The greying of Wikipedia

Paul Raven @ 25-11-2009

citation needed!Despite continued growth as one of the most-visited sites on the web, Wikipedia has a problem – it’s losing editors faster than it’s gaining new ones. Cue lots of veiled “told you so” from the Wall Street Journal [via /message]:

… as it matures, Wikipedia, one of the world’s largest crowdsourcing initiatives, is becoming less freewheeling and more like the organizations it set out to replace. Today, its rules are spelled out across hundreds of Web pages. Increasingly, newcomers who try to edit are informed that they have unwittingly broken a rule — and find their edits deleted, according to a study by researchers at Xerox Corp.

“People generally have this idea that the wisdom of crowds is a pixie dust that you sprinkle on a system and magical things happen,” says Aniket Kittur, an assistant professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University who has studied Wikipedia and other large online community projects. “Yet the more people you throw at a problem, the more difficulty you are going to have with coordinating those people. It’s too many cooks in the kitchen.”

What isn’t clear, at least from this article, is which editors are leaving. A few years ago, all you could find were articles complaining that Wikipedia had too many unskilled and uninformed editors, and that it was hence a valueless project; now that people are being deterred from fiddling because the cost of entry is too high for casual contributions, that’s the problem. C’mon, people; you can’t have it both ways.

Rather than unseating my faith in crowdsourcing, these developments at Wikipedia are pretty much in line with what I had expected to happen. The initial landslide of popularity was like a new frontier, and it inevitably attracted a lot of chancers and grifters – not least, I suspect, because the SEO Google-juice from outbound Wikipedia links is powerful stuff indeed. I’m inclined to see Wikipedia (and a lot of other web-based projects) as an emergent system, and this shedding of casual contributors makes perfect sense; not everyone cares enough to do it properly, and the system self-adjusts to exclude those low-value contributions. [image by mmetchley]

That said, Wikipedia isn’t completely emergent and spontaneous; the Wikimedia Foundation steers and directs it as it sees fit. But even so, it’s still surprisingly reliable by comparison to classically-produced encyclopedias… and those who accuse it of inherent bias have obviously never seen Conservapedia (which I’m not going to do the favour of linking to – just Google it if you fancy horrifying yourself with some ultra-conservative historical revisionism). Sure, it’s not perfect… but what is? I’d be interested to see a catalogue of the errors that a paper like the Wall Street Journal makes in the course of a year for comparison…

That said, there’s one statistic about Wikipedia that is fairly disappointing (though far from surprising):

A survey the foundation conducted last year determined that the average age of an editor is 26.8 years, and that 87% of them are men.

Um. Not so much a greying, after all.


Scaled-elextric: slot cars for transport

Tom James @ 11-08-2009

slot-carToday’s dose of technocratic mass-transport conceptual design is brought to you by German designer Christian Förg. His Speedway Transport System is inspired by slot cars of his youth:

Förg’s Speedway Transport System concept uses a network of linear electric motors to propel cars along the highway.

He sees us driving around in futuristic dual-mode electric cars with small motors for city driving. When we’re ready to leave town, a contact-free linear motor would propel the car over long distances with a drifting magnetic field. Förg says linear motors would work under our existing roadways, complementing – not replacing – existing automotive technology.

“This means that you can use the roads with normal cars and also at the same time for the Speedway system,”

If this ever gets taken up it’ll be interesting to see what alternative uses the street finds for this technology.

A slight non-sequitur: Will Hutton writes in the Guardian on the dire state of the UK rail network, and how in order to remain economically competitive, Britain must invest in the kind of high-speed rail they have in Europe.

[via Wired][image from Wired]


Games and economic misbehaviour

Tom James @ 03-08-2009

wolfram_fractalsGeorge Dyson has an excellent and compelling essay on game theory, economics, information theory, computer science, banking, finance, technology, and John von Neumann:

We are surrounded by codes (some Turing-universal) that make copies of themselves, and by physical machines that spawn virtual machines that in turn spawn demand for more physical machines. Some digital sequences code for spreadsheets, some code for music, some code for operating systems, some code for sprawling, metazoan search engines, some code for proteins, some code for the gears used in numerically-controlled gear-cutting machines, and, increasingly, some code for DNA belonging to individuals who serve as custodians and creators of more code. “It is easier to write a new code than to understand an old one,” von Neumann warned.

The monograph over on Edge discusses von Neumann’s intellectual antecendants and the development of game theory and statistical modelling. It also includes some interesting commentary on our recent economic difficulties. Definitely worth a read.

[image from kevindooley on flickr]


Science vs. engineering: Drexler waxes philosophical

Tom James @ 17-06-2009

engineering_scienceEric Drexler discusses the hinterland between two of the great pillars of human endeavour – science and engineering – and what they are:

Inquiry and design are seldom separate, so how can it be meaningful to call some activities “science”, and others “engineering”? I think it’s best to look beyond the mixture of inquiry and design in a project, and to consider instead its purpose. If the intended result is knowledge — a better model of what exists in the world and how it works — I think of it as science. If the intended result is a new product, process, or design methodology, I think of it as engineering.

This epistemiological discussion is with a serious goal in mind, to consider how emergent nanotechnological developments might be engineered to create products and processes we can all use:

Unlike high-energy particle physics or space science, nanotechnology springs from fields (surface science, materials science, chemistry, biology) that have no tradition of developing conceptual designs for complex systems, debating the knowns, unknowns, costs, benefits, alternative objectives, alternative solutions, and so forth, to eventually converge on objectives that coordinate the work of hundreds or thousands for a decade or more.

Without a tradition of this sort, large opportunities can go unrecognized — and in part because they are large. This will change, but I doubt that the change will be led from within.

It’s an interesting point. At what point does scientific research transfer into engineering development, and thence into entrepreneurial opportunity?

[image from jenny downing on flickr]


ULTra – Urban Light Transit concept

Paul Raven @ 29-12-2008

Having spent a little time this holiday scurrying around on the UK’s woeful excuse for a public transport system, I’m very receptive to a technological revamp of the ways we get around. The ULTra – Urban Light Transit – system looks like just the ticket if the video below is anything to go by, though it has the launch date for the Heathrow Airport installation wrong – ULTra themselves have it pegged for operation in spring 2009.

More than a hint of the Jetsons about it, isn’t there? I wonder if it could genuinely scale up to coping with the sort of traffic the London or New York subway systems handle? [via Tomorrow’s Trends]