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Wikipedia politics

August 27, 2012

The following is a guest post by Matthew Battles. It originally appeared at The New Inquiry.

The invitation to post at South/South came to mind the other day as I was driving fast down a country road in Illinois: a gravel-dusted, two-lane blacktop, of all places, a blistered seam between corn and beans. A quarter mile or so down the lane, a flock of birds wheeled against the molten sky—a token of disaster, a sign of impending crisis brought by drought and industrial agriculture. Or so it seemed; as I drew closer, the birds lost focus, grew tattered and uncanny, until passing beneath I managed to reread the apparition as mere shreds of dried cornstalk twirling in a stately vortex of slow-turning air. Now, arguably, the image was a more-fitting symbol of agricultural apocalypse: these were after all actual crops, withered and torn from the ground, turning to dust before me. And yet in the gap between immanence and ideation I felt myself in the embrace of a chastening liminality—a passage from illusion that need not turn into disillusionment, as the blog’s tagline from Gramsci has it—a caution to stand nearby our signs and wonders, rather than presuming to stand for them.

A similar betwixt-and-betweenness beset me earlier this summer in the wake of Wikimania, the annual convention of the Wikimedia community, held in Washington in July. Perhaps it was the setting—the colonnades and monuments, security checkpoints and museums, all this landscape of toppling stateliness setting a strange frame for the evanescent, ephemeral editing of an online encyclopedia. The sheer ambition of Wikipedia’s mission, “to make the sum total of human knowledge available for free to every human being on the planet,” seemed both absurd and entirely fitting as I pedaled along Pennsylvania Avenue towards a capitol dome flecked with rainbows and flashbulbs. Apposite questions seemed to fire, an interrogation of the monuments as much as the online encyclopedia: how to define this humanity beyond those connected to the Internet? Should the sum total of human knowledge even look like an encyclopedia?

In pointed contrast to the throngs of tourists shoaling amid the shining columns and stately domes, Wikimania participants were acutely aware of the problems posed by attempts to foster “diversity,” to honor local ways of knowing in the context of Wikipedia’s evangelical, all-encompassing neutrality. The proceedings were haunted by Wikipedia’s recent decision to abandon that wonted neutrality to take a political stance, observing a self-imposed blackout to protest two bills then before Congress, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). One technologist and Wikimedia employee close to the decision-making process had argued against the blackout, calling the decision to shut down the site “an Atlas-Shrugged moment.” His Ayn Rand citation was particularly telling: an all-but-forgotten aspect of Wikipedia history struggles into salience here; the encyclopedia emerged out of an Objectivist listserv Jimmy Wales moderated in the early nineties. The first several dozen Wikipedia articles were devoted to Rand’s novels, characters, and ideas. Given Rand’s single-minded focus on world-straddling capitalists and their unfettered egoism, the path to a massively collaborative, free encyclopedia may not seem intuitive, but it is readily discovered. As Wales explained in a 2008 interview with Christopher Lydon, “for me, it’s a lot about volunteerism—that everyone who participates in Wikipedia does so of their own free will. If they don’t want to do it, they don’t do it. That’s fine, and there’s no compulsion involved.”

Wales purports to feel a nonprofit drive arising in counterpart to Rand’s cosmic and world-building profit motive. Perhaps he thinks of the Wikipedia community as a kind of Übermenschengemeinschaft, a utopia contrived from the impulses of radically-autonomous actors. But here is where the invocation of Atlas Shrugged becomes telling, even ironic: for the SOPA blackout would seem to index a political transformation, Wikipedia’s energies threatening a phase-shift from the independence and creativity of a Howard Roark (architect-hero of The Fountainhead) to the world-tilting, titanic withdrawal of John Galt (strike organizer of the globally powerful in Atlas Shrugged). Here’s an irony perpetually lost on Rand’s followers: for all her insistence that Galt represents an antidote to the state—his energy and drive an irrepressible tide of sweet water parting the viscous oil of government—it’s clear that Rand’s master builder needs the state, not only to build roads and educate workers, as Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren keep insisting, but—deeply, yearningly—as foil and foe.

Wikipedia’s consensus-driven decision-making procedures and the systems that support them, meanwhile, grow ever more complicated and ramified. During the 72-hour Call for Comment that set the stage for the SOPA blackout action in January, the Wikipedia community convened nothing less than a rump parliament following rules of order that have taken shape over the course of Wikipedia’s decade-long growth in size and impact. These decision-making processes have increasingly taken a legislative temper as editors and administrators strive to maintain community-driven procedures in the face of controversies over the authority, reliability, and editorial integrity of Wikipedia articles.

In the discussion of a possible blackout, the political dimensions of Wikipedia’s evolving culture became glimmeringly visible. Threaded through comments made by some 1,800 contributors to the discussion, a peculiar kind of public seems to heave into view, one drawn from around the globe (despite the fact that it was English-language Wikipedia that was to be blacked out, participation in the convening was international) to take the shape of a community suddenly perceiving a commonly-held threat. The moment seemed to kindle an awareness of something like sovereignty. In ironic and perhaps inevitable contrast to its Objectivist origins, Wikipedia looks like an emerging polity taking ever-more-complex shape as it grapples not only with growth, but with perceived threats to its existence.

Here, another political thinker comes to mind, one whose ideas were anathema to Ayn Rand and her state-withering pronouncements: John Dewey, who ends his 1927 book The Public and Its Problems with the hope that improved communication technology might provide the basis upon which a society can transform itself into a community—a public, aware of its threatening externalities, prepared to take common action to confront them. Wikipedia doesn’t levy taxes or back a currency; it can’t raise an army or build a road. But as networked society presents its public with novel and mysterious externalities, a complementary (and equally opaque) set of political responses takes shape. As Dewey also wrote, “the state must always be rediscovered.” In Wikipedia’s earnest and well-intentioned struggle with its own ineluctably political nature, we may be seeing how an online community begins to think like a state. In the capital city’s storm-shriven light it made for uncanny apparition, a fluttering transposition of cornstalks and birds coming home to roost.

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