Sunday, February 27, 2011

Information in the Noisiest System

To all the Wikipedia nay-sayers out there, I think Freeman Dyson has the final word on Wikipedia:
Jimmy Wales hoped when he started Wikipedia that the combination of enthusiastic volunteer writers with open source information technology would cause a revolution in human access to knowledge. The rate of growth of Wikipedia exceeded his wildest dreams. Within ten years it has become the biggest storehouse of information on the planet and the noisiest battleground of conflicting opinions. It illustrates Shannon's law of reliable communication. Shannon's law says that accurate transmission of information is possible in a communication system with a high level of noise. Even in the noisiest system, errors can be reliably corrected and accurate information transmitted, provided that the transmission is sufficiently redundant. That is, in a nutshell, how Wikipedia works.


isaac butler said...

but the "noise" in wikipedia is... misinformation. So what that's saying is that the bulk of information transmitted by wikipedia is accurate. That's all well and good, but the fact remains that in a "system" as "noisy" as wikipedia, that means at any given moment there are large amounts of misinformation. Add in that the whole thing tends to be poorly written, and I understand why there are Wikipedia skeptics. I use wikipedia all the time, I'm not saying we should get rid of it or anything, but I don't think this quote eliminates every argument the skeptics have.

CultureFuture said...

I just don't think that the misinformation and noise is necessarily greater or less than other sources of information. Every book I ever used in school had a lot of misleading, incorrect, and otherwise wrong information in it, with the possible exception of my math textbooks. I remember reading some truly offensive passages in my textbooks -- said, for instance, that the only African civilization were the Nubians, who are notable because they were constantly enslaved by Egypt.

I enjoy the badly written areas of Wikipedia because it gives me a sense of the accuracy, actually. A thorough, nuanced article with plenty of citation tells me, "This is worth paying attention to!" and a stub article tells me "look elsewhere."

When I see a criticism like Lethem's, I just read elitist carping. It would be different if, perhaps, someone proposed a better solution for aggregating human intelligence on a vast scale. But to say that Wikipedia is flavorless -- as though the Encyclopedia Brittanica or hundreds of other forebears were any more flavorless, just strikes me as silly.

It's true that for a deeper engagement with a subject, Wikipedia will not be your best source of writing. I think people know that.

It's worth separating out people who think Wikipedia could be made tangibly better, and people who think (as Lethem appears to do) who long for a time when culture was more exclusionary. Not more accurate, but at least more to taste.

isaac butler said...

I don't think Lethem longs for a time when culture was more exclusionary. I think that's something you're putting on him to dismiss what he says because you don't like it.

I don't agree with Lethem's POV on wikipedia (I lean more towards Clay Shirky), but I think Lethem's argument has more merit than you do. His short piece in the Atlantic is responding (first and foremost) to the tyranny of the mob. It's not elitist to point out that such a thing exists and that there are aspects of it to Wikipedia, for example the expectation that it is his job to log onto it and correct misinformation about him on his page.

Similarly, as someone who is a professional writer, I don't think it's all that bizarre for him to critique the writing style of wikipedia. The writing style of reference works has historically been one of many metrics that they're judged by. People prefer the OED to Webster's not only because the former is more comprehensive (although it is) but because it's also beautifully written and interesting to read. You can say that doesn't matter, but it is a traditional way of evaluating these works. It's why more people read Strunk and Whites than read the MLA handbook even though the latter is far more comprehensive and relevant than the former. And on any metric of writing style, Wikipedia is a colossal failure. Even the long multi-sourced articles are clumsily written, filled with leaden prose and lengthy, unnavigatable sentences and incongruous trivia at the end of them about Joss Whedon or Halo 3.

There's a reason why you can't cite wikipedia in papers for class, and it's not all to do with the snobbishness of the academy. The website has its uses, but it also has its limits and problems, and those who want to pointedly clear their throats during the latest round of slavish tech triumphalism are not necessarily elitist. It's a particularly odd charge to level at someone whose entire aesthetic project has centered around tearing down the walls between high literary and genre work.

CultureFuture said...

I agree that Lethem's written work is not elitist, but all of Lethem's arguments about how the "hordes" create something cruder and less refined than the previous process -- which was a process of elites -- doesn't strike me as fundamentally different from any other form of elitism, whether it be the anti-Democratic writing of thinkers or criticisms of bloggers. It may not be in keeping with other works of his, but I stand by my belief that that's his central argument.

When it comes to the "style" of Wikipedia, I agree that there's much to be improved. If I want to read a biography of Lyndon Johnson that has "style" then I will read a biography of him, probably by Doris Kearns Goodwin. But if I want to quickly pick up a working knowledge of a concept or thing, I tap Wikipedia first. It's a starting point.

And as to accuracy, I feel as though the blanket "don't cite Wikipedia" policy takes away responsibility for verifying sources. Suppose I wrote an article that cites Wikipedia. Then I write the same article, only instead of citing Wikipedia, I cite the sources that Wikipedia cites -- which, taken together, say exactly the same thing. Most professors will reject the first one and accept the second one. It doesn't matter what the books or periodicals were cited were, so long as they're not Wikipedia.

By all accounts, challenge people to go deeper into sourcing information. Do that for Wikipedia, and for other sources. But I haven't seen evidence that Wikipedia is less accurate than other sources. Certainly, the authoritative peer-reviewed Nature magazine finds it as accurate as Britannica, which most students can safely cite. (Oh, and if Nature magazine is wrong on that issue, it really only casts doubt on citing Nature in your papers).

CultureFuture said...

(and if we want to talk about Jonathan Lethem holding perhaps inconsistent views, look at him criticizing Brooklyn as being a bad place to write for having too many writers! LA Times