U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Alarming Trends In Information Gathering—And The Implications For U.S. Intellectual Life And USIH

One of the weblogs I keep up with, via Google Reader, is Britannica Blog. My work on Mortimer Adler and Robert Hutchins has made me sensitive to the world of encyclopedias in general, and the products of Britannica in particular. One of Britannica Blog’s contributors is Nicholas G. Carr. Carr writes on the intersections of business, computers, and culture. He gained notoriety in 2008 for authoring an Atlantic piece titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” He’s also authored two books, Does IT Matter?, and The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google. Finally, Carr is a member of Britannica’s Editorial Board of Advisors.

I’m bringing Carr to your attention because of this Britannica Blog post, crossposted in turn from Carr’s own weblog, Rough Type. To summarize, his post outlines search results from 2006-2009 on ten historical topics. The results outline how Google search results have increasingly led readers to Wikipedia, such that in January of this year, 2009, all results led first to Wikipedia articles. To get a thorough sense of reader feedback, read the original Rough Type post (I haven’t read the comments thoroughly).

These quotes from Carr grabbed me by the lapels (bolds mine):

Congratulations, Wikipedians. You rule. Seriously, it’s a remarkable achievement. Who would have thought that a rag-tag band of anonymous volunteers could achieve what amounts to hegemony over the results of the most popular search engine, at least when it comes to searches for common topics.

What we seem to have here is evidence of a fundamental failure of the Web as an information-delivery service. Three things have happened, in a blink of history’s eye: (1) a single medium, the Web, has come to dominate the storage and supply of information, (2) a single search engine, Google, has come to dominate the navigation of that medium, and (3) a single information source, Wikipedia, has come to dominate the results served up by that search engine. …Is culture best served by an information triumvirate?

And his provocative conclusion

It’s hard to imagine that Wikipedia articles are actually the very best source of information for all of the many thousands of topics on which they now appear as the top Google search result. What’s much more likely is that the Web, through its links, and Google, through its search algorithms, have inadvertently set into motion a very strong feedback loop that amplifies popularity and, in the end, leads us all, lemminglike, down the same well-trod path – the path of least resistance. You might call this the triumph of the wisdom of the crowd. I would suggest that it would be more accurately described as the triumph of the wisdom of the mob. The former sounds benign; the latter, less so.

Well, it’s pretty obvious why Britannica found Carr’s post interesting. Plus, Britannica is now moving into a kind of convergence with Wikipedia. You might say that Britannica is doing this with a “wisdom-of-the-editor” approach in contrast with Wikipedia. It’s just too bad for Britannica that the old business model is not working for them in that their quality content is still restricted. They’ve lost a great deal of market share over the past three years, as evidenced by Carr’s post. The market answer for Britannica is to buy Wikipedia, if they can.

As for Carr’s general points, I’m not as pessimistic as he is. For starters, the ease with which users can access Wikipedia has likely increased the general use of encyclopedias in general. People are lazy, and it’s easier to call up a free online article than walk over to shelf (if convenient) and get the book. Those who otherwise would not look something up are likely now doing it. And this, of course, says nothing about the cost of a materially present encyclopedia. So, if one has to ride the crowd/mob line for a quick-and-dirty date, name, or event reference, well, the materially poor “lemmings” don’t have much of a choice, do they? If you don’t have access to a more precise, more controlled encyclopedia, at least Wikipedia gives you something.

How does this affect U.S. intellectual history—meaning the study of it and recent U.S. intellectual life?

In terms of study, it means the ambitious learner of intellectual history—who owns a computer (no small point)—has unprecedented access to historical information, ranging from nuts and bolts stuff to intermediate-level narratives of historical ideas, figures, events, and institutions related to the ongoing development of U.S. intellectual life. And if you don’t trust what Wikipedia has to offer in its narrative, you can go to the sources: I’ve found Wikipedia to be quite productive in terms of bibliographic information.

All of this can help the field. Enthusiasts for the history of U.S. intellectual life are no longer bound by their own cultural or institutional restrictions (library weaknesses, subjective instructor preferences, trends in the profession, etc.). This makes U.S. intellectual history less of an elitist, exclusive endeavor than it has been in the past. And if more can access this information at an earlier age, and get interested in the field earlier, then perhaps the demand for intellectual history at the college and graduate level will rise? Who knows. I’m being optimistic.

What of the downside? The Google-Wikipedia conglomerate runs the risk that all media consolidations have in the past. Namely, it decreases the possibility of conflicting information. On the surface, this might seem a positive. Unity is good, right? But much knowledge is uncertain. One of the things that the history teaches us is that information, particularly about past events, is often perspectival. No single narrative can capture with certainty everything we need to know about past events, people, institutions, and ideas. Stories speak differently to individuals. So while we might, in the future, see a rise in the number of those with a rudimentary to moderate understanding of U.S. intellectual life, professional historians will still have to—pardon the hip cliche—“teach the conflict.” We’ll have to remind and teach others about the multiple perspectives necessary to obtaining a full understanding of our nation’s past and present life of the mind.

I know I’ve not covered everything here. I thank Carr for his provocative piece. What have I missed? – TL