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As Wikimedia moves through its movement-wide strategy process, I’ve been thinking a lot about the scope of human knowledge, how far we’ve come since we started passing on oral, then written, then digital knowledge.
A progression of awareness
Some changes have come naturally with the development of our understanding of the universe. As we understood more about the Earth and Space, we had a framework within which to fill out detailed maps and charts and cross-sections. As we learned about the component parts of the body, we could come up with a layered anatomy. As we improved our understanding of mathematics, music, and language, we could identify different types of each, with classes of similarity and building blocks, making more advanced knowledge possible and possible to describe succinctly.
Some knowledge (say, 3D models of the center of the Earth) consists of so many small individual pieces of information that it was hard to dream of holding it in one place, before we had computers for automation and digital databases for collation. Other valuable knowledge has yet to be developed (say, models for the efficiency of groups of millions of people; models for a full society of physical production and industry for 15 billion people where inputs match outputs and there are no ‘externalities’ as fudge factors).
Some things which we do not currently know are hard to describe, because language about them has not yet been developed. Some things that we know imperfectly (say, a comprehensive species survey of the planet) require millions of individual observations, but are only pursued by thousands of expert individuals. And some things we ‘know‘ in some sense (say, the full text of every book in a nationally funded library in some country on the planet), but are unable to access that knowledge readily. If your life depended on finding a sentence in any one of those books in a week, you probably could; but you could not [yet] discover how many of those books contain a specific string.
Divide, specialize, automate, and conquer
Now we have the power to draw on input from billions of people with little more than publicity about how to contribute. Connection and creation are easy and enjoyable, and some aspects of organizing knowledge (search, tracking) are easy and cheap. So: what aspects of knowledge should we improve first?
Wikipedia has done a reasonable job of capturing and providing ready access to editable summaries of notable topics. Wiktionary, OmegaWiki, and now Wordnik in a different fashion, have done something similar for access to editable information about words (though of these, only Wiktionary is readily editable by anyone). OpenStreetMap has organized a few % of the world’s road segments and features and inspired similar communities of practice. Wikimedia Commons has organized some of the world’s best freely-licensed images, while smaller projects such as Fotopedia focus more keenly on beauty.
Freebase makes an effort to organize metadata about and links to over 10 million topics, on Wikipedia and in other publicly-readable databases, regardless of their underlying copyright. And AboutUs has done a fair job of capturing information about internet domains. The Encyclopedia of Life and Wikispecies each aim to gather images and information about the almost 2 million known species, though neither comes close to comprehensive coverage yet.
Moving away from projects with comprehensive targets: Wikiquote offers an editable compendium of quotes, though it is less intent on being complete than some of the aforementioned projects. Yelp efficiently covers services and businesses in a limited number of cities, and has inspired a new wave of amateur reviewers and critics.
Then there are public services that are not particularly editable or distributed; but use bots and scripts to draw from the work of millions of others; they could be the seeds of truly great collaborative efforts. The Internet Archive specializes in these, from the Wayback Machine, which has a comprehensively amazing repository of webpages, to OpenLibrary, with metadata and basic information about a few % of the world’s published books. And one could say that Google itself is based on the power of distributed organization of knowledge.
What comes next?
These projects cover only a small selection of the world’s knowledge, but a significant portion of the collaborative knowledge-gathering sites in the world. Shouldn’t there be hundreds or thousands of these projects?
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