What are possible consequences of Wikipedia for the future of human knowledge?

By: Jan Bajec
On: September 21, 2009
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About Jan Bajec
Visual thinking has always been the way I responded to my environment. It engaged my interest in arts and eventually led to my enrollment in Visual Arts and Graphic Design studies. From 2001-2002, I had an unique opportunity to be a part of a creative team at S Team Advertising in Belgrade associated with SAATCHI&SAATCHI. From 2002-2003, I worked as a Graphic Designer at Ovation – BBDO. In 2003, wanting to pursue my studies further and get away from advertising I enrolled in Design Art program at Concordia University in Montreal. After graduation I decided to stay in Montreal and work as a full-time freelance graphic designer and web design consultant. I favor an exploratory, investigative approach to design. As I have been in the situation to design for specific cultural environments, I have felt how much of a social construction design really is and how cultural values, tools and technologies specific to each social milieu are reflected in it. This kind of experience demanded broader research ‘routine’ and triggered my interest in many other subjects: sociology, psychology, pop-culture, television, politics, new media. As I was switching my area of interest from print to web design I became more involved in this new platform for visual communication…


Henry Jenkins, professor of Media Studies at MIT, in his book Convergence Culture refers to the tendency of modern media creations to attract greater audience participation than ever before. Some of these media are actually influenced profoundly by their users, becoming, as he argues, almost a form of interactive storytelling.

David Parry, a professor of Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas, suggests that two of the most important features of Wikipedia are the history pages and the discussion pages. Wikipedia not only contains the facts, but it also records and contributes to the politicization and dissemination of scientific research and communication. It preserves the debate and discourse around a particular subject. And, in order to be participants in these debates, users will need to understand the structures and rhetoric within which they take place. They will need to possess a new type of collaborative literacy, which doesn’t count on the notion of the individual authority.

The networked digital archive changes our basis of knowledge. According to Parry, literacy in modern society means not only being able to read a variety of informational formats, but being able to participate in their creation. He argues that students and teachers have to understand that systems of knowledge creation are changing. Wikipedia alters the way in which knowledge is created, shared, and recorded. That has significant effects on the way education is approached across all disciplines.

Wikipedia provides free education to many people in parts of the world that otherwise would not have access to it. It works like a bridge, allowing different parts of the world to see and speak to each other around any topic. This knowledge synthesis in a collaboration age is contrasted with the intellectual exchanges behind closed-doors between the information elites of the past. This idea of a knowledge-generating culture contrasts with what Peter Walsh has called the Expert paradigm. The expert paradigm requires a limited body of knowledge, which can be mastered by an individual. It uses rules, which are established through traditional disciplines, about how information is accessed and processed. The types of questions that exist in a collective intelligence are open-ended and deeply interdisciplinary and each participant applies their own rules. Debates about rules are part of the process by which knowledge gets generated.

In 1994, Michael Gibbons, honorary professor at the Science and Technology Policy Research department of University of Sussex, and his colleagues claimed that a new form of knowledge production started emerging from the mid 20th century which is context-driven, problem-focused and interdisciplinary. They noted that it involved multidisciplinary teams brought together for short periods of time to work on specific problems in the real world. Gibbons and his colleagues labeled this “mode 2” knowledge production, as opposed to “mode 1”, which is academic, investigator-initiated and discipline-based knowledge production.

Through the use of Wikipedia (contributing or consuming), people can learn what it is like to work together within a knowledge culture. Participation in the Wikipedia community helps people (especially young people) to “think about their own roles as researchers and writers in new ways” (Henry Jenkins). It is a social process of acquiring knowledge that holds a knowledge community together, not the possession of knowledge. It is a dynamic and participatory process, and it continually tests and confirms social ties of the group. Wikipedia users establish connections by working together to fill gaps in their collective knowledge.
Wikipedia does not properly organise knowledge in the way that a paper encyclopaedia does. A new kind of knowledge production is emphasized by Wikipedia movement, which Pierre Levy (a professor in the Department of Communications at the University of Ottawa) has described as collective intelligence. Levy observes that collective intelligence uses the potential of network culture to allow many different minds to operate in many different contexts to work together to solve problems.

There is an interesting debate between Jimmy Wales, a co-founder of Wikipedia and Andrew Keen, an author and Web 2.0 critic, on the topic of Wikipedia and its effect on culture and the authority of experts. Keen criticizes Wikipedia for the lack of any proper editorial presence, which means that it inevitably suffers as a source of knowledge (as opposed to a source of information), while Jimmy Wales argues that any encyclopaedia of Wikipedia’s scale is likely to find it impossible to give any real structure to its information. Watch the debate here.

Here is the link to my wikipedia entry, a page about modern typography.

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