A Brave New Wikiworld

By Cass R. Sunstein. He teaches at the University of Chicago and is the author of “Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge” (THE WASHINGTON POST, 24/02/07):

In the past year, Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that “anyone can edit,” has been cited four times as often as the Encyclopedia Britannica in judicial opinions, and the number is rapidly growing. In just two years, YouTube has become a household word and one of the world’s most successful Web sites. Such astounding growth and success demonstrate society’s unstoppable movement toward shared production of information, as diverse groups of people in multiple fields pool their knowledge and draw from each other’s resources.

Developing one of the most important ideas of the 20th century, Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek attacked socialist planning on the grounds that no planner could possibly obtain the “dispersed bits” of information held by individual members of society. Hayek insisted that the knowledge of individuals, taken as a whole, is far greater than that of any commission or board, however diligent and expert. he magic of the system of prices and of economic markets is that they incorporate a great deal of diffuse knowledge.

Wikipedia’s entries are not exactly prices, but they do aggregate the widely dispersed information of countless volunteer writers and editors. In this respect, Wikipedia is merely one of many experiments in aggregating knowledge and creativity, that have been made possible by new technologies.

The Central Intelligence Agency disclosed the existence of its top-secret Intellipedia project, based on Wikipedia software (and now containing more than 28,000 pages), in late October. The agency hopes to use dispersed information to reduce the risk of intelligence failures. NASA officials have adopted a wiki site to program NASA software, allowing many participants to make improvements.

In the private domain, businesses are adopting wikis to compile information about products, profits and new developments. The Autism Wiki, produced mostly by adults with autism and Asperger’s syndrome, contains material on autism and related conditions. Wikileaks.org, founded by dissidents in China and other nations, plans to post secret government documents and to protect them from censorship with coded software.

But wikis are merely one way to assemble dispersed knowledge. The number of prediction markets has also climbed over the past decade. These markets aggregate information by inviting people to “bet” on future events — the outcome of elections, changes in gross domestic product, the likelihood of a natural disaster or an outbreak of avian flu.

In general, the results have proved stunningly accurate. For elections, market forecasts have consistently outperformed experts and even public opinion polls. (If you want to learn who is likely to win the Oscars, check out the Hollywood Stock Exchange at www.hsx.com.) Many companies, such as Google, Eli Lilly and Microsoft, have created internal prediction markets for product launches, office openings, sales levels and more. At Google, which has disclosed some of its data, the aggregation of dispersed information has yielded remarkably reliable forecasts.

Interest in open-source software — software whose “code” is available to users, so that they can improve it as they see fit — has also risen dramatically. But the idea of open source is not limited to software.

Open-source projects, some of which are emerging in medicine and biotechnology, dispense with the protection of intellectual property law so that numerous users can contribute to improvements. In the domain of health, open-source biotechnology projects such as Bioforge.net might end up saving numerous lives, especially but not only in poor countries. Well-funded projects claiming the protection of intellectual property law will often do much worse than cheaper ones that benefit from widespread collaboration. Other experiments involve open-source cars, open-source cellphones, open-source toys ( http://mindstorms.lego.com) and even open-source voting machines, which are designed to reduce the risk and appearance of fraud.

Of course, collaborative projects can go badly wrong. Pranksters have altered Wikipedia entries to say that Tony Blair’s middle name is “Whoop-de Do”; that David Beckham was a Chinese goalkeeper in the 18th century; that the golfer Fuzzy Zoeller had abused alcohol and drugs; and that John Seigenthaler, a respected journalist, was thought to be involved in the assassinations of both Kennedys (before absconding to the Soviet Union).

The falsehoods about Zoeller and Seigenthaler were no laughing matter, and more serious mistakes, endangering reputations or causing financial losses, are possible. Anyone can vandalize an encyclopedia that “anyone can edit.” No less than stock prices, prediction markets may be subject to manipulation. And in medicine and biotechnology, as elsewhere, intellectual property law may be needed to provide adequate incentives for innovation.

But the track record of the new collaborations suggests that they have immense potential. In just a few years, Wikipedia has become the most influential encyclopedia in the world, consulted by judges as well as those who cannot afford to buy books. If the past is prologue, we’re seeing the tip of a very large iceberg.