Wikipedia in the Noosphere



In Teilhard’s examination of the biological nature of the noosphere’s anatomy, in which he draws various analogies between the functional components of individual organisms and the human superorganism, he saves what he calls “the cerebral apparatus” for last. At the close of the previous section – on the noosphere’s “mechanical apparatus” – Teilhard writes:

When Homo faber came into being the first rudimentary tool was born as an appendage of the human body. Today the tool has been transformed into a mechanized envelope (coherent within itself and immensely varied) appertaining to all mankind. From being somatic it has become “noospheric.” And just as the individual at the outset was enabled by the tool to preserve and develop his first, elemental psychic potentialities, so today the Noosphere, disgorging the machine from its innermost organic recesses, is capable of, and in process of, developing a brain of its own.

The section on the cerebral apparatus that follows explores the nature of a “brain of brains”—that is, a noospheric global brain consisting of billions of individual humans, as opposed to a human brain consisting of billions of neurons. Whereas neurons are presumably not self-reflective, humans are. He recognized that to understand what is meant by collective consciousness, this difference must be taken into account. The relationship of the individual to the noospheric superorganism is one of Teilhard’s central themes.

Given the state of the technology in 1947 when Teilhard wrote that essay, he was amazingly prescient about the role telecommunications and computer technology would play in forming the noosphere’s 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, Teilhard of course couldn’t have foreseen such phenomena as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, all undeniably related to the formation of a global brain and collective consciousness today. However, might he 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 that is currently taking shape. On one hand, Wikipedia consists of the servers, software, and Internet connectivity that store, process, and transmit its information. In a sense those are analogous to the physical brain. On the other hand the functional parts are the thousands upon thousands of volunteers—each clearly a self-reflective, autonomous individual with their own motivations—who are united in their dedication to making the vast store of humanity’s knowledge available to the world.

While there is a small paid staff, nearly all of the work of creating, editing, updating, and assuring the accuracy of Wikipedia articles is done by these volunteers. As we explored various aspects of the noosphere’s formation, we became increasingly interested in how Wikipedia works. How is it organized? How is it governed? Is there some top-down management structure, or is it entirely bottom-up? What motivates the volunteers to dedicate themselves to spreading accurate and reliable information in a world where that often seems a scarce commodity?

To answer these and other questions, David Sloan Wilson spoke with Anne Clin, aka “Risker”—her Wikipedia username. She has been a Wikipedia editor for 16 years—most of its existence. In that time she has risen through the ranks to take on increasingly challenging roles, such as resolving disputes when they arise. She is famous—at least within the ranks of Wikipedia editors—for a tool she created known as “Risker’s Checklist”, which she describes.

There is a great deal of academic research and even more sheer speculation regarding what the nature of a global brain with collective consciousness will actually be, at some point in the future. In a much more practical and immediate sense, we explore the possibility that Wikipedia is in fact one lobe of that global brain that is already taking shape. What can we learn by understanding how it works?

The following conversation is presented in three parts. First is the video clip itself, and under each clip is a link to a full downloadable PDF transcript of the conversation. Underneath the transcript link is a description of some of the main points of discussion, with the time they appear in the video.

Wikipedia in the Noosphere – Part One Transcript

Part One Notes

David begins with an explanation of why we’re interested in Wikipedia—that it’s a “shining example of a form of social organization which has risen in the Internet, which is often called self-organizing”. He asks Anne to explain how and why she became a Wikipedia editor.

1:23 — Anne explains how she began in a small way, correcting a few grammar mistakes, then progressed to editing articles and is now an administrator working on such things as arbitrating major disputes. She explains that all of this is done on a strictly volunteer basis. She’s retired from her career in healthcare administration.

4:33 — Discussion of the numbers and makeup Wikipedia workforce, both volunteer and paid staff.

6:12 — David asks about the motivational aspects of working on Wikipedia. Anne replies that there are varying motivations for different individual editors. It could be related to informing the world about their locality or personal interests, but “the knowledge that we do make a difference in sharing information across the world is very important to a lot of people.”

7:58 — David observes that Wikipedia is “a very democratic form of scholarship…an opportunity for people from anywhere, any walk of life to contribute to scholarly knowledge”. Anne agrees, and adds that many university scholars participate in writing and fact checking information in Wikipedia as well. She explains how some mathematicians helped debunk an Internet meme about the 2020 election. David adds that one of his colleagues has his students contribute to Wikipedia by creating pages about organisms, and that many scholars use Wikipedia to find references to literature they cite in their papers. “Wikipedia has become…the go to place for information.”

12:26 — David asks about how status and standing within the Wikipedia community motivates contributors. Anne describes several ways such recognition takes place, including different levels of user rights with special permissions. She also describes some of the underlying structure through which Wikipedia works.

15:54 — David asks about public forms of recognition, such as thanking other editors, and if such a facility is built in. Anne explains how it is.

19:20 — David asks about the social aspects of Wikipedia work. Anne describes them in both the online world and in-person gatherings.

22:28 — David observes that “it’s all enveloped by an ethos of dedication to knowledge basically…it is something which is very prosocial and intellectual…you’re working on something that has real value, and everyone shares that value.” He mentions the Ostrom design principles, discussed in more detail later, but says here that “strong sense of identity and purpose is the first thing that’s needed for any group to function well…And here’s something that anyone can join anywhere in the world, any culture, any level of expertise and then they’re welcomed into that world.”

23:19 — Anne explains the challenges of recruiting editors in areas outside of the Western world, stressing the importance of doing so nonetheless—“For example, understanding what the best reference sources are amongst Nigerian media is not something that’s somebody in New York city is going to know, unless they came from Nigeria.” David brings in the “WEIRD” acronym—“White Educated Industrial Rich and Democratic”, and they end this segment with discussion of that.

Wikipedia in the Noosphere – Part Two Transcript

Part Two Notes

David introduces the subject of governance, with its challenges of coordination and conflicts of interest. He asks first about usernames. She explains how she chose hers. Using one or not is an individual choice.

2:20 — David asks how they deal with the problem of people wanting to put their own spin on Wikipedia pages, Anne says they’ve developed a lot of mitigation tools over 20 years. “This is where the coordination comes in; it’s all self-coordinated.” She describes how self-coordination works. They’ve also started using bots that comb the pages looking for vandalism or simply errors, and revert pages back to their previous versions when necessary.

5:34 — David says the “fossil record” of all previous versions of pages is one of the amazing features of Wikipedia. They discuss that and more about how the bots work on vandalism and related issues with page versions. David compares it to guarding against a sort of entropy.

6:40 — Anne explains about more of the systems they’ve evolved to keep information accurate as pages are updated, an emergent self-coordinated process of editors working together. She gives the example of a “recent changes list” that many people monitor—“It’s a very common entry point for our editors. People just start doing these things. It’s amazing the things that people will just sort of fall into, or they’ll notice that somebody else is doing it. And they’ll say, “Hey, can I join you?” Or they’ll just start doing it too. And it just sort of becomes.”

7:40 — David asks about apprenticeship. Anne describes informal and formal training programs they’ve developed for different levels of user rights. They discuss those. David comments that it sounds like an evolutionary process of variation and selection in a safe environment. He asks how editors go about asking for help when they need it. Anne explains how that works—not always fast— adding “that Wikipedia is based on eventualism. Not everything has to be done right this minute.” However, “there are exceptions to that quite often, when we are dealing with a breaking news story that is getting a lot of observation and review, and everybody is coming to Wikipedia to see what’s going on.” She explains how they deal with breaking news stories.

11:41 — David asks how they deal with “bad actors”, who are “not really operating in the interest of the community.” Anne explains two different kinds of mitigation practices. “One is to manage a problem with an article. And the other one is to manage a problem with an editor.” She explains how these practices work.

15:35 — David asks if they think of these mitigation practices as an immune system; Anne says they use that metaphor. However, it’s not perfect. David says no immune system is. Anne says keeping themselves open, even to editors who are completely unknown, is key to their success. “We need to have that input coming in all the time or else we just become, some other site on the Internet that falls out of its currency and its usefulness.” David wholeheartedly agrees.

17:44 — David asks about “Risker’s Checklist”, a tool Anne created for those who write the software on which Wikipedia works. Anne explains why she wrote it, along with some of its items, how it works, and what it’s intended to do.

23:06 — Anne describes an incident where new editing software that caused problems was introduced, and how their governance system dealt with the issue. The following conversation addresses some other issues between software developers and editors.

30:21 — David asks about other “organism” metaphors they might use to describe how Wikipedia works. Anne replies with a description of how they look at different projects from the perspective of their levels of development.

33:23 — David asks about financial resources. Anne explains.

36:08 — David asks about competitions. They end this segment with a discussion about that.

Wikipedia in the Noosphere – Part Three Transcript

Part Three Notes

The bulk of this segment is an analysis of Wikipedia from the standpoint of Elinor Ostrom’s Core Design Principles for Common Pool Resource groups. David worked with Ostrom for several years to generalize those principles to apply to any human organization that was working together toward a common goal. David explains that approach, and asks Anne about CDP 1.

2:30 — A relatively brief discussion of CDP 1, since it has been central to the discussion throughout. Anne points out that it is embedded in their mission: “We are here to share education with everybody in the world…there’s no question about it. It is why you’re here, why you use it, why you participate in creating it…If you’re not doing it for that purpose, maybe you don’t need to be here.”

3:53 — CDP 2, equitable distribution of costs and benefits. “because individuals get to choose what they want to focus their time on, where they want to focus their time and how much time they want to put into the project, whether it’s a huge amount or it’s tiny little bits, the distribution works out pretty well.”

7:22 — CDP 3, fair and inclusive decision making. Anne explains why and how who is included depends on the nature of the decision being made.

12:44 — CDP 4, monitoring agreed upon behaviors. Again they have been discussing this one throughout. “It is so inherent to the Wikipedia model that I don’t think we have anything more to say at this stage.”

14:50 — CDP 5, graduated responding to helpful and unhelpful behavior. “We actually have a series of warnings. Generally speaking, a new editor who is doing something comparatively minor like a little bit of vandalism, or doing minor things that change content and somebody has to fix it, will get four warnings before they get blocked…Somebody who is doing something really bad…and there are certain things that we will simply block immediately, accusations of pedophilia, those sorts of things, really, really bad stuff, we’re not going to mess around with a warning there.”

19:05 — CDP 6, fast and fair conflict resolution. “In most of our conflict resolution processes, there’s a relative degree of fairness. It’s not always going to be perfectly fair. And again, it depends on who shows up to have that conversation and participate in that dispute.” The process is initiated quickly, but may take a while to resolve.

20:41 — CDP 7, authority to self-govern. Anne explains how degrees of autonomy and relationships between and among the hundreds of Wikipedia projects.

24:52 — CDP 8, collaborative relationships with other groups. David compares it to the principle of subsidiarity practiced in the Catholic church, and asks if Wikipedia has anything like that. Anne answers, “We have just gone through a big process right now of looking at our long-term strategy for the entire Wikimedia movement. And one of the very core principles that we have included in our strategic proposals is subsidiarity. We’ve had very extensive discussions about it. And it is pretty widely agreed that subsidiarity is really important and really valuable for us, and that it’s actually one of our better features.”

25:54 — David asks about their relationships with other groups in the larger real-world ecosystem. They first discuss the challenges different sociopolitical environments.

29:22 — They discuss the challenges presented by a laissez-faire market economy environment, such as private companies wanting to put their own favorable spin on Wikipedia articles.

34:37 — They discuss the challenges of different cultural settings, again bringing in the WEIRD perspective discussed in Part One.

40:06 — David asks if there are any lessons to be learned by social media companies from Wikipedia’s success. Anne answers that “We’re fundamentally different from them. They operate under a profit motive. Somebody’s making a lot of money from them. So their motivation is about money, not information exchange.” She gives some examples of why that makes such a difference. David closes out the segment with a response to Anne’s statement, saying “That, I think, is the fundamental message. We have to have generally prosocial motives, in this case, accurate information. And if you don’t have a prosocial target, then there’s no invisible hand that’s going to get you there.”