James Bridle on Wikipedia's 10th Anniversary

I was one of those kids who read the dictionary. Start at Aardvark. Would the Aardvark be as famous if he didn't start the dictionary? He does have very distinctive teeth (see Tubulidentata). I don't think I ever got to Zyzzyva -- a genus of tropical American weevil -- but I'm glad he's there.

bug_wikipedia.jpgThese days I go for walks in Wikipedia. Start anywhere. Start walking. You never know where you're going to end up. I like to imagine my walk superimposed on an actual map of streets and suburbs, labelled Stock characters, and Birds displaying homosexual behavior. I can walk for miles. I can induce Stendhal syndrome.

Then there is wikiracing. Wikiracing is Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon transposed to the knowledge space. Go to Wikipedia: hit Random article in the sidebar. Get to a nominated article in a certain number of steps. Aardvark -- Afrikaans -- IJ (digraph) -- Scrabble -- Zyzzyva. Wikiracing can be played alone or against friends. As ever, the journey may be more interesting than the destination.

Wikiracing transforms the whole of human knowledge into a game space. Wikipedia may not be a perfect representation of all human knowledge, but it is much more than just a repository. It is a framework for thinking about how we conceive of and understand that knowledge.

There are rules to wikiracing, which I'm less keen on. "No editing" is understandable, but it negates the most amazing chase superpower: the ability to open up a wormhole, pass through it, and write it closed behind you. Zip -- and you're gone. Godlike powers.

When you start to think about this a lot, as I do, everything starts to look like a Wiki. Augmented reality, particularly things like superimposing old photos of a city onto its current layout, starts to look like Wikireality. In London, where I live, we're only a couple of reversions from the 18th Century.

"No history" is more upsetting for me. You can't race back and forth through previous versions of an article. And I despise this because the History button is, for me, the most fascinating and enlightening thing about Wikipedia. It's right there at the top of every article, and hardly anybody looks at it.

It's amazing because Wikipedia's history is a form of historiography, but then historiography isn't something we think very much about.

I was at the launch in 2009 of a book by the historian Andrew Roberts about Churchill, Roosevelt, Alanbrooke, and Marshall, the Masters and Commanders of the Second World War. And Roberts was talking about how the Italian campaign was a complete disaster that should never have been attempted, and D-Day was in the strictest terms unnecessary, an operation whose purpose was to stop the Russians, not the Germans, from ruling Europe. And I looked around me and I was surrounded by people who were clearly veterans of these campaigns and who were nodding and agreeing and I thought, Why wasn't I taught this in school? Why is there this accepted version of history that ignores all these differing versions and opinions -- versions and opinions that, if we understood them properly, would utterly change our own worldview, and if we all understood them, well, who knows how many future conflicts would be avoided?

The reason is that we are bad at historiography. Because we don't save all these different versions and we don't understand them and we don't have a way of seeing them. This is history written by the victors.

The article on The Iraq War is over five years old. It has been edited over 12,000 times. Printed out, the changes alone fill a twelve-volume encyclopaedia.

The article's history contains arguments over numbers, differences of opinion on relevance and political standpoints, and frequent moments when someone erases the whole thing and just writes "Saddam Hussein was a dickhead."

This is historiography. This is what culture actually looks like, a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual and not always correct codification.

And for the first time in history, we're building a system that, perhaps only for a brief time but certainly for the moment, is capable of recording and making use of every single one of those infinitely valuable pieces of information, a new project for every generation.

Happy Birthday Wikipedia.

Presented by

James Bridle is a writer and publisher. His work can be found at booktwo.org. In September 2010, he unveiled his Iraq War Wikipedia Historiography.

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