The Chronicle Review

Authority Figures

By Mark Bauerlein

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle Review

March 18, 2012

A few years ago, Michael Petrilli, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, conducted an experiment in education sources. He typed into Google 100 terms from U.S.- and world-history textbooks, like "Mayflower Compact" and "Anwar Sadat," then tabulated Web sites that stood at or near the top. The results were simpler than expected. Of the millions of sites pulled, a Wikipedia page turned up as the top one, the first result on the first page, 87 (!) times. As for the remaining 13, Wikipedia came up second 12 times and third once. Because of its method of retrieval, Google measures popularity as well as relevance, ranking sites by their usage relative to the search term. Petrilli's exercise reveals Wikipedia not just as a handy, convenient, and customary information source. It is the source, the universal reference, the dominant, authoritative, comprehensive, go-to home for knowledge.

That was four years ago, and since then, Wikipedia has only broadened its leviathan reach. Just last month, Intelligent Positioning, a Web-strategy company in England, found that Wikipedia ends up in the top spot of 56 percent of all Google searches, and it appears on the first page of results (10 per page) in 99 percent of them. The stats are worth noting because they belie the ostensible identity, the nature and practice, of Wikipedia itself. Its founder, Jimmy Wales, is a libertarian, a free-speech and open-inquiry believer who mistrusts centralized authority, be it Big Government or Big Media. He despises corporations that use state officials to monopolize a market, and he deplores unions that close industries to competitors.

Wikipedia illustrates the opposite. It is a repository of knowledge to which any informed individual may contribute. No single person controls an entry, and each entry is corrigible as long as the "editor" observes rules of engagement laid down by the site, including standard prohibitions against libel and vandalism as well as the unique rule that the one not set himself above the many. It evolves and it improves, the emendations of scores of diverse minds outdoing the one-time effort of the sole expert. It's free, too.

For the prime example of the traditional print model, we have Encyclopaedia Britannica, the latest version (2010) running 32 volumes, 129 pounds, and $1,395. It stands on its experts, the editorial board of advisers including a Nobel Prize-winning physicist; president of the Mellon Foundation; president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations; scholars from the University of Chicago, Harvard, and New York University; and the business/Internet writer Nicholas Carr, who coined the term "Wikicrats" in 2007 to label those who oversee the editing process at Wikipedia. While Wikipedia sprang from the digital age, Britannica was the child of the Enlightenment. It presents knowledge in stable, final-seeming form, and it asks readers to absorb it like a sponge. No correcting, no "click throughs," and no talking back. Britannica has for a long time offered digital content, but in print the only acknowledgment of change happens every 10 to 15 years, when a new edition, with a new set of experts, appears.

As everyone knows by now, the print version of Britannica has ended. "Britannica Yields to the Digital Age," the Los Angeles Times editorial announced. Similar stories appeared in many newspapers, but Britannica itself played down the change. A blog post at the site by Britannica editors stated, "A momentous event? In some ways, yes; the set is, after all, nearly a quarter of a millennium old. But in a larger sense this is just another historical data point in the evolution of human knowledge." They titled the post "Change: It's Okay. Really." No doubt financial factors played a role in the decision, but in explaining it to The New York Times, Britannica's president, Jorge Cauz, invoked digital-age mores: "Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it's much more expansive, and it has multimedia."

There you have an admission of the print version's obsolescence, plus an assumption about the state of knowledge at the present time. Discoveries happen fast, hence the need for continuous updates; learning grows and grows, hence the expansiveness; and it assumes different forms, hence the multimedia. A good encyclopedia must tally 21st-century knowledge, maintain its pace and scope, and offer a "better tool" than the printed volume. It must draw upon expert and amateur opinion, welcome any user, and incorporate relevant developments quickly. The old Britannica entry is a static statement, the Wikipedia entry a fluid conversation. As the writer and entrepreneur Seth Godin put it in a blog post, a print entry on Rick Santorum in the former "seeks to end the quest for information. The Wikipedia entry, on the other hand, starts the question. There are more than a hundred outbound links in the page, all designed to help the student explore and discover."

But what about the findings noted above proving Wikipedia's dominance as the top source of knowledge? Does exploration really happen when it so often begins and follows one source? Yes, Wikipedia is relatively collective and open. Yes, it has links and footnotes. But on the "market" side, it's imperial. If people believe that Wikipedia is any less dictatorial than the 2010 print version of Britannica, if they think students "participate" in its entries, if they assume students approach it as a means of exploration, not a place to retrieve information they accept as is, those people are idealistic.

The sentences that students read in Wikipedia at any particular time have the same status as the sentences they read in Britannica 2010 or 1911. That's what the usage numbers imply. It doesn't have to happen that way, but it does. As a good libertarian and disciple of F.A. Hayek, Jimmy Wales must appreciate that distinction. It doesn't matter what people can do or what they should do. It only matters what they actually do. In this case, their trust suggests that the expert-based, once-a-decade revision, printed-tome model may be less obsolete than people think. Indeed, as Nicholas Carr told me in conversation, "Britannica has to earn money to survive, and it has to do so from people who see it as different from other online sources of information." If we highlight "the online, informational part of Britannica," he continued, "we diminish its unique value."

In another blog post, Britannica's editor-in-chief, Dale Hoiberg, says that "updated and refreshed coverage in all subject areas is a basic requirement, of course. ... Our editors work on a constantly evolving database, with revisions and updates publishable online within minutes." That acceleration threatens the very credibility on which Britannica stands. First of all, the need for frequent updating is exaggerated, for what portion of human knowledge and inquiry changes so rapidly? A smaller one than digital-age enthusiasts think. For the materials in the arts and humanities, a revision every 10 years suffices, because it takes that long to determine whether a new understanding or creation isn't just a transient fad. Speed things up, and humanistic knowledge starts looking like current events. In those areas in which knowledge does move quickly, for instance, digital technology, Britannica offers a continuing digital supplement to the last print entry.

Furthermore, what becomes of expertise in an updateable format? In 1928, at the invitation of editors, Edmund Husserl himself wrote the entry on "phenomenology" for the 14th edition of Britannica. A revered philosopher and lifetime academic, Husserl nonetheless took the "popularizing" task seriously, at first considering collaborating with his former student Martin Heidegger, then changing his mind when it became clear that Heidegger's version would conflict with his own. The result is a masterful and fairly accessible exposition whose value is more than the sum of the information contained. Should someone have stepped in to "refresh" the entry a year later in light of Heidegger's Being and Time, published in 1927 and spreading rapidly in Continental circles?

Jill Lepore makes the point in a blog post at The New Yorker, contrasting Cauz's praise for online updating ("We can revise it within minutes anytime we need to, and we do it many times each day.") to a conception of the encyclopedia as "an archive, a record of a moment in time." Indeed, she writes: "Old reference books are like tree rings. Without them, there'd be no way to know what a tree had lived through. The point of the digital encyclopedia, according to the people at Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., is that it will never grow old. There will be no tree rings. There won't even be any trees."

This is the tyranny of the present and the decline of the sage. The English professor Morris Dickstein co-authored the "American Literature" entry in recent print versions of Britannica, working on it in 1994 and again in 2002. When he first examined the existing entry, he realized it was outdated, "the expression of another time," he told me over the phone last week. But the editors knew that, too, and they relied on Dickstein for the critical judgment and discrimination he'd shown in superb books and essays on 20th-century American literature. "I was writing for a middlebrow readership that looks for authority," he recalled, "an intelligent general audience attracted to knowledge." That made his task more arduous, not less, for "I thought the entry would be engraved in granite, and I spent nine months on it." When asked what it meant if one's words might be revised within a month of their composition, he commented, "We're losing the authority."

That outcome pleases both collectivists and libertarians, and it poses a tricky course for Britannica in the future. The company aims to join the digital age, but it wants to retain its standing as a source of expert knowledge for the masses. Hoiberg, the editor-in-chief, concludes his blog post by reasserting the latter, citing "thousands of external advisers and expert contributors, more than 100 in-house editors who are themselves subject-area experts," and he includes as part of the "Britannica team" outsiders easily enabled by digital tools, "readers who submit comments and suggestions."

Very well, but one wonders if the loss of the print volume has an impact that cannot be remedied. Does any Web site at all carry the authority of the book? Does the experience of searching a Web page ever match the action of pulling a hefty Britannica volume off the shelf and reading real pages? Will a revisable, evolving entry ever attain the status of an independent expression, or will it remain just another "informational text"? To believe that the medium doesn't have a message is naïve.


Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University, a blogger for Brainstorm, and author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30) (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008).