Monday, April 28, 2008

Idealism and Pragmatism can be friends

Here's another insight I gained from Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations.

I (Seth) regard myself as an idealist. When I first encountered Wikipedia, I was excited by what I perceived to be an idealistic tool which fully and equally validated every participant and contribution. So I found it difficult at first to reconcile that idealistic perspective with Wikipedia’s imposition of any restrictions, such as locking down frequently abused articles and disallowing unregistered users from starting new articles from scratch. I could understand the reasons for imposing limits, but something inside me seemed to squirm a little – as if perhaps such compromises invalidated my idealism. But, as Shirky explains it,
Wikipedia is predicated on openness not as a theoretical way of working but as a practical way. ... Because Wikipedia is a process, not a product, it replaces guarantees offered by institutions with probabilities supported by process: if enough people care enough about an article to read it, then enough people will care enough to improve it, and over time this will lead to a large enough body of good enough work to begin to take both availability and quality of articles for granted, and to integrate Wikipedia into daily use by millions. [emphasis mine]
This view provides a satisfying relief. Although Wikipedia may not be “pure” from a philosophically idealistic perspective, it is practical from a real world, make-the-most-valuable-resource perspective. And this latter quality invests it with significance and gravitas that is absent in theoretical vision per se. Yes, we may have an idealistic vision of a repaired world. And Wikipedia (and similar tools) moves us closer to that vision – not because it perfectly matches that vision on some ephemeral, theoretical plane, but because it: a) is philosophically congruent with that vision, and also b) engages with, and makes a tangible improvement to, the real world we live in today.

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