November 24, 2011

"We exist so that every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge."

Ed. Note: I first published this on Thanksgiving two years ago, on a now-defunct political blog. It is topical again, and my support for the cause remains undaunted, so I am reposting it with minor changes and a short addition at the end. If you read it then, my apologies for the redundancy.

In the third century before Christ, a man named Demetrius of Phaleron had a modest goal: Collect all of the world's knowledge. He learned to dream big from his teacher, Aristotle, on whose Lyceum Demetrius modeled his own little building. It was the first ever attempt to gather books from other nations and cultures, an unprecedented effort to reach beyond the learning of a specific empire.

Courtesy of take a frikkin' guess.
For hundreds of years, Demetrius' project made Alexandria and Ptolemaic Egypt the center of scholarship for the ancient world. The architecture he borrowed from the Lyceum is similar to that found in many universities and colleges today. Until 642, when some think an Arab army sacked it, it was home base for some of the greatest scholars who ever lived.

For a geek like me, Demetrius' dream is about the coolest one a person could ever have. Regardless of your personal or spiritual point of view, the sharing and pooling of knowledge is one of the few purposes that - I am fairly certain - is a sacred one. So I'm a fan of people, places and things that devote existences to that noble end.

I was able to tell you all of that stuff about the Library at Alexandria not because I know that type of thing off of the top of my head, but because Demetrius' effort has been reborn today. We call it Wikipedia. Thanks to the wonders of ever-increasing technological capacity, an army of passionate volunteer editors, and what Wired editor Chris Anderson called "the long tail" of knowledge, we are closer to collecting all of human knowledge than Demetrius could ever have dreamed.

Why do I bring this up?

One, because I wanted to post something a little off-beat before Thanksgiving, and a tract about how we built a country on myths about how we didn't try and exterminate the American Indians would be too big a downer. And because we're at a point when Wikimedia is asking us for help, in the form of money.

Wikimedia is the nonprofit organization dedicated to - among other things - collecting all of human knowledge and making it accessible on the Web. And for those of you still huffing that it's not verifiable, I direct you to the study showing Wikipedia to be as accurate as the Encyclopedia Brittannica. Yes, it is imperfect, but our recent debates on the OCB show us that all attempts to collect knowledge are imperfect. Of course, it's not the same as primary research, and I wouldn't suggest citing it in articles for peer review, but it does currently have over 3.8 million articles in English alone, and is a source of comprehensive information of which Demetrius of Phaleron could only have dreamed.

So, since it's that time of year, I thought it was worth pointing out that I'm thankful for this modern Library of Alexandria that is so easy to take for granted. As someone who uses it at least once a day, I felt compelled to send them a small amount of money as a donation. After all, it takes some money to run the largest repository of knowledge in the world on less than 100 employees. And, as I mentioned, it's run by a nonprofit, which means it relies heavily on donations from users. Like many "long tail" campaigns, Wikipedia needs major donations less than it needs many small donations.

Above the shelves in the Library of Alexandria was carved an inscription: "The place of the cure of the soul." A bit dramatic, perhaps, but it alluded to the fact that knowledge can be a soothing balm for those of us living in uncertain times (as if there are any other kind). Wikimedia has taken that place of curing, and moved it into every living room and coffee shop in much of the world.

So I encourage you to take a few moments and go donate a few dollars to Wikimedia.

In my niche of craft beer, there is a site that is just as - if not more - indispensable, and just as easy to take for granted. That, of course, is Adam Nason's beernews.org, a repository of all beer news and TTB label approvals, sprinkled with insightful analysis when appropriate. Adam's site is ad-supported, though I know it has required significant investment on his part, and I do not believe he is getting ready to retire to his yacht and mansion on the proceeds just yet. Supporting him is as easy as a few clicks around his site, doing the whole like/follow/sharing of content, or patronizing one of his retail supporters. Unless you're the type with a business looking to reach a craft beer audience, in which case you could do a lot worse than advertising with his site.

In any case, I know many (myself included) spend a lot of time bemoaning the state of journalism, politics, the Earth, etc. It's easy to forget that information is now more accessible than it has been at any point in human history. Whether looking up the inscriptions in long-gone libraries, or trying to find the most offensive design that got slapped on a beer bottle this week, the only barriers to learning are the limits of our time and aspiration. We've got a lot left to do here, but that is one hell of a start.

Happy Thanksgiving.

2 comments:

  1. Love it, man. And Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.

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  2. I have issues with people who harsh on Wikipedia because of the amateur nature of it. It's true that some of the details may have citations needed, but when you look at the macro-psychological incentives for people to spread around information, a well policed site like Wikipedia offers so very much more benefit than detriment.

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