More than a week ago I posted a photo that’s been making the rounds lately — and even wound up as the basis for a joke on Conan O’Brien this past week — about a student artist who had created a physical book of Wikipedia’s Featured articles, one taking up approximately 5,000 pages. I noted at the time that the explanatory text
Reproducing Wikipedia in a dysfunctional physical form helps to question its use as an internet resource.
wasn’t terribly satisfying to me, and I asked at the time
Would printing all of Google’s search results also question its use as an Internet resource? Would printing an image of a sundial question its use as a physical timekeeping device?
and I resolved to find out more if I could. In fact I did hear back from the book’s creator, Rob Matthews, not long after. When posed with the question above, he responded at first:
I’m comparing the Internet Wikipedia to a traditional encyclopedia, by putting it in the same format, therefore suggesting that Wikipedia is dysfunctional compared to a normal encyclopedia. This is suggested by how I’ve conveyed Wikipedia physically.
I still wasn’t satisfied with this, but after a bit of back and forth, Matthews confirmed that his intention was to point out, compared to a traditional paper-based encyclopedia, it’s less reliable because of its radical openness, or hard to find what’s important among the incomplete and unbalanced articles that exist on the site. Those are my words, but he agreed with this much.
I actually do not agree with this view. Not that I don’t agree there is some truth to the point, because there is, but because I do not actually see how anyone is impeded from finding what they want because of Wikipedia. Moreover, “what’s important” is always in flux, and Wikipedia is a reflection of that.
It’s also nothing new. Those who lament the fact that Wkipedia gives disproportionate coverage to trivial matters — a criticism voiced by none other than Stephen Colbert, who sarcastically riffed on the subject, “any site that’s got a longer entry on ‘truthiness’ than on Lutherans has its priorities straight” — should also recognize that these imbalances are often corrected.
I’ve never been one to take my social commentary from visual art such as painting or sculpture, in significant part because it is rare that an image or an object can convey a subtle point while also succeeding as art. For such a purpose — in this case offering commentary on a subject which is overwhelmingly composed of words — I think nonverbal art is inferior to something like the novel, the essay or even the sitcom.
Even if I thought Matthews had a strong argument about Wikipedia to make, I think this fails as standalone commentary. But if Matthews does actually sell copies of this book, consider me interested (price dependent). Mr. Matthews doesn’t have answers for his questions, but his artwork would make for an excellent conversation piece.