I went to see David Weinberger‘s talk on campus earlier today, and this post is a reaction to that. Before I go down that road though, let me just say that I really enjoyed the talk.

I just finished reading Small Pieces Loosely Joined maybe 2 days ago. So that’s fresh in my mind, and of course I haven’t yet read his next book, Everything is Miscellaneous, because it isn’t out yet. So I have a somewhat lopsided perspective. Weinberger included more ideas from Small Pieces than I had expected, and less from Miscellaneous than I had hoped for. Though of course I’m not sure I’d recognize material from Miscellaneous if he did include it. Actually, I had hoped that he would address my concern from my previous post. Though of course he wasn’t here on campus to address my concerns. And I could have asked a question on this topic, but I didn’t.

Instead I asked a different question, on a topic which my students have heard me rant many a time. Indeed, several of my students, past and present, were at the talk, and I could almost sense them rolling their eyes, here goes Pomerantz again on the authority-as-crutch thing. My question was: Can you please talk a bit about attention economics? The traditional, top-down, Encyclopedia Britannica-style editorial process is a crutch for the reader, that allows me, the reader, to trust the information provided because I trust the Encyclopedia Britannica and the processes they employ. But under the bottom-up, Wikipedia-style model, the burden is on the reader to evaluate all information provided. So how do I, the reader, balance the extra time it takes to do all my own validation with, well, everything else in my life? Brian later eloquently summed this up as the “I’m too busy” argument.

Weinberger did something that all too few speakers do, which was to actually answer the question, and not only that, he answered it point-by-point. First, crutches are useful he said. (I agree, and in fact that is the premise of my question, that the editorial process is a useful device / tool / contrivance / social structure / whatever.) Second, yes, this model requires that readers do all of their own background research, and unfortunately most will not. However, the background is there if you want it, particularly in Wikipedia in the form of the history and discussion pages. (Sadly, that background does not exist for many other sources, or if it does now, I’m not convinced that it will be preserved. And realistically, how many people ever look at Wikipedia’s history and discussion pages? Hell, I don’t, and I really know better.) And third, yes, this is a problem. But it will be solved, because it must be solved.

In fact, Weinberger used that argument several times in regard to different problems: it will be solved because it must be solved. In other words, as I understand it, because humans are great at problem-solving, if there is a niche for a solution, some set of solutions will arise. This is actually a fairly Darwinian argument, now that I think about it. It’s also a hugely optimistic point of view. (Which is odd, actually, since I’ve never really thought of Darwinism as being particularly optimistic, and in fact as being fairly cynical in some of its more extreme forms.) Anyway, it-will-be-because-it-must-be: like many things in life, I would like to believe that this is true, but I fear that it is not.

The final part of Weinberger’s response to my question was to suggest a solution, in the form of a filter mechanism. He suggested that organizations of subject experts could vette the information on Wikipedia (and presumably other sites), create reliable versions, and put a stamp of approval on these versions, perhaps with pointers to the organization’s own materials. Sounds like the WikiProject for Librarians, actually, though if I remember correctly, the example he used was the AMA. (I will not get into the subject specialist versus generalist thing here.) This issue seems to crop up everywhere for me lately. Perhaps I’m gazing into the sun, or into my own navel. But once again, I ask: What incentive(s) are there for experts to provide good information? Indeed, to spend any time providing any information at all? I’m beginning to despair of finding a satisfactory answer to this actually.