Jimmy Wales on Governance in Wikipedia
June 6th, 2010

Given the incessant demands on his time, I was fortunate to snag a whole thirty minutes with Jimmy Wales at the Personal Democracy Forum in NYC on Thursday, June 3rd. And in those thirty minutes, I decided to explore Wikipedia not as a tool for enabling democracy, but as a model of emergent and adaptive governance, i.e. as a community in which a complex governance system emerged and adapts dynamically to the needs of its members. Posed as a question, how might our thinking about democracy in particular and governance in general learn from Wikipedia’s governance system, and the conditions conducive to its emergence?

I started by asking Jimmy about the influence of Friedrich von Hayek’s essay The Use of Knowledge in Society on his initial thinking about Wikipedia. Hayek wrote this essay at the dawn of the Cold War, and set the stage for its main political controversy by making the argument that market economies are more efficient than centrally-planned economies at producing information. Jimmy compared Encyclopedia Britannica to a centrally-planned economy, in which entries are produced by a central editorial body, and had sought to create a market-style encyclopedia, where information production was “pushed out to the end-points.” Wikipedia is therefore not akin to anarchy, as it’s oftentimes mistaken to be, but moreso to a market economy with well-defined rules and processes. He added the caveat that Britannica has its strengths and weaknesses, which of course begs the question of which types of entries are better produced by centrally-planned Britannica versus market-style Wikipedia, analogous to the gargantuan-yet-relevant question of which types of functions are better fulfilled by a centrally-planned versus market-based system. He added that the current ratio of encyclopedic entries produced by Britannica relative to Wikipedia is tiny and shrinking, to which I’ll add my own completely untested hypothesis that the same will be true for the ratio of proprietary software to open-source software, and non-peer to peer production in general (though this conceptualizes Wikipedia not as a market economy, but as a commons-based peer production system).

Going further, Jimmy sees the evolution and current state of Wikipedia’s governance system as more similar to that of the UK than the US. The American system began with a constitution, and although the system has evolved, the constitution remains its origin and core. On the other hand, much of what goes on in the British system is convention, “unwritten rules and all kinds of interesting leftover questions that don’t get answered because they don’t need to be.” In the British system, the powers of the monarch are mysterious but certain – the queen has the right to dissolve parliament at will, and although she’ll only do so according to existing procedures, she’s still a monarch. Similarly in Wikipedia, Jimmy can make sweeping decisions, and although checks and balances are built into the system, it’s still effectively a “constitutional monarchy.”

When asked more generally about what democracy might learn from Wikipedia, Jimmy responds that a large part of it is cultural. “Occasional we fail, and as our system gets older,” like that of the UK, “what’s done versus what’s written doesn’t necessarily correspond.” He also warns that it’s dangerous to speculate too far. “A close study of how Wikipedia functions can inform all kinds of online activities and organizations,” and more broadly, can enlighten thinking on “how to create a culture that’s sustainable” – balancing the need for rules and the exclusion of people who misbehave, on the one hand, with that of tolerance and openness on the other, so that the work can get done. Although done in good faith, he says, many communities tear themselves apart on the ‘exclusion of misbehavers’ issue, and become besieged.

With less than two minutes on the clock, I asked Jimmy where he sees government headed in the next century or so, given what we came to discuss at PDF, namely how technology is changing government and politics. (Figured I’d end with something short and sweet.) He responded that he’s a carpenter, not an architect, and has no grand unified vision. (Interestingly, in her call to arms for internet advocates and entrepreneurs to defend broadband access at PDF the following day, Susan Crawford criticized Jimmy for saying that he “just builds websites,” implying that he’s much more of a ‘website-builder,’ and should own up to his power and use it to defend broadband. Whether rightfully or not, it seems Jimmy likes to deny power the attributed to him.) He referred to The Victorian Internet, a book about the invention of the telegraph, and how the same utopian and dystopian predictions were made about the telegraph then as are being made about the internet now. In that sense, he said he’s neither a utopian nor a dystopian vis-a-vis the implications of the internet for government and politics. I’m not sure whether this non-answer framed in binary terms was due to the fact that we had zero time left, or a manifestation of PDF’s framing the conversation in binary terms, with the overarching question of PDF2010 being “Can technology fix politics?” (which assumes a yes/no answer and IMHO inspires a less sophisticated, more simplistic conversation – more on that later). Either way, bringing it back home, Jimmy concluded with an anecdote about the Farsi Wikipedia entry for the last summer’s elections in Iran, which he had a bilingual friend translate for him and was heartwarmed to find was surprisingly neutral. He shared this with with me to illustrate why, although he doesn’t consider himself a utopian nor a dystopian, he feels “optimistic.”

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