In olden times, when music was “sold” on shiny discs called “CDs” and people took photographs with cameras instead of telephones, there was this thing called an encyclopedia, which cost as much as a round-trip to Hong Kong, took up more shelf space than a home entertainment center, and contained basic information on every topic worth knowing about. Four years ago, a couple of dotcom dreamers were inspired to reinvent the encyclopedia in the freewheeling, massively collaborative image of the Internet itself. The result was wikipedia.org, today the biggest encyclopedia ever compiled, with over 1 million copyright-free online articles and growing—every word of it composed and edited by, literally, anybody who feels like it.
No, really. Go to any Wikipedia entry you choose—”Hindu philosophy,” “drunk driving,” “pataphysics”—and click on the Edit This Page tab. Bingo: Whatever you write immediately becomes the last word on the subject. And if this sounds like a recipe for mob rule, that’s because it is. But mob rule turns out to be a surprisingly good way to write an encyclopedia. Typos abound, and especially in articles on controversial topics like the Armenian genocide or George W. Bush, the constant wars between opposing camps of revisers can reduce texts to a state of almost Heisenbergian indeterminacy. But outright factual errors generally get corrected fast (within minutes, on average), and in the range and depth of its articles, Wikipedia handily holds its own against encyclopedias produced the old-fashioned way. Funny: It’s almost as if the great intellectual unwashed could be trusted to manage its own culture.