VOD Review: Truth in Numbers?

My son recently had a french class project to do on foreign countries (his was Mexico) where the goal was to gather a lot of facts and points of interest in a simple table format. The suggestion was to go online and do research. While I supposed we could have gone down in the basement and blew the dust of the Funk & Wagnalls set that has not seen the light of day since the late 1980s, of course we just went to Wikipedia. All the information was right there. Of course, my son is in Grade 1 and it was more or less, ‘Just the Facts Ma’am,’ for this assignment. More challenging would be a grade 12 project on the life and politics of VP-candidate John Edwards or say the Abortion issue, but that will come later. For math, science and basic facts, Wikipedia is a magnificent resource for one-click shopping and links if you want to go deeper. Complex human social problems, and fuzzy ‘big issue’ science (climate change, cigarette smoking) or pretty much all of ‘capital-H’ History, well then the equation is not so simple.

I think that Truth in Numbers?, a brief but dense look at the culture of Wikipedia, and the effect of Wikipedia on culture, ends up being a wider cautionary tale of the Monoculture of Social Networks. Namely, what it does to individual voices, when a single ‘authority’ becomes omnipresent and convenient. Thus there is no surprise to see Jeron Lanier, a prominent Silicon Valley critic of Web 2.0 culture (and author of “You Are Not a Gadget”) pontificating (or warning) to that effect. What was more curious about the film, which aims for fair and balanced look at the massive online, user generated, encyclopedia, but eventually comes down on the negative side by more than a few degrees, is that it is painted as a micro- digital-version of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I doubt there will be the level of physical suffering and massive starvation that might have experts of that era of China willing to string me up by the neck for even putting the two together as analogy (Ever notice how if you bring up Hitler, the conversation has it its nadir? I hope this is not the case for Chairman Mao!) It seems that for history and politics, the ‘average Joes’ (read: young students and enthusiasts) who spend a lot of time editing a host of wikipedia entries, and thereby move up through the ‘level of authority’ implicit in the culture of Wikipedians, have a significantly more powerful voice than the experts and elites. Thus the elites are thrown under the bus in terms of contributing. The charge by Jimmy Wales and the wikipedia culture, as they have classes to teach, books to write, and tend to get rather exhausted fighting an ‘edit war’ within that particular entry on the site. There have been numerous articles written on this very subject, but I think the average web-user and wikipedia-user is blissfully unaware of the anti-expert biases of the encyclopedia or that there is a version history or discussion tab to look at the veracity of the entry. Web or no web, if it is on the page, most likely the average person looking into something just takes the information at face value. Of course, the pseudo-anonymity of wikipedians (known by user generated aliases) leaves one talking-head comment on not attaching your name to something is generally the territory of Ransom Notes and Graffiti. Hyperbolic, perhaps, but like many things internet, those with extra free time can monopolize (and poison) discussion if they hammer away long enough in the comment section. Just ask politician John Seigenthaler who went from politician and assistant to Robert F. Kennedy to JFK assassin and beyond over the course of a heated and concentrated manipulation by admins of that particular page. The Laissez-faire approach, explicitly referenced here with Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead that Wikipedia has been growing forward at an unprecedented rate vs. the curated democracy of say the much slower to be built Oxford English Dictionary is a fascinating comparison. Andrew Keen another Web 2.0 expert and critic comes across as the most negative, and this plays out on screen in a debate with Jimmy Wales that paints the founder of the site (or at least co-founder depending on who you talk to) in which Wales comes across as ‘it is what it is,’ indifference to these concerns, particularly on the expert/non-expert bias issue and the ensuing edit wares that leave many entries at merely giving part of the truth, certainly not the whole truth and nothing but. Of course Wikipedia itself gives the general impression of authority even if it is not.

Certainly there is food for thought on display here and the history (Wikipedia was funded by money raised from Boomis, a page-ring website whose claim to fame was the ‘Babe-Aggregater’ (emblemized by a photo of Sylvia Saint in full Boomis swag, you can look up Ms. Saint on Wikipedia if you don’t know who she is) and the film manages to milk the talking head format for all it is worth. Less interesting is a failed intro of Wales himself touring about and taking photos in India during a self-promotional turn, or the thinly veiled suggestion that Wikipedia and its commitments (or priorities set by Wales) has led to the dissolution of his marriage. These things divide the film from the focus of headier information-age issues down to a quirky and clueless leader angle. I’m not opposed to character driven quirk, often the best docs are this, and god knows web-culture is a quirk goldmine (The Social Network or Startup.com for instance), but it seems badly shoe-horned into the 85 minute package or simply a function of gathered footage. There is by my very rough estimate, an hour of good content. The project apparently took many years to zero in on what original director Nic Hill was to focus on, and Behind the Mask director Scott Glosserman was brought in to help with just that very thing: Focus. I would not say it is a complete success in the department of Jimmy Wales, the man or how he is a metaphor for Wikipedia. Perhaps that was the intention, perhaps not. You will not likely find that in the films wikipedia entry. In the end, it should (but rarely ever is) be taken for granted that you trust your source for information regardless of web or book or word of mouth and history and knowledge is as much perspective as it is fact. Monocultures are probably not a good thing for the race to move forward in its own enlightenment. But hey, give me liberty convenience or give me death – it was a snap to finish that school project.