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Embracing a Successful Anarchic Institution

May 14th, 2010 at 14:00

I recently read a May 7 article in Education Week, “Embracing Wikipedia”, where author and science teacher Matthew Shapiro makes the case for Wikipedia as a research tool, particularly for students (and therefore I guess for any casual life-long learner), competing favorably (at least in Shapiro’s opinion) with the “Gold Standard” Encyclopedia Britannica.

Heads up folks… you might even want to sit down! Wikipedia uses an anarchic form of governance. In fact, though it may be a long time until “brick and mortar” institutions adopt it, this portable, adaptable and minimalist governance model, may well be one of the biggest trends of the 21st Century, particularly in cyberspace.


Anticipating some knee-jerk reactions, there is a perhaps subtle yet profound difference between the commonly used word “anarchy”, which most people use to describe chaos and confusion, and the governance model by the same root with the “y” removed and an “ism” added.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary describes “anarchism” as…

A political theory holding all forms of governmental authority to be unnecessary and undesirable and advocating a society based on voluntary cooperation and free association of individuals and groups.

In the Wiktionary we get a somewhat different definition…

The political theory that a community is best organized by the voluntary cooperation of individuals, rather than by a government, which is regarded as being coercive by nature.

I have to laugh, since Wiktionary is an “open source” (like its encyclopedia cousin Wikipedia) dictionary that can be edited by anyone, but is generally maintained by a large informal “committee” of volunteers, which makes it in fact, an anarchic institution. No surprise then that its bias is to give the word anarchism a better spin, and take a poke at the competition in that last clause.
Wikipedia describes itself as a…

Free, web-based, collaborative, multilingual encyclopedia project supported by the non-profit Wikimedia Foundation. Its 15 million articles (over 3.2 million in English) have been written collaboratively by volunteers around the world, and almost all of its articles can be edited by anyone with access to the site.

Well anarchic institutions like Wikipedia, that are run informally be regular folks rather than formally by experts, don’t get much respect. Shapiro points out in his article that there are a fair amount of teachers that he works with discourage their students from using Wikipedia as a source, but he does not share their concern, saying…

Like any encyclopedia, the online resource Wikipedia is not a perfect reference guide; however, it is an excellent place for students to start the research process and has immense pedagogical value for teachers.

My son Eric, who left school at age 14 and continued pursuing his education on his own, became very versed in current events, history and other areas of knowledge by reading the online edition of the New York Times every day and looking up anything he read that caught his interest on Wikipedia, drilling down from article to article until he was satisfied he understood.

Speaking to its veracity relative to a traditional encyclopedia written by paid experts…

A recent study, published in Nature, showed that for every four errors found in Wikipedia, there were three errors found in the Encyclopedia Britannica. Yet that study was conducted in 2005, and since then those same Wikipedia entries have been subjected to intense online scrutiny. Each entry is assigned a discussion board to resolve disputes, and particularly contentious battles can be resolved by “admins.” These online arguments can actually improve the quality of the information.

That last statement by the author speaks to the possibility that a reference maintained by an informal (anarchic) web of volunteers can be better than one traditionally maintained. Going into more detail on this point he says…

When I worry about the accuracy of the information, I can check the citations (which are also hyperlinked) to separate fact from fiction. But in general, I don’t worry. After all, if people volunteer their free time to share their passions — whether it is for football or physics — chances are they know their stuff. Take the example of Vaughan Bell, a neuropsychologist at London’s Institute of Psychiatry. He has continually reworked the Wikipedia entry on schizophrenia, not because he is paid to do so, but rather because he is passionate about the topic.

Here the anarchic volunteer model may in fact be superior in our modern wired world, because it engages the passions of the people most interested in the topic around the world. Could this be an evolutionary model for our human race, moving from hierarchical institutions of top-down control toward more informal self-forming organizations based on love, the love of knowledge? Moving from Britannica to Wikipedia?

Even the Britannica cannot deny the value of online contributors, since its editors recently allowed their online encyclopedia to be modified by readers (although reader edits must go through a review board).

Wikipedia is just one example of a new generation of institutions that the anarchic Internet can spawn, harnessing the power of caring individuals all around the world and substituting un-paid volunteer passion for paid expertise.

This piece is more a rumination than a solidly argued position piece. But given my biases as a right-brained non-linear thinker, activist, and a person with a love of improvisation and not doing the same thing the same way twice, I like anarchism as a very useful governance model moving forward into this new century. Not perhaps for countries or such geographic entities, but maybe for the kind of emerging knowledge infrastructure that may mark this new information era.

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