Submissions/Wikipedia in the History of Encyclopedias

From Wikimania 2012 • Washington, D.C., USA

This is a rejected submission for Wikimania 2012.

Submission no.


Title of the submission
Wikipedia in the History of Encyclopedias
Type of submission (workshop, tutorial, panel, presentation)
Author of the submission
Ryan McGrady
E-mail address
Country of origin
Affiliation, if any (organization, company etc.)
North Carolina State University
Personal homepage or blog
Abstract (at least 300 words to describe your proposal)

Founder Jimmy Wales often recites the unofficial mission of Wikipedia as: “imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” It is inspirational both because of its altruistic, egalitarian, utopian vision and because, at the same time, the tremendous success the project has had in such short time allows us think it might just be possible. With billions of page views each month, Wikipedia has surpassed all expectations to become the only non-profit on the short list of most visited websites in the world--and it's still growing.

For millennia, philosophers, scientists, theologians, and others have attempted or otherwise theorized projects that would allow anybody to access all knowledge. Sometimes this takes the form of a superorganism, a technologically mediated global connection, mystical connections to the realm of Platonic Forms, or an earthly spiritual oneness, but the clearest artifact emergent from this genre is the encyclopedia.

In this presentation I place Wikipedia within the history of encyclopedias. Whether we talk about Varro and Pliny the Elder in Classical Antiquity, Diderot and D'Alembert in 18th century France, or Jimmy Wales today, we can see that the impetus and basic methods are much the same, and in fact many of the issues central to discourse around/on Wikipedia have been persistent along the way.

For centuries, the vast majority of encyclopedias were controlled by a state or church and subjected not just to their direction but also had to be written with reverence for the power these entities had at the time. Encyclopedias thus often included moral and spiritual elements treated as objective alongside empirical information about the natural world.

The "all human knowledge" rhetoric is native to the genre, but it wasn't until the Enlightenment that usability, taxonomy, and selection of information rose to be of equal importance, echoing the Wikipedian debates around inclusionism and deletionism, notability, organization, style, etc.

Utopias have been implied in most instances, but with different manifestations. Sometimes the utopia was specific to one location, with the encyclopedia reflecting everything China, for example, would have to know and symbolizing the greatness and strength of that nation. Diderot had political motivations, seeing the creation of an encyclopedia as an act that demanded responsibility and wielded great power. In the 1930s, H.G. Wells gave a series of international talks on what he saw as an absolutely necessary endeavor: a global encyclopedia he called the World Brain which would enable a better social evolution and even world peace, made possible by new technologies and collaboration. But perhaps the only vision grander than that of Wales comes from Gottfried Leibniz, who had a tripartite plan by which all the worlds ideas could be represented in a universal language, calculated through a specialized form of calculus, and the yielded truths could be stored in an encyclopedia to end all encyclopedias, containing any and only truth.

But there are few today who believe in single, true answers to every question independent of culture and context. So whether an encyclopedia artifact like the Encyclopedia Britannica, a website, or even some kind of networked intelligence--another representation of the encyclopedic impulse--the abstraction "knowledge" is effectively infinite; who, then, decides what is included, how it is explained, and who settles disputes? Further, who is afforded access, and how? How can you contend with knowledge being so context-dependent and, as a whole, in a constant state of flux? What is an encyclopedia supposed to do anyway, and how global can it be while accomplishing those goals? With the recent launch of Wikipedia Zero and WikiMedia's emphasis on mobile partnerships, it seems a good time to raise these questions again and try to glean answers and perspectives from our predecessors.

WikiCulture and Community
Length of presentation/talk
25 Minutes
Will you attend Wikimania if your submission is not accepted?
I'd love to, but unfortunately can't get funding for travel if I'm not presenting.
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