The Tyranny of Decentralization (“Quo Vadis Wikipedia” part 2)

27 October, 2010 at 11:29 | Posted in knowledge, Politics, Wikipedia policy | Leave a comment
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Jo Freeman, tyranny lurks in the least expected organizations (Image via Wikipedia)

Jo Freeman, tyranny lurks in the least expected organizations (Image via Wikipedia)

As promised, I am continuing my “Quo Vadis” post about Wikipedia (and Wikimedia projects in general). This time I would like to focus on one of Wikipedia’s chronic illnesses, which I call  “the tyranny of decentralization” after Jo Freeman‘s “Tyranny of Structurelessness”. Three or four years ago it seemed to me like a passing syndrome, but it has grown since to become a major and poorly treated problem.

Some background

Jo Freeman’s “Tyranny of Structurelessness”

Taking part in the “Critical Point Of View” (CPOV) group, I brought up some of my ideas about the better and worse in Wikipedia. One of its members directed me to a well-known essay by Jo Freeman, from 1970, entitled “The Tyranny of Structurelessness“. The essay deals with the deliberately unregulated nature of women’s feminist groups at the time it was written, and, in a way, it echoes Cicero’s renowned saying “We are slaves of the law so that we may be able to be free”. Freeman basically brings another evidence to proof the notion that anarchy is impossible. We, human beings, cannot do without rules and regulations, and even if we consciously try to avoid them, we are going to develop some kind of regulatory system sooner or later. And yet, letting such a system develop “naturally” leads too often to tyrannical atmosphere characterized by constant struggles for power, oppressive acts in order to achieve power and maintain it, cabals and “secret councils” formed knowingly or unaware in lieu of the forbidden regulated decision-making forums and so forth. The conclusion drawn from Freeman’s essay is simple – Since rules and regulations are unavoidable, we might as well make them, and keep them, in the right way, namely through  open transparent processes. If we want our laws to be phrased accurately and enforced in a gentle, assertive and consistent way, we must deliberately and consciously design them and the mechanism surrounding them.

Tyranny lurks

This observation might seem trivial to those of you who studied social sciences; however in every epoch of history people argue the plausibility of unregulated human interaction as an alternative to the alleged burden and oppression of rules and laws. Jo Freeman brings yet another example, this time of reformative feminist women’s societies, to show us, once again, that the lack of agreed written rules is as catastrophic as having bad rules or a system of arbitrary law enforcement. Tyranny lurks in all of these three possibilities.

Wikipedia: Rules there are, but no consistency

Trying to apply Jo Freeman’s observations on my experience in Wikipedia seemed frustrating at first. I recognized many of the phenomena she described, and yet I could not say there were no rules or regulatory structure in Wikipedia. Quite the contrary. Wikipedia has an abundance of policy pages and many administrators to enforce them. Wikipedia used to have a rule saying “ignore all rules“, but it has long been neglected and almost forgotten. On the other hand, it would be an absurd to claim that Wikipedia has been taken over by tyrants. The problem seems to be lying somewhere else, but not so far from Jo Freeman’s theory.

Wikipedia is not about anarchy

Wikipedia was never meant to be anarchist. Quite the contrary, it is a conservative project in the way it perceives its own goals and modus operandi. If you look at the first propositions for Wikipedia’s policy, you can see how liberal they are, but still very much within the traditional framework. In fact, the academic resentment toward Wikipedia, at least in its early days, might be due to the similarities between its method of work and the academic way. Wikipedia basically wanted to do what the academy does but slightly different, hence the feeling of threat by academics. When it comes to real post-modernist or anarchist projects for spreading knowledge and information, the academy simply ignores them. And despite this promising starting point, with the right dosages of liberalism, modernism, conservatism and high spirit, Wikipedia seems to have fallen into the trap of rigidness that in certain cases even amounts to tyranny. Not tyranny of stucturelessness, but tyranny of decentralization.

Needed: A single source of authority

It is not enough to design a structure of transparent and liberal regulatory system. There must also be a single source of authority to interpret the rules (i.e. applying them to real-life events) and to enforce them. This regulatory structure can have plenty of room for diversity, but at the end of the day, there should be clear boundaries supervised by a single authority. If you think “boundaries”, “supervision” and “authority” are frightening terms, you should remember that in a liberal democratic society, rules are not demands directed from the authority to the members of the community, but a system of bidirectional orders and understandings between the authority on the one hand and individual members and subgroups within the community on the other. If we indeed want to create an open community of encyclopedia editors, we cannot just write policy pages, appoint some administrators and hope everyone will do her/his best. It simply doesn’t work that way. The United States has various legal systems, at least one for each of its fifty states and one district, but it has one single constitution that governs all these systems, and a single transparently elected authority to interpret the constitution.  All this in order to ensure that the local diversity does not come on the expense of consistency with the greater political structure known as the United States.

Two implications of the problem

Upon which terms should I read Wikipedia’s texts?

This problem I call “the tyranny of decentralization” has two major implications. The first has to do with the encyclopedic content itself. Due to the lack of centralized rules and style system, it is hard to put the text of a Wikipedia article into context. “A text is read in its own terms”, the old saying goes, meaning that a text without its context is almost meaningless. And yet, while names like “New York Times”, “The Guardian”, “Al-Jazeera” or “Amnesty International” direct to a rather clear context upon which the texts of these institutes should be read, the name “Wikipedia” does not hold enough context to ensure that I understand its texts correctly.

I cannot know for sure whether the Spanish-language Wikipedia should be read upon the same terms as the English-language one, and if not, what the differences are. Wikipedia does not even commit to full consistency of terminology and style within the articles of a single language-based project. One could suggest that Wikipedia is something similar to the “WordPress” website through which I publish this post of mine, but this is not the case, because on Wikipedia the articles are never signed. Of course, it is possible to know who has written what (by nicknames and IP addresses) when browsing the “history” of the articles (the article’s “talk pages” are also useful for this purpose) but the article itself is presented unsigned, or better said, it is signed by “Wikipedia”, without a strict definition of what this signature stands for.

Conflict resolution and policing

Another implication of the decentralization policy of Wikipedia has to do with the interaction between members of the community of editors, particularly when conflicts develop. While there are rules for conflict resolution, their implementation is highly dependent upon arbitrary interpretations of one administrator or another. There is no “supreme authority” to which one can appeal. The word of the administrator whom you were unlucky enough to encounter is final. The best way to protect oneself from arbitrary enforcement of the rules is to enter the “inner circle” of one of the more powerful administrators, a phenomenon which, in its turn, enhances the problem.



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