The Last of Its Kind? – Wikipedia And the Demise of Encyclopaedias

Thinking about knowledge and information, I come to see that my musings about these issues point in one direction: We live in times in which the concept of an encyclopaedia does not make sense any more. With the arrival of web-based, user-generated, collaborative information-systematization, the very point of an encyclopaedia becomes obsolete. The reasons for this I give rather briefly and without much ado.

1. The primary goal of an encyclopaedia (or the sense of an encyclopaedia) at least since the 18th century was to collect (in what form is a different question) the knowledge that was available at a given time, and to collect it in its entirety.

2. The emphasis on “knowledge” not only had the goal to distinguish it from mere beliefs, opinions, information (i.e., whatever might be disputable) but doing so had the goal of collecting what is undisputed and to distinguish it from what is not.

3. For this reason an encyclopaedia never was a collection of points of views, beliefs, opinions, even well founded ones with a lot of evidence. The object of an encyclopaedic collecting effort was to find and collect the indisputables, mostly the results of scientific endeavours.

4. With this goal in mind completion (in the sense of a complete listing and description of every topic available or meaningful) never was the goal of the lexicographers. Every encyclopaedic endeavour consisted in the selection of items / entries (lemmata) and the presentation of their interdependence as the main characteristic of the work.

5. Akin to this twofold task was (at least until the 19th century) the guiding idea of the system. A body of knowledge in an encyclopaedia (I am deliberately imprecise here) was to be a system of knowledge. Accordingly, an encyclopaedia was a concise embodiment of this system, and in form of a book or (a series of volumes) it was given a material form to be accessed in the concrete world.

6. Encyclopaedias used the means of alphabetical order (to organize the sequence of lemmata) and cross-reference (to highlight the systematic dependence between them). Following the cross-references was one of the reader’s ways to find his way through the system and to apprehend it in its entirety (at least ideally).

7. To achieve an appropriate order of cross-references and show the interdependence of the pieces of knowledge (laid down in the form of individual entries), articles had to be of the same quality. Not only had the editors of an encyclopaedia to turn to the respective specialists in the field to write about a certain item, it was their task to come up with a list of articles to be written in advance. Then came the huge task of safeguarding that articles met the standards of quality (e.g., by editing the received pieces) and to administer the proper cross-references for the guidance of the reader. (The author of an article may have proposed key-words to be linked to, but the establishment of cross-references was entirely in the custodial care of the editorial staff.)

8. Even as the idea of a system disappeared at the end of the 19th century (German Idealism with its idea of knowledge as a system was long in retreat), systematization of encyclopaedic knowledge proved to be the proper way for the editorial organization of the stuff at hand. (This is no more necessary today.) Therefore, at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century the stress on organizing knowledge (or facts) as opposed to opinions (or point of views) prevailed. Even as the ideal of a system had lost its influence on the lexicography, the emphasis was to collect all (or most) of the knowledge, and not all (or most) of data, information, opinions, beliefs, or points of views. This is true even in all those cases in which an encyclopaedia was or is restricted to a certain and distinct subject domain. The goal is summary of the accumulated knowledge, not of the opinions, information, and data.

In most of these respects Wikipedia differs decisively (the following eight points are not directly correlated with the above):

1. It is user-centered, i.e., the distinction between reader and writer is omitted (at least ideally).

2. There is no editorial staff nor guideline. The interesting experiment Wikipedia is conducting may be summed up in a question: Is it possible to safeguard quality collaboratively without an editorial staff or given guidelines? (So far the answer seem to be rather in the negative as can be seen in the ongoing discussions between inclusionists vs. exclusionists on the one hand, and a sometimes very rigid policy of editing and deleting of user-generated content by “admins” on the other hand that at times run counter to the ideal that everyone may and can write and edit articles in the Wikipedia.)

3. Without an editorial staff comes a lack of a list of articles to be dealt with, cross-references to be made, and quality-standards to be guarded. (That does not mean that Wikipedia does not heavily try to achieve this.)

4. There is (deliberately or not) no clear distinction between knowledge and information, facts and opinions (or point of views). On the contrary, the policy of Wikipedia is to include different opinions on an issue given they are written from a “neutral point of view”. Truth as a goal is suspended in favour of a balanced description of even contentious aspects of the object at hand.

5. There are (deliberately) no restrictions on themes and items. Everything may be object of an article provided it is written about in accordance with certain standards of quality.

6. Wikipedia is not an encyclopaedia, but a collection of encyclopaedias. (A point easily overlooked.) There are several reason for this. Firstly, lemmata in one language-version need not have a complement in an other language-version. And if it has, secondly, the corresponding articles will vary decisively in length, coverage, bibliographical data, and cross-references. Thirdly, cross-references of an article stay in the same language-version and do not cross over into other ones. Fourthly, the search function is restricted to one language-version. (That is not exactly true as one can use the shown language-versions for an entry in the sidebar, but the search-field does not allow to search simultaneously in different versions.) Therefore the language-versions proof to be rather insulated projects (There seem to be endeavours to limit the variations by means of automated meta-data-compilation and -comparison, but these features are not yet full-fledged developed and implemented.)

7. Even if one concentrates for the moment on one language-version of Wikipedia (one should not), one does not find an encyclopaedia in the classical sense, but a collection of more or less broad, more or less specific, more or less appropriate articles to themes their authors deemed interesting. Charming (and valuable) as it is, this shows that Wikipedia does collect very different things: pieces of knowledge, information, data, statistics, fan-gossip, biographies, etc. The claim to collect all human knowledge and give it to everyone on the planet, for free, is romantic at best, as Wikipedia does not focus solely on knowledge, or pieces of knowledge, but includes much more items (with different epistemic status) which it delivers in articles of varying quality without a thorough policy of cross-referencing.

8. What seems to be absent in Wikipedia is an understanding that knowledge is not piecemeal, but systematic. As its cross-referencing is arbitrary and ad hoc, it renders its content indistinguishable from information. This yields to the widespread confusion (or better said: identification) of knowledge with information. And with this comes the attitude that there is no need for a selection of items, topics, or lemmata. On the contrary, selection now is seen as dubious and ill-founded, being akin to censorship, oppression, or “elite filtering”.

Given Wikipedia’s unique way of authoring and editing (without restriction in authorship and collaboratively in editing) and the phenomenon that it is not an encyclopaedia at all but a collection of different encyclopaedias (due to the differences in the language versions) at best, one can appreciate the differences to classical encyclopaedias.

The classical encyclopaedia, written and printed in volumes, organizes its topic in an alphabetic manner and uses cross-references as passage ways between one region of knowledge to the next, offering the reader the opportunity to learn the content presented by inviting him to follow those routes. Content as cross-references are provided by specialists, usually divided in those doing the articles (authors) and those doing the linkage (editors).

In Wikipedia the distinction between authors and editors (or editorial staff) disappears. Everyone may write about what- and link to wherever he wants. The focus is on a variety of themes, topics, and interests that include but not restrict themselves to objects of knowledge. The lack of concise cross-referencing (intra and inter versions) and the fact that different language-versions treat the same theme or item differently makes the classical goal of the exhaustive compilation of the accumulated knowledge (or known facts) of a time obsolete. Because there is no fixed subject-matter to collect left. (Remember that it is the epistemic status of knowledge that decides what may and what may not enter the encyclopaedia.) The blurring of the distinctions between knowledge, information, belief, opinion, proclivity, etc., yields not a more extensive collection of knowledge (or known facts), but a more specific, more detailed collection of what is found relevant in a culture in which people are engaged in writing a specific language-version. Knowledge is used as a writing principle to keep an article objective and clear, but not as a criterion to distinguish between and select the items that may or may not enter the encyclopaedia accordingly.

The dream of an all-comprising encyclopaedia turns out to become a collection of essays what a culture finds interesting and relevant to deal with. That Wikipedia comprises so many different language versions is a hint that it is not only a way or tool of collecting, but of comparing and sharing cultural penchants and biases. This is not to mean that Wikipedia is not “objective”, but what it collects objectively is not knowledge but proclivities. Accordingly, one can dismiss Wikipedia on this ground or, on the other hand, find that its value lies not so much in one of its individual language-versions but especially in the differences between two or more of them. Starting from the goal of achieving an all-embracing encyclopaedia Wikipedia became a tool to compare and weigh cultures — by using an encyclopaedian approach. (This post treats the theme from a different angle.)

This does not mean that Wikipedia does not entail valid information, valuable facts, etc. But again, Wikipedia is not about knowledge. Simply because knowledge is what stays the same regardless of context, perspective, culture, attitude, or taste. Of course, Wikipedia entails knowledge (in that sense), but, firstly, it entails much more, and secondly, it uses the knowledge differently in comparison to classical encyclopaedias. In this sense Wikipedia stands at the end of the classical ways to organize and render encyclopaedically knowledge, and may be the start of a new development, inasmuch as through its ways and manners of processing information it might create a different sense or meaning of what we think knowledge is. But an encyclopaedia in any classical sense Wikipedia is not. Ironically, therein lies its huge potential.

Due to several developments the lines between knowledge, information, data, belief, opinion, etc., blur. And this brings about that the epistemic status of knowledge can no longer serve as a guiding principle for the selection and distinction of items that may or may not enter an encyclopaedia. Wikipedia does not suffer from this, but the loss of the principle poses a tremendous challenge to the classical encyclopaedias like Encyclopaedia Britannica and others. One can see the problem as those encyclopaedias try to incorporate more and different content as they did traditionally by using video files, maps, animations, sound clips, etc. In a sense they try to become something different, a multimedia package around a handed down core of lemmata they have to deal with for traditional reasons but whose incorporation in the lexicon they can no longer justify. (The problems seem less urgent with regards to encyclopaedias covering a certain or distinct domain.) But the claim of covering all knowledge, the very raison d’être for universal encyclopaedias, becomes obsolete not only due to the sheer amount of knowledge, but for the lack of appropriate epistemic criteria that could guide the editorial practice. The end for encyclopaedias as we know them is nigh.


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2 Responses to The Last of Its Kind? – Wikipedia And the Demise of Encyclopaedias

  1. B Cauz says:

    Wikipedia, with a 97% share of the online encyclopedia market, has forced Microsoft to shut down Encarta. How long will it be before Wikipedia claims the prize scalp of Encyclopaedia Britannica?

    Encyclopaedia Britannica did not think that an open source product like Wikipedia would significantly challenge the credibility of its brand. They were dead wrong and Encyclopaedia Britannica seriously misread the global market. They are now very concerned about the widespread use of a free Wikipedia vs their paid subscription model. From a corporate and financial perspective, Encyclopaedia Britannica is in significant trouble.

    It will be interesting to see if Encyclopaedia Britannica survives, but recent indications do not look good. Over the next few years we will see the continued demise of Britannica as it becomes ever less relevant in an open source, Wikipedia-dominated environment.


  2. simsa0 says:

    Thank you B. Cauz for your note.

    I absolutely agree with you that Encyclopaedia Britannica and other ‘traditional’ encyclopaedias esp. when relying on a subscription basis face a dire situation. I guess they will not survive.

    You mention a point that I deliberately left aside and reserved for a future post: How did Wikipedia become so successful?

    I guess the main reason for Wikipedia’s success is not the quality of its articles, but the amount of lemmata and the unrivaled ease of access. People use WP not because they trust it to be a good encyclopaedia, but because it’s two mouse-clicks away. One does not deliberatley turn to WP because one expects to find a good article on this or that, but because for the daily usage the quality of information presented suffices. So access, not quality seems decisive.

    WP has the advantages of 1. huge amount of lemmata, 2. fast revision process, 3. ease of access. But whether these qualities are consequences of ‘open source’ alone is still an open question to me. For that reason I am reluctant to read too much into the concept of ‘open source’. But I may be wrong on this.


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