Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

Is Wikipedia anti-intellectual?

Sanger recently posted a provocative piece where he argues that geeks suffer from anti-intellectualism. His stance is that democratic sites such as Wikipedia (which he co-founded) are founded on anti-intellectualism. He sums up this techno anti-intellectualism using five beliefs:

  1. Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known.
  2. Books are an outmoded medium because they involve a single person speaking from authority.
  3. The classics, being books, are also outmoded.
  4. The digitization of information means that we don’t have to memorize nearly as much.
  5. You don’t have to go to college, which is overpriced and so reserved to the elite anyway.

My take:

  1. In the Google era, we do not need formal experts as much as we used to. Back in the days, if you wanted to learn about combinatorics, you took a class in college. In fact, you probably had to take a class to even know what combinatorics was! The other alternative was to read the papers and the books on the topic, which were only accessibly from a college library. These days, you can get in touch with hundreds of passionate fans of combinatorics on Math Overflow where you can ask and answer questions, and even build a reputation. You can read, for free, the Electronic journal of combinatorics. The same is true of just about every topic.
  2. The dominance of the long form (e.g., books) was a by-product of our technology. If you are going to print and distribute a piece of work, it needs to have a certain volume for the operation to be financially viable. If you sell a 300-pages philosophy book for $50 and make a profit, you cannot easily sell a 3-page philosophical document for $0.50 and still make a profit because you have fixed fees and because few people can be bothered to drive to a bookstore to buy 3 pages. Moreover, books need to be self-contained, you cannot use hyperlinks to refer the reader to background knowledge. That is not to say that long documents are a thing of the past (e.g., the Harry Potter novels), but electronic media is more flexible.
  3. I conjecture that the classics have never been so popular. I constantly refer back to the classics through Project Gutenberg or ebooksgratuits.com. I constantly read about bloggers who cite the classics. I talk with a lot of people who reread classics on their kindle or iPad.
  4. Memorization is shallow learning, we learn by applying ideas. Anyone can memorize the three axioms of Newton. Denis G. Rancourt famously showed that his fourth-year Physics students did not understand these three axioms. Memorization gives you the illusion of knowledge. It is a dangerous illusion.
  5. You can succeed without college, and a college degree is not success. It used to be that a college degree, any college degree, meant that you were a success. Anyone who holds on to this belief is in for a rude awakening.

Further reading: Fear of Illegibility by Rader is another take on Sander’s essay.