Humor: Kevin Purcell on the Wikipedia Blackout

I admit, I panicked a little tiny bit when Wikipedia voluntarily went dark this week to protest… something.

Like most noble gestures, it seemed entirely self-defeating. How am I supposed to know if I’m against it if I can’t check Wikipedia to find out what it is?

It wasn’t until it was missing that I realized just how much of my brain functions I’ve outsourced to the internet. Do I actually know anything about cultivars of common orchids or do I just know where to find it in a hurry? The line has become fuzzier than I’m comfortable with.

I have maintained some perspective, though. I understand the information available on Wikipedia is suspect. All I need to know about Wikipedia is that the articles displayed there are editable by anyone, up to and including me. This is not false modesty: outside of a narrow band of very specific knowledge (toilet repair, vegan baking, Scandinavian clown porn), I should not, under any circumstances, be taken as a subject-matter expert on anything. Just the possibility of someone like me potentially inputting information should undermine the legitimacy of the data in any repository available to humans.

But Wikipedia isn’t about “truth” in the classic, academic sense. It’s about volume and speed. Its value is in relationship between the sheer mass of information posted and the expediency with which it can be accessed. Maybe I can’t make an informed judgment on the validity of the article in front of me about, say, geothermal power in Iceland, but I sure didn’t have to wait a long time to get it. The point of it is that I don’t have to know more than the author; as long as you don’t know more about it either, it’s perfectly safe to bore you with at a party.

When you get right down to it, isn’t that the base-level metric for the worth of any knowledge? How quickly it can be processed into small talk. Yes, it’s superficial knowledge, but what’s deep about talking about the weather or traffic or (if there are more than two guys in the group) driving routes to avoid traffic or (if only guys in the group) the best places to find pictures of naked famous people? Except for that last one, none of those topics are of any use or interest to anyone either. If I can mix in an interesting (but entirely unvetted) fact about how to salt-cure shark meat, who loses?

OK, usually me as I’m left muttering to an expanding and dissipating circle of people with better-honed social skills and functioning senses of self-preservation. But hey, less people I have to share my shark meat with. That’s a tie at worst.

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