The wiki: Society as designed by a computer engineer

Last month I went to a talk at the Computer History Museum by Ward Cunningham, the father of the wiki (not of Wikipedia, but of the general idea of a wiki).

Wikis are a pretty controversial subject in the blogging community. Some people view them as one of the crowning glories of Web 2.0 software design. Others view them as a prime example of the moral bankruptcy of the whole Web 2.0 crowd. Generally Wikipedia is used as the example to prove either viewpoint.

I'm somewhere in the middle – I view the wiki as a tool, something that's neither good nor bad in and of itself. To me, the most interesting thing about the wiki concept is what it says about software engineers.

Cunningham described his thinking as he developed the wiki concept. He was looking to encode in software the sort of discussions that engineers have among themselves. If you're not an engineer, this will require a little bit of explanation. Engineering is closely allied with science, and shares many of its values. There's a strong belief in the existence of objective truth, something that everyone can agree on if presented with the right evidence. Vigorous debate is deeply respected as a way to discover the truth, a kind of Darwinian process in which the best ideas are the ones that survive. And everyone who participates in a debate is assumed to have the same energy level and commitment to seeking the truth. (I suspect this alignment with the values of scientists is one reason why Nature magazine came out in support of Wikipedia.)

A wiki is designed to facilitate the sort of debates that engineers have among themselves. When it works right, it can dramatically increase the speed with which a group reaches agreement, and can quickly integrate the ideas of many contributors.

A challenge for wikis is that many (actually, most) people don't share the engineering culture. Many people are deeply attached to their beliefs and aren't willing to revisit them no matter how much evidence is presented. In many subjects one person's idea of objective truth may be very different from another's, and in some (religion, for example), it's arguable whether there can be any truly objective truth at all. Energy levels and willingness to participate in an extended discussion also differ dramatically from person to person. Often the most energized people are the fanatics, the people who are least likely to engage in an unbiased debate.

All of these mismatches between wiki ideals and human behavior can cause a wiki to misfire.

So is that a fatal flaw in the wiki concept? I don't think so. Every human institution that I can think of encodes the values and assumptions of the people who created it. Laws are generally created by lawyers (at least in the US), who have a very strong culture based on adversarial balances of power. They tend to focus on creating idealized processes with strong checks and balances in them. Economists have their own view of human nature, based on the assumption that people are self-interested and driven by risks and rewards. They tend to focus on creating systems of incentives and punishments that will encourage the desired behavior. Religious leaders focus on faith and ethics, seeking to adjust what people think and want.

All of these systems have strengths to the extent that they embody truths about human beings, and weaknesses because no single set of ideas can explain all of human behavior. None of them are perfect, but I think we're stronger when we have several different ways of looking at the world. So I'm glad that the engineers are joining the lawyers and economists and priests in designing human institutions. It gives us another set of tools in the tool belt. Rather than arguing about whether wikis are intrinsically good or bad, I think we should be asking when that particular tool is most useful, and what safety precautions we should use with it.

(A side note: it turns out that Cunningham pronounces wiki as "weekee," not "wicky." Who knew?)


By the way, I'm sorry I've been slow to post lately. I've been working with my neighbors on a dispute with a property developer, and that used up most of my blog-writing time in the last two weeks. We're now past our big city hearing, and I should be able to get back to posting at least once a week.


Anonymous said...

As you point out, wikis work best among individuals that share a professional culture, like engineers.

That means they're highly effective in almost any work environment. Indeed, many folks, myself included, believe that the wiki is the way that ordinary knowledge workers will finally gain the web info-model for in-house projects.

I'm not convinced that centralized wikis like Socialtext are the best solution. I think you want something peer-to-peer, where some content remains personal/private. Also, your wiki system should be mobile, e.g. live on a flash drive.

Oops, I've inadvertantly written a vague plug for my current project :-)

Michael Mace said...

Thanks, Liam.

>>I'm not convinced that centralized wikis like Socialtext are the best solution. I think you want something peer-to-peer, where some content remains personal/private.

Interesting. I have a feeling that there's a whole body of social and management rules that still need to be developed for wikis. We're at the point artists were at when Sculpey modeling clay was first introduced (that's the stuff that hardens when you bake it in the oven). It took years before people realized what they could do with the stuff, but now we're starting to see some pretty remarkable art being made with it.

By the way, I don't mind plugs as long as the authors also say something relevant and interesting. Your post qualifies. :-)