Wednesday, December 16, 2009


My pesky curiosity brought me face to face with a strange blackhole yesterday when I wikipedia-ed Wikipedia. I wanted to know what the first entry of the online encyclopedia had been. I ventured that in the beginning there was God, or, since the site came from computer nerds, maybe Apple.

Where do you start when you want to compile everything?

I've become interested in the origins of the encyclopedia recently because its pages feature a request for donations; and so I've been sporadically considering how much they started with at first and what bit of info got them going.

Usually I think donations that don't fill a stomach or kill a tumor are strangely a-ethical, but I pondered whether I should send Wikipedia a five-spot. It's slowly replaced ESPN as my trivial opiate of choice, after all, and I have respect for its project of democratizing knowledge (even though that project has been roundly criticized. When I look up dogs, for instance, I'm told that the species with the shortest lifespan is the Dogue de Bordeaux--5.2 years. On the page of that particular dogue, however, a second citizen-editor had told me that they live, mostly sans complications, for 8-10 years. Oh well. C'est la vie).

Whether it's wholly correct or not, I like that I can follow the thoughts of Wikipedia's strange brain from Ytzhak Rabin to Albert Schweitzer to The Gabonese Republic to a map of population density to Earth to Outer Space to Paradise Lost to Star Trek to Star Wars to Turner and Hooch to the Dogue de Bordeaux, as I did today. Mind in the clouds, nose on the ground.

Plus, I would never want the encyclopedia to be overcome by ads such that when I check the origin of the phrase "Head-over-heels," as I did recently, I suddenly feel a compulsion to buy some Dr. Scholl's.


When I started out as an English teacher in 2004, we all used to laugh at the student who would quote from Wikipedia, and our bosses derided it as unreliable. There's something to this, I suppose. Students should still learn to look for the most authoritative sources even if that means checking out a book. And yet, part of a strong English education has to do with being able to suss out the truth of things, being able to distinguish fact from opinion. I know I've read falsehood and spin on Wikipedia; I mostly filter it out. It's far from invalid because of the discrepancies.

David Foster Wallace said that being educated "means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed."

Taking his advice, I've decided that his Wikipedia page is insufficient and that you might like to go here instead. Then again, you might like to ignore me and the rest of this post, which would also be in the spirit.

Meanwhile, I'm still thinking about what Wikipedia's worth to me. Would I pay a dollar a week? A dollar a month? If I knew everyone was willing to pay 1 cent a day, would I join in? I need to read up on Game Theory.

And I realize that I haven't answered my initial question about Wikipedia's first article. And so I realize that my unrealizing is a perfect way to talk about Wikipedia's main fault: it almost always forces me to lose my focus. I didn't need any assistance with that in the first place, and then along came the easy-accessibility-of-trivial-facts: I was like an infant staring at hyperlinked keys.


Sometimes I get to the end of the day (especially recently, since I've been on break from school) and I can't really pinpoint any accomplishment I've made or experience I've had. Suddenly it's dark, and I've learned a few things about Gabon.

The machinery of distraction that I've set up for myself keeps me from thinking about serious things for the extended period of time they deserve, keeps me from being devoted to a task or a new skill, keeps me from the dedicated leisure that allows many of my friends to happily wallow in movies and music.

Sometimes I get to the end of the day and I feel hosed.

Dogs, it's thought, sense that they can run away from pain and so, when achy or nearing death, will circle and circle as if their hurt is a place.

I'm no retriever, and I've got no serious grievance, but my mental-flitting seems to be coming from the same K-9 instinct. Maybe if I can read enough news or compile enough facts or hop quickly enough from one thing to the next (one of my generation's notable skills), I'll somehow also be able to scatter away from myself.


The first page added to Wikipedia was "UuU," a list of countries that included our fair States.

"Wiki" comes from a Hawaiian word meaning "Quick."

For a time, many dogs in Gabon contracted the Ebola virus but did not appear to be symptomatic.

There is no information immediately available on the way dogs sense their topography of pain.


JSK said...

Topography of Pain....nice. Word theft may occur.

Dave said...

Thanks Jen.

Endings are hard, no? As are phrases that draw attention to themselves. Sometimes I'm reading and I want the writer to swing for the fences with his language more than he is. Other times, I want the writer to stop trying to be so fire-worky. It's a fine balance, I guess.

And a humbling one to try to keep up.

I really appreciate your comments. Keep 'em coming!

Ellie said...

I am a fan of any encyclopedia I can actually add myself to, if I so choose. I can change my virtual self-definition anytime the mood strikes me .. now THAT is a handy tool.

And I think fire-worky is my new favorite word.