Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Amateurs for human rights in China

Tony Long, in his Luddite column at Wired, has registered another traditionalist's complaint against Web 2.0 and in moderated support of Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture.

To Long, the Internet ("a narcissist's dream come true") has performed a disservice by supplying amateurs with tools for reporting on events that only trained professionals should have access to.

He complains that "opportunity and desire alone do not professional historians or journalists or pundits make. There's this process known as 'learning your craft' and 'paying your dues' that all professionals must endure. Sorry, but trolling the web and blogging from your darkened study doesn't qualify as on-the-job training."

As someone who spent eight years of postgraduate work earning my doctorate, I wholly support the idea of "learning your craft" and "paying your dues" toward your professional credentials. What I can't credit is Mr. Long's assumption that our professional historians, journalists and pundits are doing a swell job without the interference of the untrained, poorly informed masses.

The media may be chock full of professionals; but in these days when even NPR has begun parroting the Bush administration's recent, transparent act of propaganda in labeling every insurgent in Iraq as "Al Qaeda," many of them don't seem to be measuring up to their responsibilities.

It seems to be the professionals, rather than the amateurs, who are "killing our culture."

But never mind about the American situation, for a moment. Imagine instead a country where media is overtly controlled by the government and the elite, where ordinary citizens have no hope of drawing attention to gross injustices because the press has been ordered not to report on them. That's the point of a heartening story at Breitbart.com, about 400 Chinese parents turning into "citizen journalists" to rescue their children from slave labor conditions in brickyards.

"The parents' Internet posting was part of a growing phenomenon for marginalised people in China who can not otherwise have their complaints addressed by the traditional, government-controlled press," Breitbart reports. In another case, police riots aimed at flower sellers in Zhengzhou were recorded on someone's cell phone and eventually posted on YouTube.

In response to this growing power in the hands of a previously powerless group of people, the Chinese government has called for a "purification" of the Internet, and has tightened its crackdown of "cyber dissidents."

That's probably the best way to deal with amateurs. They ruin everything.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Trust us -- we're scholars!

I've just completed grading final papers for my six spring quarter classes, and am pleased to report that Wikipedia has not yet brought an end to education, truth, or even western civilization. My students gathered material from multiple sources, checked facts, and developed their own reasoned arguments based on the best available data.

For teachers who are still concerned over the evil menace of Wikipedia, though, the Online Education Database (OED) is offering Top 7 Alternatives to Wikipedia. It's an interesting list, in that it contains not only the predictable Scholarpedia and Encyclopedia Britannica Online, but also the conservative wiki Conservapedia, as an answer "Wikipedia's alleged left-wing bias."

By including Conservapedia, the OED (not to be confused with the Oxford English Dictionary) tries to balance an alleged leftist bias with one that is overtly right wing, as a matter of that site's stated policy. On Conservapedia, "The information found on this site is free of foul language, sexual topics and anything else deemed offensive by the site's editorial staff." One certainly doesn't wish for knowledge that would offend anyone's sensibilities, after all.

In short, OED find one cultural perspective acceptable because it results from a centralized editorial authority . . . but a different perspective unacceptable because it has emerged from the actions of a social network of volunteers with similar interests. Although the OED seems to be gently mocking in its tone toward Conservapedia, their own bias toward authority is clear.

The OED prefers information and knowledge to flow top-down from an acknowledged authority, rather than to emerge bottom-up from a community. Why? Because "it is hard to imagine that millions of anonymous users could accurately maintain a factual and unbiased living encyclopedia. Wikipedia is a non-profit site that is policed by hundreds of volunteers, yet very few of these volunteers have the experience and knowledge of a professional writer/editor. A cultural bias has seemed to have washed over many entries on the site, as general consensus replaces cold, hard facts."

OED prefers the model of Scholarpedia, where "Experts must be either invited or elected before they are assigned certain topics and, although the site is still editable by anyone like a wiki, updates must first be approved before they are made final." But implicit trust in this type of authority-based system is based on two shaky assumptions: 1) that the authority is disinterested in the way this knowledge will be used or interpreted, and 2) that the authority doesn't harbor any cultural biases of its own.

But anyone who's spent more than a few years in academia and research institutions knows that scholars and experts are never disinterested, or free of cultural bias. Their careers and professional reputations depend on how what becomes of the data and information they generate. It's almost impossible to put a half dozen PhDs from the same field in a room without witnessing internecine warfare.

It's not just on Wikipedia that "consensus replaces cold, hard fact." Knowledge has always emerged from conflict between competing ideas, viewpoints and factions. It does not descend like cooling rain from the heights of Parnassus, where saintly scholars confer in whispers. On Wikipedia, at least, the struggles, conflicts, errors and missteps that are part of the process of arriving at the truth are made public. I, for one, have no objection to my students becoming aware of that process.

I think it's appropriate for the academic community to be wary of Wikipedia, and to caution students not to blindly trust its facts. But the same caution should be given for all sources of information, including the alternatives to Wikipedia offered by the OED. Each is a human product with its own limitations, agendas and biases.