Do you support Wikipedia? News from the Trenches of the Science Wars 2.0

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This is a paper I wrote for a class on “Technology and Critique” – a class that blended critical theory with Science and Technology Studies.  Taking from Bruno Latour’s “Do you believe in Reality?  News from the Trenches of the Science Wars,” this work is a critical examination of the way in which the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia has been implicitly cast as a continuation of the Science Wars.  Instead of debating about the efficacy and authority of science, academics are now debating the efficacy and authority of Wikipedia. Using Martin Heidegger’s work on ontology and technology, I argue that this particular academic mindset is a way of being-in-the-world that works to either affirm or negate the integration of Wikipedia into its particular projects – namely, the production of academic knowledge.  However, I show that asking whether Wikipedia is a reliable academic source enframes Wikipedia into an objectless standing-reserve of potential citations, foreclosing many other possibilities for its use.  Instead of following Steven Colbert and countless academics by asking what Wikipedia has done to reality, I ask: what have we done to Wikipedia in the name of reality?

When others ask about my academic works and interests, I usually describe myself as someone who comes from a rather multidisciplinary background – philosophy, anthropology, rhetoric, Science and Technology Studies (STS) – and am interested in collaborative and user-generated content on the Internet. Specifically, I talk about my interest in Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that anyone can edit. The last item in this list usually raises some eyebrows, as it seems that everyone in academia has some sort of opinion on this radically new form of knowledge production that pops up nearly every time one queries any major web search engine like Google or Yahoo. Assuming that such a conversation was not merely a formal pleasantry, the following line frequently arises in some form or another: “Here is the problem I have with Wikipedia.”

Often spoken slowly, this sentence is uttered as if it is the preface to what will be a devastating argument, one that will innocently erode my entire research and undermine the subject of my study. “Here is the problem,” they say. “No matter how good on average Wikipedia becomes, no matter how many times Nature certifies it as accurate, and no matter how many people are there checking every edit, there is always the chance that someone has slipped in some disinformation immediately before you visit an article.” Despite the fact that I have heard this critique of Wikipedia countless times, I am still unsure how to answer it. For now, I have settled on the strategy of making myself look confused and asking, “So?”

This usually evokes an intended response of subsequent confusion by my inquisitor. “So? What do you mean, so? It means that Wikipedia can never be reliable, no matter how much time and effort is put into it,” I am told. I can do nothing but agree, although I have absolutely no idea why any of this should matter. “Obviously, there are going to be errors” I begin, but am interrupted. “But the errors in academic publications are different,” comes a pre-emptive response to an objection I did not intend to make. Who said anything about academic publishing, and why is it being compared to Wikipedia? When I tell them that I do not see Wikipedia as a reliable source, and especially when I state that academic publications are far more trustworthy than the user-edited encyclopedia, the conversation shifts dramatically. I apparently was on their side after all.

But whose side am I on, anyway, and more importantly, who are we fighting against? This is revealed with another type of conversation I tend to have with academics – one that happens less often, I should add. After I talk about how I come from philosophy, anthropology, rhetoric, and STS and that am also interested in Wikipedia, their eyes light up. “You know,” the conversation sometimes starts, “I used to not allow my students to cite Wikipedia in their papers.” The confessional continues, sometimes with a rather lengthy narrative about how they started spending time browsing the encyclopedia and found it to be an invaluable resource in their own work. Triumphantly, they often conclude by stating something to the effect of, “And even Science and Nature have to print retractions sometimes, right?”

So these are the battle lines: to cite or not to cite. Those who are “pro-Wikipedia” see the encyclopedia as a valuable and reliable academic resource that can be cited like any other reference work. Those who are “anti-Wikipedia” see the encyclopedia as one that is inherently unstable, and most assuredly not something that should be cited in any scholarly work. In short, it draws on the question: Is Wikipedia accurate?

In this war, the lines have been drawn and academics are taking sides: Nature famously published an article in which they compared Wikipedia to the Encyclopedia Britannica, and found that they roughly contained the same amount of errors. Subsequent comparisons have been published in academic journals, most notably The Chronicle of Higher Education, which gave high marks to some articles and near-failing ones to others. The article, titled “Can Wikipedia Ever Make the Grade?” ended with a note of ambivalence that implied a negative answer to the question raised. In a well-cited article published in The Journal of American History, Roy Rosenzweig made the same argument, but suggested that academics should work on Wikipedia. The History department of Middlebury College famously voted to ban the use of Wikipedia in papers, and have been called the most reactionary when it comes to the encyclopedia.

Let us examine one of the most widely cited academic articles on Wikipedia: Nature’s 2005 “Internet Encyclopedia’s go Head to Head.” The editorial staff at Nature sent two copies of the same scientific article from Wikipedia and Britannica Online to experts, and asked them to review them for “factual errors, omissions or misleading statements.” With 162 total errors in Wikipedia and 132 in Britannica, the journal concluded that “Jimmy Wales’ Wikipedia comes close to Britannica in terms of the accuracy of its science entries.” In slightly more than one-thousand words, Nature significantly increased Wikipedia’s credibility in the academic eye, without materially changing any of Wikipedia’s content. Simply by being vetted by Nature against Britannica was taken as a sign of accuracy by many. Subsequent studies of a similar nature followed, the most notable being Roy Rosenweig’s “Can History Be Open Source?” published in The Journal of American History and Brock Read’s “Can Wikipedia Ever Make the Grade?” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In both, the goal and result was the same: to examine the reliability of Wikipedia’s articles and come to a conclusion regarding their scholarly quality; both gave mixed reviews indicating that Wikipedia was good, but far from perfect.

Taking a look at scholarly articles regarding Wikipedia, the most cited and/or relevant articles according to various databases are almost always about the project’s reliability, and implicitly or explicitly its worthiness of being an academic source. What follows are EBSCO’s Academic Search Premier’s top ten scholarly articles about Wikipedia, sorted by the database’s relevance scale. Below each title is a quote from the article.

Wikipedia(s) on the language map of the world. [1]

Wikipedia contains nonsense alongside the sense; it contains propaganda and error alongside the facts. It is fiercely up to date, except when it isn’t. Wikipedia is an encyclopedia for the world as it is. It seems likely that it will continue to be the encyclopedia that the world deserves.

Wikipedia and Psychology:Coverage of Concepts and Its Use by Undergraduate Students. [2]

Wikipedia’s coverage of psychological topics was comprehensive and prominently displayed on the major search engines. In addition, a majority of undergraduate students reported referring to Wikipedia for both personal and school-related activities; however, few students reported using Wikipedia as a formal reference in academic work.

Wikipedia and academic peer review: Wikipedia as a recognised medium for scholarly publication? [3]

[The title should be self-explanatory.]

Evaluating authoritative sources using social networks: an insight from Wikipedia. [4]

Findings – Finds that the question of the reliability regarding Wikipedia content is a challenging one and as Wikipedia grows, the problem becomes more demanding, especially for topics with controversial views such as politics or history.

Beyond Wikipedia. [5]

[This article is not actually about Wikipedia.]

Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past. [6]

To that end, this article seeks to answer some basic questions about history on Wikipedia. How did it develop? How does it work? How good is the historical writing?

Wikipedia rival calls in the experts. [7]

Wikipedia has never given experts special standing when it comes to determining content. And that, critics say, deters the people who ought to be contributing from doing so. Just how big a drawback that is will now be tested, with the launch of an online encyclopaedia that will give privileged status to scientists and other experts. Citizendium, a pilot version of which is due to go live in the next week […] Editors with appropriate academic qualifications will have the power to settle disputes about wording, for example, and stamp articles they perceive to be accurate as ‘approved’.

Wikipedia in the Newsroom [8]

While the line ‘according to Wikipedia’ pops up occasionally in news stories, it’s relatively rare to see the user-created online encyclopedia cited as a source. But some journalists find it very valuable as a road map to troves of valuable information.

Citing Wikipedia. [9]

The words “according to Wikipedia” occasionally appear in newspapers. Some editors’ thoughts on newsroom Wikipedia use:

Wikipedia, DDB, and the Virtual International Authority File (VIAF). [10]

Concluding page: The arrangement is mutually beneficial: Wikipedia obtains a highly structured authoritative crossreferencing structure for access to its biographies; DDB [a German biographical database] obtains new visibility and a means of bringing new patrons to its catalog.

Publications in The Chronicle of Higher Education follow a similar trend, as the five most relevant articles about Wikipedia are (again, according to the site’s own relevance feature):

Can Wikipedia Ever Make the Grade? [11]

The openness that makes Wikipedia so alluring to its contributors is precisely what discomfits scholars. Because anyone can post, the site is in a constant state of flux — which creates plenty of opportunity for abuse. The common scholarly perception that the site is error-prone is true, if momentary lapses in accuracy are counted.

Building an Encyclopedia, With or Without Scholars [12]

Mr. Colbert portrayed a stereotype that may resonate with some scholars — that of the ignorant rube who wields Wikipedia as a weapon against expertise. “Who is Britannica to tell me George Washington had slaves? If I want to say George Washington didn’t have slaves, that’s my right.

Adventures in the Land of Wikipedia [13]

For now, Wikipedia works. I can hardly wait to start another entry drawn from my research. After my experience receiving an excellent assist from this anonymous knowledge army, I’m prepared to believe that Wikipedia’s millions of eyes will continue its evolution and improve its quality.

Co-Founder of Wikipedia, Now a Critic, Starts Spinoff With Academic Editors [14]

This month Mr. Sanger announced the creation of Citizendium, an interactive online encyclopedia that will be open to public contributors but guided by academic editors. The site seeks to give academics more authorial control — and a less combative environment — than they find on Wikipedia, which affords all users the same editing privileges, whether they have any proven expertise or not.

Middlebury College History Department Limits Students’ Use of Wikipedia [15]

This spring students in history courses at Middlebury College will find a new disclaimer on syllabi warning them that, while Wikipedia is fine for some background research, it is not to be used as a primary source.

At this point, a poignant objection can be made to this line of inquiry: given that Wikipedia is an encyclopedia, why should we be focusing on the fact that academics are looking at Wikipedia’s reliability and accuracy? What else is there to look at, besides whether or not the articles present in Wikipedia are encyclopedic and how they are referenced outside of the project? To answer this, we should turn to the Wikipedian Community, and see what they are talking about at the past Wikimanias, the annual conference of Wikipedians:

In 2005, the first Wikimania was held in Frankfurt, Germany. The keynote speeches were: “Ten Things That Will Be Free,” in which Jimmy Wales discussed applying Wikipedia’s model to other cultural products; “Wikis Then and Now,” in which Ward Cunningham talked about Wikipedia’s predecessors; “Enterprise Wiki Use,” in which Ross Mayfield showed how businesses are using wiki technology; and “Copyright and Community,” in which Richard Stallman argued that copyleft publishing (which Wikipedia uses) is the only way to foster a meaningful, egalitarian community in the digital age. [16]

In 2006, the second Wikimania was held in Boston, USA. Lawrence Lessig spoke on “The Ethics of the Free Culture Movement.” Benjamin Mako Hill, in a related speech, argued that Wikipedia and the Free Culture Movement do not have a unified definition of what freedom is, and need one desperately. David Weinberger, in a presentation titled “What’s Happening to Knowledge,” claimed that Wikipedia undermines traditional concepts of knowledge and works to create meaning instead of knowledge. In “Universal Access to All Knowledge,” Brewster Kahle argued that all knowledge should be made freely available on the Internet for the good of humanity. Florence Devouard, in “Wikimedia Foundation: Building in Diversity,” spoke about increasing cultural diversity and decreasing systemic bias in Wikipedia. [17]

In 2007, the third Wikimania was held in Taipei, Taiwan. Samuel Klein talked about countering systemic bias by partnering with organizations which distribute computers to third world nations. David Beall and Sabahat Ashraf both gave presentations advocating the use of the project to advance social justice worldwide. A panel was held in which the participants discussed how Wikipedia’s power structure could be more democratic. Delphine Ménard spoke on multiculturalism and how problems of social and cultural conflicts function in Wikipedia. Mathias Schindler compared the economic model of Wikipedia’s web-based publication with that of paper-based encyclopedias throughout history. [18]

Of course, these are only a small sample of the presentations and speeches given at these conferences, and there was much discussion regarding reliability, quality, and Wikipedia’s use in other systems of knowledge production. However, these did not dominate the conferences. Interestingly, out of the almost seventy presentations and speeches given at Wikimania 2007, only about fifteen discussed Wikipedia’s role in educational settings, and most were not focused specifically on the issue of Wikipedia as a reliable, academic source. In fact, a search for “Middlebury,” referring to Middlebury College (who banned Wikipedia as a reference source in February of 2007) on the Wikimania 2007 database of abstracts, presentations, proceedings, and conference-related discussion returns zero results. Considering that the conference was held six months after the well-publicized event that is still being debated in academia, this may be seen as rather surprising omission.

Not so, from the Wikipedian point of view. Wikipedians have perpetually occupied a liminal space with respect to the concept of reliability. Wikipedians have always wanted their project to be considered a reliable, citable source, but simultaneously have known that they are not quite at that level, yet. The first instance of this can be seen in an article published on Kuro5hin in September 2001, a mere eight months after the project was founded. Co-founder Larry Sanger wrote that:

We think we are–gradually, and sometimes from very rough first drafts–developing a reliable resource. […] It seems very likely that, in coming months, Wikipedia will set up some sort of approval process, whereby certain versions of articles receive the stamp of approval of some body of Wikipedia reviewers. […] But after it’s in place, we will be able to present a set of genuine expert-approved articles that can favorably compare with articles from any general encyclopedia–Britannica included. [19]

The project has long had a set of disclaimers, and a specific statement regarding Wikipedia’s lack of accuracy has, with a few short exceptions, been a part of the article “Citing Wikipedia” since February of 2004: “As with any online source, you should be wary and independently verify the accuracy of Wikipedia information if possible; see also our General Disclaimer page.” [20] Furthermore, when examining the history of articles that are to guide readers who are interested in citing Wikipedia, references to a proposed system of certification frequently appear and vanish. Such a system has never been a part of Wikipedia in the seven years of its existence, and is the main reason for Larry Sanger’s resignation from the project and establishment of Citizendium.

While students often express outrage and claims of censorship when they learn of professors or departments forbidding the use of Wikipedia as a citable source in papers, the Wikipedia community is generally understanding, if a bit disappointed. However, when Jimmy Wales told a group of students that he had no sympathy for them when they failed a paper because they used Wikipedia as a source, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s headline was “Wikipedia Founder Discourages Academic Use of His Creation.” [21] Such a characterization shows that, at least for the Chronicle, the only possible use of Wikipedia in an academic setting is as a reliable source that could be cited in papers.

So what? All we have shown is that academics and Wikipedians construct two different Wikipedias: academics view anything that claims to be an encyclopedia in terms of its value as a reference, and Wikipedians often have a radically different conception of their project and how it should be judged. Obviously, we should not assume that the academics are wrong and Wikipedians are right simply by virtue of the Wikipedians knowing their project better, just like we should not assume, apropos science, that social constructivists are wrong and scientists are right for the same reason. Instead of framing this issue around who actually represents Wikipedia correctly, we should instead interrogate the conditions of possibility for this disconnect in the first place. If the Wikipedian community generally understands that Wikipedia is not a reliable source and should not be definitively cited in papers, then why has the debate over Wikipedia’s status as a reliable source emerged in academia? Why are there two Wikipedias: one literally created by Wikipedians and not deemed to be a reliable source, and the other co-constructed by two opposing factions in academia despite the warnings from the source of the controversy?

In order to answer this, we must return to my personal experience. I must confess that I may have a conflict of interest, as I saw myself as a Wikipedian long before I saw myself as an academic. Granted, I was producing knowledge in a the academic fashion long before Wikipedia was even founded, but I saw my essays on Shakespeare for English class and my lab experiments for Chemistry class more as artificial hurtles as opposed to works that contributed to a grand conversation of knowledge. However, I have been a part of Wikipedia for some time now.

I also come from a technical background, which assuredly affects how I see the encyclopedia. From age 11 when I learned the BASIC programming language until my freshman year in college, I was sure I wanted to program computers for the rest of my life. I was heavily involved with what can be described as “nerd culture,” and was a passionate advocate of the Open Source Software movement. Therefore, when I look at Wikipedia’s historical predecessors, I see Project Gutenberg, the pre-Internet digital repository that made public domain documents (the first was the U.S. Constitution) available to other computers connected to the Department of Defense’s ARPANET. I see the GNU/Linux project, a rather successful attempt to create a free operating system entirely built by volunteers. I also see WikiWikiWeb, the first website which allowed any user to edit any page. I see Slashdot, a user-written technology news website, and Kuro5hin, which took Slashdot’s model and gave full editorial control to their visitors, who voted on which stories should be published. In terms of people, I see Richard Stallman, Linus Torvalds, Eric Raymond, Ward Cunningham, and Lawrence Lessig among others as integral in Wikipedia’s formation.

Now that I am in academia (and especially in the humanities), I see a much different progression. I see line of thought that intends to document the objective world following Roger Bacon, Auguste Comte, and Denis Diderot. However, I also see a radical critical nature in Wikipedia that has striking similarities to the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, who questioned the existence of universal truth and established authorities of knowledge. I see Edmund Husserl, whose phenomenological approach bracketed out questions of truth in relation to the external world. I see the work of Jean-François Lyotard, who criticized the existence of meta-narratives, or universal attempts to explain the world in a positivist fashion. I see Michel Foucault, who delegitimized existing historical and scientific narratives and favored an approach to knowledge production that focused on creating problems as opposed to solving them. I see Jacques Derrida, whose differance embraced the multiplicity of meanings present in a text. I finally see Bruno Latour, whose social study of science questioned scientific inquiry by showing how the output of scientific effort is materially affected by the technosocial institutions. In terms of schools of thought, I see social constructivism, postmodernism, post-structuralism, and critical theory as the philosophical basis of many of Wikipedia’s assumptions.

These are two radically different ways of seeing the same entity, especially considering that those who are heavily grounded in one area more than likely not aware of the other narrative, as I was before my entrance into the so-called postmodern humanities. However, are we already making an error in stating that these two narratives – one the story of institutions and the other a story of theories – are focusing on the same entity? After some thought, it is clear that these two narratives are constructing two radically different subjects of inquiry. It is the same process by which academia’s Wikipedia and Wikipedia’s Wikipedia were constructed. In fact, they are the same opposing Wikipedias.

I now see that my conversations with academics I described at the beginning were more influenced by the statement, “I come from philosophy, anthropology, rhetoric, and Science and Technology Studies” than “I study Wikipedia.” And this is because academics, like all people, understand new things in terms of what they have seen before. In this case, I was completely oblivious to the fact that most academics had lived through a conflict that had quieted down a few years before I began my foray into academia: the Science Wars. When most academics see Wikipedia, they do not see it as an emerging organization that owes its existence more to the open source software community than anything else. Most academics, I suspect, frame it as the newest battle in a war that they thought they had played to a draw: the Science Wars.

The Science Wars was (some may say are, but most place the event in the past tense) a series of disputes across academia in the late 20th century regarding the objectivity and authority of science, particularly the “hard” or natural sciences. The postmodernists claimed that science, like everything else, was merely a social construction and provided no privileged access to the world. In fact, these scholars claimed, science often was complicit with various nefarious ideologies, specifically patriarchy, militarism, and capitalism. The scientific realists countered by claiming that the scientific method was the only way to arrive at objective knowledge, and that the postmodernists were merely relativists who lacked the scientific knowledge to even understand the subject they were critiquing.

Bruno Latour’s 1987 book Science in Action was an influential publication in the Science Wars. In it, he studies scientific theories as they are being developed, and concludes that scientific controversies are settled not because scientists in the winning camp were objectively correct and had the facts right, but rather that scientific proof is more a performance than anything else, with scientists acting primarily as “spokespersons” for various theories and discoveries. In fact, Latour claims that “Laboratories are now powerful enough to define reality” [22], and that most of us cannot challenge this reality as we do not have the skill to perform as a spokesperson in a laboratory or in scientific literature.

Many of the positions by social constructivists were along similar lines. Some scholars, such as Nancy Tuana, began to investigate science by “documenting the ways in which scientific theories have reinforced sexist and/or racist biases.” [23] She cites the work of McClintock and Lorraine Code, who prefer a science that is more relational and based on accepting that “our knowledge of nature will always be partial, always changing, always in process.” [24] Stanley Aronwitz critiqued science’s exclusive nature and argued for a “a new scientific citizenship in which democratic forms of decision making were shared between the scientific community and the public” that opposed the status-quo “democracy [that] is only appropriate for the few.” [25]

The climax of the Science Wars came with the publication of the Winter 1996 issue of Social Text, a journal published by Duke University that could be placed definitively in the postmodern camp. This issue was focused on the Science Wars, and contained many passionate criticisms of scientific realism. Among them was a paper titled “Transgressing the Boundries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” by Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University who argued that recent developments in Quantum Gravity “has profound implications for the content of a future postmodern and liberatory science.” [26] The only problem with the paper was that Sokal claimed it was a hoax, an experiment to see if “a leading North American journal of cultural studies [would] … publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” [27] He claimed that its publication showed that the social constructivist approach had few, if any, claims to authoritative knowledge.

Richard Rorty characterizes the controversy as one between traditional scientists and those who:

think that “postmodern philosophy” — roughly, the anti-metaphysical doctrines common to Nietzsche, Foucault, Heidegger, and Derrida — has “unmasked” science. Starting with the claim that homosexuality, the Negro race, and womanliness are social constructions, they go on to suggest that quarks and genes probably are too. “Ideology” and “power,” they say, have infiltrated sterile laboratories and lurk between the lines of arcane journals of mathematical physics. [28]

However, Rorty’s essay is not titled “Phony Science Wars” for nothing, as he concludes by calling the Science Wars “in part a product of deep and long-lasting clashes of intuition, but mostly … just media hype — journalists inciting intellectuals to diabolize one another.” When faced with this conception of the Science Wars, it is no surprise that academics in the past few years have divided over Wikipedia as they did. Wikipedia, as an encyclopedia that anyone can edit, easily can be seen an attempt to validate the social constructivist approach to knowledge production. Like the alternative forms of science proposed during the Science Wars, Wikipedia is portrayed as more transparent, more democratic, and more accessible than scientific modes of knowledge production. It is no wonder that when academia heard about Wikipedia, they heard “that Callicles’ mobs are coming to ransack their laboratories,” [29] to take from Bruno Latour’s characterization of the response by scientists to his own theories.

Even though we can point to the Science Wars as a way that academics frame Wikipedia’s place in the academy, we have yet to interrogate the conditions of possibility for this conception of Wikipedia. What does it mean to ask whether or not Wikipedia should be cited in an academic paper? What fundamental assumptions are we making when we inquire into Wikipedia’s reliability as if it actually matters?

To ask if Wikipedia is reliable is an inherently relational question that it presupposes another one: reliable according to whom? In this case, Wikipedia is being compared to a source we already consider authoritative; or more precisely, it is being compared to a source whose authority is not questioned in our current society. This has generally been the Encyclopedia Britannica, and most of the studies on Wikipedia’s reliability have taken articles on the same subject from both of these encyclopedias and compared the number of errors. In this case, we are not actually asking if Wikipedia is reliable, but rather asking if it corresponds to Britannica which is assumed to be reliable. However, it seems that we have mischaracterized the Nature study, which did not compare Wikipedia to Britannica, but compared Wikipedia and Britannica to the world and detailed how many errors each had. To ask if Wikipedia is reliable is therefore ask if it accurately reflects the world – Nature instead of Nature.

Yet Latour proves insightful in showing how this question is rather unanswerable and rests on a particularly frustrating philosophical foundation. As he claims in Science in Action, “we can never use the outcome – Nature – to explain how and why a controversy has been settled,” [30] as Nature is something that is produced, a result at which science arrives. Instead of looking at science as a way of coming to objective facts about the external world, Latour describes science as an activity that generates its own objectivity. Specifically, he claims that “Laboratories are powerful enough to define reality.” [31] Applying these insights to Wikipedia, it is clear that to ask if it is reliable is therefore to likewise ask if it generates its own objectivity; in Latour’s terminology, it is to ask if it is powerful enough to define reality.

Yet before we answer this question definitively, let us take one more step back and examine the implications of this question. When we ask if Wikipedia is powerful enough to define reality, when we treat it as a self-generative system of knowledge production, what essential claims about not simply Wikipedia but knowledge as well are we making? For this, we turn to Martin Heidegger, whose theories of technological enframing reveal much about what we are excluding from this line of questioning.

With Heidegger’s early philosophy, we get a concept of being-in-the-world as the foundation of metaphysics. The human condition is one in which we are thrown into the world and attempt to make sense of it through our various projects. It is on the surface a deeply individualistic and material conception of being that rejects any possibility of a singular, transcendental ontology in lieu of an incessant becoming that is continually a problem for itself. This grounds Heidegger’s later work on modern technology, which he claims fundamentally changes how we conceptualize the world on an ontological level.

For Heidegger, it is impossible for an individual (whom he refers to as Dasein) to overcome the conditions of the world. Specifically, he states in Being and Time that:

The primordiality of a state of Being does not coincide with the simplicity and uniqueness of an ultimate structural element. The ontological source of Dasein’s Being is not ‘inferior’ to what springs from it, but towers above it in power from the onset; in the field of ontology, any ‘springing-from’ is degeneration. It we penetrate to the ‘source’ ontologically, we do not come to things which are ontically obvious for the ’common understanding’; but the questionable character of everything obvious opens up for us. [32]

Here, Heidegger rejects any philosophical attempt to place the Being of humanity over the conditions of its existence (the world). In some sense, it is the claim that we need the world far more than the world needs us, and any structural system of thought wherein we produce for ourselves the possibility of freedom over the world (specifically Hegelianism) is fundamentally flawed. However, Heidegger was not opposed to a social conception of the world; in fact, he spends an entire section of Being and Time on being-with others and claims that “Being-with is an existential constituent of being-in-the-world,” [33] He states that “So far as Dasein is at all, it has Being-with-one-another as its kind of Being.” However, he immediately follows with the claim that “This cannot be conceived as a summative result of the occurrence of several ‘subjects’” as this leads to an “’inconsiderate’ Being-with [that] ‘recons] with the Others without seriously ‘counting on them’ or without even wanting to ‘have anything to do with them’” (125).

Heidegger’s problem with conceptualizing being-in-the-world in terms of the social (that is, with intersubjectivity) is that it is on a fundamentally different level than individual interpersonal relations. Instead of focusing on an other through a process of empathy and care, we shift to what Heidegger calls the “dictatorship of the ‘they’” (126), in which:

We take pleasures and enjoy ourselves as they take pleasures; we read, see, and judge about literature as they see and judge; likewise, we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back; we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The ‘they’, which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness.” [34]

The problem therefore with a conception of metaphysics as necessarily intersubjective is that it leads not to an egalitarian, non-hierarchical community of shared practice in which everyone offers up their own version being-in-the-world and then compromises with each other. To be blunt, Heidegger claims that most of us are too lazy or otherwise preoccupied to even figure out our own being-in-the-world, much less offer up an alternative version to others. Instead, we simply take from the dominant mode of thinking.

Much later, in The Question Concerning Technology, Heidegger builds on certain parts of this framework in order to critique what he calls enframing. Our mode of being-in-the-world for the later Heidegger is one in which we continually reveal the world through our various imaginative projects, as he explains:

Whoever builds a house or a ship or forges a sacrificial chalice reveals what is to be brought forth … This revealing gathers together in advance the aspect and the matter of ship or house, with a view to the finished thing envisaged as completed, and from this gathering determines the manner of its creation. … It is as revealing, and not as manufacturing, that techne is a bringing-forth. [35]

The problem with the essence of what he calls “modern technology” [36] is that it structures how we reveal the world in a rather exclusive and dangerous way. For example, Heidegger shows that after a hydroelectric power plant was built on the Rhine, we conceptualized the river in a radically different way. He claims that we see the river “namely a water-power supplier” and that this “derives from the essence of the power station.” [37] It was not the mere adoption of technology in relation to nature that caused us to view the river as “something at our command,” [38] as there have been several bridges that were built in relation to the river that did not lead to this ontological framing. Furthermore, it was simply the specific introduction of a power plant that led to this revealing, but rather what he calls “the essence of technology [which] is by no means anything technological.” [39]

What Heidegger criticizes is an entire system of modern thought he calls enframing, or “the way in which the actual reveals itself as standing-reserve.” [40] Instead of seeing a river, for example, we only see what the river can provide for us, namely electricity. If the river for some reason loses its current, this is seen as undesirable simply because it stops providing electricity. Something that is revealed as a standing reserve is not even on the level of objectification, as objects are disparate and be distinguished from one another. The standing-reserve simply reveals the world as pure instrumentality, and Heidegger warns that “So long as we represent technology as an instrument, we remain transfixed in the will to master it.” [41]

When asking whether or not Wikipedia is now powerful enough to define reality, we should first pause, as this question is complicit in Heidegger’s enframing. In asking if Wikipedia is a possible producer of reality, we are in effect asking how we can use it for our own purposes. Specifically, we are asking how Wikipedia can instrumentally function epistemologically, which forecloses its other possibilities. The objection is not that we have delegated reality to the mere realm of the social, to the whim of the masses. Nor is it that we have merely changed masters and still remain shackled to a system of knowledge production that masks certain potentially harmful ideologies. Rather, what have we done to Wikipedia in the name of reality? We only experience Wikipedia as a standing-reserve, one for producing (or failing to produce) objectless citations that, independent of the article they reference, can universally fit into an existing network of knowledge production. This mode of enframing Wikipedia as a reality producer leads us back into a rather problematic inquiry; specifically, as Heidegger claims:

Thus when man, investigating, observing, ensnares nature as an area of his own conceiving, he has already been claimed by a way of revealing that challenges him to approach nature as an object of research, until even the object disappears into the objectlessness of standing-reserve. [42]

Steven Colbert’s famous lampooning of Wikipedia, in which he coined the term wikiality to designate reality according to Wikipedia, can be seen not as a criticism of Wikipedia, but rather of those whose conceptualization of the project has been destined in this fashion. It must be stressed that this does not mean we cannot come to some conclusion as to Wikipedia’s reliability or authority as a reference work. In fact, for academics, this is an unavoidable question that must be answered, as academic scholarship is inherently based on the reliability and authority of sources. The problem is in asking this question as if it matters for Wikipedia’s sake; that is, as if Wikipedia is somehow good or bad, worthy or unworthy based on its answer. In looking at the project this way, it forecloses a fantastic possibility: that we could be a part of a system of knowledge production in which its relation to its own truth is not that of the social constructivists, the scientific realists, or anyone in between who offers some sort of epistemological compromise. Rather, Wikipedia enables a frighteningly wonderful system of knowledge production that gives a rather startling indifference as to questions of its own instrumentality, reliability, and truth claims.


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[11] Read, B. “Can Wikipedia ever make the grade?” Chronicle of Higher Education 53.1 (2006).

[12] Read, B. “Building an Encyclopedia, With or Without Scholars.” Chronicle of Higher Education 53.10 (2006).

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[22] Latour, B. Science in Action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987. 93

[23] Tuana, N. “Revaluing Science: Starting from the Practices of Women” Philosophy of Technology. Ed. Scharaff, R. and Dusek, V. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 116.

[24] Ibid, 120.

[25] Aronowitz, S. “The Politics of the Science Wars.” Social Text 46/47 (1996): 177-197. 196.

[26] Sokal, A. “Transgressing the Boundries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” Social Text 46/47 (1996): 217-252. Accessed online 7 May 2008 at

[27] Sokal, A. “A Physicst Experiments with Cultural Studies.” Lingua Franca. May/June 1996. Accessed online 7 May 2008 at

[28] Rorty, R. “Phony Science Wars.” The Atlantic Monthly. November 1999. Accessed online 7 May 2008 at

[29] Latour, B. “Do You Believe in Reality? News from the Trenches of the Science Wars.” Philosophy of Technology. Ed. Scharaff, Robert and Dusek, Val. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 134.

[30] Latour 1987, 99.

[31] Ibid, 93.

[32] Heidegger, M. Being and Time. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1962. 334.

[33] Ibid, 125.

[34] Ibid, 126-7.

[35] Heidegger, M. “The Question Concerning Technology.” Philosophy of Technology. Ed. Scharaff, R. and Dusek, V. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003. 255.

[36] Ibid, 256.

[37] Ibid, 256.

[38] Ibid, 256.

[39] Ibid, 252.

[40] Ibid, 259.

[41] Ibid, 262.

[42] Ibid, 257.