The Null Device

The encyclopaedia as authoritarian institution

In the light of Wikipedia disappearing for a day in protest against the SOPA law, an article by an assistant professor comparing the philosophy of Wikipedia with that of traditional paper encyclopaedias:
Reading the high-quality, professionally edited entries in my library’s encyclopedias was an eye-opener and a guilty pleasure — you could learn so much with so little effort! And you don’t have to work as hard untangling the entries the way you do with Wikipedia! But this is exactly the problem with closed, for-profit encyclopedias: they require no work. In fact, they require just the opposite: submission to authority. The writing guidelines for my encyclopedia entry insist that there be no quotations or citations — just a short list of additional readings. Encyclopedias give us no reason to believe their claims are true except the arbitrary authority of those who write them. They are the ultimate triumph of the authoritarian impulse in academics.
It is this refusal of arbitrary authority that really scares encyclopedia types, not worries about accuracy. Wikipedia is a place where you must learn to think for yourself, encyclopedias are places where you are told what to believe.
It's interesting that the authoritarian underpinnings of the encyclopaedia, necessary for the purposes of aggregating broadly accepted knowledge within convenient reach, went all but unnoticed (and, had anybody noticed and criticised them, they would have sounded like some kind of hopelessly idealistic hippy Arcadian) until the disintermediating power of the internet demonstrated that another world is possible.

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