October 5, 2010

Happy Birthday, Denis Diderot

Born on this day in 1713, in Langres, France, Diderot became most famous for an encyclopedia of knowledge that he created (of course with some help from friends and coworkers!).

An encyclopedia is a reference work that has articles on a wide range of topics. Although encyclopedias have been around since ancient times, having been invented separately in ancient Greece and China, Diderot changed the way we think of encyclopedias. Up until his time, an encyclopedist would gather scholarly and academic knowledge but not practical how-to's, craft lore, or “folk” knowledge.

Diderot spent time learning and writing about such skills as cloth dying, metalwork, and glassware production. In many cases he was writing down for the first time information that had been passed down orally from master to apprentice, and many or most of the practitioners of these crafts were illiterate and so could not have written the information down.

Diderot included in these articles about everyday topics many detailed illustrations that further explained the trades.

Diderot's encyclopedia gained a lot of interest from readers but also anger from the rich and powerful. Many members of the aristocracy and scholars hated the encyclopedia because it elevated folk knowledge to the same level as the traditional areas of knowledge. The French clergy and government hated it because it seemed to question the way society operated. There was a lot of attempted suppression—including police raids looking for manuscripts (Diderot hid them), imprisonment, court orders to cease publication, and confiscation of thousands of printed volumes (which were kept in the Bastille! – oh, the irony!).

But Diderot carried on, working and publishing in secret when he had to. Many people contributed to the encyclopedia by writing articles, including famous thinkers and writers like Voltaire and Rousseau, but as time went on and the persecution became more harsh, many contributors were scared away from the project, and Diderot had to write hundreds of articles himself.

You know how history turns out? Diderot is remembered far more than those who tried to suppress him, and his populist ideas—including the idea that all kinds of knowledge are valuable and could be widely available to all—spread and changed the world, despite all the suppressers' strong-arm tactics!

Today's encyclopedias...

We tend to use the internet more than the library, these days, and even families who love books and prioritize education tend to use Wikipedia or other online references rather than buying a set of encyclopedias. The reason, of course, is that online sources are updated more easily and frequently, so the expense of an encyclopedia (not to mention the bulk of shelving a multi-volume reference) would be wasted on something that is outdated by the time it's finished printing, let alone shipped and sold.

Once again, however, there is controversy about access to knowledge. Although Wikipedia only launched about nine years ago, there are already more than three million entries in more than 100 languages—and it's all available for free to anyone with the ability to surf the web. Wikipedia is by far the largest and most popular encyclopedia ever created. Not so great for publishers of reference books, sure, but super great for everyone else, right?

Well, some people scold us for our use of Wikipedia, saying that just “anyone” can write an article. They worry that Wikipedia is open to bias and inaccuracies.

They're right, of course. Wikipedia is created by humans, and since humans have biases and make mistakes, Wikipedia will have some of each. However, supporters point out that the transparency and democracy of Wikipedia's writing and editing process actually does a lot to make sure that entries are fair and that mistakes will be corrected. Of course, one cannot count on every single fact and every single sentence being 100% correct—but researchers have found that highly esteemed encyclopedias such as the Encyclopædia Britannica have the same mistake rate as Wikipedia!

These are a few of my favorite things...

  • One thing that I really like about Wikipedia is that it has a large amount of non-academic content. Popular culture items such as Ninjas versus Pirates, Stephen Colbert's Tek Jansen character, the Flying Spaghetti Monster,
    and the last live show I went to, RAIN: A Tribute to the Beatles—all have informative articles on Wikipedia. Even though I love the fact that I can look up stuff like that, some people
    don't like all the pop culture stuff on the same website as articles about supposedly better classes of knowledge, such as who Denis Diderot was and what he did with his life.

  • Another thing I like about Wikipedia is that it is updated really frequently, so it can almost be looked on as a news source. I heard something about Rick Sanchez being fired from CNN for something he said a few days ago. I checked on October 4 to see if this firing, which occurred on October 2, was already on Wikipedia—and it was!

  • Speaking of Stephen Colbert (a couple of items above), in the summer of 2006 the comedian asked people to jump onto Wikipedia and edit an article about African elephants to say that their population had tripled in the past six months. So a lot of people did. There were other Colbert-inspired edits elsewhere in the online reference. The fact that these articles were edited to have lies—even funny lies—is one piece of evidence used by people who are critical of the entire Wiki project.

However, the humorous lies were taken out of the factual articles very quickly, and the articles that were subject to Colbert-nation “attack” were frozen for a short period of time (which means no editing was allowed). We can still enjoy the humor, however, because the story of the Colbert-Wikipedia incident, and some of the best edits, live on in Wikipedia.
  • According to the Stochastic Scientist and others, some college students have the very worthwhile assignment of writing Wikipedia articles about aspects of their class subject. 

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