October 22, 2017

Archives for July 2006

The New Yorker Covers Wikipedia

Writing in this week’s New Yorker, Stacy Schiff takes a look at the Wikipedia phenomenon. One sign that she did well: The inevitable response page at Wikipedia is almost entirely positive. Schiff’s writing is typical of what makes the New Yorker great. It has rich historical context, apt portrayals of the key characters involved in the story, and a liberal sprinkling of humor, bons mots and surprising factual nuggets. It is also, as all New Yorker pieces are, rigorously fact-checked and ably edited.

Normally, I wouldn’t use FTT as a forum to “talk shop” about a piece of journalism. But in this case, the medium really is the message – the New Yorker’s coverage of Wikipedia is itself a showcase for some of the things old-line publications still do best. As soon as I saw Schiff’s article in my New Yorker table of contents (yes, I still read it in hard copy, and yes, I splurge on getting it mailed abroad to Oxford) I knew it would be a great test case. On the one hand, Wikipedia is the preeminent example of community-driven, user-generated content. Any coverage of Wikipedia, particularly any critical coverage, is guaranteed to be the target of harsh, well-informed scrutiny by the proud community of Wikipedians. On the other, The New Yorker’s writing is, indisputably, among the best out there, and its fact checking department is widely thought to be the strongest in the business.

When reading Wikipedia, one has to react to surprising claims by entertaining the possibility that they might not be true. The less plausible a claim sounds, the more skepticism one must have when considering it. In some cases, a glance at the relevant Talk page helps, since this can at least indicate whether or not the claim has been vetted by other Wikipedians. But not every surprising claim has backstory available on the relevant talk page, and not every reader has the time or inclination to go to that level of trouble for every dubious claim she encounters in Wikipedia. The upshot is that implausible or surprising claims in Wikipedia often get taken with a grain or more of salt, and not believed – and on the other hand, plausible-sounding falsehoods are, as a result of their seeming plausibility, less likely to be detected.

On the other hand, rigorous fact-checking (at least in the magazine context where I have done it and seen it) does not simply mean that someone is trying hard to get things right: It means that someone’s job depends on their being right, and it means that the particularly surprising claims in the fact-checked content in particular can be counted on to be well documented by the intense, aspiring, nervous young person at the fact checker’s desk. At TIME, for example, every single word that goes in to the magazine physically gets a check mark, on the fact-checkers’ copy, once its factual content has been verified, with the documentation of the fact’s truth filed away in an appropriate folder (the folders, in a holdover from an earlier era, are still called “carbons”). It is every bit as grueling as it sounds, and entirely worthwhile. The same system is in use across most of the Time, Inc. magazine publishing empire, which includes People, Fortune, and Sports Illustrated and represents a quarter of the U.S. consumer magazine market. It’s not perfect of course – reports of what someone said in a one-on-one interview, for example, can only ever be as good as the reporter’s notes or tape recording. But it is very, very good. In my own case, knowing what goes in to the fact-checking process at places like TIME and The New Yorker gives me a much higher level of confidence in their accuracy than I have when, as I often do, I learn something new from Wikipedia.

The guarantee of truth that backs up New Yorker copy gives its content a much deeper impact. Consider these four paragraphs from Schiff’s story:

The encyclopedic impulse dates back more than two thousand years and has rarely balked at national borders. Among the first general reference works was Emperor’s Mirror, commissioned in 220 A.D. by a Chinese emperor, for use by civil servants. The quest to catalogue all human knowledge accelerated in the eighteenth century. In the seventeen-seventies, the Germans, champions of thoroughness, began assembling a two-hundred-and-forty-two-volume masterwork. A few decades earlier, Johann Heinrich Zedler, a Leipzig bookseller, had alarmed local competitors when he solicited articles for his Universal-Lexicon. His rivals, fearing that the work would put them out of business by rendering all other books obsolete, tried unsuccessfully to sabotage the project.

It took a devious Frenchman, Pierre Bayle, to conceive of an encyclopedia composed solely of errors. After the idea failed to generate much enthusiasm among potential readers, he instead compiled a “Dictionnaire Historique et Critique,” which consisted almost entirely of footnotes, many highlighting flaws of earlier scholarship. Bayle taught readers to doubt, a lesson in subversion that Diderot and d’Alembert, the authors of the Encyclopédie (1751-80), learned well. Their thirty-five-volume work preached rationalism at the expense of church and state. The more stolid Britannica was born of cross-channel rivalry and an Anglo-Saxon passion for utility.

Wales’s first encyclopedia was the World Book, which his parents acquired after dinner one evening in 1969, from a door-to-door salesman. Wales—who resembles a young Billy Crystal with the neuroses neatly tucked in—recalls the enchantment of pasting in update stickers that cross-referenced older entries to the annual supplements. Wales’s mother and grandmother ran a private school in Huntsville, Alabama, which he attended from the age of three. He graduated from Auburn University with a degree in finance and began a Ph.D. in the subject, enrolling first at the University of Alabama and later at Indiana University. In 1994, he decided to take a job trading options in Chicago rather than write his dissertation. Four years later, he moved to San Diego, where he used his savings to found an Internet portal. Its audience was mostly men; pornography—videos and blogs—accounted for about a tenth of its revenues. Meanwhile, Wales was cogitating. In his view, misinformation, propaganda, and ignorance are responsible for many of the world’s ills. “I’m very much an Enlightenment kind of guy,” Wales told me. The promise of the Internet is free knowledge for everyone, he recalls thinking. How do we make that happen?

As an undergraduate, he had read Friedrich Hayek’s 1945 free-market manifesto, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” which argues that a person’s knowledge is by definition partial, and that truth is established only when people pool their wisdom. Wales thought of the essay again in the nineteen-nineties, when he began reading about the open-source movement, a group of programmers who believed that software should be free and distributed in such a way that anyone could modify the code. He was particularly impressed by “The Cathedral and the Bazaar,” an essay, later expanded into a book, by Eric Raymond, one of the movement’s founders. “It opened my eyes to the possibility of mass collaboration,” Wales said.

After reading this copy, and knowing how The New Yorker works, one can be confident that a devious Frenchman named Pierre Bayle once really did propose an encyclopedia comprised entirely of errors. The narrative is put together well. It will keep people reading and will not cause confusion. Interested readers can follow up on a nugget like Wales’ exposure to the Hayek essay by reading it themselves (it’s online here).

I am not a Wikipedia denialist. It is, and will continue to be, an important and valuable resource. But the expensive, arguably old fashioned approach of The New Yorker and other magazines still delivers a level of quality I haven’t found, and do not expect to find, in the world of community-created content.

More on Meta-Freedom

Tim Lee comments:

The fact that you can waive your free speech rights via contract doesn’t mean that it would be a good idea to enact special laws backing up those contracts with criminal penalties. I think you’re missing an important middle ground here. The choice isn’t between no tinkering rights and constitutionally mandated tinkering rights. There’s a third option: the the law should neither restrict nor guarantee tinkering rights. You’re welcome to tinker, but you’re also welcome to contract away your freedom to tinker.

The DMCA sticks its thumbs on the “no tinkering” side of the scale by giving DRM creators rights beyond those available to parties in ordinary contract disputes, and by roping third parties into the DRM “contract” whether they’ve agreed to it or not. If I sign a NDA, and then I break it, the company can sue me. But they can’t have me thrown in jail. And they can’t necessarily sue the journalist to whom I divulged the NDA’d information.

But repealing the DMCA would not create an inalienable right to tinker. It would simply put the freedom to tinker on the same plane as all our other rights: you’d have the right to sign them away by contract, but in the absence of a contract you would retain them.

He is right. There is an important middle ground possible that calls for DMCA repeal without calling for the contracts that restrict tinkering rights to be unenforceable. There is certainly a great deal to be said in favor of such a position. I would still say that the mixture-of-motives issue applies, because when people are allowed to sign away their tinkering rights, many of them will, and this outcome will be particularly unwelcome among power users and technology policy activists.

The Freedom to Tinker with Freedom?

Doug Lay, commenting on my last post, pointed out that the Zune buyout would help make a world of DRM-enabled music services more attractive. “Where,” he asked, “does this leave the freedom to tinker?”

Anti-DMCA activism has tended to focus on worst-case, scary scenarios that can spur people to action. It’s a standard move in politics of all kinds, aptly captured in the title of a 2005 BBC documentary about Bush and Blair, The Power of Nightmares. In the context of a world of DRM gone mad, it’s obvious why we need the freedom to tinker. We need it because (in that world) opaque, tinker-proof devices protected by restrictive laws would be extremely harmful to consumers. The only way to make sure that the experience of the average media viewer or software user doesn’t go down the tubes, in this scenario, is to make sure that consumers, either legislatively or through individual choice, never let DRM get off the ground.

But consider an alternative possibility. The Darknet is a permanent backdrop for any real-world system. The major players know this – after all, it was a team at Microsoft Research that helped to launch the Darknet idea. The big players will, in the long run, be smart enough not to drive users into the arms of the Darknet. They will compete with the Darknet, and with each other, and will end up producing systems that most consumers think are fine. Yes, consumers will (still) chafe at the restrictions on DRM-protected systems ten or twenty years from now. But on the whole, they will find that these systems are attractive, and worth investing in.

Who loses in this scenario? Ed and others have argued that all consumers will suffer to some degree because we all enjoy the benefits that come from a few intrepid power users excercising the freedom to tinker. There are educational benefits that come from tinkering and, perhaps most importantly, the freedom to tinker keeps technologies flexible and leaves room for them to interoperate in surprising ways not initially envisioned by their creators. And, as Alex has pointed out to me, the social costs of tinkerproofing are cumulative in such a way that there may be a collective bargaining problem–we may have a situation in which the freedom to tinker does not matter very much to most individuals, but we’d all be better off if, collectively, we assigned a higher value to our individual freedom to tinker than we actually feel for it.

These arguments certainly have significant merit. Together, they (and others like them) might be enough to make it the case that we should create legal protection for the freedom to tinker, or at least build a social consensus for the importance of tinkering.

But I think the people who lose the most, in this DRM-isn’t-so-bad scenario, are the power users. People who like to poke around under the hood. People who are outliers, attaching more importance to the freedom to tinker than a typical consumer attaches to it. I’m talking, in other words, about us.

We the reader-participants of www.freedom-to-tinker.com are an unusual bunch. We really like to tinker. In my own case, I know that I care more about things like being able to time and space shift my media collection than the average person does. I derive a certain strange pleasure from being able to change the way the interface on my desktop computer looks. I buy books so I can mark them up, even though it would be much cheaper and more space-efficient to use a library.

In fact, when I think about it, I have to admit that I would find a world where DRM works and the ability to tinker can be bargained away to be a bit of a downer. I know that the equilibrium point the market reaches, in such a case, will be based on the moderate importance most people attach to tinkering, rather than the high importance that I attach to it. I’ll probably still buy in to some DRM-based music scheme in the long run, just as I still go to the movies even while wishing that they would focus more on plot and less on special effects. But I’ll miss the tinkering.

If the government were to put a legal guarantee behind the freedom to tinker, it would be reducing peoples’ freedom to contract by telling them they can’t bargain away their tinkering rights. It would force on consumers as a whole an outcome that they would manifestly not choose for themselves in the private market. Yes, it is possible that externalities or collective action issues could justify this coercion. But even if those considerations didn’t justify the coercion, part of me would still want it to happen, because that way, I’d get to keep tinkering rights that, under a different terrain of options, I would end up choosing to relinquish.

I apparently haven’t mastered the art of ending a blog post, so just as I closed last time with a “bottom line,” this one gets a “moral of the story.” The moral of the story is that many of us, who may find ourselves arguing based on public reasons for public policies that protect the freedom to tinker, also have a private reason to favor such policies. The private reason is that we ourselves care more about tinkering than the public at large does, and we would therefore be happier in a protected-tinkering world than the public at large would be. We all owe it to ourselves, to each other, and to the public with whom we communicate to be careful and candid about our mixture of motivations.