WORSE THAN BAD

150pxwikipedialogo W. G. (Winfred Georg Maximilian) Sebald (May 18, 1944, Wertach im Allgäu–December 14, 2001, Norfolk, United Kingdom) was a writer and academic. Towards the end of his life he was being cited by many literary critics as one of the greatest living authors, and was tipped as a possible future winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He preferred to be called 'Max', from one of his middle names, by family and friends.
-- Introduction to the entry about W.G. Sebald, on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia is the open source encyclopedia that Nick Carr, the hybrid Harvard technologist and critic, so witheringly skewers in his October 2005 piece Amorality of Web 2.0. To Carr, Wikipedia, with its veneration of the noble amateur, encapsulates the great seduction of the Web 2.0 movement.

Carr is, of course, right. But he didn’t go far enough. He describes the entries as “worse than bad”, but doesn’t explain what this  actually means. He fails to take his own argument to its logical conclusion. So let me (I can’t resist) drive that hybrid Carr an extra mile.

Wikipedia is supposed to represent the ideal of “collective intelligence” which is being peddled by utopians like James The Wisdom of Crowds Surowiecki. But the truth about Wikipedia, the unintended consequences of its radical democratization of knowledge, is that it turns everyone into kids. The open source encylopedia infantilizes knowledge. On Wikipedia, we all become children, playing at being adult, slipping into an Alice in Wonderland version of reality. If you’re Alice, it might be fun. But for the grown-ups, it is worse than bad.

As all serious students of mobs understood – from Elias Canetti to Gustave Le Bon to Hannah Arendt -- the crowd is banal. Lost in the crowd, we lose our individuality, our thoughtfulness, our ability to reason. As members of a crowd, we revert to childhood.

And this is what has happened to the intellectual quality of open source entries at Wikipedia.Take the introductory remarks (see above) on W.G. Sebald, the Anglo-German essayist, historian and travel writer.  It’s not so much a question of inaccuracy or bias, but rather the utter childishness of the entry. Here is one of the more seductive literary voices of the late twentieth century and all the kindergarden-level commentary in Wikipedia can tell us is that Sebald is one of the “greatest living authors” who is a “possible” winner of the Nobel Prize. And then, to cap it all, we are told that Sebald preferred to be called Max by family and friends.

All that is missing from this encyclopedic inanity is Sebald’s favorite food, his favorite sports team and his favorite animal.

This Wikipedia entry on W.G. Sebald is the work of a five year old. In Nick Carr words, it is worse than bad.