Is Wikipedia making us less attentive, dumber even?
It’s quite an ironic notion for a platform that has the noble purpose of making general information available across a wide audience at no cost to its viewers.
But I think the idea that the road to hell is paved with good intentions fits in pretty well here.
What I mean by that is the road to ignorance and misunderstanding is paved with the idea of creating a universal knowledge base, as an analogy, if you will.
Do you ever get the feeling that your use of Wikipedia to quickly look up and briefly gain an understand the context or background of something you’ve never heard about is somehow altering how you fundamentally think?
The idea that mass volumes of information becoming available, easily disseminated, and accessible at the touch of a finger creating a dulling effect on our ability to critically reason through problems is not a new one.
For instance, Nicholas Carr proposed the idea that the instantaneous nature of Google’s search functionality and ability to serve up a cocktail of useful and relevant information at a moment’s notice might actually be messing with our attention span.
What’s perhaps even a bit more frightening is the fact that Carr proposed the idea a full decade ago, in 2008, complete with a comprehensive explanation and overview of the potentially disastrous impact that the Internet renders on the way we learn and on our ability to form memories.
The article entitled, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” starts with Carr’s own assertion that the vast amount of information available to him is beginning to impact the depth at which he processes information in general.
He conjectures that his mind is adapting towards optimizing the retrieval and processing of information in a way that prioritizes breadth over depth. Carr gives the anecdotal example that he finds himself less and less capable of engaging with and enjoying long works of literature, like Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, in comparison to when he read the work in the past.
Further, the feeling of this uncanny mental shift is so disturbing to him that Carr even consults a neuroscientist in his attempts to get to the bottom of this emergent phenomenon. Consider the following excerpt:
James Olds, a professor of neuroscience who directs the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University, says that even the adult mind “is very plastic.” Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. “The brain,” according to Olds, “has the ability to reprogram itself on the fly, altering the way it functions.”
So all of that stuff about adults being set in their ways and the their neurology being solidified in a way that makes them virtually unsusceptible to changes in the amount and types of information available to them goes out the window.
Don’t think you’re above the changes and the revolution in information associated with the propagation of the digital age, or that you’ll be able to retain the way you process information through mindfulness or the sheer force of your will or awareness.
Just try going a week without using Facebook or your phone for anything other than calls and you’ll probably see how dependent you are on these information-services platforms.
No one’s safe.
But let’s forget what Google, Instagram, Facebook, WeChat, and what all of these huge social media companies are doing for a moment and focus instead on another online platform: Wikipedia.
Because Wikipedia is free and relies on user-generated content and editing — essentially crowdsourcing knowledge — people are less likely to be distrustful with the information they’re presented with on the site.
After all, there’s no incentive, no special interest, no reason that a free website would find the drive to publish biased content, at least from an intuitive and naive perspective. It’s not an unreasonable assumption to make either. Wikipedia is probably much less biased, for all intents and purposes, in comparison to any news channel or website.
The other side of this equation is that the inherent trust that people place in Wikipedia also means that it is subject to less critical scrutiny. Sure, your professors might say “Wikipedia isn’t a reliable source,” but they probably use it to look up topics they’re not familiar with on an informal basis.
To put things into perspective, Wikipedia.org is reported by Alexa to have a global rank of 5 and a U.S. rank of 6. If you’re a person and you have access to the Internet, chances are that you’re using Wikipedia, whether you’re a child, a college student, a parent, an education, or an industry professional.
The credibility of Wikipedia articles is fast-improving as well. In 2015, a large group of experts belonging to certain fields such as culture and art dedicated hours of their time towards documenting and reporting accurate information, as an article in the Wall Street Journal observes with respect to the contributions of MoMA volunteers to Wikipedia.
So with all of these forward-looking progressions regarding the scope and the quality of Wikipedia articles, what is there to lose?
Well I recently stumbled across the knowledge gap, so to speak, that comes as a result of overusing Wikipedia. While browsing online, I came across the story of the eccentric Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman.
As a result of proving the infamously difficult Poincaré conjecture, Perelman rejected both the Fields Medal (equivalent to the Nobel Prize, but for Mathematics) and another prestigious award, the Millennium Prize, both worth significant amounts of money (~$ 1M USD!).
Afterwards, he quit the field of Mathematics almost entirely to live as a recluse with his mother in his native Russia.
Why do I bring up this absurd example?
Because if you check out the Wikipedia entry on Grigori Perelman, all the details that I just mentioned above are present, including details like how he used sophisticated mathematical methods like the Ricci flow in resolving the conjecture.
That’s all and well, right? Wikipedia’s fulfilled its purpose in giving us the information we wanted to know about and we’re satisfied. Everyone can go home now.
I think anyone with a modicum of curiosity might reasonably force themselves to come to the question: “What would motivate such an accomplished mathematician to throw away arguably his life’s grandest accomplishment along with the fame and financial security accompanying it?”
That’s the question that Wikipedia doesn’t really answer, and that’s what we’re losing out on each time we check up a superficial description of an event, definition, person, and any other conceivable subject.
Eventually, we’re moving towards the path where we use Wikipedia simply to confirm that such an event happened and maybe to familiarize ourselves with a couple of the key people involved, losing our original ability to question and critically think in relation to the presented content.
More perceptive readers of the Wikipedia article might recognize that Perelman rejected the prize on the ethical grounds that his contribution was not greater than that of Richard S. Hamilton, an American mathematician that pioneered one of the crucial tools Perelman used to complete the proof.
But if we choose to dig a bit deeper into the issue, we find that quite a deep degree of intrigue and politics is involved regarding the problem of giving proper credit to the person who solved the problem.
A piece in the NYTimes by Sylvia Nasar and David Gruber gives us a much more detailed history and rundown of Grigori Perelman’s career as a mathematician and the various turning points in the story relating to the publication of the proof of the Poincaré conjecture.
We find out that at the center of Perelman’s controversial decision to become a recluse may relate to the unethical behavior of fellow Fields Medalist Shing-Tung Yau. As Nasar and Gruber summarize the tension between these mathematicians brilliantly in their report of MIT’s Dan Stroock’s perspective on the issue:
“In a real sense, Yau was Calabi’s Perelman. Now he’s on the other side. He’s had no compunction at all in taking the lion’s share of credit for Calabi-Yau. And now he seems to be resenting Perelman getting credit for completing Hamilton’s program. I don’t know if the analogy has ever occurred to him.”
I recommend giving the article a read in your free time, but basically what it boils down to is an exciting narrative of a competition over prestigious mathematical awards, credit, and fame. And to me, that’s a narrative that simply looking up the result on Wikipedia would cause us to miss.
In my opinion, the value of that story and that history, that’s what we have to lose when we use online databases on a regular and informal basis as a quick information retrieval method rather than as a method of gaining greater insight and a full picture of the situation.