Top down or bottom up encyclopedia?

Nebbiolo over at GrandOldTeam highlighted this morning the bourgening encyclopedia of philosophy project being created at Stanford.  The project attains content courtesy of noted experts in a particular field, who contribute entries based on their field of expertise.  Given the clout of the institution it would seem to be an excellent project in the making.  Clearly by taking this approach the entries are taking a little longer to fill up than on something like Wikipedia, but no doubt the thinking is that when completed the encyclopedia will be an exceptional resource for all things philosophical, written as it was by some of the finest minds in the field.

Now then, this got me thinking.  I’ve always been a free market advocate but it wasn’t until my brother gave me a copy of Emergence, by Stephen Johnson, that I started to appreciate just how bottom up systems worked.  Around this time I was also studying things like neural networks at university and we would often hold debates with our lecturer regarding how systems evolve from simple beginnings to complex creations, mostly with minimal input from the ‘creator’.

From this small acorn grew an interest in libertarian philosophies and so forth into crowd sourcing, complexity science and modern incarnations of roughly the same idea, that of complex systems forming with little over arching control.  Obviously Wikipedia is an example of just such a creation, with editors not required to display their credentials prior to writing an entry.  Despite the various inter-user politics at play on the site, it is by and large a meritocracy with content judged on its own merits rather than who penned it.

With any such project there will undoubtably be errors present, and these are often pounced upon by those that wish to belittle the Wikipedia project, but I feel that despite its flaws it remains an astonishing piece of work that has added tremendously to the pool of knowledge available to us all.

James Surowiecki coined the phrase Wisdom of Crowds in his book of the same name.  I guess only time will tell whether the crowds at Wikipedia can really trump the venerable experts over at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *