Wikipedia as Superorganism

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In the series of conversations that contribute to our exploration of the Science of the Noosphere, there is a great deal of discussion about the formation of a global brain, with collective consciousness. Those conversations are fascinating, but mostly speculative. While there are many theories regarding how a global brain will evolve and function, and how collective consciousness may work, these ideas are mostly abstract at this point.

So we thought it might be interesting to explore a more concrete example of a part of the global brain that actually exists — that is, Wikipedia. Since we wanted to make this a functional rather than a theoretical discussion, we sought out someone to talk with who’s been laboring in the Wikipedia trenches for quite some time, and understands how its systems work.

After some searching, we finally met Risker, aka Anne Clin. She has been a Wikipedia editor for the last 16 years, during which time she has become a high-level user, and a participant in arbitrating disputes. On her user page Anne states her simple editing philosophy: “Our readers do not care one whit who adds information to articles; they care only that the information is correct.”

Obviously Wikipedia has its share of false information. However, their system is functionally organized so as to be constantly rooting it out, though admittedly that’s an ongoing challenge — which is a large part of what this conversation is about.

Unlike certain other Internet organizations with mottos such as “move fast and break things”, the mission statement of the parent Wikimedia Foundation is “to empower and engage people around the world to collect and develop educational content under a free license or in the public domain, and to disseminate it effectively and globally.” That seems like an admirable function for a global brain.

In The Formation of the Noosphere, Teilhard wrote about the role information and communication technology would play in forming the noosphere’s global brain:

“… how can we fail to see the machine as playing a constructive part in the creation of a truly collective consciousness? It is not merely a matter of the machine which liberates, relieving both individual and collective thought of the trammels which hinder its progress, but also of the machine which creates, helping to assemble, and to concentrate in the form of an ever more deeply penetrating organism, all the reflective elements upon earth.”

As prescient as he was, could Teilhard have foreseen such phenomena as Facebook and Twitter? They are also undeniably contributing to the formation of a global brain and collective consciousness today. It seems more likely he might have foreseen a phenomenon like Wikipedia. More so than any of the dominant social media sites, it seems that Wikipedia is “helping to assemble, and to concentrate in the form of an ever more deeply penetrating organism, all the reflective elements upon earth.”

Interestingly, Wikipedia also demonstrates an intriguing aspect of the relationship between individual humans and the noospheric “Brain of brains”, in Teilhard’s terms, that is currently taking shape. On one hand, Wikipedia consists of the servers, software, and Internet connectivity that store, process, and transmit its information. On the other hand, Wikipedia consists of thousands upon thousands of volunteers—each obviously a self-reflective, autonomous individual—who are united in their dedication to making the vast store of knowledge generated by humanity available to the world.

There are a host of fascinating insights into the workings of Wikipedia in this conversation between David Sloan Wilson and Risker/Anne Clin.

Risker/Anne Clin Transcript