Larry Sanger on "The New Politics of Knowledge"

[ Wed. Apr. 18. 2007 ]

In an original EDGE essay, Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger claims that the Web's ability to aggregate public opinion and knowledge into some form of "collective intelligence" is leading to a new politics of knowledge. According to Sanger, the power to establish what "we all know'" is shifting out of the hands of a small elite group and becoming more of a conversation open to anyone with a Net connection. However, Sanger is also the founder of Citizendium, a competitor to Wikipedia that, according to its Web site, "aims to improve on (the Wikipedia) model by adding 'gentle expert oversight' and requiring contributors to use their real names." In this essay, titled "Who Says We Know: On The New Politics Of Knowledge," Sanger argues that a lack of "expert" oversight leads to unreliable information, something he sees as a major flaw in knowledge egalitarianism. I'm sure this essay will spark as much fiery debate as the previous essay in this EDGE series, Jaron Lanier's "
Digital Maoism." From Sanger's essay:

Today's Establishment is nervous about Web 2.0 and Establishment-bashers love it, and for the same reason: its egalitarianism about knowledge means that, with the chorus (or cacophony) of voices out there, there is so much dissent, about everything, that there is a lot less of what "we all know." Insofar as the unity of our culture depends on a large body of background knowledge, handing a megaphone to everyone has the effect of fracturing our culture.

I, at least, think it is wonderful that the power to declare what we all know is no longer exclusively in the hands of a professional elite. A giant, open, global conversation has just begun—one that will live on for the rest of human history—and its potential for good is tremendous. Perhaps our culture is fracturing, but we may choose to interpret that as the sign of a healthy liberal society, precisely because knowledge egalitarianism gives a voice to those minorities who think that what "we all know" is actually false. And—as one of the fathers of modern liberalism, John Stuart Mill, argued—an unfettered, vigorous exchange of opinion ought to improve our grasp of the truth.

This makes a nice story; but it's not the whole story.

As it turns out, our many Web 2.0 revolutionaries have been so thoroughly seized with the successes of strong collaboration that they are resistant to recognizing some hard truths. As wonderful as it might be that the hegemony of professionals over knowledge is lessening, there is a downside: our grasp of and respect for reliable information suffers. With the rejection of professionalism has come a widespread rejection of expertise—of the proper role in society of people who make it their life's work to know stuff. This, I maintain, is not a positive development; but it is also not a necessary one. We can imagine a Web 2.0 with experts. We can imagine an Internet that is still egalitarian, but which is more open and welcoming to specialists. The new politics of knowledge that I advocate would place experts at the head of the table, but—unlike the old order—gives the general public a place at the table as well.