Monday, September 18, 2006

The bounds of intellectual expression

I have written a lot about the uses and abuses of intellectual freedom on university campuses. But about a week ago a story came out on the attempt by China to restrict what Wikipedia could put in its encyclopedia. The Wiki idea is an interesting one. It allows anyone to help create an entry - there is a hierarchy however, in that editors can go through and correct obvious errors and can take out screeds. I have contributed in a the areas that I know something about. As they have said to Google and Microsoft and Yahoo, the Chinese government banned such a radical idea as Wikipedia. The other providers have knuckled under to the Chinese demands but Wikipedia said - ok so you want to deprive your people of this kind of information - so be it. But we (wikipedia) have established a set of rules that everyone else is willing to play by and we have decided that people who want to control the discussion of some issues - either through censorship or through rants - won't be allowed to contribute or ultimately to use the resources of this collaborative human project.

The founder of Wikipedia is a guy named Jimmy Wales - his picture is attached. From my view he sounds like a pretty sensible guy. I think the Wiki stand to China was the right one. Interestingly, today a Belgian court prohibited Google from using pointers to talk about news in Belgian newspapers. So Google knuckled under to China only to be knuckled over by a Belgian court. At the same time the publishers of out of date books are trying to sabotage a project, again by Google, to digitize libraries. In that case what is the effect? Belgian newspapers are a little less available on the net and thus a lot less influential in helping the rest of the world read about their news and views. In the end that hurts the very papers that the court was trying to protect. And for the libraries that can't be digitized? Their information, again is a bit less available, and thus a bit less valuable - both to the individual and to the holder of the copyright.

Chris Anderson, an editor of Wired Magazine, wrote an article that expanded into a ChangeThis! Memorandum and eventually into a book called the Long Tail. In it he argues that the value of content is extensible in digital form - where as in physical form it is hard to keep an inventory of many things - in the digital form content can be replicated to a specific, albeit potentially small group of interested parties. The more we understand the principle and the more we understand the relative ease by which people can retreive and use odd units of information, and simultaneously the more we understand that the previous limits of expertise have been redefined as simply too narrow. The better we will be for it.

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