28 February 2008

Nicholson Baker on Wikipedia

I'm currently reading Nicholson Baker's forthcoming book Human Smoke (excellent so far, but I've really only just begun it), so it was with particular interest that I took a glance at his new essay, "The Charms of Wikipedia", in The New York Review of Books. I intended to set it aside for later reading, but it was quite engaging, and I'm a big fan of Wikipedia, so before long I found myself completely engrossed. And often laughing:
This is a reference book that can suddenly go nasty on you. Who knows whether, when you look up Harvard's one-time warrior-president, James Bryant Conant, you're going to get a bland, evenhanded article about him, or whether the whole page will read (as it did for seventeen minutes on April 26, 2006): "HES A BIG STUPID HEAD." James Conant was, after all, in some important ways, a big stupid head. He was studiously anti-Semitic, a strong believer in wonder-weapons—a man who was quite as happy figuring out new ways to kill people as he was administering a great university. Without the kooks and the insulters and the spray-can taggers, Wikipedia would just be the most useful encyclopedia ever made. Instead it's a fast-paced game of paintball.

Not only does Wikipedia need its vandals—up to a point—the vandals need an orderly Wikipedia, too. Without order, their culture-jamming lacks a context. If Wikipedia were rendered entirely chaotic and obscene, there would be no joy in, for example, replacing some of the article on Archimedes with this:
Archimedes is dead.

He died.

Other people will also die.

All hail chickens.

The Power Rangers say "Hi"

The End.
Even the interesting article on culture jamming has been hit a few times: "Culture jamming," it said in May 2007, "is the act of jamming tons of cultures into 1 extremely hot room."

No comments:

Post a Comment