Let me see if I’ve got this straight.
It’s come to the attention of the powers that be at Wikipedia that some of its articles on products and organizations might have posted, on a massive scale, by people with a conflict of interest. An investigation is under way. Sanctions have been taken against supposed bad actors.
Seriously? The whole enterprise is based on the democratic idea of a base of handy knowledge created by all of us. It’s a superficially noble concept – but deeply flawed inasmuch as humans are involved.
Reports of public relations companies tweaking or even offering to “manage” Wikipedia entries for their clients are hardly new. And they are hardly surprising. There are always people and companies looking to press every advantage, bend or break any rule, especially rules essentially based on the honor system. So Wikipedia is problematic from the start.
The tagline of my favorite movie ever, “Michael Clayton,” is “The truth can be adjusted.” No, liking that movie does not make me a cynic, but that sentiment says a lot about how the powerful view the world, and the movie itself says much about the precious and self-delusional language we use to reshape our realities. Truth and words are just commodities. In the wiki-world, that gets dangerous quickly.
On the original “Star Trek,” Captain Kirk would sit there in the big chair on the bridge of the Enterprise, considering his next move.
“Computer,” he would call out, barely raising his voice. “Calculate the time to travel to Rigel IV at warp factor 9 while taking hostile fire from the Klingons.”
And magically the flat voice of the ship’s computer would say, “working,” followed in a couple of seconds with something to the effect of, “The show is over in seven minutes, so, yeah, you’ve barely got time. Of course.”
I’m afraid that simplistic vision is pretty close to how some of us approach the Internet. Type in a question, get an absolute, fixed-in-the-stars answer. But Kirk was always asking either a math question or needing some quick, unanalyzed fact you could look up in an encyclopedia.
Ninety-nine percent of life is murkier than that. I would trust Wikipedia to tell me who won the Oscar for best actor in 1994 (Tom Hanks, “Forrest Gump”) or who won the American League batting title in 1967 (Carl Yastrzemski, of course, batting .326 and also winning the Triple Crown with 44 home runs and 121 RBI).
But what is the nature of love? Who’s at fault for our various political messes? What really happened at Roswell – if anything? Those are wiki-fails.
Science can break down the rotation of the Earth, the air, clouds, smoke, haze, refraction of light and other elements that make the sunset, but it cannot adequately explain why a sunset is beyond an astronomical phenomenon. Why does it touch the human soul? Why do we pause to look? Why do we find the end of sunset melancholy?
Psychologists and philosophers have decent answers to those kinds of questions, and that’s handy, too, but if you’re looking for a literal truth here, well, maybe you just don’t get sunsets. There’s no wiki-fix for that.
Follow Jeff Fox on Twitter @Jeff_Fox or @FoxEJC.