Meltdown at Wikipedia?

Knifed-Wikipedia-Logo

Things do not look good at the online encyclopedia. I addressed some of the relevant issues, at a very broad level, in a paper I gave at Wikimania in July. But things have gone very badly wrong very fast in the past ten days or so.

Rather than go into details myself, I’ll just link to a blog post by long-term Wikimedian Liam Wyatt: “Strategy and Controversy”. As he puts it, “there is a battle going on at the top for its soul.”

For more, see for instance Pete Forsyth’s blog and his posts “Wikimedia Foundation Ousts Community-Elected Trustee” and “Grants and Transparency: Wikimedia Foundation Should Follow Standards it Sets”. Or look at two stories from the Wikipedia Signpost (the site’s own internal newspaper): “WMF Board Dismisses Community-Elected Trustee” and (especially) “The WMF’s Age of Discontent”.

Then if you really want to go down the rabbit hole of Wikipedia politics, check out the wikimedia-l mailing list for December (start here or here and follow the threads) and for January (start here, here, and perhaps above all here). Then look at Jimmy Wales’s talk page on Wikipedia (this is how it looks right now), this article on one of the new WMF Board members, or this talk page on Wikimedia’s “meta” wiki, about the “WMF Transparency Gap.”

I said back in July that the WMF (an educational charity, after all) “now finds itself in an climate dominated by for-profit corporations that claim to be able to offer the same or similar services as it provides, but more efficiently and effectively. It doesn’t know whether to remodel itself along the lines of these commercial competitors or keep closer to its historic roots.” The conflict between these two tendencies is today well and truly out in the open. The only question is whether the battle has already been lost.

Update: The best and most accessible summary of things to date comes from William Beutler’s post, “The Crisis at New Montgomery Street”.

Higher Education, Technology, and the Corporate University

Saskatchewan

A few pointers to some more or less recent articles on contemporary higher education:

  • The bottom line of the neoliberal assault on the universities is the increasing power of management and the undermining of faculty self-governance. The real story behind MOOCs may be the ways in which they assist management restructuring efforts of core university practices, under the smiley-faced banner of “open access” and assisted in some cases by their “superstar”, camera-ready professors. Meanwhile, all those adjunct faculty are far more subject to managerial control and regulation than are tenured professors. Aside from their low cost, that is one of the principal reasons why they are so attractive to university managers. (Tarak Barkawi, “The Neoliberal Assault on Academia”. Al Jazeera America. April 25, 2013.)
  • Prioritizing is what you get when you hire administrators who can’t distinguish a university from a Walmart. Each department is to be evaluated as a profit centre. The knowledge factory that the university is currently running under the rubric of basic research will remain untouched (and probably augmented), for there is no aspect of its present operations that can be so easily and so profitably commercialized. Generally, however, the priority that each department receives will depend upon the revenues it can generate from research grants and from selling classes to its customers. The insistence on evidence-based evaluation is critical, lest some of the woolly-headed intellectuals retained to do the teaching should have derived some values through reading something other than the Globe and Mail Report on Business. (Jay Cowsill, “There’s a New Sheriff in Town: Cracking the Whip at the University of Saskatchewan”. October 10, 2013.)
  • The problem is not that the Open Movement is wrong. The problem is that the need for reform goes far deeper than simply making papers and data available under CC-By or CC-Zero. Exploitative publishing regimes are symptomatic of larger problems in the distribution of wealth and power. The concentration of wealth that warps so much of our political and economic life will inevitably warp the Open Movement toward unintended and unwanted outcomes. (Eric Kanza, “It’s the Neoliberalism, Stupid: Why Instrumentalist Arguments for Open Access, Open Data, and Open Science are not Enough”. The Impact Blog. LSE. January 27, 2014.)
  • I can’t express adequately just how pissed off I am about MOOCs – not the concept, but all the hubris and nonsense that’s been talked and written about them. At a personal level, it was as if 45 years of work was for nothing. All the research and study I and many others had done on what makes for successful learning online were totally ignored, with truly disastrous consequences in terms of effective learning for the vast majority of participants who took MOOCs from the Ivy League universities. Having ignored online learning for nearly 20 years, Stanford, MIT and Harvard had to re-invent online learning in their own image to maintain their perceived superiority in all things higher educational. And the media fell for it, hook, line and sinker. (Tony Bates, “Time to Retire from Online Learning?” April 15, 2014.)
  • The threat that plans like TransformUS holds are both serious and ubiquitous. As it goes, the TransformUS brand is so deeply ironic that it offers an indication of what lies ahead. TransformUS is, at once, an incantation for complacency, as though self-transformation is impossible or inefficient (i.e. Please, Transform US!), and an unacknowledged reference to the transformations that helped to engineer America’s system of higher education. Indeed, TransformUS intones the rise of the market as a transformative agent, and the University as a key site in the manufacture of consent and consumption. (Eric Newstadt, “Why Buckingham’s Tenure is Small Stakes in a Big Game”. Impact Ethics. May 16, 2014.)
  • Arts Squared: A Virtual Square for the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta.
  • A technology that allows for limitless reproduction of knowledge resources, instantaneous global sharing and cooperation, and all the powerful benefits of digital manipulation, recombination, and computation must be a “bag of gold”36 for scholarship and for learning. It is well within the power of educators to play a decisive role in the battle for the future of the web. Doing so will require the courage to buck prevailing trends. It will require an at-times inconvenient commitment to the fundamental principles of openness, ownership, and participation. It will require hard work, creativity, and a spirit of fun. It will require reclaiming innovation. Our choice. (Jim Groom and Brian Lamb, “Reclaiming Innovation”. Educause Review 49.3. May/June 2014.)
  • “I wouldn’t buy a used car from a university president,” said Vedder. “They’ll say, ‘We’re making moves to cut costs,’ and mention something about energy-efficient lightbulbs, and ignore the new assistant to the assistant to the associate vice provost they just hired.” (Jon Marcus, “New Analysis Shows Problematic Boom In Higher Ed Administrators”. The Huffington Post. June 2, 2014.)
  • “brain-scrambling technical synaesthesia”

    William Burroughs

    The Wednesday quotation, part XX: Gary Indiana’s fantastic take on the relevance of William Burroughs, and the irrelevance of most contemporary US fiction, in the London Review of Books:

    The radically anti-authoritarian, left-libertarian notions he espoused probably look like irresponsible nihilism (or “antinomian morality,” in Schjeldahl’s solecism) to many of those ensconced at their computer screens during most of their waking life, or bedazzled by mobiles and ubiquitous electronic signage in a society overloaded with information yet drained of authentic experience. It now seems almost logical that the insight Burroughs offers into the brain-scrambling technical synaesthesia spreading everywhere would be precisely what brands him a crackpot, rather than the silly religions and fatuous disciplines he so often became fascinated by. Still, I feel it’s necessary to say how stupid this inverted logic is.

    [. . .]

    Yet it’s a fact that Burroughs, one of the very few American novelists of the last fifty years who actually mattes, has had a negligible influence on “mainstream” American literature, while his effect on popular culture has been incalculable. It may be comforting to some arbiters of aesthetic fashion to write Burroughs off as a perennial enthusiasms of “the young,” but they might consider that several generations of these young have since occupied key positions in film, TV, the recording business and advertising, to cite only four sectors of the consciousness industry that seem far more familiar with our internal wiring than the current literary world, which becomes ever more parochial and conservative as its importance in the culture shrinks.

    (“Predatory Sex Aliens” London Review of Books 36.9 [8 May 2014]: 26)

    Foe

    J M Coetzee, FoeAs part of the Arts One Digital initiative (which I’ve mentioned before, we’re recording various lectures delivered as part of UBC’s “Arts One” program. You can see for instance my lecture on J M Coetzee’s Foe here, in various formats. The project is going from strength to strength, and I’m confident we’ll be able to ramp it up still further next year. We continue trying new things, and this afternoon my colleague Kevin McNeilly and I hope to record a podcast discussion on Foe and Eliot’s The Waste Land.

    In the meantime, you may want to check out something I wrote a couple of years ago, on Foe as an “unwriting” of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.

    memetic

    The Wednesday quotation, part XVIII: More on TED, from a quite damning review of Parag Khanna and Ayesha Khanna, Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization:

    I take no pleasure in declaring what has been obvious for some time: that TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas “worth spreading.” Instead it has become something ludicrous, and a little sinister.

    Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

    [. . .]

    Since any meaningful discussion of politics is off limits at TED, the solutions advocated by TED’s techno-humanitarians cannot go beyond the toolkit available to the scientist, the coder, and the engineer. This leaves Silicon Valley entrepreneurs positioned as TED’s preferred redeemers. In TED world, tech entrepreneurs are in the business of solving the world’s most pressing problems. This is what makes TED stand out from other globalist shindigs, and makes its intellectual performances increasingly irrelevant to genuine thought and serious action. (Evgeny Morozov, “The Naked and the TED “. The New Republic [August 2, 2012].)

    blasé

    Occasionally, I admit, I get a little blasé about the open web and open education.

    For instance, when I started using blogs in the classroom, it seemed like a big deal. Both the technicalities and the idea itself were fraught with worry. Now (thanks in large part to the work of Brian Lamb and his team), blog aggregation seems a cinch.

    Students are increasingly comfortable with the technology. And they are pretty happy about opening and maintaining an online reading journal, and commenting on the entries made by their classmates. These days it all works fairly seamlessly, and seems hardly to be a matter for further comment. In just about every class I teach, blogs are required, and that’s that.

    The same is gradually becoming true with asking students to contribute to Wikipedia. Thanks in part to the fact that I have returning students who have already worked with Wikipedia in my classes, as well as thanks to the fact that I’ve done it before and I have a fair idea of how things will turn out, getting students to contribute to the encyclopedia isn’t quite as fraught with anxiety and excitement as it was the first semester I tried it. Then, we were really flying by the seat of our pants. Now, it’s more or less (not yet completely) simply another component of the course. Look, for instance, are the posts for a recent class on magical realism.

    But occasionally I’m reminded that it is indeed a big deal.

    The other day, in Barcelona, while preparing for my informal presentation on “Murder, Madness, and Mayhem” for the Drumbeat festival, I thought I’d have a look at the page hits for the article on Mario Vargas Llosa, an article that my students completely rewrote and brought to featured article status.

    It was one of the successes of that project (though again, after we got a first featured article, the other ones didn’t seem quite so special any more). And I figured that it had probably got quite a few page views in the past month or so, given that Vargas Llosa had recently been awarded the Nobel prize.

    I remember clearly the day I first found out that you could see page view statistics for Wikipedia articles. I came into class and asked the students if they had any idea how many people were reading their work. Instead of the usual assignment of an exam or term paper read by exactly one person, their professor, they were now writing for a real public.

    They were shocked to find out (for example), that the Gabriel García Márquez article that they were rewriting was read by something like 1,500 people a day: 62,000 a month, or close to three-quarters of a million people a year. That really gave them a sense that what they were doing mattered in some way.

    Back in 2008, the Vargas Llosa article was getting close to 500 hits a day: over 11,000 a month or around 140,000 a year. Not shabby, and several orders of magnitude more of a readership than any academic article will ever get; better indeed than most best-selling novelists.

    In September of this year, the statistics were broadly similar: page views per day ranged from 288 to 674, mostly a little under 500. In October, things changed.

    On October 7th, the day the Nobel prize was announced, 116,700 people viewed the page. 116,700 people read my students’ work. this was the first point of reference for the public looking to find out more about the new laureate. And presumably the knock-on audience was much greater still, as the article will no doubt have been also the first point of call for journalists, news organizations, and others looking quickly to find out and broadcast information about the winner.

    It’s marvelous that the article was (and remains) a featured article, which had gone through the most rigorous hoops Wikipedia provides to ascertain that it is well-sourced, reliable, well-written, and comprehensive. This is what my students wrote, after 1,225 revisions over the semester.

    And 116,700 read it.

    The next day, the number of readers went down: to a mere 60,000. And now the readership has settled at a mere 2,500 or so a day: a little shy of a million a year. Reading my students’ work.

    I should be less blasé about this.

    language

    My post the other day on the recent Mozilla Drumbeat festival seem to have resonated with others… more what I had to say about language than about the political ambivalence of the open-source and open-education movement, but there we go.

    I thought I’d expand further on the language issue. (I’ll have more to say on the political ambivalence later.)

    In her comments on my previous post, Nicole Harris says:

    I don’t think it is unusual for a European conference to be hosted entirely in English. English is … often an expected outcome when you are bringing people together who don’t share a common language.

    Yes, but. The conference’s unthinking monolingualism was especially pronounced in this case:

    • Catalonia is a place where the politics of language are everywhere evident and on the surface. It is impossible to go anywhere in Barcelona without being aware of the consequences of speaking one language rather than another.
    • It may be true, as César notes in response to Brian Lamb’s write-up of the conference, that Barcelonans are “so used to it that we don’t realize anymore”; the same point was made by my friend Jaume Subirana. But wasn’t Drumbeat supposed to be different?
    • Indeed, the whole point of the Drumbeat festival was openness and participation. Having the conference partly in a public space was therefore, I took it, a political and strategic decision. Cathy Davidson, for instance, made a big deal of it in a pre-conference post in which she said that “since we will be located in an actual tent out in Placa dels Angels, the gorgeous plaza in Raval, between the Museum of Modern Art and the FAD, we will involve random participants traversing the square in our learning activities too.”
    • But how is such openness advanced if everything is in English? How many “random participants” took part in the HASTAC activities, especially when, as another HASTAC representative admitted, she “only noticed @HASTAC flyers were all Eng after arriving”?
    • Surely any organization that declares it’s devoted to openness, participation, breaking down borders, and so on, should be aware of the politics of language.
    • Yes, there are plenty of conferences held in Europe that presume to transcend or ignore their local contexts. (The annual gathering of the good and the great and the wealthy at Davos is surely the premier example.) But Drumbeat tried to do something else, however confusedly: it occupied public space in the square, and yet had surprisingly rigid security to prevent outsiders from entering the building itself. It talked the talk, but only in English.

    The broader political issues about the relationship between open-source, open-education, and neoliberalism are more important. But, when it comes to language, I don’t want to adopt the cynical whining adopted by Fred’s comment to my previous post, which said that my observations were “largely true, but not very interesting.” How did the enthusiastic desire for insurgency at Drumbeat so soon become bored acceptance of the way things are always done? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.