The principle of the ’democratisation of information’ has always puzzled me. Why on earth should information be democratised?
Democracy is a potent tool for building stable governments because it ensures participation, direct or through representation, in government by a majority of the people. In effect, it’s a reverse oligarchy – it’s the tyranny of the majority rather than the tyranny of a minority, such as the wealthy or a particular family.
This means it’s unlikely for a (healthy) democracy to descend into civil war because, in principle, the majority will always be relatively content, and they will always outnumber the minorities. That’s not to say it’s a perfect system but giving people a voice eliminates many problems found in other non-democratic systems of government.
The key is that each citizen has a voice, regardless of how informed that voice may be. A person, for example, might be entirely misinformed about the causes of their suffering, but the fact they’re suffering is indisputable, and democracy gives them an opportunity to make the government respond.
Thus the strength of democracy is also its greatest weakness: the suffering of the majority might well be acknowledged and addressed, yet the response may well be inept if guided by misinformed voters.
This fact has troubled many throughout history, not least of whom was Plato. From Plato’s point of view, the truth was not open to negotiation, nor was it to be found through consensus. Yet when it came to the curly truths of good governance, that’s precisely what democracy did.
Consider someone seeking the answer to a problem in mathematics. Should they conduct a straw poll to find the answer? Or should they contact their local university’s mathematics department?
Democracy, and its principle of popular consensus, might be successful in creating a stable government, but it’s not a principle that can be reliably applied to seeking truth or knowledge. Information should not be democratised. Yet this is precisely one of the central tenets of Wikipedia.
Certainly, Wikipedia claims that it’s not strictly a democracy in its policies and guidelines, although this refers to the process of voting to find consensus. However, Wikipedia encourages submissions from all sources, expert or not. It explicitly believes in knowledge by consensus.
As stated in the Wikipedia editing policy: ‘One person can start an article with, perhaps, an overview or a few random facts. Another person can add a minority opinion. Someone else can round off the article with additional perspectives. Yet another can play up an angle that has been neglected, or reword the earlier opinions to a more neutral point of view’, and so on. Who these ‘someones’ are is not considered terribly important. They could be experts, they could be informed laypersons, or they could be entirely ignorant of the issue at hand. So, is this any way to run an encyclopaedia?
I think it is. Wikipedia acknowledges the risks, and takes measures to mitigate them. It recently introduced a semi-protection policy, allowing ?a page to be temporarily locked to prevent vandalism or editing by known unreliable sources. This is very undemocratic, which means it’s a good thing.
Online evangelists who believe information should be free may not like it, but the restrictions on editing articles on Wikipedia, and the growing bureaucracy enforcing it, is creating a better information resource.
Wikipedia will never be 100 percent reliable, but despite its flaws, it’s one of the most important repositories of info on the planet.