Last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Danah Boyd was presenting on the information age. Danah is a doctoral candidate in the School of Information at the University of California at Berkley. She is also a fellow at the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where she co-directs the Internet Safety Technical Task Force and works with companies and nonprofits to identify technical solutions for keeping children safe online. After the presentation, Danah and I were discussing the advantages and disadvantages of Wikipedia. I had mentioned that when I met with the President of Britannica when we bought one of their businesses he had shared with us that the original writings in Britannica are written by the legends that were in the encyclopedia. Examples of this were that Einstein actually wrote about the theory of relativity, and the Wright Brothers wrote about one another in their efforts to fly. Danah commented that she had been asked to write some entries for them recently and that she had no knowledge of the subject, certainly bringing down the credibility of their text. This is not the first time I had heard this from a professor. As opposed to Wikipedia, she explained which we both agreed was our favored way to find information on a topic. She informed me that if you want to see who wrote the narrative you can click on the history tab and you can see the different posts and edits people have left on the wiki. The true advantage, she explains, is where there are multiple perspectives on a topic say, the British version of America’s independence and the American version. What happens is both sides battle it out all over again to get a much better explanation for the users of Wikipedia. In this way we the users are not taking any one person’s perspective but a global community’s.
This discussion lead to the discussion that many schools do not yet except Wikipedia as a credible source for papers. They would prefer the corporate established brand in which the research is farmed out to a professor or expert (who you don’t know) as a credible source for the entry. One source being totally transparent and the other (World Book, Britannica, and the like) being totally closed (that didn’t work so well for Apple Computer).
It is at this point General Powell brakes into our conversation and says, while slamming his fist down on the table, ‘The Secretary of State of the United States told his staff they they were to use Google and Wikipedia to find their information. They did not need those old reference books. If they needed current information that happened that day all they needed was Google. It certainly should be good enough for our students.
I think Danah and I were a bit at a loss for words after this declaration.