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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Knowledge in the days post-Britannica

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In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker's Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and second, it has the words "DON'T PANIC" inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.
(source: The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams)

We can safely assume that when Douglas Adams wrote this passage, he had probably not foreseen the demise of the Encyclopedia Britannica print version. After all, Hitchhiker’s was published in the late 70s, well before the advent of Wikipedia, what is to the Britannica that HG2G is to the Galactica.

At least in this pan-dimension, where mice are simply just furry little creatures with very little knowledge of the actual history of cheese.

But that aside, the definitive tussle between the Encyclopaedia Galactica and HG2G in the fictional realm of the universe bears some parallels to real-world comparisons between the 32-volume paper edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and the availability of information via the Internet. Primarily when comparing the unwieldy and voluminous Britannica with Wikipedia.

For one thing, although it doesn’t usually emblazon the words “Don’t Panic” across its website, Wikipedia is free, while Britannica sets you back in the region of USD 1,400 for the beautifully bound printed set, or USD 70 per year for an online subscription (source: Reuters).

While that's quite obvious to most people (except maybe for the quantum of price difference), another similarity is less frequently mentioned: both the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Wikipedia are peer-edited.
(Knowledge, the Universe , and more [but not quite Everything], in the full post)

In other words, they both leverage on the almost limitless resource of everyday knowledge from everyday peer experts, and not on the limited human resource that the more established encyclopedia houses have to rely on.

And since just about everyone is connected to the Internet these days, anyone with domain expertise in a particular subject can contribute. Much like how Ford Prefect was a contributor to HG2G, even Walski has contributed something to Wikipedia (albeit very minor).

True, the open nature of Wikipedia makes it open to abuse, but most misinformation is quite quickly detected (usually within minutes). But at least it has more to say about Mother Earth than just “Mostly Harmless”, making it a better resource than even the HG2G. In fact, comparing it to the Britannica, Wikipedia wins hands down in discussing this now popular phrase (see the Britannica version here).

But, Walski digresses…

A few days ago, he received an e-mail with a request to share an infographic about the now ubiquitous knowledge site. It represents a quick reference, single-glance look at everything you’ve always wanted to know about Wikipedia (but didn’t have Jimmy Wales’ mobile number).


When was the last time you entered a public library? Walski can’t even remember when he last did. It must have been over 20 years ago when he was still in college.

The biggest difference between paper-bound knowledge and the online kind is the speed of how information can be updated. As we’ve seen with many recent events (such as The Arab Spring, and the current Syrian Uprising, via Twitter and Facebook), we are able to keep ourselves in the know, almost instantaneously.

Similarly with knowledge-based information on Wikipedia – It is a lot more up to date compared with what we can find in paper-bound encyclopedias. Even the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica kind of lags behind, somewhat.

Best of all, you don’t run the risk of having pages of your expensive encyclopedia getting the black marker treatment, something that still happens regularly in Malaysia to selected print publications deemed “undesirable” for our consumption.

Some might think that Wikipedia is low-brow and pedestrian compared to the beautifully bound (and expensive) Encyclopedia Britannica. Some might think that knowledge can only be attained through the printed word. Well, Walski thinks that these some are wrong. Numbers don’t lie, and the increased acceptance within the academic circles says it all.

The more access we have to information, the more opportunity we have to turn the information we ingest into knowledge.

As Farish A. Noor wrote in his essay yesterday (via The Malaysian Insider), “…with knowledge, it’s like we have a magical box that can expand and keep expanding. No matter how much we read, we can read more, learn more, remember more. And with that we grow into better, more knowledgeable and wiser people".

In essence, therefore, it’s the wealth and breadth of information that’s important. It cannot be denied that the Internet, through sites such as Wikipedia – and yes, even the online version of Encyclopedia Britannica – provides us with just that.

There is another similarity between the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy and Wikipedia that has thus far gone unmentioned. Walski’s not sure whether Jimmy Wales is a fan of HG2G or not, but Wikipedia embodies one very important lesson that Walski learned from the writing of the late great Douglas Adams throughout the HG2G series of books.

And it is upon this very important precept that Walski chooses to end this post:

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