A game about Wikipedia (and, by the way, not every artist praises compulsive file sharing)

You don’t have to be a corporate manager of a music firm, or a big shot in a Hollywood blockbuster company to be against limitless file sharing. Indeed, you could be a technologist, a pioneer of many cutting edge technologies including virtual reality, or a musician. Jaron Lanier is all of them, and his book You are not a gadget is a provocative manifesto against many of the clichés of Web 2.0: that the “wisdom of crowd” (i.e. the belief that the collective opinion of many informed people is more effective that those of a small number of experts) could produce really innovative ideas, that limitless file sharing will help the evolution of art and science and at the same time allow artists and scientists to make a living out of their work, and many more.

But that’s not what I’m talking about in this post — this book has so many facets (some of them leading to questionable opinions, especially on modern music) that it would take a long post to make a decent summary of it, let alone to comment it properly. So, I recommend you to read the book (more about it here) in order to hear an interesting voice whatever your opinion on Web 2.0 is. Instead, I write here about something (lighter) that I learned from Lanier’s work. It’s a game about (against?) Wikipedia.

Let me start by saying: I love Wikipedia. It is my first source on anything I don’t know at all and want to get an idea about – even though, when I want to go deeper, I search somewhere else in the web or in books. I’m glad it’s there, and I wish it a long life.

But the kind of information Wikipedia is specialized in is what modernists named pop culture, and traditionalists would not call culture at all. According to Wikipedia itself, pop culture is

the entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes, memes, images and other phenomena that are preferred by an informal consensus within the mainstream of a given culture, especially Western culture of the early to mid 20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the late 20th and early 21st century. Heavily influenced by mass media, this collection of ideas permeates the everyday lives of the society.

So Wikipedia delves deep into the temper of Lost characters, devoting 3577 words to the post about life and destiny of Kate Austen, and not quite as much into Dostoyevsky’s Alyosha Karamazov, who deserves 1/10 of the words1 (Lanier criticizes Wikipedia for more important aspects, but again see the book for that2). It was not me who noticed this at first, and not even Lanier, and probably not even a San Francisco guy named Jon Hendren, who nevertheless popularized a game based on that: Wiki-groaning, which even earned a paragraph on Wall Street Journal.

The game is as follows: pick two Wikipedia entries that have similar names (perfect matches are rare, but striking: try John Locke), but clearly different importance, one from a “classical” subject (literature, science, history, etc.), the other being a pop culture fetish. Compare the number of words and the quality of the posts. Then giggle, think some standard thoughts on the decay of modern culture3, share this all with your friends, and get back to do something more useful.

Here’s an appetizer of what you would find4:

Amygdala (section of the brain of primary importance for emotions and memory): 2150 words.
vs.
Padmé Amidala (Star Wars character): 5282 words.

Quantum (physical concept): 622 words.
vs.
Quantum of Solace (James Bond movie): 7922 words.

Anderson (car from the early 1900s, considered the most successful product in south US car industry): 326 words, 1 picture.
vs.
Thomas A. Anderson (fictional character from The Matrix series, better known by his alias Neo): 3727 words, 1 picture.
vs.
Pamela Anderson (actress, former playmate): 3848 words, 6 pictures.

Prime Number (mathematical object): 7841 words.
vs.
Optimus Prime (Transformer character): 26546 words.

Leon Cooper (physicist, Nobel laureate): 450 words.
vs.
Mini Cooper (posh car): 9371 words.

and my favourite one:

Donatello (Italian Renaissance painter): 1614 words.
vs.
Donatello (teenage mutant ninja turtle): 2809 words.

Have fun!


Notes

1. Even though Jane Austen wins over Kate by roughly 2000 words.
2. Here is something else about Wikipedia Lanier points out in the book: the hitchhiker’s guide of Douglas Adams’s celebrated series is an encyclopedia on everything that can be useful to know when travelling around the universe. It can be instantaneously updated by anyone who has a copy by just typing on a keyboard. Basically, Douglas Adams predicted Wikipedia.
3. Let me remark that pop culture in general is not evil. Many amazing things came out of that. Just to mention one: several great short stories by David Foster Wallace have their roots deep into pop culture, see e.g. the collection The girl with curious hair. What one criticizes here is the exaggerate shift towards pop culture.
4. If you happen to know the pop culture fetishes mentioned here, but not their “classical counterparts”, then this is a clear symptom of the fact that the kind of culture most media propose us is, in fact, very pop.
(This was my contribution to the “standard thoughts on the decay of modern culture” mentioned above).
 
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