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The Wiki Philosophy of Jimmy Wales

June 11th, 2008 by Max Gladwell · 2 Comments

Wikipedia is grounded in the objectivist philosophies of Ayn Rand, a key inspiration for Max Gladwell.

This week, The Economist looks at Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and his new for-profit search startup, Wikia Search. We wrote about the open-source search engine already. Most are familiar with the story behind Wikipedia and its profound contribution to Web 2.0. What we didn’t realize was some of the philosophical underpinnings and how they aligned with Max Gladwell.

The philosophy that appealed to Mr Wales was Objectivism, a strand of thinking associated with the author Ayn Rand. “It colours everything I do and think,” he says. In her cult novels “Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged” and other works, Rand described rugged and unbending individualists who embodied a raw brand of capitalism and a metaphysical conviction that reality was fixed and objectively knowable.

[Starting Wikipedia] added several intellectual twists to Mr Wales’s fundamental Objectivism. On one hand, Wikipedia seems to fit well with Rand’s contention…that decentralised markets work best because they are so much more efficient than centralised bureaucracies at digesting information. In this case the outcome was not a commodity price, say, but knowledge. On the other hand, Wikipedia continues to be free in the sense of both “free speech” and “free beer”, as an old open-source saying has it. Some people react by wondering, “gee, this is a guy who is very pro-capitalist and yet he started a non-profit foundation for sharing knowledge,” says Mr Wales.

The more subtle twist has to do with the philosophical concept of truth. Ayn Rand believed that truth exists independently of the minds and opinions of people. This ran directly counter to the postmodernist view that there are many truths, depending on the perspective of the observer. And Wikipedia’s process seems, on the face of it, to assume the postmodernist rather than the Objectivist stance. The truths described in its millions of articles evolve over time and through the dialectic of editing wars, leading to a new and fuzzy concept of reality dubbed “wikiality”.

Mr Wales takes a different view. “I think that reality exists and that it’s knowable,” he says, adding that Wikipedia aims not for truth with a capital T but for consensus. “You go meta,” he says, meaning “beyond” the disputes and to the underlying facts. For instance, when deciding how to describe abortion, “I may not agree that it’s a sin, but I can certainly agree that the pope thinks it’s a sin.” Despite their disagreements, people on both sides of a debate can in many cases reach a consensus on the nature of their dispute, at least. Through this process, says Mr Wales, Wikipedia articles eventually reach a fairly steady state called the “neutral point of view”, or NPOV.

“Wikipedia resolves the postmodern dilemma of truth by ultimately relying on process,” says Gene Koo of Harvard Law School’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society. “Its process is both open and transparent. The levers of power are not destroyed—Foucault taught us that this is impossible—but simply visible.” To which Mr Wales responds, more simply, that NPOV is a way of saying: “Thanks, but, um, please let’s get back to work.”

For those who’ve found the answer to the question, Who is Max Gladwell?, you’ve discovered that we subscribe to a similar set of philosophies and motivations:

As a character and an ideal, Max Gladwell is somewhat of a floating abstraction, which has been modeled on Ayn Rand’s iconic hero of Atlas Shrugged, John Galt, who built a revolutionary motor that harnessed ambient static electricity as a clean (green), cheap, and infinitely renewable energy source. Galt prided himself on productivity, personal responsibility, and individuality. These are the core tenets of Rand’s objectivist philosophy and also happen to be core principles of the social web: producing and taking responsibility for one’s own content, transferral of power to the individual, and greater personal fulfillment. Ultimately, Max Gladwell’s words to live by were articulated in Galt’s speech to the world when he said that “Life is the reward of virtue. And happiness is the goal and reward of life.” In other words, we do well by doing good.

The Economist article ends on a note of skepticism for Wikia Search.

So far Wikia’s search results are embarrassingly poor, as reviewers have noted. And there are more fundamental doubts. Wikipedia succeeded because, in 2001, there was no free online encyclopedia. Today web search, by contrast, is a hyper-competitive industry. Consumers are not clamouring for a new search engine. And revealing the algorithms could make it easier for website designers to manipulate the results. Mr Wales does not see it that way. Search has become a window to knowledge, and Google and its rivals have become its arbiters. “For me it’s a political statement,” he says. “We don’t need secrecy.” Ayn Rand would surely approve.

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Tags: Search · Web 2.0