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Computers, web, media - July 3

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Tim Adams, The Observer
Covering almost 7.5m pages in more than 250 languages, Wikipedia is by far the biggest encyclopaedia ever written. But is it a vast online fount of human knowledge or an extreme example of 'digital Maoism', as some critics claim? Tim Adams meets Jimmy Wales, the man behind the phenomenon, to get to the facts.
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... Wikipedia, by far the biggest encyclopaedia ever contemplated, employs seven people. It is, on this month's chart, the ninth most popular website in the world. It is probably worth more than £2bn, Wales reckons, but it is run as a charity on a budget of £700,000 a year provided by donations, mostly of around £20. It takes no advertising. At the last count it carried pages on 1,799,000 subjects in English alone (and it exists, on a smaller scale, in 252 other languages). It already has a range 20 times greater than the entire 17 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, and it is growing at a rate of 1,700 articles a day. At peak times the site has around 15,000 hits every second.

Jimmy Wales is the world's first one-man open university. Or at least he has set in motion a movement of volunteers who believe that by pooling knowledge, refining constantly, checking and rechecking, they can produce an encyclopaedia that might become as authoritative as anything produced by academic experts. A decade ago this would have sounded impossible; now it just sounds absurd. Still, it is hard to argue that it is not working.

...The Wiki project has worked so spectacularly, it seems to me, because it feels like it is exactly what the internet was created for. I remember the excitement of the first times I tried to get online using a very slow dial-up. For several seconds that curious beeping static sounded like all the world's voices competing for attention, sharing their thoughts, a global mind humming away. The delusion was not completely wide of the mark. The growth of the internet has been shadowed and reflected in some ways by the growth of our understanding of how the human mind works.

... In contrast with the ego trips of MySpace and FaceBook, or the yada-yada of most blog threads, [Wikipedia] proposes a community where an aggregate mass of individuals in the virtual world can combine to produce something greater than the sum of its parts.

Just as the internet is not located anywhere, so the Wikipedia Foundation has no real home beyond a scuzzy office in Florida and single-room outposts in California and Poland.

...Wales's genius lay in the incorporation of discussion platforms and talk forums for each page. The magic of the site lies not only in the pages themselves but in some of the discussion created behind them: the reasoned argument for this phrase or that word, each step preserved in a comprehensive page history.

'The ideal Wikipedian in my mind is someone who is really smart and really kind,' Wales says, without irony. 'Those are the people who are drawn into the centre of the group. When people get power in these communities, it is not through shouting loudest, it is through diplomacy and conflict resolution.'

If this sounds like a kind of Utopia ('Wikitopia' is the phrase Wikipedians prefer), there are also plenty of Lord of the Flies moments.
(1 July 2007)
Long article about an important institution - that strangers can cooperate for no material reward is kryptonite to the economic presumption of amoral "rational actors", but is old news to netizens. -LJ

NY Times Magazine just published a long article on Wikipedia.


Sentient world: war games on the grandest scale

Mark Baard, The Register
Perhaps your real life is so rich you don't have time for another.

Even so, the US Department of Defense (DOD) may already be creating a copy of you in an alternate reality to see how long you can go without food or water, or how you will respond to televised propaganda.

The DOD is developing a parallel to Planet Earth, with billions of individual "nodes" to reflect every man, woman, and child this side of the dividing line between reality and AR.

Called the Sentient World Simulation (SWS), it will be a "synthetic mirror of the real world with automated continuous calibration with respect to current real-world information", according to a concept paper for the project.
(23 June 2007)
Science fiction come to life. A simulation like this could be used for many purposes. The projects mentioned in the article ("to see how long you can go without food or water, or how you will respond to televised propaganda") do not sound like the most enlightened of possibilities. -BA


Murdoch takes on Manhattan - and the Financial Times

James Robinson, The Observer
Despite opposition, Rupert's $5bn bid for the Wall Street Journal is likely to succeed - with implications for British papers.
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...'Every newspaper proprietor covets an asset like the Journal or the Financial Times,' says one media banker, 'They are the biggest brands with a global reach.' The 76-year-old mogul was in Poland last week, but told journalists he wanted to conclude the deal within three weeks 'or not at all'. But all the signs are that the Bancroft family, who effectively control Dow Jones, are close to agreeing, two months after News Corp tabled a $60-per-share offer.

The journalists gathered in the Journal's head office, and around 150 more who took part in the protest at bureaux across the US, were distinctly uncomfortable at the prospect of being owned by Murdoch. 'We wanted to make a very pointed public statement,' says ES 'Jim' Browning, the staffer who organised the demonstration. 'Dow Jones is not in financial trouble and it was not looking for a buyer. This came out of nowhere. It is an opportunistic move by a guy who sees huge potential in the company. The potential of the brand is limitless. If Murdoch is allowed to buy it, and then trash it, it would be a tragedy.'

Murdoch is accustomed to being demonised, and despite the largely negative coverage in the American media in the last few weeks, there seems little chance the deal will be derailed.

Journal staff are pinning their hopes on a 'white knight' bidder emerging, although the chances of one have looked slim since FT owner Pearson decided not to proceed with an offer late last month.

...The Journal's highly regarded editorial team fears Murdoch will change the content and take it downmarket, although it is difficult to see why an astute businessman like Murdoch would risk damaging the paper's high-brow appeal. There is little doubt he will make changes, however. 'He has enormous editorial flair,' says one of his former journalists. 'He could make the Journal into a much better product.'

In a recent interview with the New York Times, Murdoch confessed: 'I'm sometimes frustrated by the long stories,' adding that he rarely gets around to finishing some articles. He told the Times he likes the paper's neo-conservative comment pages, but would like to see more political coverage in the news pages and, just for good measure, added that he wasn't a huge fan of the Saturday Journal either.

Many in the US media point to the Times and its sister Sunday title, which have become more populist since Murdoch bought them. 'They are not terrible papers, but they used to be great papers,' Browning says.
(1 July 2007)

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