There were two pre-conferences meeting at the same time on Sunday. One was on maximizing accessibility in DH projects -- especially for users who are sight-impaired -- and the other was on "Social Knowledge Creation." It was a tough decision, but I decided to go to the Social Knowledge Creation session.
The keynote, on the history of the Wiki idea, was given by John Maxwell. He started with a quote from Ivan Illich from 1973, on "Tools for Conviviality." I'll just post the whole quote, since it's interesting:
“Convivial tools are those which give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with the fruits of his or her vision” Industrial tools deny this possibility to those who use them and they allow their designers to determine the meaning and expectations of others. Most tools today cannot be used in convivial fashion.In effect, a highly open-ended tool like a Wiki is a 'convivial' tool, while other, more strictly hierarchical, means of structuring knowledge are more "industrial."
Cunningham defines a Wiki as "a body of writing that a community is willing to maintain." Maxwell, in his comments, expanded on this, describing Wiki writing as "the textual embodiment of a community of inquiry" and as "collective autoethnography." What he finds remarkable about the Wiki framework is that it's a software system "that has no features"; it's effectively just a system of writing. Maxwell also talked about some of his own experiences using Wikis in his research ("Coach House Technological History").
At the end of his talk Maxwell talked about Ward Cunningham's fascinating recent shift away from his own creation -- the idea of a community-edited, but still centralized, body of knowledge. Ward has now invented a new model of a distributed Wiki system that he calls a "federated" Wiki.
Cunningham talks about the reasons for the shift in this article in Wired:
But there is one thing about the wiki that he regrets. “I always felt bad that I owned all those pages,” he says. The central idea of a wiki — whether it’s driving Wikipedia or C2 — is that anyone can add or edit a page, but those pages all live on servers that someone else owns and controls. Cunningham now believes that no one should have that sort of central control, so he has built something called the federated wiki.
This new creation taps into the communal ethos fostered by GitHub, a place where software developers can not only collaborate on software projects but also instantly “fork” these projects, spawning entirely new collaborations.To me, it seems like there’s an unresolved contradiction here: Cunningham started out wanting a centralized index with multiple authors. When that worked -- almost too well -- he changed his mind, and wanted to decentralize his own index, achieving multiplicity not just of authorship but of web domains.
I think many people share Cunningham's ambivalence about centralized knowledge. On the one hand, don’t we want there to be authoritative references out there? The feminist DH critique of the male-centered tendencies in Wikipedia (who edits it, who contributes “knowledge? see this) is in a way accepting the premise that Wikipedia is a powerfully central site for knowledge production and distribution. Insofar as centralized knowledge production is still a widely felt social need, perhaps we need a better, more diverse Wikipedia, not a decentralized, confederated Wiki system where everyone creates and curates their own bases of knowledge.
Moreover, if a decentralized mode of knowledge production really does take off, it likely won’t be led and scripted by Ward Cunningham. The decentralization might also have a price that maybe we haven’t anticipated: the decentralization of knowledge and history can be as empowering to conservative revisionists as much as to progressive thinkers.