Friday, August 24, 2007

More on Wikipedia

We don't all agree about everything, and there's no objective viewpoint. A good writer of reference material tries to show the range of evidence and opinion that exists on a given topic, but arguably there's a better way.

Wikipedia entries, especially controversial political ones, are fought over by holders of opposing viewpoints. Take the entry on Israel. But also take the discussion pages and the article history. Anyone doing research, including school children, can see the full range of sentiment and disagreement, and read opposing viewpoints that range from the informed to the absurd.

No Wikipedia entry can be understood, or indeed used properly, without reference to these supplementary pages. But such additional material presents an opportunity to learn more about a subject, quickly, than has ever existed before.

What's more, by working in this way a person is placed in a position where they have to weigh and judge different, conflicting claims. And this, critical, approach to source material and the claims of historians, indeed to information generally, is in fact the true practice of history - not the uncritical acceptance of authority. That's why Geoffrey Elton used to call history a "bulwark against tyranny" - no reference, he called it this in my hearing during a talk, many years ago. Tyranny relies on misinformation and distortion, and critical thought and scepticism represent the first line of defence.

That's why the recent searches of Wikipedia edit histories have been so revealing. When someone at the GLA edits Ken Livingstone's entry, or someone from the Federal government in Australia edits that of John Howard, we see another aspect of this new medium for information. Tracks persist. So long as retrospective alterations of edit histories are not permitted - a big "so long", but one aided by third party storage mechanisms like Google cache and - any attempts to manipulate the past can be discovered in the future. And since you can download the whole of Wikipedia, which is what the wikiscanner developer did, you can place a brick in the wall that defends us from tyrants yourself.


1 comment:

Laban said...

Wikipedia editors have lately taken to deleting the entries for (white) victims of murder (by non-whites), if they're deemed to be 'not of interest'.

As Natalie Solent puts it :

"Oh dear," say the worried people at Wikipedia. "The murder of Charlene Downes has become a cause célèbre for the extreme right who claim that it is being played down by the media because the victim was white and the accused Asian."

"What shall we do to remedy this regrettable situation?"

"I know! Let's prove them right."