Happy Birthday, Wikipedia: A History of Public Knowledge

Knowledge is a weird thing. It has no tangible properties, and so it is firmly ensconced among the most ephemeral of things, along with love, nostalgia, and ennui. And yet knowledge does have a physical quality to it, or is treated as such. Knowledge is something to be obtained, something you have to acquire, and, perhaps most interestingly, something that can be denied you, like food or water from a capricious tyrant.

It has always been that way. Think about the Prometheus myth–yes, the poor guy stole fire from the gods, but they weren’t mad about the fire as fire. They were mad that a non-god dared to take something that was theirs. Hubris is now taken to mean an excess of pride, but then it was understood that hubris was the belief that you could step out of the role the gods had made for you, to shake up the natural order. Fire wasn’t just hot: fire was knowledge. It was power.


Wikipedia logo
Wikipedia, which once represented the wild and untamed anarchy of the internet, has grown into a grand, respected, and vital arena of public knowledge.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

We now live in a time where that knowledge is more easily accessible than ever before. However, you still see tyrannies where knowledge is completely shut off, and even in democracies, the powerful often limit access for those “beneath” them. The internet and mobile technology are great bulwarks against that, as can perhaps be well represented by an often maligned and sometimes misunderstood mainstay of the Internet: Wikipedia. Wikipedia turns 14 this week, and as it celebrates its birthday, it can look back at being perhaps the crowning achievement in the long history of democratization of knowledge.

1759 – The First Public National Museum

Coincidentally, Jan 15th, the birthday of Wikipedia, is also the day that the first public national museum in the world opened in London. This was a big deal and not just because it was another public attraction (18th-century London wasn’t a tourist hotspot–the predecessor of the Eye was a pauper burial mound or something). The way that the museum was opened can serve as a lesson in how knowledge was disseminated at the time. A rather wealthy gentleman, Sir Hans Sloan, had a huge private collection of specimens and other historical and scientific geegaws. When he died, he bequeathed it to His Majesty, who then turned it into a museum for the public by an act of Parliament. This was very progressive of them for the time, and it also shows what it was like before: Unless you were to the manor born, you had no chance of even seeing the amazing things the world had to offer, much less learn about them in an educational way. Knowledge was not considered a public right.

The Rise of Radio and TV

Still, it wasn’t always easy to get to that knowledge, even when it was public. You had to travel, you had to go to a museum, or, at the very least, you had to be able to read. The printed word was important, of course, and is still my favorite thing, but the rise of mass media, radio, and television meant, in theory, that more and more knowledge could be distributed. It could be disseminated all over. Of course, it quickly became co-opted by the powerful, and radio was a hugely important device in the march of the twin totalitarianisms of the 20th century. The means of communication ensured that the airwaves would be dominated by the powerful. There have always been weird radio stations in the hidden reaches of the dial, floating through desert air with their underground messages. But for the most part, the flattening and homogenization of messages started quickly.

The Wild West of the Internet

Depending on how old you are, you might not remember when the iInternet first started becoming a thing. It was strange and untested, making it a playground for new ideas and the democratization of knowledge. Despite the dominance of dotcoms, ideas still had meaning. It broke barriers and created new avenues to knowledge, and nowhere was this better represented than by the birthday boy, Wikipedia.

For years, Wikipedia represented both the good and the bad of the Internet. It was completely non-centered, in a way that knowledge had never been. It asked people to contribute their own expertise, so it became a staging ground for fierce debates. It was the promise of the Internet. It was also the peril of it, as bad facts and libel popped up, and indeed, for a while, Wikipedia was a buzzword for everything unreliable and untrustworthy about the Internet. A bad comedian could be guaranteed a few drink-minimum enhanced chuckles by saying something was true because he “read it on Wikipedia”.

Something strange happened, though. It turned out that self-editing became the right way to do things. Through fights, knowledge won out. The vast majority of pages didn’t even involve fights – they were written by people who just wanted to share what they knew. It became the greatest repository of human knowledge the world had ever seen. It was a vast public library, both nowhere and everywhere.

Mobile Tech, Fulfilling the Promise

I say it is nowhere but that isn’t exactly true. Chances are it is in your pocket or on the desk next to you, or maybe even in your hand right now. Mobile tech has made sure that we don’t have to move mountains to gather knowledge. Wikipedia is with you, on your smartphone or your tablet. So is the magisterial and magnificent Encyclopedia Britannica. So is the constant stimulation of AL Daily, or the curmudgeonly erudition of Lapham’s Quarterly. So is everything.

It’s funny–in the span of human history, it wasn’t that long ago that you could plausibly tell a story about a man being cruelly punished for daring to understand something so basic that was so hidden. Now you can think about it, and if someone to whom you’re talking about this insists it was Theseus, you can show them who the story was really about, then read other myths, then find out if vultures would actually eat a live liver, and then, if you are feeling hubristic enough, investigate the mysteries of fire.

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