Intellectual Tombs

Lots of subjects this time. Thanks to the current news, it’s very hard for me to talk about things like local and political control, or deregulated spaces on the internet. It’s very hard for me to feel comfortable discussing ideals that say everything would be better if there were fewer rules. So instead, I’m going to burrow down deep into a phenomenon on Wikipedia.

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In architecture, it is possible during changes to rooms after their building, to craft spaces between walls that are large enough to be rooms, but are sealed. There’s tales told by system administrators of accidentally sealed up servers, lost machines, that remain on the network, even as the physical space the servers occupy is no longer accessable. These spaces are known, casually, as tombs.

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“Ever edited Wikipedia?” the teacher asks.

Ever been quoted on Wikipedia? the teacher doesn’t ask.

tism quote

Sometime around 2007 I was quoted in a Wikipedia article quoting from a book. That’s two steps removed from a primary source, sure, and the source quote was just a sweary bit of vituperation that I liked about music.

The problem with this is that it’s material I first gleaned off Wikipedia itself. The original source for the quote had fallen away, and an editor, helpfully, had sought for a source for the quote online, found my blog – quoting Wikpiedia – and linked it back.

There was clearly knowledge of the words; they had not come from nowhere. But now, as far as the internet, with its links from point to point, knew, there was no source for this content. It was a thing that was known, but it was known how it was known. Information without a source, a little intellectual tomb.

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¬†Wikipedia has strangely shot from irrelevant (there’s nothing there) to useful (there’s everything there) to dismissed (there’s too much stuff there). Sometimes, net citizens like Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Adam Savage have run into complications offering corrections. On the Skeptic’s Guide To The Universe, Adam Savage explained that Wikipedia had an incorrect middle name for him, but that he could not correct it – because he was the subject of the page. By telling the podcast about it, though, he provided a source, and Wikipedians could address it. Neil DeGrasse Tyson had a similar problem, too.

Of course, in the example I gave, all it would take is someone with the book finding their copy, and uploading a verifiable quote from the book to a website, any website, that Wikipedia could then reference. After all, Wikipedia was referencing my blog, it wasn’t like my source was amazing in the first place.

Strangely, I think the best way for systems to cope with this never-ending dance of information being retrieved, then lost, is exactly what Wikpedia is doing. The strangeness of Wikipedia collecting information it could not ‘prove,’ but which it could ever strive to prove leads to an accumulation of these tombs, these little mental spaces of unproven, but eventually provable ideas. As long as the Wikipedia system, decentralised and driven, tries to prove the things it knows, it will eventually be able to say how it knows them.