March 6th, 2007

Continuing from this year’s Edge Question. … What Are You Optimistic About? and Why?


Humanity’s Coming Enlightenment

Larry Sanger

I am optimistic about humanity’s coming enlightenment.

In particular, I am optimistic about humanity’s prospects for starting exemplary new collaboratively-developed knowledge resources. When we hit upon the correct models for collaborative knowledge-collection online, there will be a jaw-dropping, unprecedented, paradigm-shifting explosion in the availability of high-quality free knowledge.

Over the last few years I have received an increasing amount of mail from researchers who want to build dynamic, efficient, and enormous new knowledge resources that follow the wiki model. I believe researchers are drawn to the wiki model because they naturally love several ideas suggested by the model: working closely with large numbers of their colleagues spread over the world; updating shared knowledge on the fly and avoiding costly duplication of labor; presenting knowledge systematically and in all its glorious complexity; and providing clear and compelling free access to important knowledge of their fields to a world that, in many cases, desperately needs such access. These features make the wiki model exciting.

Researchers—scholars, scientists, professionals of all sorts, and indeed, all folks who love books—are, as I say, drawn to the wiki model of strong collaboration in growing numbers. It’s an accident of history that methods of strong collaboration online began among programmers and then spread into use by a completely egalitarian community, Wikipedia, and its many imitators. The next step in the evolution, which we are now witnessing on many fronts at once, is the adoption of wikis, and similarly dynamic and efficient “Web 2.0” methods of strong collaboration, by knowledge workers, or (as in the case of my new project, the Citizendium) huge open communities that are gently guided by experts.

I think the most fantastic knowledge resources of the near future will not be encyclopedias or textbooks. They will be brand new sorts of resources, never before possible because they require the participation of thousands, or even millions, of users. What—for example—can that quantity of people do with millions of free books at their fingertips?

Assuming as I do that expert-guided but public participatory free knowledge projects are feasible, and that—after becoming convinced of their tremendous value—millions of intellectuals from around the world will begin spending significant amounts of time developing them together, my considered view is that we are approaching a kind of intellectual revolution:

ï The time spent in library, reference, and literature research will be shortened by orders of magnitude, as increasingly detailed indexes and various kinds of maps of the literature are made available, as brilliant new search methods become available for the entire contents of enormous libraries, and as literature reviews (and similar resources) at all levels of specialization are constantly updated.

ï Indeed, due to these coming sea changes in the way the results of research are accessed, we might well see new and more efficient methods of presenting novel research to the world than the traditional peer-reviewed research paper. (I suggest nothing in particular here, but as a general point it seems not unlikely.)

ï In many fields, especially in the humanities and social sciences, what today appears to be “cutting edge” thinking will be placed into an easily-accessible historical context. It will appear as so much scholarship properly does appear: old ideas warmed-over. I think the embarrassing ease of access to historical precursors and related work will lead scholars in these fields to focus on hard study, consolidation, systematization, and maybe even teaching. Actually, I don’t think that. That would be too optimistic.

ï There will be—as is already becoming the case—a newly global research community that has a presence coextensive with the Internet itself. This, even more than the advent of the Internet itself, has the potential to bring scholars from developing nations around the globe into the world of research as nothing ever has before. A well-educated, well-plugged-in intelligentsia from every uncensored place on the map could have many remarkable effects.

ï Perhaps more important than any of the above, the ease with which information is accessed by teachers and students will require a complete and long overdue rethinking of the methods of education. What happens to education in a world in which not only *some questionable* information is available pretty quickly (as is now the case via Google and Wikipedia), but in which the most “officially” reliable information is available practically instantly to everyone? What would teachers do with their students if class were held every day in the middle of the largest library in the world?

Those are my expectations, and to have such expectations is of course to be very optimistic.

I should add that it seems the management of these information resources will have tremendous power, due to the tremendous value of their resources. So I hope that these managing bodies or persons will use their power according to the love of free speech, Western democratic republican principles of governance, and the rule of law.


LAWRENCE MARK “LARRY” SANGER has been an organizer of various online encyclopedia projects, most notably, organizing Wikipedia as a free, open, and collaborative online encyclopedia and developing many Wikipedia policies. … In May 2006, Sanger spearheaded a new collaborative project under the Digital Universe umbrella, called the Text Outline Project (textop.org), managed by a strong collaboration among a global group of scholars, with the aim of organizing the information contained in books, dictionaries, opinionated essays, and news articles — and perhaps other sources — into a single outline of human knowledge.


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