William Beutler on Wikipedia

Posts Tagged ‘Ayn Rand’

What Does Objectivism Have to Do With Wikipedia?

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on November 28, 2009 at 10:25 am

Writer Evgeny Morozov has a long essay about Wikipedia, organized as a review of Andrew Lih‘s “The Wikipedia Revolution“, in the latest issue of Boston Review. Morozov identifies his chosen takeaway in a post on his blog, but I’m interested in what he has to say, via Lih’s book, about how Wikipedia’s co-founders first met through their shared regard for the philosophy of Ayn Rand:

wikipedia_randTwo of Wikipedia’s co-founders found each other on philosophy-related mailing lists. Indeed Sanger has a philosophy PhD (his Ohio State doctoral thesis is titled “Epistemic Circularity: An Essay on the Problem of Meta-Justification”), while Wales almost completed a PhD in finance. They came to the project with assumptions about human cooperation that appear to be rooted in philosophy, economics, and evolutionary psychology (among other disciplines), but those ideas are poorly articulated in the book.

Lih does point out that Sanger and Wales were heavily influenced by Ayn Rand’s Objectivism (shades of Alan Greenspan), according to which, reality exists independent of consciousness and life’s great purpose is the rational pursuit of self-interest. Wales’s fascination with Rand was so deep that he even named his daughter after a protagonist in one of Rand’s books. But Lih does not explain the steps from Objectivism to an encyclopedia that “could detail what is true in the world without judgments.” After all, didn’t the Encyclopedia Britannica (or Diderot’s Encyclopédie, for that matter) aim to check judgments at the door and detail only “what is true in the world”? And isn’t that the aim of the new computational search engine, WolframAlpha? How does Objectivism enter the picture?

Maybe it doesn’t.

I’ve puzzled over this fact, as well. One of the core tenets of Objectivism is that altruism is no virtue. From Wikipedia’s Objectivism (Ayn Rand) entry:

A corollary to Rand’s endorsement of self-interest is her rejection of the ethical doctrine of altruism—which she defined in the sense of Auguste Comte’s altruism (he coined the term), as a moral obligation to live for the sake of others.

Yet Wikipedia’s volunteer-driven non-commercial nature seems the very definition of altruism. As an amateur observer of Objectivism and Objectivists — I ran a libertarian-leaning magazine in college — my best reconciliation is that so long as one’s motives for editing (or creating) Wikipedia are defined in terms of one’s own self-interest then there is no contradiction. If one derives personal value from research and writing for its own sake, or from esteem among one’s peers (fellow Wikipedians) then it makes perfect sense. In that case, production of an online encyclopedia useful to the world is a happy byproduct. However, If Wales or Sanger have discussed Wikipedia vis-à-vis Rand, it would be news to me.

So if the question is, how does Objectivism enter the picture, I presume that it doesn’t necessarily explain anything and that it’s entirely possible Wales and Sanger could have met on a listserv for almost any intellectual pursuit.

But Morozov is not done with Rand yet; his criticism of Lih’s book is that it raises a few theories about what motivates Wikipedians without arriving at a conclusion. Since Lih’s book is primarily a lay history of Wikipedia it doesn’t seem fair to me that Lih should have had a unified theory ahead of writing the book, though he did devote space to the subject. Morozov asks:

wikipedia_kropotkinLih relies on the work of Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler to address the puzzle. Benkler’s studies of “peer production” draw on the thought of Russian anarchist Piotr Kropotkin, who believed that cooperation is as important in the evolution of species as competition and that “mutual aid” is essential to human survival. Lih does not mention that Rand and Kropotkin are not exactly intellectual soulmates. Lih also does not explain how these two diverging philosophies—one prizing egoism, the other altruism—could live happily together in one site.

Morozov has been doing original research, because while Benkler and Kropotkin both appear in the book, they do not come within 65 pages of each other. Anyway, here is what Lih says about Benkler’s proposed explanation for Wikipedian motivations on p. 108:

He asserts that motivation comes from two main things other than money: the “socio-psychological” reward of interacting with others, and the “hedonic” personal gratification of the task.

Which is essentially identical to the rational self-interest described above; just because Randians are strong advocates for a capitalist economy does not mean they love only money. And even if there was a contradiction here, all one must do is look to Wikipedia’s pillars to see how the ideas of Rand and Kropotkin may coexist on Wikipedia in NPOV as a principle and policy.

That said, Morozov’s essay is otherwise well worth reading, as it delves into worthwhile questions about Wikipedia’s structural biases, such as its heavy reliance upon online sources (nearly always found via Google) and resulting quandaries such as determining whether a person from the 1920s may be considered Notable. Questions such as these, rather than the influence of Ayn Rand, are what keep Wikipedians up at night.

Is “Atlas Shrugged” Getting Fair Treatment on Wikipedia?

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on April 3, 2009 at 12:55 pm

Lead-ins don’t get much more intriguing than the one for an essay by EJ Moosa for a libertarian website (and subsequently picked up by Instapundit), titled “‘Atlas Shrugged’: Why has Wikipedia Removed Key Elements?”:

    What happens when you combine “1984” by George Orwell and “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand? You get a Wikipedia entry that begins to redefine what the key elements are. You get a level of censorship that defies belief. Why is this occurring?

OK, I’m hooked. The article specifically refers to a version of the article about the doorstop of a novel on Monday, so take for instance the last version of the article as it appeared on Sunday night. So what’s the specific complaint? Allegedly, there is

    a major theme that is missing: The Failure of Government.

    Search for the “Anti Dog Eat Dog rule”. Or for the “Equalization of Opportunity” bill. … Any references to them are gone from the Wikipedia entry. Search for any of the legislation passed to control private enterprise. It’s no longer there.

    What is the reason that the references to these failed government actions have been deleted from the Wikipedia page on “Atlas Shrugged”? I have my theories. I would like to hear yours

Using the handy WikiBlame tool, I decided to check the past 1,000 versions of the page for occurrences of the phrases “Equalization of Opportunity” and “dog-eat-dog” (“dog eat dog” as well, just to be sure). In fact these phrases have occured just twice and once, respectively, since July 2007.

Back in August 2008, someone added 3,200+ words of commentary that included mention of both fictional laws, Googling some of the text, was clearly unattributed from CliffsNotes. Even if it wasn’t plagiarized, it was still far too long for a Wikipedia summary, and was therefore reversed (or “reverted,” as Wikipedia says).

Then a few days later, someone added approximately seven hundred words of what appears to be a rant about the Illuminati, which also mentioned Equalization of Opportunity. Somewhere there may be a wiki for ravings about the Illuminati, but Wikipedia is not it. And so it was quickly removed as well.

But here’s the funny thing: after the Moosa essay appeared, someone got in and edited the article in question:

    The “Anti-dog-eat-dog” rule, as passed by the National Alliance of Railroads, is an example of this mooching becoming codified into law.

This time, it’s even cited to CliffsNotes. And so far it has remained. It’s not perfect, but I certainly don’t get the impression that anyone is trying to obscure the meaning behind “Atlas Shrugged,” let alone is anything like censorship happening. EJ Moosa would have been better served actually investigating the situation, rather than just asking questions and reaching for Orwell on his bookshelf.

Far from censorship, I’d say quite the opposite is happening: the article is longer than most at some 7,000+ words describing the novel in a variety of ways. If anybody is keeping this page from telling the whole story about Rand’s magnum opus, the blame lies squarely with her biggest fans.