Professor Eco described himself as "a compulsive user of Wikipedia, also for arthritic reasons: the more my back hurts, the more it costs me to get up and go to check the [Encyclopedia] Treccani .... When I write, I consult Wikipedia 30–40 times a day, because it is really helpful". However, he questioned its reliability. He stated that Wikipedia is good for the (intellectually) "rich" and bad for the "poor", explaining that as an educated person, he knows how to filter the information on Wikipedia, checking and comparing multiple sources rather than accepting a fact while a less well-educated user might not be as discriminating.
Asked whether it is better to have more people involved on a topic, as it is stated to be the case (under certain conditions) by the "wisdom of the crowds" theory of James Surowiecki, Professor Eco replied:
I don't quite agree with this. I am a disciple of Peirce, who argues that scientific truths are, ultimately, approved by the community. The slow work of the community, through revisions and errors, as he put it in the nineteenth century, carries out "the torch of truth". The problem is the definition of truth.
If I were forced to replace "truth" with "crowd", I would not agree. If you make a statistical analysis of the 6 billion inhabitants of the globe, the majority believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth, there's nothing you can do. The crowd would be prepared to endorse the wrong answer. This also happens in a democracy: we are noticing it these days, the crowd votes for [the Italian politician] Bossi.
We must therefore find another criterion, which I think is the motivated crowds. People who work on Wikipedia ... are not the indiscriminate crowd [but] are the part of the crowd who feels motivated to work with Wikipedia. Here it is: I'd replace the theory of the "wisdom of the crowd" with the theory of the "wisdom of the motivated crowds." The general crowd says we should not pay taxes; the motivated crowd says that it's fair to pay them. In fact, it's not the ditch diggers or illiterates who contribute to Wikipedia, but people who already belong to a cultural crowd for the very fact they're using a computer.
The interviewer observed a cultural difference on Wikipedia between the coverage of "hard" and "soft" sciences, and related it to a similar difference between the corresponding academic communities. Eco agreed that "hard" sciences place more value on collaboration and less on authorship than humanities. "Science is cumulative-destructive, it stores what it needs and throws away what it doesn't require. Humanities are totally cumulative, they don't throw away anything: in fact, there is always a return to the past." He also agreed that the strong collaboration on Wikipedia, facilitated by the use of free licenses and a culture of pseudonymity or even anonymity, might be part of a larger trend, which in 50 years would probably lead to "a cultural situation similar to the one in the Middle Ages, where [...] the authoriality was lost." However, he doubted this development would reach total anonymity, which, while it might give the appearance of democracy, "gives the idea that just one and only one truth exists".
A thread on Foundation-l contains background information on the interview and the "Wiki@Home" program. Apart from Eco, several other notable people have been interviewed. Questions are prepared collaboratively on a page on the Italian Wikinews; Wikimedia Italia then contacts the potential interviewee and chooses the interviewer (usually one of the chapter's members).
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