August 26, 2007

The problem with presentism

Category: Debian,Tech,Wikipedia — Biella @ 7:04 am

A few days ago, Joe Reagle was telling me about the rise of (sometimes very arcane) policies and bureaucratic imperatives that now characterize Wikipedia. A few days later I stumbled across a few interesting posts on the topic, posts (especially Nick Carr’s) seeping with almost celebratory gloom and doom:

‘But, given human nature, is it really so “incredible” that Wikipedia has evolved as it has? Although writers like Yochai Benkler have presented Wikipedia as an example of how widescale, volunteer-based “social production” on the Internet can exist outside hierarchical management structures, the reality is very different. As Wikipedia has grown, it has developed a bureaucracy that is remarkable not only for the intricacies of its hierarchy but for the breadth and complexity of its rules. The reason Deletionism has triumphed so decisively over Inclusionism is pretty simple: It’s because Deletionism provides a path toward ever more elaborate schemes of rule-making – with no end – and that’s the path that people prefer, at least when they become members of a large group. The development of Wikipedia’s organization provides a benign case study in the political malignancy of crowds.”

It is without question that a problem has arisen in Wikipedia, a problem composed of a thick web and net of rules that can be helpful as guidelines but often are often confusing and clearly work to ensnarl new users.

But can we so quickly put blame on so-called human nature? Or is it not a problem of human organization, which as the anthropological and sociological record shows, can take many forms? And is it not just that: a problem begging for a solution instead of an opportunity to declare the fundamental nature of wikipedia (and that of human nature?). Not only may history prove him wrong, other large scale collaborative projects at least prove that solutions can be found to deal with problems of growth and scale.

It is as if Carr just wants to see a project like Wikipedia fail, which somehow, this morning hit a raw nerve. What I find exciting about large scale projects of (at times unwieldy) collaboration are not just the explicit outputs of the projects (an encyclopedia or operating system) but the social worlds they create. And there is no inevitable path they *must* follow. These groups have a choice to react to and respond to these sort of problems and enact solutions that will hopefully solve them and allow these projects to change.

Debian, a slightly older project than Wikipedia, has gone through many growing pains and there was even a period when the the whole process of integrating new Debian developers was shut down and if my memory serves me correctly, for 2 years! At the time, it could have been possible to say: “This signals the end of Debian” but eventually a solution was found, the New Maintainer process, which while not perfect (what is?) allowed the project to grow and produce a great operating system for years to come.

Debian today faces new problems and is working to find solutions. I hope that Wikipedia can and will do the same. And instead of declaring its death, why not wait and see, and offer something a little more constructive and illuminating, than destructive?


  1. Biella,

    Because that’s how playa hataz roll. They’re all, ‘oh that project that’s got it going on? Oh that’s last week, I heard they’re imposing major beauracratic buzzkills all over it.’

    Seriously though, the only thing that’s inevitable is there will always be those who have left the theater before the fat lady has sung. If my tone above seems overly jocular, it’s because I have a hard time taking anyone seriously these days that has given up on the human project as a result of ‘human nature.’ It’s exactly as you say, start looking at the anthropological record and it’s easy to imagine these things working at large scales with the help of technology (a very natural thing, in fact, probably one of the most human of natures).

    Maybe people who display this disposition took too many Classical History classes ;-)

    Comment by Adam K — August 26, 2007 @ 6:27 pm

  2. Re: Carr — Anyone who has read the first chapter of Savage Mind knows it’s really not so surprising that human beings spontaneously create elaborate rules and systems. But somehow conflating this with a sort of sour Weberianism about the pathological and inevitable nature of the rationalization of institutions is something else again. Anyway most wikipedia participants have been socialized to works full of institutions, and I’m sure that the proliferation of institutions on Wikipedia is more reflective of that fact than ‘human nature’.

    Comment by Rex — August 26, 2007 @ 7:15 pm

  3. Here’s the panel I was referring to:

    Comment by Joseph Reagle — August 27, 2007 @ 3:55 am

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