Knowledge Access As a Public Good

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by: Danah Boyd

Over at the Britannica Blog, Michael Gorman (the former president of the American Library Association) wrote a series of posts concerning web2.0. In short, he's against it and thinks everything to do with web2.0 and Wikipedia is bad bad bad. A handful of us were given access to the posts before they were posted and asked to craft responses. The respondents are scholars and thinkers and writers of all stripes (including my dear friend and fellow M2M blogger Clay Shirky). Because I addressed all of his arguments at once, my piece was held to be released in the final week of the public discussion. And that time is now. So enjoy!

Below is a copy of the response I wrote over at Britannica:

As a child, I believed that all educated people were wise. In particular, I placed educators and authorities on a high pedestal and I entered the academy both to seek their wisdom and to become one of them. Unfortunately, eleven years of higher education has taught me that parts of the academy is rife with many of the same problems that plague society as a whole: greed, self-absorbtion, addiction to power, and an overwhelming desire to be validated, praised, and rewarded. As Dr. Gorman laments the ills of contemporary society, I find myself nodding along. Doing ethnographic work in the United States often leaves me feeling disillusioned and numb. It breaks my heart every time a teenager tells me that s/he is more talented than Sanjaya and thus is guaranteed a slot on the next "American Idol."

The pervasive view that American society is a meritocracy makes me want to scream, but I fear as though my screams fall on deaf ears.

To cope with my frustration, I often return to my bubble. My friends all seem to come from Lake Wobegon where "the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all of the children are above average." I have consciously surrounded myself with people who think like me, share my values, and are generally quite overeducated. I feel very privileged to live in such an environment, but like all intellectuals who were educated in the era of identity politics, I am regularly racked with guilt over said privilege.

The Internet is a funny thing, especially now that those online are not just the connected elite. It mirrors and magnifies the offline world – all of the good, bad, and ugly. I don't need to travel to Idaho to face neo-Nazis. I don't need to go to Colorado Springs to hear religious views that contradict my worldview. And I don't need to go to Capitol Hill to witness the costs of power for power's sake.

If I am willing to look, there are places on the Internet that will expose me to every view on this planet, even those that I'd prefer to pretend did not exist. Most of the privileged people that I know prefer to live like ostriches, ignoring the realities of everyday life in order to sustain their privileges. I am trying not to be that person, although I find it to be a challenge.

In the 16th century, Sir Francis Bacon famously wrote that "knowledge is power." Not surprisingly, institutions that profit off of knowledge trade in power. In an era of capitalism, this equation often gets tainted by questions of profitability. Books are not published simply because they contain valued and valid information; they are published if and when the publisher can profit off of the sale of those books. Paris Hilton stands a far better chance of getting a publishing deal than most astute and thought-provoking academics. Even a higher education is becoming more inaccessible to more people at a time when a college degree is necessary to work in a cafe. $140,000 for a college education is a scary proposition, even if you want to enter the ratrace of the white collar mega-corporations where you expect to make a decent salary. Amidst this environment, it frustrates me to hear librarians speak about information dissemination while they create digital firewalls that lock people out of accessing knowledge unless they have the right academic credentials.

I entered the academy because I believe in knowledge production and dissemination. I am a hopeless Marxist. I want to equal the playing field; I want to help people gain access to information in the hopes that they can create knowledge that is valuable for everyone. I have lost faith in traditional organizations leading the way to mass access and am thus always on the lookout for innovative models to produce and distribute knowledge.

Unlike Dr. Gorman, Wikipedia brings me great joy. I see it as a fantastic example of how knowledge can be distributed outside of elite institutions. I have watched stubs of articles turn into rich homes for information about all sorts of subjects. What I like most about Wikipedia is the self-recognition that it is always a work-in- progress. The encyclopedia that I had as a kid was a hand-me-down; it stated that one day we would go to the moon. Today, curious poor youth have access to information in an unprecedented way. It may not be perfect, but it is far better than a privilege-only model of access.

Knowledge is not static, but traditional publishing models assume that it can be captured and frozen for consumption. What does that teach children about knowledge? Captured knowledge makes sense when the only opportunity for dissemination is through distributing physical artifacts, but this is no longer the case. Now that we can get information to people faster and with greater barriers, why should we support the erection of barriers?

In middle school, I was sent to the principal's office for correcting a teacher's math. The issue was not whether or not I was correct – I was; I was ejected from class for having the gall to challenge authority. Would Galileo have been allowed to write an encyclopedia article? The "authorities" of his day rejected his scientific claims. History has many examples of how the vetting process has failed us. Imagine all of the knowledge that was produced that was more successfully suppressed by authorities. In the era of the Internet, gatekeepers have less power. I don't think that this is always a bad thing.

Like paper, the Internet is a medium. People express a lot of crap through both mediums. Yet, should we denounce paper as inherently flawed? The Internet – and Wikipedia – change the rules for distribution and production. It means that those with knowledge do not have to retreat to the ivory towers to share what they know. It means that individuals who know something can easily share it, even when they are not formally declared as experts. It means that those with editing skills can help the information become accessible, even if they only edit occasionally. It means that multi-lingual individuals can help get information to people who speak languages that publishers do not consider worth their time. It means that anyone with an Internet connection can get access to information traditionally locked behind the gates of institutions (and currently locked in digital vaults).

Don't get me wrong – Wikipedia is not perfect. But why do purported experts spend so much time arguing against it rather than helping make it a better resource? It is free! It is accessible! Is it really worth that much prestige to write an encyclopedia article instead of writing a Wikipedia entry? While there are certainly errors there, imagine what would happen if all of those who view themselves as experts took the time to make certain that the greatest and most broad-reaching resource was as accurate as possible.

I believe that academics are not just the producers of knowledge – they are also teachers. As teachers, we have an ethical responsibility to help distribute knowledge. We have a responsibility to help not just the 30 people in our classroom, but the millions of people globally who will never have the opportunity to sit in one of our classes. The Internet gives us the tool to do this. Why are we throwing this opportunity away? Like Dr. Gorman, I don't believe that all crowds are inherently wise. But I also don't believe that all authorities are inherently wise. Especially not when they are vying for tenure.

Why are we telling our students not to use Wikipedia rather than educating them about how Wikipedia works? Sitting in front of us is an ideal opportunity to talk about how knowledge is produced, how information is disseminated, how ideas are shared. Imagine if we taught the "history" feature so that students would have the ability to track how a Wikipedia entry is produced and assess for themselves what the authority of the author is. You can't do this with an encyclopedia. Imagine if we taught students how to fact check claims in Wikipedia and, better yet, to add valuable sources to a Wikipedia entry so that their work becomes part of the public good.

Herein lies a missing piece in Dr. Gorman's puzzle. The society that he laments has lost faith in the public good. Elitism and greed have gotten in the way. By upholding the values of the elite, Dr. Gorman is perpetuating views that are destroying efforts to make knowledge a public good. Wikipedia is a public-good project. It is the belief that division of labor has value and that everyone has something to contribute, if only a spelling correction. It is the belief that all people have the inalienable right to knowledge, not just those who have academic chairs. It is the belief that the powerful have no right to hoard the knowledge. And it is the belief that people can and should collectively help others gain access to information and knowledge.

Personally, I hold these truths to be self-evident, and I'd rather see us put in the effort to make Wikipedia an astounding resource that can be used by all people than to try to dismantle it simply because it means change.

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