Nothing brings an otherwise opaque subject into the mainstream quite like a political scandal, and the recent allegations of MPs playing fast and loose with the ability to edit their own and other people’s Wikipedia entries will have done a lot to make the public aware of how the online encyclopedia is run.
For many, that awareness won’t have gone much beyond a general idea that it’s written by pretty much anyone who’s motivated to get involved, but is monitored by a self-governing hierarchy of administrators responsible for keeping an eye on it.
For some, the motivation to devote time to the project without ever being paid is an altruistic one; a belief in the ability of openness and wider availability of information to make the world a better place. That attitude goes a step further in the likes of Wikileaks – another case of subculture breaking into the mainstream news – but can a philosophy rooted in software culture and the techno-utopianism of Silicon Valley provide a cure to the problems that plague contemporary politics and business?
To answer that question, a good starting point is to decide what ‘openness’ actually means. In ‘Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness’, Nathanial Tkacz of the University of Warwick’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies seeks some definitions that can be used to outline what a political theory of openness would look like in the digital age.
Why Wikipedia specifically? It’s the most prominent product of open organisation – used by millions who don’t know or care how it’s created – and its very openness means that the processes behind it are continuously evolving. As an exercise in getting vast numbers of people to work together in a way that’s equally transparent to all, processes like edit wars, article deletion policies and user access levels illustrate perfectly how key concepts of openness work in the real world. And how, if they don’t work, they can be allowed to change.
It’s a timely appraisal of the virtues and failings of something we’ve all come to take for granted without having a clear idea of what’s going on beneath the surface. Just as importantly, by comparing academic theory with how events play out in the ‘real world’ of the internet, Tkacz provides some clues as to what the next steps could and should be as technology forces us to take the inevitable steps towards a more open society.
‘Wikipedia and the Politics of Openness’ by Nathaniel Tkacz is published by The University of Chicago Press, RRP £17.50, ISBN 9780226192307