Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

Cowboys and Pebbles

I've been reading more from the Wikipedia foundation list, partly because if I'm elected I'll be intimately involved in that stuff, and partly because I'm interested in reading up on those topics (which ties into why I'm running). One of the more abstract questions asked is at the core of the foundation's business -- what is the purpose of the foundation. For wikipedia, things are clear -- it aims to be a collection of all human knowledge (with various qualifications and clarifications attached to bits of that, as with all group goals). For the umbrella organisation, things are not so clear -- there are some things that often accompany encyclopediae, like wiktionary, and some things that go a bit further, like wikisource. Traditional encyclopedia-sets never went beyond a dictionary because the media economics were not there yet -- our society is still in the very early stages of catching up to advances in materials science that make media storage incredibly cheap. This does shift the burden to collators and stewards of information, which will be a new type of job with some similarities and needed skills from a number of separate disciplines. Intuitively, I feel that dictionaries and encyclopediae of the future will be increasingly difficult to do in the centralised ways they have been made in the past -- it will be interesting to see if increasingly sophisticated expert systems or masses of volunteers will prove a better solution. I have seen a number of projects in academia begin to centralise on Wikipedia as a preferred standard text for text parsing, word mining.. Returning to the original question, it's tempting to say that the foundation doesn't need a "mission statement", and that it's there to start and maintain projects that are "like" wikipedia and things that feel like it. Is this enough? Do companies really need mission statements? Some companies have vague mission statements that don't suggest things they really should or really shouldn't be into, e.g. Microsoft. (Are mission statements primarily things to rally around during hard times?) One potential vision for the foundation, suitably larger than Wikipedia, is to provide the stone for every stone soup. Affluence, enabling technology, and good educational systems are introducing people all over the world (most notably in the European/USA/Canadian sphere, but rapidly growing in Brasil and India) to new forms of communication, collaboration, and collective effort. A wikipedia made by any individual editor would most likely at best be a gross sketch or very narrow, just as blogs without comments or individual slashdots with only one contributor are lacking. The business perspective, which we don't exactly want, is that such energies, recently awakened, can be tapped for profit, e.g. Microsoft's shared source initiative. A deeper idealism is called for in this conceptualisation -- a return to directly acting for the public good. This is both directly good because of the results it produces and indirectly good because it acts against the modern cynicism that self-interest is the only actual, effective, or worthwhile way to operate in society. To me, this is an attractive vision for the foundation, viewed both apart from my social-political perspective and within it. I am not sure it's quite what the foundation wants to aim for though -- some values attached to at least my conceptualisation of it, e.g. the non-commercial, open-as-possible ideas, contrast with Wikia, a separate set of communities with advertisements and the like, run by two board members of the Foundation. If the Wikimedia Foundation should be percieved the way I outline above, then Wikia could be viewed as a semicommercial potential competitor. I suspect this may eventually be a point of contention and possibly conflict of interest between the two projects/communities. This is, of course, tied into the difficulties involved in financially providing for the technological and social conditions for stone soup, e.g. the pot, bowl, and fire.

Another interesting discussion of interest to me is structuring the foundation to avoid departure from the (not particularly well defined but still with some substance) goals of the project. The worry is that somehow the wrong people will come onto the board, and to avoid this, some people want to rely on appointment to the board, others on elections. Both present interesting problems, and both paint different means of foreign influence coming in. Trusting the Demos is risky in that Wikipedia is not meant to be a democracy. There's a group of older editors, fully immersed in the culture and ideals of the project (plenty of admins among them) who enforce decided policy, at least moderately often against the larger body of editors (which includes a number of people who are not yet so immersed or who don't accept the same ideals of the project). This is a complex situation, taking a fair amount of continued effort to persist, and it is not publicly acknowledged or much discussed (covered with what might be an example of the Noble Lie). An election drawn from the demos at large would have unpredictable results either from the will of the people or from concerted political or financial efforts to sway them by an outside force. Appointments suffer the opposite problem -- if people with problematic ideas enter the board, it would be very difficult to remove them. The two systems take different types of trust, and hybrids are yet another entity. Political theory is everywhere. I believe I can recognise at least some of the traits that are desirable for the board, but finding means to put people with those traits into the position is a tricky matter -- I have no ideological-level trust in either democracy or passed-appointments, and we know historically that both can fail pretty badly.

I am still very stressed out about an upcoming (but not yet imminent) major life decision I need to make. There are times that I feel I've come to a solid conclusion, and then a few hours later I might find myself at the opposite conclusion. This is not fun -- hopefully I will find clarity in the time to come.

Interesting things:

I have more to say, but I want to catch the late-afternoon half-price indian food at India Garden....
Tags: wikipedia

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