only one or two people involved in writing the entries," Boyd said, "and you don't know anything about who they are."
Incredibly, a recent AP story suggested the lack of author credentials was a plus: "some Internet users believe that such resources can collectively portray events more accurately than any single gatekeeper." Larry Sanger, co-founder and former chief organizer of Wikipedia, insists the content's no worse than other sources, but unfairly perceived as unreliable.

Most defenders counter with a high-tech version of peer review, a subset of the law of large numbers called (after the inventor of Linux) "Linus's law":
"Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." More formally: "Given a large enough beta-tester and co-developer base, almost every problem will be characterized quickly and the fix obvious to someone."
As the number of Wikipedia contributors (over 50,000 edited 10 or more articles) and articles (Wikipedia claims about 2 million) increased over time, overall reliability and readability clearly improved.

Still, bulk isn't quality. Indeed, Wikipedia's structure guarantees inconsistencies, says Ethan Zuckerman of Harvard Law's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Über librarian Karen Schneider agrees, "I can't recommend Wikipedia to users. How do I say you can trust an information resource whose riding claim is that anyone can edit it?" Writing in Tech Central, Robert McHenry examined Wikipedia's entry on Founding Father Alexander Hamilton:
The article is rife with typographic errors, styling errors, and errors of grammar and diction. No doubt there are other factual errors as well, but I hardly needed to fact-check the piece to form my opinion. The writing is often awkward, and many sentences that are apparently meant to summarize some aspect of Hamilton's life or work betray the writer's lack of understanding of the subject matter. A representative one runs thus:
Arguably, he set the path for American economic and military greatness, though the benefits might be argued.
All these arguments aside, the article is what might be expected of a high school student, and at that it would be a C paper at best. Yet this article has been "edited" over 150 times.
The project strives for content both "beautiful and informative." Librarians still are skeptical, saying Wikipedia still isn't reliable, much less crackpot-proof.

Wikipedia's second shortcoming is systemic. Founded by computer nerds and tied to technology and the Internet, Wikipedia authors and editors are anything but diverse, says Ethan Zuckerman:
Most of the people who work on Wikipedia are white, male technocrats from the US and Europe. They're especially knowledgeable about certain subjects - technology, science fiction, libertarianism, life in the US/Europe - and tend to write about these subjects. As a result, the resource tends to be extremely deep on technical topics and shallow in other areas.
Larry Sanger conceded the point in Wired, "Because (Wikipedia) is a radically free, open project, it attracts an anarchistic element." Attracts is an understatement. Wikipedia's mired in "group think". Recalling descriptions of a Wikipedia forerunner, Robert McHenry says most computer collaborations are dominated by extremists, believing (editorial comments in original) their "noncommercial and collaborative project, was ipso facto superior to all existing encyclopedias, all of which were published for [shudder] profit and all of which had their origin in [shudder] print." As a result, Wikipedia's most reliable (albeit long) entries are about technology.

Wikipedia's third flaw may be fatal. Simply put, it's more liberal than the liberal media, as the (pro-geek) Institute for the Future blog Future Now concedes, "once ideological agendas are in play all bets are off." Last fall, Owen Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy examined Wikipedia's entry (since edited) on the Patriot Act:
This law provides for indefinite imprisonment without trial of non-U.S. citizens whom the Attorney General has determined to be a threat to national security. (At least two U.S. citizens, Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla, have also been designated "enemy combatants" and imprisoned without trial). The government is not required to provide detainees with counsel, nor is it required to make any announcement or statement regarding the arrest. The law allows a wiretap to be issued against an individual instead of a specific telephone number. It permits law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant and search a residence without immediately informing the occupants, if the Attorney General has determined this to be an issue of national security. (For example, State University of New York - Buffalo art professor Steven Kurtz was indicted based on evidence seized during a search for bioterrorism-related materials conducted under the provisions of the PATRIOT Act. Artist Ensared by PATRIOT Act (PDF). The act also allows intelligence gathering at religious events. With a few exceptions, provisions of the act are due to expire on December 31, 2005.
According to Kerr, Wikipedia's entry was opinion, not fact:
Pardon me for being a stickler, but there is very little in this description that is factually true. The Patriot Act does not provide for indefinite imprisonment of anyone; the detentions of Hamdi and Padilla had nothing to do with the Patriot Act; the Patriot Act has nothing to do with detention without counsel; the Act does not allow intelligence gathering at religious events; the act does not allow surreptitious warrants to be obtained on the Attorney General's approval; and very few of the provisions of the Patriot Act are set to expire in 2005.
The current version is more neutral. But, argues Kerr, "Unless I am willing to monitor Wikipedia's Patriot Act entry on a regular basis, there isn't much that can be done to correct the errors over the long term."

And Wikipedia's bias is pervasive. Last fall, Paul at Wizbang complained about the 2004 Presidential election entry and Future Now spotted ignorance and hostility in several business-related articles. And John Podhoretz recently questioned his Wikipedia entry:
"He is an admitted homosexual, yet still endorses the anti-gay policies of social conservatives." Somebody, I don't know who, went in and edited the sentence out a few days ago. For the record, I am not an admitted homosexual, nor am I a homosexual, though I do know the lyrics to every show tune ever written, which might perhaps account for the confusion. As for endorsing the "anti-gay policies of social conservatives," what I oppose, purely and simply, is affirmative action for homosexuals. But this is what you get for arguing with Wikipedia.
Of course, some Wikipedia defenders are pleased, exhibiting typical liberal tolerance and open-mindedness. My favorite is programmer Viveka Weiley, who called the scarcity of conservative concepts neutral "because falsehoods and broken logic don't survive long on Wikipedia, and right-wing rhetoric depend on both of those." Talk about your "head-explodingly obvious cognitive dissonance!" (Cool Dictionary lists and links several Wikipedia critics.)

Though Wikipedia claims to enforce "a neutral point of view," its reaction to bias claims is inconsistent and confusing. Occasionally, it rejects historical definitions of bias, since its perpetually-revisable content is ever a draft. Elsewhere, it denies political bias in a fashion that confirms Wikipedia's slant, confusing "liberal" with "libertarian": "Earlier on, we had a systemic bias towards liberal issues. However, as Wikipedia has grown, and become more mainstream, the libertarian contingent has declined as a proportion of Wikipedia in general."

At other times, the project oddly defends its "balanced articles", highlighting in particular "war, capitalism, evolution, abortion, Islam, Scientology, and prostitution." Yet, the first page of the abortion entry carries a big red disclaimer: "The neutrality and factual accuracy of this article are disputed." The article on Swiftboat Vets for Truth is similarly biased and inaccurate--without a red warning. Some say the "Swastika" entry changes with the wind. Small wonder Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger retreats: "it's understandable if a sizeable number of articles have noticeable biases."

Conclusion: Wikipedia is cool. But, as Paul Boutin recently concluded in Slate, "excessive nerdiness isn't what's keeping Wikipedia from becoming the Net's killer resource. Accuracy is." To its credit, Wikipedia supports eliminating bias. But it can't claim neutrality so long as favoritism's considered "understandable."

In theory, summing dispersed and independent sources can produce truth -- remember bloggers proving Dan Rather's forgery? -- but only for large samples of knowledgeable contributors. Bruce Horn, programmer of the original Macintosh file browser, reminds us that not all bits are created equal: "data is not information, which is not knowledge, which is not wisdom." Though expanding the pool of contributors may help, it's no sure cure: If experts shun Wikipedia, Wikipedia's no expert. And if conservatives don't dispute partisanship, Wikipedia will forever lie.

Though intended as a compliment, Andy Carvin called bottom up cell-phone video journalism "mobcasting." For now, Wikipedia's still a mob--less encyclopedia, more digitized encyclopedia salesman. Apart from several laudable entries about and responding to critics, citing to Wikipedia remains a last resort.


Cogito Subito and others in the comments, and MaxedOutMama on her blog, defend Wikipedia and the open source concept. They raise good points; I should have noted that my issue isn't open source in general, nor adding to the store of knowledge available on the net. And I sometimes read Wikipedia's science and math entries. But never a sole, or even a cited, source. And never on politics, for reasons noted above. Like M_O_M, I agree that, sometimes, many produce (a useful) one.

Unlike M_O_M, my misgivings are about tone. The religious fervor and collective think of some open source projects are so childish, I'm suspicious of the merits. When focused on cost, the OS debate is fine--but Linux partisans rhapsodize as if open source cures cancer, ensures world peace, and appropriately punishes international public enemy #1--Bill Gates.

Wikipedia's Achilles heel is its distrust of editors and edits not sharing that perspective. That doesn't make Wikipedia useless. Just untrustworthy.


Andy Carvin said...

Actually, I usually call bottom up journalism civic journalism or community journalism. Mobcasting is merely the technique of citizen journalists using mobile phones to post podcasts. But your point is well taken.... -andy

Anonymous said...

Wiki's wacky, but it really does work.

There are two ways to create an encyclopaedia.
The first involves being a publisher, convening a distinguished editorial board, deciding which subjects are to be covered, and then commissioning learned experts to write articles. These are then edited, illustrated, printed, bound in handsome volumes and sold at whopping prices to libraries and autodidactic families.
The other way of creating an encyclopaedia is to create a space on the Web and invite passers-by to write articles. This is such a preposterous idea that nobody in their right mind would entertain it for a moment. How, then, do we explain the fact that someone has done it, and that it is a raging success? It's called Wikipedia and, like Google, it is one of the wonders of the world. It began as an English-language project in January 2001 and it currently contains more than 310,000 articles in English and more than 530,000 in other languages. It's an 'open source' project - all of its content is in the public domain.
Wikipedia is the online reference work I use most, even though I have the CD-Rom edition of Britannica and a bookcase full of reference works. Type a search term into its search box and up pops a page. I've just keyed in ' The Observer ' and it tells me that 'the Observer is a broadsheet newspaper of the United Kingdom published on Sundays. It takes a liberal/social democratic line on most issues and is the world's first Sunday newspaper'. It goes on to give an accurate account of the paper's history and ownership, and provides links to our website.
Which is nice, but not that special. Hang on, though - there's a link which says 'Edit this page'. If you click on it, the text appears in a window and you can change it on the spot. If you make alterations and press the 'Save page' button, that entry will be changed, and the encyclopaedia will have been updated - by you.
Now that is truly weird, is it not? After all, we have a mental model of an encyclopaedia as a tablet of stone. And the thing about stone tablets is that they are read-only. Yet here is something that is entirely malleable - whose entries can be changed by any Tom, Dick or Harry. How could it possibly be any good?
Yet it is. I use Wikipedia regularly, and it's often very good indeed. I've just compared its entry on Iraq with that in the CIA Factbook (possibly the only unambiguously useful service ever provided by that agency). The entries are comparable in their scope and coverage: the CIA publication is better on statistics; Wikipedia is better on history and culture. The other day I looked up 'TCP/IP' (the core protocols of the internet) on Wikipedia and Britannica Online. The Wikipedia entry was much more comprehensive.
There's been a debate recently about the accuracy of Wikipedia, triggered by comments in the mainstream media by columnists who cannot bring themselves to believe that anything created by a self-organising collective effort could be any good. This led Ed Felten, a well-known computer scientist, to conduct an informal test by looking up entries on subjects familiar to him and comparing Wikipedia with Britannica. On most of his test subjects, Wikipedia won hands down. Where it faltered was on the Microsoft anti-trust case: Felten detected multiple errors - and then went on to correct them. I have no doubt that his blog entry describing all this will prompt someone else to go and revise the entire entry.
And therein lies a clue to the project's significance. We have become so imbued by the conventional wisdom of managerial capitalism that we think the only way to do things is via hierarchical, top-down, tightly controlled organisations that are highly tuned and incredibly fragile. Wikipedia is none of these things, yet it works brilliantly. There's a lesson there for control freaks.

Cogito Subito said...

Wikipedia is a great concept! It definitely has its flaws, but let's not dismiss it. . . yet. The Wikipedia Foundation should try instead to figure out how to improve it. Perhaps Wikipedia authors could suggest how. Is it possible to have moderators? At a minimum to check clearly incorrect information? Spelling errors? Is it possible to create accountability? Perhaps there could be a way for people (with actual, unbiased expertise) to vote on the accuracy so that errors could at least be annotated (or deleted).

That way perhaps we can overcome the problems we have now searching for a single, good explanation in a sea of too many Internet pages: The "humu'humu'nuka'nukaa'pua'a" in the Wikipedia.

MaxedOutMama said...


Yes, some articles do have a slant, but that's largely because people tend to write about things they care about.

I think that Wikipedia is very helpful and often extremely comprehensive. Granted, I usually stay away from more politicized topics, but that's because I'm usually not interested.

I think Wikipedia could be and will be improved, but even its flaws are fascinating.

Carl said...


You're right, of course; sorry 'bout that. I've corrected it. And anytime you're looking for "socially active bloggers" with different conclusions about the digital divide, I volunteer.

Hatless in Hattiesburg said...

There are many interesting points here, and while I don't agree wholeheartedly with all of the arguments, I can see their merits.

One line jumped out at me, though. "Librarians still are skeptical, saying Wikipedia still isn't reliable, much less crackpot-proof." Are these librarians implying that no books were ever written by crackpots?

Carl said...


I think they're implying that no encyclopedia on their shelves were written by crackpots.

Igor Alexander said...

Excellent overview of the problems with Wikipedia. I agree with you about the liberal bias at Wikipedia.
I've linked to your article from my message board, The Wikipedia Review -
Anyone who wishes to discuss these issues further or relate their Wikipedia experiences are welcome to post at my board.