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May 10, 2007

I am writing this just after listening to Jimmy Wales speak here at the APQC Knowledge & Innovation Conference and I must admit to some disappointment. Yes it was a good speech, witty with simple but effective slides. A bit of passion at the end about free access to information in the context of China contrasted well with Google and others. Some interesting statistics, e.g. Wikipedia has a 6.19% reach which is more than the sum of the BBC and CNN. Some good quotes: in respect of setting up a wiki, accountability not gate keeping; in the context of keeping the wikipedia up, the speed of light matters.
So why was I disappointed? Well for a start it was very basic for an audience nearly of whom have used the wikipedia, and reasonable percentage have been editors. It would have been nice to hear more about the new work on search engines for example. Secondly he seemed overly concerned to establish respectability in respect of conventional media. It was as if he was explaining the important of the wikipedia to a group of conservative librarians with no experience of the internet. I hasten to add here that I know of no such librarians, most members of that profession have forgotten more about knowledge management and classification than is known by IT professionals.

However my main concern was that he did not raise or address known issues or problems. Having spent too much time over the last month clearing up vandalism on the Wales article (why is it that people outside Wales have a prurient obsession with our sheep?) this is an issue for me as a reasonably active editor. We are currently setting up a wiki for Cognitive Edge practitioners as we shift the methods from open access to open source. I would have liked to know more about the differences in his thinking in setting up Wikia as he must have learnt something from Wikipedia. I am interested in his view on the controversy between sub-article proliferation and consolidation which is ever present within any Wiki. I am far more interested in all of that, than I am in stats on growth in number of articles, his conversation with Tony Blair and a rather specious metaphor on knives.
The Knife metaphor
The argument was put forward as follows: To open a restaurant you need knives, but people can kill people with knives, therefore you should lock up the customers. The metaphor is that instead of designing information spaces on the basis of what could go wrong, you should assume (as we do with knives) that people will generally be nice to each other. He then said that you need to put ambulances, police and prisons in place for when people use knives badly.
Now I find this interesting. I could extend it, to argue that we should not ban knives, but if someone wants to bring in a Samurai sword to the sushi bar we might want to think twice about a permissive policy. That is a bit absurd, but not much. The point I am making is that any system has to have dome form of boundaries. I would have liked to hear something about that from one of the pioneers of open access to information.

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