Thank you Jimbo

Why Wikipedia might be the most important invention ever

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Wikipedia turns 15 today. It may be one of the most important inventions in the history of humanity. I know it because of my kid.

Last week on our way to school he asked yet another question for which I didn’t have an answer. It had something to do with quantum computing. My kid is painstakingly planning his mission to Mars, and after the rockets and the ship, he is now tackling the all-important matter of computer systems.

I only had a vague notion of what quantum computing is. So I did what every stumped parent equipped with a smartphone does these days. I looked it up on Wikipedia. Problem solved. Question answered. Dad rescued from haplessness.

This little victory in parenting reminded me of my own, much less tech-enabled childhood. One of the greatest moments in my life came when I turned 10 and got an encyclopedia for my birthday from my parents and grandparents. It was top notch: ten very heavy volumes, with tons of color illustrations, photos, formulas, definitions and even bibliographies.

That Encyclopedia was a total joy. I would spend hours going through it in alphabetical order. That was how I gained access to the most up-to-date, curated knowledge about the world.

It had a few drawbacks, however. Once published, it was set in stone, or rather in print. There was no changing or updating it so the rockets in the ‘astronautics’ article started to look a little dated when the space shuttle program became all the rage in the early 80s. In addition, only I and the other people who had purchased their own copies of the Encyclopedia could read its contents. If you wanted to look at it, you either had to buy it, go to the public library, or visit a friend who owned it. And of course, it was physically big, taking up a lot of the space on the shelves in my room, more than 50 pounds of paper and binding. There was no way I would be able to take the full run with me anywhere. If I was curious about something during the day, I had to make a mental note to search later that night.

Fast-forward to now. As knowledge repositories and commercial enterprises, paper encyclopedias have gone the way of the Dodo. The combined assault of hypertext, search engines and Wikipedia killed them, plain and simple. In 2012, Encyclopedia Britannica announced that it would no longer publish its printed version and focus on its website instead. This is quite a downfall from its prior heights. From its origins in Great Britain, Britannica had conquered the US market by way of mail order. Until 2004, one of Chicago’s most iconic skyscraper was named the Britannica building, because Chicago was the mail-order capital of the world.

Overall, the death of print encyclopedias has been a good thing, a case where technological disruption worked for the greater good. The replacement, Wikipedia, is infinitely better. I can read up on the most asinine details of Kanye’s life and oeuvre, or the Mongolian military (in both English and Mongolian), or quantum computing. I can even contribute my own edits to each and every article, which will be then approved or cleaned up through a rather convoluted and obscure process. Occasional wars erupt around controversial articles (George W. Bush’s entry is the most heavily edited article ever – see the full list here.)

The crowdsourcing of articles is perhaps the most well-known feature of Wikipedia. At first it was derided by incumbent Encyclopedia publishers as amateurish and lacking in authority. However, as Wikipedia grew, it developed what computer scientists call emergent properties. The more the internet crowds flocked to it, the better Wikipedia became. Thanks to the embrace and involvement of its users, and a software platform that was specifically designed for that collaborative purpose, Wikipedia gradually turned into an evolving, self-corrective and self-improving entity.

All these features are absolutely splendid. But they pale in comparison to their ultimate effect. The most important aspect of Wikipedia, the reason why it is such a decisive, world-changing invention, is that it is what economists call a public good.

It fits the definition to a tee. Wikipedia is non-rival, that is, my usage doesn’t limit somebody else from using it at the same time; and it is non-excludable, that is, unlike printed encyclopedias, nobody can put a monetary barrier to my usage. In fact Wikipedia is maintained by a non-profit foundation, which partly relies on voluntary contributions from the public (and yes, you should give them even a $1 every year).

As a public good, Wikipedia generates incredible positive externalities: it creates much more value to society than what it actually costs in money, in terms of power consumed by its servers and editors’ time. And here’s how: it is global. It is everywhere and in every language, even constructed ones from Esperanto to Klingon. It exists and prospers on the backbone of the internet. By being completely free and accessible, either through a network connection or as an offline DVD (or related media like phone apps), Wikipedia puts a good chunk of human knowledge at your fingertips, including how to build a nuclear weapon in your garage. You can use it as a base for further explorations. You can find answers to practically all of your questions from the extremely obscure to the more superficial.

Wikipedia is also a harbinger of things to come. I see it everyday with my kid and his unending stream of questions. It’s not that he is particularly gifted or special. The reason he can even ask about quantum computing is a direct effect of Wikipedia’s beneficial feedback loop. Unfettered access to knowledge makes him more inquisitive, and not the other way around. He asks increasingly complex questions precisely because he asked about regular, binary computing beforehand and got a response from me (which I culled from Wikipedia).

Now that he can type on his own, he searches Wikipedia himself. He is growing up knowing that any question on any topic has an answer online. The Encyclopedia is always there, in his dad’s pocket or on the family’s iPad. This is not just comforting. It is mind-expanding. It fosters wild and unimpeded curiosity: one question leads naturally to another question and another one and another ad infinitum. Knowledge becomes a game of chance, an expedition, with hypertext links and search boxes as propellers. Unlike me and my 50-pound, 10 volumes dead-tree Encyclopedia, there are seemingly no physical limits to what my kid can learn.

This is the world he is growing up in, where access to knowledge is truly free, exhaustive and pervasive. And if we know one thing about the history of humankind, is that when knowledge circulates freely, good things tend to happen. Just think for a minute of what happened in the aftermath of Gutenberg’s printing press. It suddenly made knowledge available to people beyond monks and literate aristocrats. It gave people an incentive to read and write. Knowledge and ideas spread like wildfire. That radical democratization ignited the scientific revolution, the Renaissance and ultimately gave birth to the modern world. Thanks to that other public good, the worldwide web, Wikipedia is allowing for something similar, but at a much quicker pace and on a vastly more massive scale. It is hard to predict what untold progress and social transformations lie ahead of us as a result of such intensification in the free flow of knowledge.

One thing is for sure though: it makes the kids infinitely more curious and smarter than we could ever hope to be. Which bodes well for our species’ prospects.

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