Perspective: I don't Knol

Viewpoint ribbon (small)

The problem with making democracies work is that any one point of view, way to work, or agenda for action can only garner enough support amid its multitude of alternatives that, at any one time, only a sizable minority can claim to be in favor of it. And the problem with making socialist societies work is that fairness, balance, equal distribution of wealth, and justice all require regulation, which by definition requires a regulator, which by design works against the socialist ideal.

The World-Wide Web is neither a democracy nor a social utopia. Certainly the fact that it is utilized by an astonishingly large plurality has been enough to excite people into believing it has the nature, texture, or substance of some kind of society. And time and again since its inception, individuals, institutions, and corporations have set forth some presumably historic measures to give the Web some type of perceived hierarchy, to capitalize on the wide recognition they receive by way of the Web and convert that perception into authority.

It is the old trap into which leaders of real democracies typically fall: You all know me, thus you all must love me, thus you all should trust me.

Google's initiative for building an integrated hierarchy of comprehensive knowledge, called Knol, is the latest such example. Taking a cue from Microsoft's history, Google has recognized the recent success of Wikipedia, then subsequently erased the entry for Wikipedia from its memory banks and then retroactively invented the concept all over again.

Or perhaps like Al Gore, Google is inventing the Internet.

The idea is to start another global encyclopedia of what the world thinks it knows. The system it's building elicits what it characterizes as quanta of knowledge, called "knols," from individuals who would appoint themselves masters of their own topics. Whether they actually are masters would not be decided by Google; instead, individual readers would take it upon themselves to sanction or testify to the relative truthfulness or ludicrousness of what other self-appointed experts have said.

Here is how Google Vice President of Engineering Udi Manber described the concept on Google's corporate blog this morning:

A knol on a particular topic is meant to be the first thing someone who searches for this topic for the first time will want to read. The goal is for knols to cover all topics, from scientific concepts, to medical information, from geographical and historical, to entertainment, from product information, to how-to-fix-it instructions. Google will not serve as an editor in any way, and will not bless any content. All editorial responsibilities and control will rest with the authors. We hope that knols will include the opinions and points of view of the authors who will put their reputation on the line. Anyone will be free to write. For many topics, there will likely be competing knols on the same subject. Competition of ideas is a good thing.

The authority for knowing a "knol" would be ceded by Google, which would merely run the system, Manber wrote. Instead, the system would seek to credit the original authors of its submissions, especially since the Web up to this point in history, he remarked, has neglected to give proper credit to authors, especially when they take the time to give of what they know freely unto the world.

There is a very good reason for that which Manber may not understand. I do, because I've been a professional author and editor for most of my life. And in the very real world of capitalist publishers and monetized content, the moment you do something for free, "free" becomes the value of what you do.

It's a corollary of Groucho Marx's classic joke, whose punch line is, "We know what you are; we're just dickering on the price."

The reason ideas are not truly free is because of the price their inventors have paid to generate those ideas. Not everyone's education comes by way of scholarship. At some level, everyone has had to work to attain what she knows, whether it was taught in a classroom or learned at an operating table or seared into her consciousness on a battlefield.

Knowledge isn't conveyed on a page, and that's where I believe Google may be getting it wrong. There is no indivisible quantum of wisdom that can be replicated and freely distributed, for which all recipients would equally vote to approve. Who would you trust to write the knol for "Getting One's Leg Blown Up by a Land Mine," "Saving Lives When Your Helicopter Crashes into a River," "Losing Your Son," or "Separating Conjoined Twins?"

Trust is the quintessential element upon which all transfer of information depends, and it is the transfer of information -- not the acquisition or presentation of it -- that creates knowledge. Without trust, everything falls apart.

Trust cannot form in a vacuum. You learn from those you love and respect, and you learn to trust those whom they respect in turn. You come to trust certain other sources maybe because you see others doing the same. At a granular level, trust is not unlike mold. It builds on itself, but it is its own principal ingredient.

The idea that Google has -- and in fairness, that so many before it have already tried -- to open up a blank library so that others can fill its pages, would attempt to rebuild a new world order of trust literally through a kind of informational Darwinism, where bits of wisdom compete with other bits of wisdom for the right to claim a kind of "king of the mountain position," or perhaps more appropriately to Google's existing business model, to claim a greater market share.

The fact that such a system hasn't worked yet should be anyone's first clue as to the fact that it doesn't work that way. Sure, Wikipedia is big, and encompasses a lot of information. In some respects, it gives access to information any regular encyclopedia might have excluded. It is not un-valuable. But it is also not authoritative.

It may fly in the face of the open source ideal to say that ideas are not free -- that they are earned, that they are often paid for with money and with blood, and that they have value over and above what any plurality's thumbs-up or thumbs-down may assign to them. But ideas are the infrastructure of the human race, and that structure is the collective product of all our ancestors, all their hopes, everything they did that was right, and everything they did that was wrong. Our shared knowledge cannot be migrated to an electronic web, for the thing that gives knowledge value cannot be quantified.

Authority -- that byline to which Google refers -- is something that is earned, not through some social-network experiment based on "American Gladiators" but through the system we already have. Education -- among the least perfect institutions conceived by the mind of man -- is still workable, and far more efficient at achieving the goal of inspiring knowledge than any mashup of millions of aggregated blogs. We learn through trusting and through living far more than we ever will through clicking.

[The opinions expressed here are those of Scott M. Fulton, III, who is solely responsible for his content.]

20 Responses to Perspective: I don't Knol

© 1998-2024 BetaNews, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Privacy Policy - Cookie Policy.