There are rumblings in Silicon Valley. A simple Google search yesterday plunged many unwitting surfers into a turf war in the e-jungle. Wikipedia was blacked out for 24 hours in protest against two bills on intellectual property presented to US Congress. The lion roared, and the message was reverberated by chest-thumping geeks around the world.
During the day, the Wikipedia black-out page boasted of the works wrought by this one brief flexion of its e-muscles: so many thousands of articles written, so many millions of messages sent, so much potential… chaos.
I am a great fan of Wikipedia, and I have little to say about the fight they have picked with certain media and entertainment outlets. But their protest this week highlights a streak of self-righteousness that is increasing in the Wikiworld.
One almost gets the sense that Wikipedians are telling the great unwashed they can’t live without Wiki. The 24-hour shutdown proved, if anything, that this is rubbish. It is something like saying one cannot eat in a foreign country without McDonalds. I easily found the information I was looking for on another website.
The sentiment mirrors a general sense among the computer savants that the world won’t spin without the internet. Doubtless if the web disappeared tomorrow there would be some months, perhaps years, of adjustment. But it is safe to say humanity would survive.
Perhaps a more pervasive idea amongst the highly e-literate is that they operate on a moral plane superior to the rest of society. Wikipedians and bloggers, it seems, are the guardians of the liberty and equality of the new world. If everyone was as honest, courageous, and fair-minded as they were, the world would be a better place, almost a perfect place.
The doyen of this elite is WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a Robin Hood-like figure robbing from information-rich governments and corporations and spreading the wealth amongst the information starved poor.
The Wiki worldview is that up until now information has been chained to the pulpits of the powerful and that only in our age has the key been found to unfetter it.
“And we have the key.”
This self-aggrandizing attitude carries more than a whiff of the appropriately named ‘Enlightenment’ of the 18th century. Both movements are characterised by a pervasive mistrust of the past, and a naive optimism about the future.
The Wikipedian view of the past is the 21st century’s ‘Whig interpretation of history’: everything has been building towards a world in which there is open, secure and free internet. Without this resource is it any wonder that societies of the past were (relatively) despotic and cruel? It is easy to forget that Wikipedians didn’t invent sharing, or honesty, or even freedom. Facebook didn’t invent friends. We inherited all of these from the Dark Ages before the iPod was even a glint in Apple’s eye.
The new Encyclopaedists make the opposite mistake about the future. Inherent in their worldview is the idea that setting up a system where information can be shared quickly, widely, and freely will somehow eliminate corruption, greed and violence from the world. It is almost as though human foibles were glitches in the software of society. But human vices can never be reduced to social viruses. They come from deep within us and can find their way into the most scientific settings.
Do Wikipedians think themselves immune from the temptation to wield their power towards their own ends?
Free access to information for everyone could be said to be the Wikipedian creed. It encapsulates the Enlightenment values of liberty and equality. But, like the French terror of the 1790s, it neglects that other ideal needed to give them gumption — a genuine concern for other human beings.
But fraternité is not achieved by giving everyone more information, more freedom and more equality. And it is what is so often lacking on the internet, on blogs, and in other forms of web communication. Online interaction is so often vitriolic it is unreadable, and it is at its worst when the tech-savvy confront each other. I have seen very few geeks who try to love their enemies.
Fraternité comes from empathising with others. This is difficult to learn online. But without it, how can we understand the point of view of those who have different concepts of freedom or equality, or of troglodytes who don’t blog, or of nematodes who don’t have access to the internet. Believe it or not, there is a life offline and wisdom is wider than the web.
Phillip Elias is a Sydney doctor.