The Moss-Free Stone

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Britannica vs. Web 2.0?

June 14, 2007 by Randy Rodgers · No Comments · Spreading the Word

I just read a couple of interesting blog posts on the Britannica Blog. The first, by Andrew Keen, was brought to my attention in a post by Will Richardson (Web 2.0 as a “Cultural and Intellectual Catastrophe”). It is entitled “The Answer to Web 2.0: Political Activism.” Keen advocates political action to defeat the evil forces of Web 2.0 technologies. He criticizes the creators and users of Web 2.0 as “radical democratizers”, a label that I find it difficult to consider insulting. He appears to hold every contributor of information in the world of Web 2.0 with disdain, and to regard only traditional scholars with any regard. This is demeaning and arrogant at best and seems to completely disregard the validity of the knowledge and experiences of anyone who does not hold an advanced degree. It also presupposes the complete reliability and validity of the information presented by such experts (which has been demonstrated to be mistaken on innumerable occasions–errors in Encyclopedia Britannica itself being an example). The “radical democratization” of information made possible by Web 2.0 tools has, in fact, opened the door to misinformation, abuse, and irresponsible authorship, I will concede. It has also, however, exposed users to new knowledge, viewpoints, cultures, etc. and created learning and teaching opportunities that were once the exclusive possession of the academic elite (Keen’s eutopia).

I learned early on in this journey from men such as Will Richardson, Alan November, and David Warlick that this dichotomy is exactly what makes it so urgent to develop critical, responsible users, and to empower them with skills that are far from new, but all-to-often neglected. Keen’s fellow Britannica blogger, Michael Gorman (Web 2.0: The Sleep of Reason, Part I and Part II), while an enthusiastic critic of Web 2.0, actually expresses a very similar perspective:

“This small example typifies the difference between the print world of scholarly and educational publishing and the often-anarchic world of the Internet. The difference is in the authenticity and fixity of the former (that its creator is reputable and it is what it says it is), the expertise that has given it credibility, and the scholarly apparatus that makes the recorded knowledge accessible on the one hand and the lack of authenticity, expertise, and complex finding aids in the latter. The difference is not, emphatically not, in the communication technology involved. Print does not necessarily bestow authenticity, and an increasing number of digital resources do not, by themselves, reflect an increase in expertise. The task before us is to extend into the digital world the virtues of authenticity, expertise, and scholarly apparatus that have evolved over the 500 years of print, virtues often absent in the manuscript age that preceded print.”

I cannot argue with this. The media used does not make one bit of information inherently more reliable than another. What makes the critical difference is the knowledge of the creator(s) and their ability to communicate their knowledge accurately and reliably. Gorman continues:

“The conditions necessary for learning from a text include a reasonable certainty that the text is what it says it is—that its content is what was created by a named person or persons or is a good-faith translation of that original text by a named person or persons; that the authors possess verifiable credentials and demonstrable expertise; that the learner has knowledge of the date when that text was created and can, therefore, take into account any later developments or discoveries; that the learner possesses the reading skills to interact productively with a complex text; and that the text has a context—that is, its relationships with other texts are set out in the form of citations and bibliographic references.”

Reliable sources, accurate, up-to-date texts, written at an appropriate, usable level, with sources of information cited. Couldn’t agree more, and it further underscores the need to include instruction in these skills in the curriculum. The tools being used are different and more widely available, but that does not mandate that they are inferior. I would propose, to the contrary, that the public, collaborative nature of Web 2.0 should and could be used to actually hold information to a higher standard than an editor behind the desk of an office at a textbook publishing company. I want to be clear, so as not to offend Mr. Gorman, that I am not belittling the importance of editors, fact checkers, proofreaders, etc. I am, however, saying that they do not hold the exclusive keys to the gates of knowledge. The same principals which are adhered to by reputable publishing companies could be applied to Web 2.0 and often are.

The only area where I respectfully must disagree with Mr. Gorman is in his disdain for collectivism when applied to knowledge. There is great power in the shared experiences and knowledge of Web 2.0 users, and to dismiss them as inherently inferior to the “tweedy professor” (his words) is a mistake. The final paragraph of Part II of his post was too rich in irony to let go unnoticed:

“An encyclopedia (literally, the “circle of learning”) is the product of many minds. It is not the product of a collective mind. It is an assemblage of texts that have been written by people with credentials and expertise and that have been edited, verified, and supplied with a scholarly apparatus enabling the user to locate desired knowledge. It differs in almost all relevant particulars from one of the current manifestations of the flight from expertise—Wikipedia, which bills itself as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit” and to which everyone can contribute irrespective of whether they possess, or simply pretend to possess, credentials and expertise.”

See the article above on errors in Encyclopedia Britannica for my rebuttal. ;)

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