Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 19 April 2014

Face the facts. Wikipedia doesn’t have all the answers

So Wikipedia is dying, scuppered by its power-hungry editors who guard their turf too zealously and delete new entries. It was (is still) such a noble project, it should be a tragedy that people have stopped contributing to it.

It should be a tragedy, but for me I'm afraid it's been a relief. News of its demise has coincided with a growing awareness that over the past few years I have become dependent on Wikipedia, a wiki-addict.

The way I use Wikipedia is compulsive and continuous. Its tendrils have grown up around and into my brain like ivy and, like ivy, they've begun to sap the energy from the living thing beneath.

It was always the intention of internet evangelists that the worldwide web should become, not just a resource, but an actual part of man's mind.

“If you had all the world's information attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you'd be better off,” said Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

I'm a moron about the internet. I don't know where it is or what it's made of. But, from a user's perspective, I think, with huge respect, that Sergey is dangerously wrong.

The first pernicious effect of my wiki-addiction is that I no longer ever admit to ignorance. If (when) in the course of conversation someone mentions a place or a politician I don't know, instead of asking for guidance, I nod wisely as if I'm an expert, while secretly and simultaneously tapping Wikipedia for the info.

I'd always assumed that I was a lone charlatan in a world of experts, but I have proof that it's not just me. After an office-wide debate I leapt up and took a brisk walk around the island of desks and found the history of our collective conversation mapped out on colleagues' computer screens — names Wikipediad, facts Googled. I live in a den of wiki-frauds.

So Wikipedia creates a world in which no one can be wrong, but worse: I suspect it's building a community of amnesiacs.

Although I upload information from cyberspace to my cerebrum almost every minute of every day, I rarely retain a single fact. I have Wikipediad great oceans of information over the years. I should by now be an expert on shadow cabinet ministers, dog breeds, the jellyfish of the Mariana trench. I should be able to bore on for hours about anthropogenic global warming or the workings of the Large Hadron collider.

Instead, my mind contains just one feeble little thought: “I'm sure I used to know something about that.” Though I stamp my foot and demand that my mind retrieve the facts, all I can summon up is an overwhelming urge to Google.

Where does it all go? Perhaps Sergey Brin would say that it doesn't matter, that the internet will serve as a replacement memory. Wikipedia may crumble but other sites will rise to take its place. I need never remember again.

But it's not just about the missing facts; it's that the patterns of behaviour I learn online have begun to affect my real, non-virtual life. I no longer find it easy to concentrate on long and serious articles. Yes, I'll search for them online, yes I'll print them out — but then they're left unread.

I find it an effort now to read a serious book, or listen to a complicated anecdote without drifting off, longing for easy-to-digest Wikipedia-style snippets. I may be imagining this last effect, but I think I've also noticed a sort of manic multitasking around the house that mirrors the way I work on a computer — flitting from one task to another, doing everything simultaneously to avoid serious concentration.

I've found (through Google, obviously) a book by a developmental psychologist called Maryanne Wolf (Proust and the Squid) which makes the very good point that we are not only what we read but how we read. When we read online we are “mere decoders of information”, she says, rather than deep thinkers, analysts and interpreters. So encouraged by Maryanne, ‘kick the wiki-habit week’ begins today. Time for serious concentrated thoughts, in-depth offline reading and — most important — a readiness to admit to not having a clue.

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