Enlightenment Or Not

Enlightenment’s Motto Of ‘Dare To Know’ Has Become ‘Dare Not To Care To Know.’

By December 6, 2017 No Comments



The following two articles describe the decline of encyclopedic knowledge in favor of easier pictographic knowledge which is adequate for, even preferred by the general public.

Unknowns create uncertainty. The pursuit of knowledge involves uncertainty. Uncertainty, in turn, creates fear. This kind of fear is mild, and the non-rigorous mind dismisses rather than investigates uncertainty. Insouciance or blithe rejection is easy.

Adopting then repeating TV news statements is easy and socially acceptable. Rejection of topics as unproven despite preponderant scientific evidence is easier than trying to understand scientific topics.

Science especially causes fear. TV news cannot broadcast science because subtly it frightens away viewers. Instead, TV news supplies bland pabulum to ease intellectual fear making anti-science an easy editorial choice.



Wikipedia is waning, as the web evolves

As the internet goes, so goes Wikipedia, according to Wired, and it’s not good. The shift from a “typographic culture to a photographic one, which in turn meant a shift from rationality to emotions, exposition to entertainment,” is threatening the open and democratic quest for knowledge first associated with the web — and all encyclopedic enterprises throughout history, the magazine said. While funding is less of a problem for the nonprofit Wikipedia now, contributors to the website are dwindling — and so, argues Wired, is our thirst for knowledge.

WIKIPEDIA, ONE OF the last remaining pillars of the open and decentralized web, is in existential crisis.

This has nothing to do with money. A couple of years ago, the site launched a panicky fundraising campaign, but ironically thanks to Donald Trump, Wikipedia has never been as wealthy or well-organized. American liberals, worried that Trump’s rise threatened the country’s foundational Enlightenment ideals, kicked in a significant flow of funds that has stabilized the nonprofit’s balance sheet.

That happy news masks a more concerning problem—a flattening growth rate in the number of contributors to the website. It is another troubling sign of a general trend around the world: The very idea of knowledge itself is in danger.

The idea behind Wikipedia—like all encyclopedias before it—has been to collect the entirety of human knowledge. It’s a goal that extends back to the Islamic Golden Age, when numerous scholars—inspired by Muhammad’s famous verdict of ‘Seek knowledge, even from China’—set themselves to collecting and documenting all existing information on a wide variety of topics, including translations from Greek, Persian, Syrian, and Indian into Arabic. In the 9th century, a Persian scholar named Ibn Qutaybah collected the first true encyclopedia, 10 books on power, war, nobility, character, learning and eloquence, asceticism, friendship, prayers, food, and women. He was followed a century later by another Persian scholar, al-Khwārizmī who, in addition to inventing algebra, produced an encyclopedia covering what he called indigenous knowledge (jurisprudence, scholastic philosophy, grammar, secretarial duties, prosody and poetic art, history) and foreign knowledge (philosophy, logic, medicine, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, mechanics, alchemy). The Chinese had their own encyclopedia dating back to the 7th century.

In Europe, the quest to compile a modern encyclopedia started with the Enlightenment in the 18th century. (Immanuel Kant coined a fitting Latin motto for the movement: “Sapere aude,” or “Dare to know.”) French Enlightenment thinkers like Francis Bacon and Denis Diderot began compiling ambitious encyclopedias, inspiring others throughout France, Germany, England, Switzerland and the Netherlands. The religious ruling class’s discomfort with the effort only helped its financial feasibility; there was an obvious market for these massive collections, often published in numerous volumes, for an increasingly secular middle-class. The first volume of Encycopedie was sold in 1751 to 2,000 subscribers, who would go on to receive the entire twenty-eight-volume set. Notable revolutionary thinkers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu were involved in the editing of the work and several even ended up in prison. Only 17 years after the publication of the last volume in 1772, the French revolution began, leading to perhaps the most secular state in human history.

THAT TREND TOWARD rationality and enlightenment was endangered long before the advent of the Internet. As Neil Postman noted in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the rise of television introduced not just a new medium but a new discourse: a gradual shift from a typographic culture to a photographic one, which in turn meant a shift from rationality to emotions, exposition to entertainment. In an image-centered and pleasure-driven world, Postman noted, there is no place for rational thinking, because you simply cannot think with images. It is text that enables us to “uncover lies, confusions and overgeneralizations, to detect abuses of logic and common sense. It also means to weigh ideas, to compare and contrast assertions, to connect one generalization to another.”

The dominance of television was not contained to our living rooms. It overturned all of those habits of mind, fundamentally changing our experience of the world, affecting the conduct of politics, religion, business, and culture. It reduced many aspects of modern life to entertainment, sensationalism, and commerce. “Americans don’t talk to each other, we entertain each other,” Postman wrote. “They don’t exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”

At first, the Internet seemed to push against this trend. When it emerged towards the end of the 80s as a purely text-based medium, it was seen as a tool to pursue knowledge, not pleasure. Reason and thought were most valued in this garden—all derived from the project of Enlightenment. Universities around the world were among the first to connect to this new medium, which hosted discussion groups, informative personal or group blogs, electronic magazines, and academic mailing lists and forums. It was an intellectual project, not about commerce or control, created in a scientific research center in Switzerland.

Wikipedia was a fruit of this garden. So was Google search and its text-based advertising model. And so were blogs, which valued text, hypertext (links), knowledge, and literature. They effectively democratized the ability to contribute to the global corpus of knowledge. For more than a decade, the web created an alternative space that threatened television’s grip on society.

Social networks, though, have since colonized the web for television’s values. From Facebook to Instagram, the medium refocuses our attention on videos and images, rewarding emotional appeals—‘like’ buttons—over rational ones. Instead of a quest for knowledge, it engages us in an endless zest for instant approval from an audience, for which we are constantly but unconsciouly performing. (It’s telling that, while Google began life as a PhD thesis, Facebook started as a tool to judge classmates’ appearances.) It reduces our curiosity by showing us exactly what we already want and think, based on our profiles and preferences. Enlightenment’s motto of ‘Dare to know’ has become ‘Dare not to care to know.’

It is a development that further proves the words of French philosopher Guy Debord, who wrote that, if pre-capitalism was about ‘being’, and capitalism about ‘having’, in late-capitalism what matters is only ‘appearing’—appearing rich, happy, thoughtful, cool and cosmopolitan. It’s hard to open Instagram without being struck by the accuracy of his diagnosis.

Now the challenge is to save Wikipedia and its promise of a free and open collection of all human knowledge amid the conquest of new and old television—how to collect and preserve knowledge when nobody cares to know. Television has even infected Wikipedia itself—today many of the most popular entries tend to revolve around television series or their cast.

This doesn’t mean it is time to give up. But we need to understand that the decline of the web and thereby of the Wikipedia is part of a much larger civilizational shift which has just started to unfold.




Hossein Derakhshan (@h0d3r) is an Iranian-Canadian media analyst who was imprisoned in Iran from 2008 to 2014.

WIRED Opinion publishes pieces written by outside contributors and represents a wide range of viewpoints.



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Once Reviled in Education, Wikipedia Now Embraced By Many Professors

By Jeffrey R. Young     Oct 17, 2017

A decade ago professors complained of a growing “epidemic” in education: Wikipedia. Students were citing it in papers, while educators largely laughed it off as inaccurate and saw their students as lazy, or worse. As one writing instructor posted to an e-mail list in 2005: “Am I being a stick-in-the-mud for for being horrified by students’ use of this source?”

How things have changed. Today, a growing number of professors have embraced Wikipedia as a teaching tool. They’re still not asking students to cite it as a source. Instead, they task students with writing Wikipedia entries for homework, exposing the classwork to a global audience (and giving students an outside edit by an army of Wikipedia volunteers). There’s even a new peer-reviewed academic journal about using Wikipedia in higher education.

One of the biggest proponents of the power of Wikipedia in the classroom is Robert Cummings, associate professor of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Mississippi. He even wrote a book about the topic, called “Lazy Virtues: Teaching Writing in the Age of Wikipedia.” EdSurge talked with Cummings about how Wikipedia has changed his teaching and why he thinks professors are changing their attitude about the anyone-can-edit resources.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).

EdSurge: How did you first come to use Wikipedia in your teaching? The anyone-can-edit encyclopedia once had a horrible reputation among academics, and people joked that, “Oh, you can’t trust this thing. Maybe it’s just nobodies sitting their basements writing nonsense.”

Cummings: That’s absolutely right. You have to remember that in that time period, Web 2.0 was a revolutionary concept. The idea that we would contribute content to the internet was still pretty unusual. When people found out that Wikipedia was edited by everyone who just desired to edit, that was a conflict with the way knowledge is valued in higher education.

The Wikipedia process is what I would call public review (everyone’s invited to contribute), while the higher-education process is what we call peer review, where only a limited number of people who are qualified experts are able to comment on knowledge in the peer-reviewed process.

What we’re learning over time is that, of course, Wikipedia had and still has problems with accuracy and relevance. If you go to a slowly-trafficked area on Wikipedia, you might find spotty quality. In fact, you definitely will find spotty quality.

But if you go to a highly-trafficked area and the process is working, then you do find high-quality information, and the immediacy and the availability of that high-quality information makes it a compelling proposition. That’s why it has endured and overcome a lot of significant obstacles.

In fact, if you look at Wikipedia today, and if you just think about it as a web platform, it has not really kept up in a lot of significant ways. It doesn’t incorporate video well. There’s a lot of things about the Wikimedia platform that people who work on it are quite aware of and trying to improve, but it still comes down to discussions about text, and when you’re having a discussion about long-form text, it really remains a strong platform for that.

I hear more often these days about teaching with free online materials instead of traditional textbooks (known as OER). Do you see a connection between the growing interest in that and the idea of assigning students to write for Wikipedia?

Absolutely. It’s a continuing spectrum. The OER conversation is very energized right now, and it’s a complex conversation. I tend to focus on aspects of OER depending on the audience. If I’m talking to students about OER, I usually tend to focus on cost because OER is either free or much cheaper, typically, than a traditionally copyrighted textbook, and so students are initially most interested in cost, as are their parents.

When I talk with faculty about OER, I tend to talk about how OER is just a better teaching-and-learning resource—a better teaching-and-learning experience. One important factor is that content in the course through the OER process tends to be much more customized, so the teachers are teaching with texts and resources that are tailored to the outcomes of that course.

When professors use a traditionally-copyrighted textbook, the publisher has tried to put in as much content as they possibly can to make sure that there’s no teacher out there that wouldn’t want to adopt that text. It becomes a very large kitchen-sink approach. The faculty member has usually become very accustomed to taking chapters here and there that fit their particular approach to that class. What we’ve forgotten over time is how confusing that is for a learner because you’re already in a state of confusion because you’re introduced to new concepts, but when you have to follow them through a textbook to get to the information you need, it’s an additional barrier.

Do you think teaching with OER or Wikipedia changes the way you teach?

Absolutely. Some folks who hold a foundationalist view of teaching and learning say, “The teacher is the authority. The teacher is the trained expert, and then the teacher delivers the knowledge to the classroom, and the classroom consumes the knowledge that the teacher delivers.” It’s not my perspective. Others have that and that’s fine.

Those people who have that perspective, though, are probably going to not jump on board with the idea of collaborating around creating the classroom content and using the open educational practices.

I like to say to my students that if you’re a college graduate, you’re not only an information consumer, you’re an information producer, and so what I should be doing in my classroom is structuring it so that we practice information-production together, and I give you a place to do that where you have guidance in creating that information, so open education practices respect that type of collaboration and that type of practice for producing information.

I’ve enjoyed finding my students motivated to deliver information to an audience [by writing Wikipedia articles]. They became concerned with writing details, then they became concerned with grammar, then they became concerned with organization, because they want to be effective in terms of delivering a message for an audience.

I’ve heard Wikipedia editors can be pretty strict.

This is true. Some Wikipedia education projects have had problems with this. A bad assignment is one that asks a lot of students to do editing without really understanding the Wikipedia community. [the students] make edits which are damaging, and then they have a grade motivation for making sure that those edits stick [so they repost every time an editor remove their additions]. So then the Wikipedia editors are running around trying to take down the bad content—because maybe it’s a copyright violation or because as I mentioned earlier, it was just ill-conceived as original research or a novel proposition.

At any rate, those folks on Wikipedia, they’re volunteers. They’re working on Wikipedia because they care about the content and they care about the community, but if you have a poorly-designed assignment that doesn’t understand Wikipedia, and then you motivate students to contribute poorly, it’s sort of like weaponizing ill-conceived content, and it could be really bad.

It just feels like with the controversies around fake news during the last presidential election, it seems like there’s a new level of difficulty agreeing on facts. These are questions Wikipedia has been struggling with since it was created.

Oh, unquestionably. When Wikipedia was first came out and was first reviewed in 2001. It was seen and had been derided as inaccurate, but now we’ve come full circle because Wikipedia is one of the few examples and perhaps the most successful examples of online collaboration around facts and verifying facts among people who have different points of view.

In so many social-media camps, people just go to find a reaffirmation of what they believed before they logged on. In Wikipedia, that doesn’t happen because of the encyclopedia format. There are plenty of arguments and plenty of spats between people, but there’s an overall process for determining what we can agree on as a common set of facts and then walking away from the things that we can’t agree on.

Jeffrey R. Young (@jryoung) is a senior editor for EdSurge.




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