Currently browsing 'wikis'

Adding the cornerstones

Posted on 18 February 2009 at 11:59 pm in Coursework.

In the post FOUNDATIONS OF KNOWLEDGE, I discussed the notion of the wiki as an aspect of Asimov’s pyschohistory, a concept born of the faith in humanity’s predictability in numbers.  When discussing wikis, of course, it seems natural to start with Wikipedia, the famous online encyclopedia “anyone can edit”.  It is the first wiki most people become familiar with, and both an epic monument to the value of groupthink and a dangerous loitering place of saboteurs. However, wikis go back well before Jimmy Wales‘ grand experiment.

Reading Meredith Farkas’ explanation of the history of wikis was quite interesting (and verified by no less a source than wikipedia itself). Wikis date back much further than I would have supposed, to the mid-1990s and a programmer named Ward Cunningham. Cunningham was taking the concept of a hypercard program on early Macs that linked different “cards” of information to each other; most, if not all wikis rely on simple, intuitive internal hyperlinks to create a finely woven web of information. He used this idea to create an online “wiki” (from the Hawaiian word for quick, which Cunningham had first seen as the name of a private busline at the Honolulu airport) to share programming ideas (Farkas, pgs. 67-68).

I took three online “wiki” (or wiki-esque) services for a test drive, and found similarities and differences between all of them.  MediaWiki is the software that drives Wikipedia, so it was fairly easy for me to use — I’ve edited a variety of Wikipedia pages over the last couple years, and created new ones. Instead of using html markups, the software uses simple symbols to create bullets, titles, and numbered lists. The theory is that wikis are more intuitive that way, but I’ve never really thought so — I prefer to use html code myself. I’ve always looked at the formatting of pages I’ve admired and mimicked it as well as possible. While uploading the MediaWiki software to the Senna Server was tricky, once online, it was almost identical to editing Wikipedia. Going back to examples on wikipedia, I built a small series of pages and categories built around a simple concept (San Francisco Street Art).

On the other end of the collaborative spectrum is Google Docs. Google Docs is not wiki software per se, but it is a tool for group work. A single google document can be edited by anyone invited to use the page (though they must have a google id), with formatting tools that mimic a skeletal Word Processing program. However, Google Docs isn’t designed to make publicly available web sites (though they can be easily published using Google Pages); it’s best used within a small, finite group.

PBWiki was new to me, but very easy to pick up and run with (as the name implies — PB stands for peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the easiest meal to make!). Instead of feeling like a traditional wiki, it was much more like drafting and editing within Google Documents any other contemporary word processing tool. Buttons for text formatting, auto-formatted links – it was lightyears from the skeletal simplicity of MediaWiki. I only wonder if it has the robust strength and reliability of traditional wikis.

Foundation of knowledge

Posted on 18 February 2009 at 11:54 pm in Coursework.

In the 1951, Gnome Press published a series of Isaac Asimov short stories as the novel Foundation, a work of epic science fiction set in a future universe. As a follow-up to Foundation, Asimov would go on to write three sequels and two prequels over the rest of his long, prodigious writing career in the same setting, creating one of the most enduring and influential visions of the future currently in print. Asimov was a rare creature: not only was a he a successful science fiction writer, he was also a scientist, historian, and raconteur of great renown, and his works go beyond the usual spaceships-and-lasers approach of typical space opera.

The premise of Foundation and the works that followed it is that a new branch of study, psychohistory, allows scholars to anticipate the future of human history based on mathematical analysis of huge populations. Humans as individuals are completely unpredictable, but when massed in large numbers, completely quantifiable.

As an aside for library students, the foundation in the title is one of two organizations designed to preserve all human knowledge after a psychohistorically predicted collapse in civilization; the central hub of the series, therefore, is a great library. It’s a long way from Star Wars, isn’t it?

The notion of the wiki to establish and share information is based in many ways on the same concept. Individual experts may be very knowledgeable, but will always have inherent bias, limited points of view, and a reliance on such individuals will lead to an unevenly curated information source.

So the wiki is predicated on the simple concept that two minds are greater than one, and therefore millions more minds are exponentially greater yet. Wikis allow the greater public to compose, edit and share their insight to the world, and as Asimov foresaw in Foundation, relying on a greater mass of people creates predictability and reliability.

Of course, some subjects are so obscure and little known that it takes a long time for even this system to fulfill its potential.  One such subject — close to my heart — is the life of John Vance Cheney (1848-1922), a poet and librarian and the subject of my ongoing thesis.  He already had a Wikipedia page a long time before I settled on him as a subject of historical inquiry, but it was slight (a stub, in Wiki nomenclature), and had a noteworthy error that shortened his influential tenure at the Newberry Library in Chicago by ten years.

That was the first element I corrected — some weeks ago — and in the last day I’ve revised and expanded his page in a couple more ways and added him to the category “American Librarians”.  However, in so doing, I was very wary of not crossing the “original research” line that Wikipedia insists upon; I only used information available in a published biographical entry on his life (a source I added as a citation to the page), rather than the more extensive information I have in my research that cannot be easily cited.

My edits (four) appear as “dsronline” on February 19th in the 0:00 hour (though it was the 18th Pacific Time).