Paul Ford on Wikipedia's 10th Anniversary

I recently bought a facsimile of the original 1771 Britannica. Many of its entries were pirated from other sources by its editor, William Smellie. The preface apologizes for broken cross-references -- they couldn't get the tech right -- but they were in the middle of an enlightenment so they went ahead and shipped the alpha version. In the subsequent decades articles were added, errors fixed, until nearly everyone agreed: Pretty good encyclopedia.

bug_wikipedia.jpg Skip ahead a few centuries. It's easier, we're told, to ask forgiveness than permission. And Wikipedia's design makes it not just easier, but cheaper and faster; it keeps track of every change so that forgiveness is one reversion away. It accepts good edits in silence: That is how it confers grace. It forgives without confession: That is how it confers humility. Whether you want grace and humility on these terms is not really up to you; Wikipedians believe in forced conversion.

I added a page for "Bartleby, the Scrivener" (seemed appropriate) in March 2004. I made sure to include a spoiler alert. Watching the entry evolve under mass editing, it was hard to accept that I didn't have any rights over my own words, that "Bartleby" was not a territory to be protected. The process is a challenge to anyone raised to believe in the specialness of writing, taught to respect the boundaries that separate one book from another. Perhaps as a result I was never a very committed contributor; every now and then I anonymously fix a typo or add a citation. But I respect the people willing to do the work for their sense of mission, and enjoy the hilarious pedantry of the "Discussion" pages.

The facscimile Britannica sits on the shelves, in three volumes with faux-leather binding. I take it down and page through it for novelty, in admiration of the attempt to systematize and understand the world, with amusement at its follies. What will Wikipedia look like in 190 years? And: How exactly will they publish the commemorative edition? I don't know; I won't know. I do know that we are all Smellie now.

Presented by

Paul Ford is a writer and programmer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He publishes at Ftrain.com.

Why Is Google Making Human Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors at a world-class life sciences lab are trying to change the way people think about their health.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Videos

Why Is Google Making Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Technology

Just In