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June 2014

It's interesting reading my first impressions of Wikipedia in 2003 below. I think I was right, mainly. This is a great depository of facts & has become the most readily accessible reference for a lot of subjects. Sometimes the committee approach to decisions is frustrating and I still find the flat data editing frustrating but it is great to feel that you're part of something that will endure. ________________________________________________

December 2003

My fascination with this project (only discovered recently) is only matched by my lack of time to explore it (in a day to day sense not terminally).

The idea that by making it very easy for everyone to contribute leads to an interesting, informative and unbiased work is one which will no doubt be a matter of philosophical and sociological discussion for years to come. It certainly flies in the face of many established academic and educational regimes!

My own opinion, for what it's worth, is that over time the objective unbiased viewpoint tends to shift. Thus an encyclopedia from 50 or 100 years ago would likely contain 'certainties' or 'accepted truths' which would be refuted in current thinking. I see no reason why wikipedia should be any different and I think that we will be proved to be just as biased and naive as previous generations. Moreover, as time passes we will have to face tough choices about our long held opinions which will force us to accept or reject new ways of thinking.

An example: I have good memories of visiting the Natural History Museum as a child and particularly the dinosaurs. The skeletons which had been reconstructed formed a lasting impression of what dinosaurs were like. When I recently returned with my own children, I was surprised to see that the skeletons had all been adjusted in posture and position (their tails in the air for example) to allow for recent scientific views on the way they moved. I can't rewrite my entire 'world of dinosaurs' which forms an integral part of growing up - I have to choose whether to look on it as superceded by later knowledge or to stubbornly refuse to accept the new view.

One note of caution: the assertion that by simply saying: 'this is a minority view' or 'so and so thinks such and such' somehow removes our own inbuilt bias from the loop is flawed. Everything from our choice of what to include and what to leave out through to our choice of wording will reflect our views. As each article will usually be the result of several people's efforts, they're going to reflect a small cross-section of current opinion and if the project continues for some time to come, the history of each page will show how the groundswell of opinion moves.

Another example: The wikipedia page on child: There are a lot of revisions which suggests a large amount of effort to get this page to fit the Wikipedia template for completeness and objectivity. However, I only have to look at the first two paragraphs headed 'Gender' and 'Law' to see the way the collective thought process is going. You could argue for a 'developmental' order from birth or you could differentiate children from adults as a starting point or even divide by culture (as different cultures have different ideas of childhood). The point here is not criticism of the article, just the way that even at the very first heading our current culture comes through. A future reader could probably date the article very accurately just by reading those two paragraphs! Indeed a future reader might see child as an archaic term covering an arbitrary subset of the set of stages of human development from conception to death and might not understand our preoccupation with differentiating children from adults.

The strength of this work as I see it is to draw together many different facets on a subject - not merely to list facts and dates, but to make links between things which wouldn't occur to everybody. The page of lists is the seed of something much bigger which may end up being separated out into its own entity.