Of dead trees, living networks, and encyclopedic ambition

At The New Republic, David A. Bell offers a wistful threnody for the paper edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, which the eponymous publishing house announced it would cease publishing after 244 years. “With the disappearance of paper encyclopedias, a part of the Western intellectual tradition is disappearing as well,” argues Bell, the Sidney and Ruth Lapidus Professor of History at Princeton and a New Republic contributing editor. The problem, he avers, is not the medium itself; the web offers comprehensiveness, currency, and serendipity, affordances it shares with the multi-volume sets of old—

But the great paper encyclopedias of the past had other, grander ambitions: They aspired to provide an overview of all human knowledge, and, still more boldly, to put that knowledge into a coherent, logical order. Even if they mostly organized their articles alphabetically, they also sought ways to link the material together thematically—all of it…. On Wikipedia, contributors do constantly try to update many different related articles to take account of new material they introduce. But Wikipedia, of course, has no plan, no system, no map of human knowledge.

The problem, however, isn’t that we’ve grown complacent about the nature of knowledge, but that the nature of knowledge is changing in the context of networks. The vision of knowledge as paradigmatic, structured, ordered, like the hierarchy of the church and the deputations of sovereignty, was very much a product of encyclopedism’s golden age, the eighteenth century. Indeed, Diderot and his cohort sought for secular knowledge the kind of power and authority reserved for the monarchy and the magisterium of the Church. It’s a theory of knowledge in keeping with its time—although Diderot and his contemporaries already recognized the problematic nature of any single specified taxonomy of knowledge; the rule of the alphabet offered not only a handy organizing schema, but a leveling arbitrariness as well. But these means of ordering knowledge are thoroughly out of step in our own omnivalent age, which finds us suspicious of expertise, more comfortable with the iterative and approximate.

The old sovereign paradigms of encyclopedic knowledge were on the wane long before Wikipedia. By the twentieth century, encyclopedism’s grand epistemological project had been blackboxed, dumbed down, and commodified for aspirant middlebrow readers, the disruptive ambition of Diderot sold door to door. As a project, the encyclopedia was bracing and grand; as product, EB was just another widget courting obsolescence. As Tim Carmody pointed out in a recent deftly-observed article at Wired, it wasn’t Wikipedia, but Encarta—the wholly-insufficient electronic encyclopedia Microsoft bundled with Windows throughout the 1990s—which doomed the paper encyclopedia:

Not because Encarta made Microsoft money (it didn’t), or because Britannica didn’t develop comparable products for CD-ROM and the web (they totally did, with the first CD-ROM encyclopedia in 1989 and Britannica Online in 1994). Instead, Encarta was an inexpensive, multimedia, not-at-all comprehensive encyclopedia that helped Microsoft sell Windows PCs to families. And once you had a PC in the living room or den where the encyclopedia used to be, it was all over for Mighty Britannica.

And yet we shouldn’t mistake a practical bent for a lack of ambition—Wikipedia maps knowledge as ambitiously as the encyclopedia of old; only its cartography is different. Indeed, mapping is woven into the very structure and method of Wikipedia itself; it isn’t found in orderings and topics, but in the network-locative irruptions of facticity and assertion, citation and correction that make up the entries. Fully documented on the “talk page” of each Wikipedia entry, these records of individual edits and vettings comprise a map of knowledge as it lives in a networked world. As David Weinberger points out in Too Big to Know, his rich, ambivalently hopeful book about the emergent nature of knowledge, network effects create more than new means of dissemination:

That knowledge is a property of the network means more than that crowds can have a type of wisdom in certain circumstances…. it’s not simply that under some circumstances groups are smarter than there smartest member. Rather, the change in the infrastructure of knowledge is altering knowledge’s shape and nature…. knowledge is becooming inextricable from—literally unthinkable without—the network that enables it.

Britannica will continue to produce the continuously-updated digital edition of the Encyclopedia (disclosure: I blogged for EB a few years ago, and briefly worked as a permissions assistant at the publisher’s Chicago office after college—but my encyclopedia of choice was the time capsule of the 1959 World Book my parents kept tucked away in a glass-fronted book case behind the armchair in the living room). For the digital edition to thrive as long as the gilt volumes did, it won’t need the austere taxonomies and abridging ambitions of old, but a willingness to yield its energies to the cartographic ambitions of the network.