Posts Tagged ‘wikipedia’

Today, just my thoughts/response on something a friend posted.

A few years ago, there was an interview in which Aaron Sorkin said the following:

When I read the Times or The Wall Street Journal, I know those reporters had to have cleared a very high bar to get the jobs they have. When I read a blog piece from “BobsThoughts.com,” Bob could be the most qualified guy in the world but I have no way of knowing that because all he had to do to get his job was set up a website–something my 10-year-old daughter has been doing for 3 years. When The Times or The Journal get it wrong they have a lot of people to answer to. When Bob gets it wrong there are no immediate consequences for Bob except his wrong information is in the water supply now so there are consequences for us.

Emphasis my own.

A friend then posted a link to a recent commentary/response which includes the following:

I like Wikipedia because I know it could be wrong. Regular encyclopedias can be wrong, too, but my guard was never up in the same way with them as it is with Wikipedia. I like Internet media specifically for the reason that Aaron Sorkin doesn’t like it: because it makes it that much more difficult for me to have any illusions about the fact that the burden of critical thought is on me.

Hm. I dunno. On the one hand, yes, when it comes to opinions and interpretations, absolutely, it’s good to have a constant reminder that the news is biased, that it comes from an agenda, and that it can, simply put, be flat out mistaken sometimes. “Because we should never trust any news media outlet implicitly.”

And, certainly, as one of the commenters wrote, “Biasing based on education level is just reproducing the biases of the educational system. One of the most insightful bloggers I know never finished high school. Moderating comments, done right (in my opinion at least), should be about what people contribute to the discussion, not whether or not they completed X years of school.” But, even putting aside the idea that a PhD, or any professional credentials, does mean that you have more extensive knowledge, experience, or training, that you understand certain types of matters better than most, or simply that you have more experience & training in critical thinking, and even acknowledging the post-modern turn that says there is no truth, that everything is multiple perspectives, etc etc., I think that there is absolutely a need for credible, reliable, trustworthy sources. If those sources are no longer the professional media, so be it. But, whether it’s on Wikipedia, or on a blog, the implication is that we should go check the sources ourselves. But, what about those sources? Are they reliable? And what about the sources those guys are drawing upon? This is what the news is for. This is what scholarship is for. To have qualified professionals do the research, do the analysis, sum it up so that the rest of us can consume it. If everyone had to double-check every fact for themselves, all the time, a thousand lifetimes wouldn’t be enough to do the job due diligence.

Yes, I take the point that in many cases, when it comes to discussion, perspective, social and political commentary, an amateur might very well be more insightful, more experienced in that particular thing, might offer a more valuable perspective in whatever way or for whatever reason than a professional. But let us not go too far down the rabbit hole of believing that absolutely everything everything is relative, that absolutely everything everything is just opinion or perspective. By all means, if some blogger talks about, say, feminism, in a new and different way, or just in a more insightful way, puts a valuable spin on it, or just makes a point more eloquently than another source does, then by all means, regardless of who that blogger is, or their professional credentials, that’s great. But if a blogger, or a news agency, or a scholar, says that 42% of women are in X situation, I want to believe that I can trust that source, because of professional credentials, or because of citation to something that has professional credentials, without me having to go double-check the numbers myself, for every single fact or figure anyone ever cites on any platform.

I do think we need to be more circumspect about the corporate agendas and rampant lack of professionalism throughout the “professional” media which cause all kinds of biases and mistakes and problems. And I do think we need to be aware that “accountability” doesn’t do nearly as much as we might wish it did. But, even so, I do think that Sorkin has a very valid point when he says that “When Bob gets it wrong there are no immediate consequences for Bob except his wrong information is in the water supply now so there are consequences for us.” We need to be able to trust some sources over others. We need to know that a given newsman, or scholar, is professional and trustworthy and reliable. And we need to trust professional credentials to at least some extent over others. Because the alternative is every man’s word against every other man’s word, and absolutely no certainty on anything whatsoever unless you’ve researched it yourself.

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Wowee. It’s been nearly a month since I’ve last posted. Sorry about that! I’ve been organizing photos and writing Wiki entries, visiting museums, and catching up on actual research/work. And in the meantime, boy have the links piled up.

“Heaven and Hell,” by Kawanabe Kyôsai. Tokyo National Museum.

*I don’t normally follow Christie’s auctions, but their current Japanese art auction came to my attention as it includes a long-believed-lost painting by Kawanabe Kyôsai, depicting a “Hell Courtesan,” or Jigoku-dayû, along with a bunch of other Kyôsai works, all of which are said to have once belonged to Josiah Conder, architect of some of the most famous/prominent buildings of the Meiji period. The full catalog can be downloaded as a PDF here.

*Speaking of Meiji architecture, the Asahi Shimbun reports that Japan is seeking World Heritage Status for a number of sites representative of Meiji industrialization. Now, I’ve written before on Japan and China (in particular, among other countries, I’m sure) appealing for just about anything and everything to be classified World Heritage Sites, and how absurd some of the petitions are. It’s basically a competition for who can have the most, regardless of how genuinely significant the sites may be to world heritage. But, with Japan oft-cited as the first major modern non-Western power, the first non-Western country to join the ranks of the Western powers as a “modern” industrial and military power, I think there’s actually some legitimacy to this idea.

*And, speaking of historical sites (gee, that worked out nicely), there is apparently a project called Wikipedia Loves Monuments. It’s operating in a bunch of different countries – here’s the map for the US – and it basically consists of a keen interface, powered by Google Maps, showing a whole ton of famous sites across the US (and across the world) that are in need of photography for use on the corresponding Wikipedia page. Most of the major ones have been covered already, as one might expect; the only ones in red anywhere near where I was in New York for the last few weeks were a few random houses in normal residential neighborhoods which are apparently either really old, and therefore historical, or are representative of particular architectural styles… I wish that Japan was one of the participating countries, because I’d love such a nice, smooth, interactive map of notable sites in Japan to go hunt out. (As for whether I’d then give my photos to Wikipedia, I dunno. I’ve got some issues with Wikipedia, as I may have mentioned in the past.)

A reproduction of the Edo zu byôbu, an early 17th century depiction of the shogunal capital of Edo (today, Tokyo).

*Meanwhile, Marky Star, over at Japan This!, has been pumping out one excellent article after another, mostly on the origins & history of Tokyo-area placenames, shogunal burial sites, and shogunate-era execution grounds. Among his most recent, most ambitious and most impressive articles to date is one from a few weeks ago in which he asks (and answers) What does Edo mean?

*Switching gears, Brittany at San’in Monogatari has published a very nice post on Kanayago, the goddess (or kami) of tatara. What’s tatara, you ask? Well, it’s a certain kind of furnace, a traditional Japanese method of building and operating a furnace.. and, I’m not ashamed to admit, I know of it chiefly from the film Mononoke Hime (or, Princess Mononoke), in which a community of women, headed by Lady Eboshi, uses tatara furnaces to smelt iron, and if I remember the plot of the film correctly, to construct firearms.

More to come soon…

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From the New York Times a few weeks ago: When Knowledge Isn’t Written, Does It Still Count?

An interesting article that, essentially, argues that if Wikipedia aims to represent the sum of human knowledge, it needs to move beyond what knowledge is contained in written/printed publications. Especially if it wants to no longer be so heavily dominated by white male contributors in First World Anglophone nations.

The article cites examples of first-hand knowledge that is not, or would not be, accepted under current Wikipedia policy because it’s not cited to a verifiable printed source. The rules and nature of a children’s game played by millions in South Asia, which has never been documented in publication. The process of producing a particular sub-Saharan African traditional beverage. Or, the color of the walls in your local subway station (presumably documented in official transit authority records of the painting project work order, but that’s besides the point, I guess).

Essentially, they’re talking about a battle that’s been raging on Talk pages within Wikipedia ever since the ‘pedia took off – the fight between Truth and Verifiability. … Wikipedia policy currently emphasizes the need for verifiability, and with good reason – how are we to know or believe something is True, just because some guy says so and claims to be an Authority? There are countless examples one could come up with of someone believing something that is either controversial, or widely believed to be untrue, or at least believed by at least one person to be widely believed to be untrue. Such as the idea that homosexuality is a sin. Or that 9/11 was orchestrated by the US government.

Who gets to be an Authority? One of Wikipedia’s core tenets is the idea that “traditional” encyclopedias were limited to those with official academic degrees and other sorts of official Authority status, and they were still loaded with mistakes – Jimbo Wales wanted to open it up to everyone to share, so that, essentially, everyone (or no one) can be an Authority. More to the point, I guess, it was the idea that having to submit your work to an “Authority” to be peer-reviewed was intimidating, and would work against obtaining a high level of contributions, i.e. content.

So where does that leave us? With questions of Authenticity – if the South African woman who talks about making morula is an Authority, she is that because of her Authenticity as a native of the culture that makes it; but then what happens if other members of the community say she’s wrong? Who is the Authority becomes based largely, if not entirely, on who is the most Authentic. Who has the right to speak for an entire people. Native Hawaiians have struggled with this problem for decades, if not longer. … Authenticity can be a dangerous thing, as I have learned first-hand. Who has greater Authority, the academic, or the traditional practitioner? The karate sensei who passes on stories about famous practitioners of the past and their exceptional, superhuman powers, or the professional historian who aims to debunk it all? The fourth-generation Okinawan-American from Hawaii, who has grown up embedded in Okinawan-Hawaiian local culture and believes he knows the truth about being Okinawan, purely on that basis, or the white boy from NY who has devoted himself for several years to the study – through books, classes, and actually traveling to Japan and Okinawa – of Okinawan history and culture, but has no claim to “Authenticity” on account of being outside of that ethnic/cultural background?

When topics are disputed, such as the rightful ownership of certain islands, or the “true” version of events of certain events in World War II, who is to be believed? The Japanese guy who says it happened this way, and who speaks on the Authority of being actually Japanese? Or the Korean guy who says it’s all lies and propaganda, and that it actually happened *this* way, on the Authority of being Korean? The Communist who calls it good, or the Nationalist who calls it bad?

I think there is definite value in the idea that people should be allowed to speak as Authorities, regardless of whether or not they have something to cite, if they do indeed have rightful claim to being an Authority, however that might be proven or measured. Even putting aside “alternate modes of knowledge”, such as oral tradition, such as professors over at the School of Hawaiian Knowledge would argue for, there are so many things we see and do and learn and know every day purely by being who we are, where we are. Being an Authority on something because it’s an integral part of your life, even if it’s not cited anywhere. That extends into countless sorts of examples – not just traditional knowledge like the children’s game or the African drink, but into “crowd-sourcing” information like whether or not a certain store is still open, whether a certain building suffered damage in yesterday’s quake, what exactly happened in Tahrir Square 30 minutes ago (remember, Wikipedia is often among the first sources to break news, along with Twitter, from first-hand accounts), or the details of an event you were a part of even if it doesn’t have any third-party sources to cite (e.g. the Hawaii Kabuki performance I was involved in last year, for which there are news articles, my own blog posts, the theatre’s website, but there’s also so much that’s not written anywhere but is definitively true based on my first-hand experience of being involved in it). Not to mention, the largely un-verifiable but nevertheless reliable source of direct conversations with true Authorities, or attending talks or lectures; even in proper professional academia, this is highly tolerated, but at Wikipedia, I don’t think it would be.

In summary, I think it’s an important issue, and I have struggled with it myself on countless occasions. In fact, it was the inability for me to gain or maintain any reputation as an Authority on Wikipedia, due to the fundamental anti-elitism with which it was founded and the popular mode in which it functions, that was a major factor in my decision to (nearly) stop editing Wikipedia entirely a few years ago.

It’s complicated, and I don’t imagine there could be a definitive solution… I would love to hear your opinions and thoughts on the matter.

[My thanks to the Shogun of the Samurai-Archives for bringing this NY Times article to my attention. And do check out the Samurai-Archives Wiki, a much smaller project than Wikipedia, but one which strives for much higher standards on accuracy and reliability.]

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