27 November 2006

A Manifest Hacker

The Hacker Class. In A Hacker Manifesto, McKenzie Wark writes “Hackers are a class, but an abstract class. A class that makes abstractions, and a class made abstract. To abstract hackers as a class is to abstract the very concept of class itself. The slogan of the hacker class is not the workers of the world united, but the workings of the world untied.” Discuss.

Ken Wark:

- full (and presumably tenured) professor of ever-so-trendy cultural
and media studies at the ever-so-cool New School[1] in Manhattan;
- whose ‘Personal Profile’ on his faculty page is simply: “The
philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”
--- hey, neat quote from Marx, Ken, and totally cool for not mentioning him;
after all, those who know, know, right?

- whose faculty page provides no information on his courses, no course descriptions, no syllabi, no readings, no links -- nada, niente, nichts;
--- awesome Ken. That’ll convince the vectoralist ruling class that you know too much to just put it out there for them to glom on to;
- whose webpage clues us in that A Hacker Manifesto has been gushingly reviewed by such rigorous and acclaimed periodicals as the Village Voice (“very practical applications”) and the Sydney [Australia] Morning Herald (“remarkably original and passionate….indispensable reading” -- or ‘local boy makes good in Big Apple’);
- champion of his own ill-defined hacker class, of which he defines himself a member [003] -- though Terry Eagleton, long a leading Marxist cultural critic, says Wark’s contention that hackers constitute a class of “creative innovators is absurdly overgeneralized”;
- courageous, fearless proponent of freely shared intellectual property -- whose book is published with full customary copyright protection, and which, two years after release, is only available in hardback from the press of the wealthiest university in the world.
-- Good on ya, Ken. We knew you were one of us.
-- And, oh Ken? when was it you were taking us to the pub on your royalties cheque?

And as to the opening quote [006], Ken, I’ll paraphrase Bertrand Russell’s paradox:
A class is not a member of itself.

As you say -- so profoundly, -- Ken, “To hack is to differ.” [003]

I differ.

Unconscious self-parody is always so delightful. From the New School’s Lang College website:

Lang College Ranked Number 1 in Several Categories of The Princeton Review
11 October 2006

Every year The Princeton Review publishes The Best 361 Colleges: The
Smart Student’s Guide to Colleges, which includes the top 20 schools ranked in descending order in 62 different categories. These ranking
are determined by student surveys done at each school by The Princeton Review. The extensive survey, which includes more than 60 questions, is divided into four sections — “About Yourself,” “Your School’s Academics/Administration,” “Students,” and “Life at Your School.” In this year’s 2007 edition, Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts placed prominently in many categories.

Citations included:
• Number 1 — Class Discussions Encouraged, Great College Towns
• Number 2 — Gay Community Accepted, Long Lines and Red Tape, Intercollegiate Sports Unpopular or
Nonexistent, Dodge Ball Targets

• Number 3 — Nobody Plays Intramural Sports
• Number 4 — Most Politically Active
• Number 6 — Students Ignore God on a Regular Basis
• Number 9 — Town-Gown Relations Are Great
• Number 10 — Lots of Race/Class Interaction, Birkenstock-Wearing, Tree-Hugging, Clove-Smoking

• Number 16 — Students Most Nostalgic for Bill Clinton

26 November 2006

Toronto: Virtual City

Virtual City is a new entry in the mapping sweepstakes. It is in effect a mash-up of the Google street map with Virtual City’s own enormous database of street-level photographs of both sides of a given street. Its initial offering is Toronto, and according to Ivor Tossell’s review in The Globe and Mail, it will soon encompass Montreal.

Virtual City goes to great lengths to acquire and match streetscape photos with the maps. The website explains that its vehicles are equipped with high-definition cameras along with “GIS-grade GPS, accelerometers to sense increases and decreases in acceleration, and gyro meters to sense directional changes, [which] all tie into the vehicles’ computer bus to sense each full rotation of the wheels, while custom software compares these readings 10 times per second to create extremely accurate location data.”

You begin by typing in a complete street address. It will also accept an intersection (‘king st east and parliament st’) which is convenient when you don’t have an exact address, or a bare postal code which is the briefest input allowed. Or you can use the arrows and zoom buttons on the Google map to navigate, while using the Virtual City ‘viewer’ button to specify your desired viewpoint. (You can also click on a button and search for a business by name, but this is plainly a work in progress.) You can toggle ‘highlight mapped streets’ which adds a red line to streets for which there are photographs.

Virtual City then provides a strip of four thumbnail photos of each side of the street; the one with the specific street number sought is highlighted. You can click on a thumbnail and an enlarged version appears to the right of the strip (downloaded, that photo is about 25KBs); clicking on it brings up a detailed, full-screen image. Most of the ones I downloaded were about 300KBs; some were as large as 500KBs. Easily zoomed to read store signs, or to see what the guy sitting by the window at Tim’s is having with his coffee!

The linear footage in a photo varies with the setback of the buildings and the width of the street, but most seem to cover about 10-20m. Vertically, for domestic structures and most shopfronts, a photo usually captures about the first two floors, so almost all buildings are truncated.

At this point, coverage is quite complete for arterial roads and streets with shops, although particularly south of Bloor St., many residential streets are included as well, and more are to come. Most of the pictures seem to have been taken last winter (leafless trees and snow on the ground), but some (Adelaide St.) have shrubbery in full leaf. The absence of green (and bundled-up pedestrians) makes things look rather dreary, but on the other hand, it makes the features of buildings more visible. I imagine that most photos were taken on Sundays when there was less traffic to contend with. Even so, the challenge of obtaining long series of streetscapes unobstructed by buses, streetcars, and large trucks should not be underestimated. The largest vehicle I spotted was an armoured car. All in all, the photo series are a considerable achievement.

Virtual City’s primary audience is people who want to call up a picture of a destination so that they will recognize it more easily when they see it. I could have used it a few weeks ago before I set out for the excellent Austrian patisserie, Kaffeehaus Konditor, at 1856 Queen St East, far from my usual haunts. I think it would also provide house hunters with a means of first checking out the ‘hood around a property of interest. Beyond these uses, the wealth of imagery may well fuel the imagination of urban sociologists and planners. What does it offer to the historian?

I decided to see what it would provide to someone interested in the earliest surviving buildings of Toronto. The city was founded as York in 1793 when Lt Gov John Graves Simcoe arrived with a group of settlers and the re-commissioned Queen Rangers, the regiment he had capably led in the American Revolution. There are only a handful of buildings that remain from the period before the city became incorporated as Toronto in 1834, and virtually all have been subsequently expanded or altered. I’ve put the photos I found up on Flickr under the general tag ‘Toronto Early History'.

Toronto’s original ten-block town site was to the east of the present city centre. The Bank of Upper Canada (256 Adelaide Street East) is the oldest surviving building within the original precinct which was bounded by Front, Berkeley, Adelaide, and George streets. The Bank moved here in 1827, and the building is a fine example of restrained elegance; the attractive portico was added in 1844. Virtual City’s two photos of the bank illustrate both its vertical and horizontal ranges -- and how greenery can obscure our view.

Just a few doors to the east is the building known as ‘Toronto’s First Post Office’ (260 Adelaide Street East), which operated out of the first floor of the home of the postmaster. Built in red brick in 1833, it echoes the designs of British terrace houses. It now is both an operating post office and a postal history museum

Three short blocks away to the SW is the area which was designated early for a market. In 1845, the city constructed a multi-purpose building which was at once City Hall, police station and market. In 1899, after the new superb ‘new’ City Hall was built at Bay and Queen streets, the façade and council chamber of the old city hall were incorporated into a new market building which still flourishes as St. Lawrence Market.

On the same block as the bank and post office was a third notable building, the home of Chief Justice William Campbell, built in 1822. To save it from destruction, it was moved in 1972 to a prime site on the NW corner of Queen St. West and University Ave. Campbell House is a superb example of symmetrical Georgian neo-classicism.

On the NE corner of the same intersection lies Osgoode Hall, begun in 1829 to provide court facilities for the emergent city. Osgoode Hall is set back more than 30m from the street, so in this case the Virtual City photos capture the full height its Palladian façade. The photo chosen captures the sharp-angled wrought-iron gates erected mid-century to keep cattle out of the grounds. They’re equally effective today against bicycles, but they are accommodated by entrances along the sides.

Showing another variable, the photos of Campbell House and Osgoode Hall are quite dark, but still serviceable. By the time the vehicle had moved one block further east to take photos of the Old City Hall, designed by Edward J. Lennox and opened in 1899, they are so dark as to obscure not only details but the very nature of the building.

A few blocks west of Campbell House and slightly to the north is The Grange, the oldest part of which was built in 1817. In 1910, it was donated to become the kernel of what emerged as the Art Gallery of Ontario. The Grange is now hidden behind construction hoardings as the AGO undergoes the renovations designed by Frank Gehry. John St. leads up to the park which formed the south lawn of The Grange, but Virtual City’s cameras did not stray northwards. However, as the cameras proceeded along Berkeley St. which forms the western boundary, we are afforded an oblique glimpse of a fine building whose front elevation and fenestration is remarkably similar to Campbell House.

Fort York, established by Gov Simcoe in 1793 to guard the western approach to the harbour, burned by the Americans in 1813, and rebuilt immediately afterwards, contains some of Toronto's oldest extant buildings. Since it lies at the end of a road which leads only to it, there is little reason for Virtual City to have photographed it. There are however several good shots of the fort and its blockhouses from the Bathurst St viaduct, just east of it. This provides another instance where one can obtain indirectly what may not be available directly.

Just west of Fort York lie the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. It contains Toronto’s oldest structure, the pioneer cabin of John Scadding, a member of Simcoe’s party. Built in 1794, it was moved to its present site in 1879. Virtual City hasn’t yet scoped out the interior streets of Exhibition Place, and so we must rely on other sources. Which perhaps permits mentioning an even more virtual site adjacent to the cabin, the footprint of Fort Rouille which the French maintained here in the 1750s, antedating English settlement by almost half a century.

It requires a detour from our itinerary, but there is one other building worth including. The Tollkeeper's Cottage, at the NW corner of Bathurst St. and Davenport Road, is believed to date in part from the late-1820s, and is the only known remaining example of vertical plank construction in the Toronto area. In an era when government provided few services, privately funded and operated toll roads constituted a definite improvement in urban communication. This toll booth was one of five on the route across the northern edge of Toronto from the Don to the Humber river, and the only one to survive.

Virtual City is not intended to give us pristine photos ready for the architecture magazines. Its virtues are its inclusiveness, and the way in which it constantly reminds us that buildings of historical significance are embedded in the grit of the everyday urban fabric.

Assessing it for its intended audience, I think it would help if there were a brief general orientation to Toronto, one that would explain that Yonge St. divides the streets that cross it into east and west, and that street numbers are normally even on the north and west sides of the street.

For those of us interested in its potential utility as a research instrument, it would very much help if more metadata were made available with the photos, particularly the date taken, and the geospatial references.

So you can now be a digital stroller through Toronto, and soon a flâneur through Montreal. It’s a new embodiment of the old Bell Yellow Pages slogan, “let your fingers do the walking.”

Virtual City has made an impressive launch, and I will look forward with interest to its continued evolution.


13 November 2006

09. Web 2.0 is So-o Yesterday

Last week was not exactly a slow one for news, so it was surprising to see yesterday’s New York Times devote prime front page space to an article on the drive for Web 3.0. And the article must have struck a chord since it is now listed as one of the ten most popular in yesterday’s paper.

John Markoff gives a competent account of the main elements of Web 2.0, noting many of the characteristics in Tim O’Reilly’s article, and identifying the ‘mashup’ as the exemplar. Markhoff calls Web 3.0 the ‘semantic’ web since its objective is to generate meaningful responses to plain language inquires. Although the effort is in its ‘infancy’, Markoff says that both large firms such as IBM and Google, and a host of small firms, are devoting considerable resources to it because they visualize large pay-backs. Doug Lenat, who has been developing an AI system for a couple of decades, has ‘implied’ that his Cyc AI system can already search the web and answer a natural-language question such as: “what American city would be most vulnerable to an anthrax attack during summer?”

Perhaps in time we will see Web 3.0 systems in operation, and some may eventually trickle down from government and business purposes to meet needs in the academy. But as Dan Cohen has pointed out a couple of times, Web 2.0 applications for scholarly purposes are beggarly by comparison with those for commerce.

That assessment was reinforced by my exploration of a half-dozen applications available on the Progammable Web.

The Ajax Map Comparison links the maps provided by Google Earth, MS and Yahoo, so that when the user alters the zoom level or direction of one, the others change accordingly. Thus, the user simultaneously sees three different maps of the same area. Each service provides slightly different information. For example, Yahoo provides more extensive labelling, while MS provides highway route numbers at much lower zoom levels than Google.
I encountered
two shortcomings. One is that there doesn’t seem to be any way to initially focus on your desired area except by knowing the longitude and latitude, or by using the directional arrows to inch your way towards it. You can’t simply type in ‘
Boston, MA’ for example. Second, all three provide satellite images of an area, and one can toggle back and forth between that and maps (there’s a useful hybrid option also); but only MS provides a ‘bird’s eye view’ which is an isometric perspective from perhaps a few hundred feet off the ground. But when the user invokes the ‘bird’s eye view’, the system crashes, probably because there are no corresponding views in Google or Yahoo.

Utility to the historian? If you are scoping out a particular area or terrain, it could occasionally be useful to have three different mappings of it so as to chose that which best provides the desired information.

Since my primary interests lie in early modern history, much of the focus on current affairs in available mashups is not likely to be useful. What kind of mashups would be of use to me?

- when looking for a book, a mashup that would check a few user-specified libraries, as well as Amazon and Abebooks.

- one that would search a few on-line diaries, identify when there were entries for a common date, and array the results on a timeline, or see when the same proper names occurred and extract the neighbouring information, and if place names, plot them on a map.

I tried Open Searches A9, and searched for L. Lessig in Wikipedia, Amazon and NewsbyLine.com. It brought up generally relevant information in all three, probably the most that can be expected at this point from a simple aggregator. If one could add Abebooks, and a few libraries, it would meet one of the needs I noted above.

10 November 2006

All Our Kidnapped n-grams are Belong to You

If you got here from the link in the line in my previous post: "this proposition is easily tested," this post originally contained a complete copy of Bill Turkel's Digital History Hacks,
“On N-gram Data and Automated Plagiarism Checking” (October 03, 2006). My doing so was intended to be a reductio ad absurdum spoof, for which in his comment, he shows great forbearance. In any event, I can make the same point in much less space, and much less rudely, with this note.

Plagiarism and Category Mistakes

Two years ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article recounting and reflecting on his experience when Byrony Lavery brazenly borrowed about 675 words, grouped in a dozen places, from a piece he had written about psychiatrist Dorothy Lewis’s work with serial killers.[1] Lavery appropriated much more from Lewis’s writings, and even from incidents in her life, all for her play, Frozen. Gladwell's first reaction was to send a fax to Lavery which concluded “to lift material, without my approval, is theft” (p.41).

He then began to reconsider, and his article describes how he came to a much more nuanced concept of permissible borrowing, at least in the arts. Along the way, he considers journalism, and sums up his thoughts in a sentence that might apply as well to much work in the academy, perhaps particularly at the apprentice level: “The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of small differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality at the level of the sentence.” Or as Bill Turkel would say, at the level of the n-gram (“On N-gram Data and Automated Plagiarism Checking;” October 03, 2006).

Gladwell cites Lawrence Lessig’s book, Free Culture (Penguin, 2004), and his argument that, in the debate over what constitutes intellectual property and its misappropriation, we need to recalibrate the boundaries. It’s hard to disagree.

Returning to Bill Turkel’s consideration of these issues, I suggest that what is at issue is the range of permissible values of ‘n’ in n-gram. There can be little debate at either extreme. A 1-gram (‘can I monogram that for you?’) is simply a dictionary headword, and available for unrestricted use. At the other end, appropriating the entire text of another person (an x-gram where x equals the number of grams (words) in the text in question), beyond some trivial length, would still seem to be a transgression; this proposition is easily tested.

Prof Turkel will probably have considerable support for most 5-grams being unobjectionable. (Yet anyone who tried to claim as theirs “Here’s looking at you, kid” would at best face gales of laughter.) But what happens as the value of ‘n’ rises? 15-gram? 25-gram? 55-gram?

Gladwell examines a striking sentence of his (21-gram) that was lifted by Lavery, and in turn repeated by many critics reviewing the play. He acknowledges that he can’t entirely claim the component phrases – 3-grams to 7-grams. But his feelings on her appropriation of the whole 21-gram string remain ambivalent (p.48). In humanistic scholarship we face an ill-defined continuum, and there may be no fixed saddle point. But I would argue the more the value of ‘n’ proceeds into double digits, the more questionable the acceptability of the borrowed phrase becomes.

Our everyday sense of what constitutes permissible borrowing is a cultural construct which has changed over time. In fin-de-siècle London, the wits could joke about it, sometimes with verbal rapiers drawn. Oscar Wilde’s alleged response to a bon mot of James McNeill Whistler: “I wish I had said that.” Whistler’s come back – he knew his man: “Ah, you will, Oscar, you will.” (Cf. the Monty Python send-up.)

Our concept of plagiarism, and the currency of the word itself (cf. the OED or the gated OED online), dates back to the dying years of the seventeenth century, when the ‘Battle of the Books’ pitted the traditionalists’ commitment to the wisdom inherited from the ancients against the modernists’ conviction that new knowledge and indeed intellectual progress was possible and desirable. If, as the Ancients’ camp held, both scholarship and art were basically imitative – mimesis – then copying was complimentary, and there was no meaningful concept of plagiarism (the Latin root means a kidnapper). But the advocates of progress and creativity gained the upper hand, and so needed to protect originality.

It is surely no accident that the word plagiarism becomes more widely used as the eighteenth century progresses, and individual creativity becomes more valued. Nor that the first English copyright act dates to 1709 (8 Ann, c.19; William Hogarth successful advocated for similar protection for engravings in 1735, 8 Geo II, c.13). By the end of the eighteenth century, the emergent romantic movement enthroned the solitary artist and his works, and imitation became a derogatory term.

Today, in some circles, the commitment to shareware and open source materials is naturally congruent with a permissive concept of borrowing.

When, however, one moves into the realm of law, I believe the markers change. To regard legal boilerplate as a type of plagiarism is I think what philosopher Gilbert Ryle called a ‘category mistake’.

Lawyers use the term precedent in two different but related senses. The first is the one more familiar to the layman: a reported court decision whose ratio decidendi is binding on lower courts, and which therefore, affects the daily practice of law. The second sense is a more graceful term for boilerplate: “standard clauses used in legal documents of a particular kind”.[2] As part of her stock in trade, a lawyer develops a wording for, say, a by-law that permits a board of directors to meet by conference call. If the wording does not rest on a court decision, it will still be strongly grounded in applicable law. It may even track (that is, recite or silently quote) statute law, and the lawyer does her utmost to craft a by-law that would survive a court challenge. The lawyer can then use this wording (precedent, boilerplate) in the by-laws of multiple corporate entities.

Such repeated use, I suggest, is not plagiarism; it is adherence to what is believed to be valid in law. In this situation, the last thing one wants is novelty or individuality. One wants to parrot the formula that has, ideally, been annealed in the fire of a reported court decision, or is otherwise believed to be proof against successful legal challenge.

University policies on plagiarism are, I believe, another example. I do not know the full tale, but I recall a few instances in the 1980s where universities were taken to court by students who contested a professor’s accusation of plagiarism, and in some cases, the student either won the court case or forced the university into an expensive settlement. This led to the development of ‘boilerplate’ on plagiarism. Since Ontario universities share a common jurisdiction, it is natural for them to have common or very similar wordings for plagiarism policies.

Law may constitute a distinct category, but it likely has kindred spirits. One for example might be prayers or magical incantations. One doesn’t vary the formulas (the words) because they have proven efficacious. It is a category mistake, I suggest, to think of this repetitious use as plagiarism.

[1] , “Something Borrowed,” The New Yorker LXXX:36 (22 Nov 2004) 40-48; apparently no longer freely available on-line.

[2] Dictionary of Canadian Law, (Toronto: Carswell, 1991).

07 November 2006

08. Bookless Futures? Two Other Views

Last week we discussed whether we were indeed headed towards a bookless future. Here are two perspectives, both dealing implicitly I think with works of interest to the curious, educated reader, rather than works of scholarship or popular novels.

The first is by Jason Epstein, the legendary American editor and publisher, whose career is marked by a number of milestones. In the following excerpt from a recent review of several books on Google, he argues that we are nowhere close to reading books electronically being a common experience. He also discusses briefly his involvement in a project to print books on demand, cheaply and quickly, which is currently in a test stage. The webpage for his firm On Demand Books is worth a look.

The second is from a current on-line interview with Adam Gopnik, a writer for The New Yorker. The excerpt given here recounts his visit to the Google campus, and his discussion with Google staff on the future of the book. (And no, I can't explain why the font size resisted all atempts to standardize it!)


Jason Epstein:

"Page's original conception for Google Book Search seems to have been that books, like the manuals he needed in high school, are data mines which users can search as they search the Web. But most books, unlike manuals, dictionaries, almanacs, cookbooks, scholarly journals, student trots, and so on, cannot be adequately represented by Googling such subjects as Achilles/wrath or Othello/jealousy or Ahab/whales. The Iliad, the plays of Shakespeare, Moby-Dick are themselves information to be read and pondered in their entirety. As digitization and its long tail adjust to the norms of human nature this misconception will cure itself as will the related error that books transmitted electronically will necessarily be read on electronic devices. Only those who have not read the Iliad or Moby-Dick, or Bleak House or Swann's Way or The Origin of Species, will entertain this improbability. Until human beings themselves evolve as electronic receivers, readers will select such books as these—the embodiment of civilizations—as files from the World Wide Web, whence they will be transmitted either to a personal computer and printed out—a cumbersome procedure resulting in a stack of unbound sheets—or, much more satisfactorily, to a nearby machine not much bigger than an ATM which will automatically print, bind, and trim requested titles on demand that are indistinguishable from factory-made books, to be read as books have been read for centuries.

"Meanwhile Google, together with the Gutenberg Project and the Open Content Alliance, and similar programs, has turned a new page in the history of civilizations leaving to us the privilege and the burden of carrying the story further. As part of this effort, On Demand Books, a company in which I have an interest, has installed in the World Bank bookstore in Washington, D.C., an experimental version of a machine such as I have just described, one that receives a digital file and automatically prints and binds on demand a library-quality paperback at low cost, within minutes and with minimal human intervention—an ATM for books. A second experimental machine has been sent to the Alexandrina Library in Egypt and will soon be printing books in Arabic. A newer version will be installed later this year or early next year in the New York Public Library."


Adam Gopnik:

Interviewer: "In the book, you write that “the author on a book tour . . . will be as incredible a figure to our children as the author on a Chautauqua lecture tour.” What’s going to fade away—book tours or books?"

Gopnik: "Well, both, if the Cassandras are right. But the book tour is what I had in mind; presumably we’ll be able to communicate instantly with our readers by videophone or brain implant or mind splinters or whatever in the future. The idea that writers were once sent out like the last of the Willy Lomans, trudging from bookstore to bookstore to trot out their wares before an audience of twenty or so bored listeners who happened to drift in from the rain, while we try as desperately as Willy ever did to keep a good and cheerful face in the face of all those empty chairs—that idea, I suspect, will seem as remote to the future as the lecture does now.

"It’s not all empty chairs, of course; there are also rooms filled with eager auditors whose devotion to a certain idea of reading is enough to restore any author’s morale. Readers appear, seemingly out of the blue, and more than make up for the exhaustions.

"And then there are incidental pleasures. For instance, I got to go to the Google campus, outside San Francisco, and speak to the Google-ites. Google headquarters turns out to be enormous, far bigger than I could have imagined, and looks a bit like a cross between the school in “High School Musical” and that spooky village from the old “Prisoner” television series. An amazing monitor in the reception area displays current searches from all over the world, and I went in some slight fear that they would deliver to the visiting speaker, as a well-meaning but terrifying prize, a list of his last two years of searches. (“ ‘Swedish models’? Oh, yeah, so I did. . . . Well, I was searching for, you know, certain Ikea appliances. For my wife.”) But my hosts were serious and extremely literary. Over a talk, and then lunch from a fine (and free) cafeteria, where I piled my plate with vegetarian specialties, I had a chance to talk with the hyper-brilliant, hyper-earnest, amazingly young, and—significantly, for a field that has long skewed so awkwardly male—female hosts. To my surprise, they defended the notion of the continuing necessity of the book far more eloquently than I could, and insisted, to a degree that almost convinced an author who sees his children starving as everything goes on the Web, that the online reading audience will only feed the appetite for the bookstore book, as snacks encourage meals. And all of them so student-like! To adapt Lincoln Steffens: I have seen the future, and it is school."

Issue of 2006-11-06 Posted 2006-10-30

Public and ??? Historians

Deftly executing a flanking manoeuvre, public historians have occupied the high ground, leaving the rest of us with unenviable terrain:

- private historian

- closet historian

- reclusive historian

- solipsistic historian

- hermetic historian.

I think I’ll plump for alliteration.

Good bye Clio! Hello Hermes Trismegistus!

For a Canadian Wikipedia


Wikipedia was barely two months old when Jimmy Wales wrote a memo which set a pattern which still endures: “I want to set up some alternative language wikipedias.” By ‘alternative’ languages he simply meant ‘foreign,’ and he went on to specify German and French as first steps.

Since that memo, there has been a torrent of Wikipedias in languages other than English, with the German and French editions still leading the pack in terms of number of articles. As well as versions in most widely spoken languages, there are editions in Latin, as well as several synthetic languages, including -- of course! -- Klingon. As of October 9, 2006, there were 250 versions, of which 50 contained more than 10,000 articles.

This profusion speaks for the success of this strategy. It’s gratifying to see the Poles (4th place, after the French), the Japanese (the only non-Europeans in the top eleven), the Swedes (9th) elaborating their own encyclopedias.

Where language and national boundaries are not congruent, however, I believe there are consequences of organizing by language, particularly for historical topics, which have drawn little if any attention.

Countries, needless to say, differ at times, sometimes strenuously and even violently. Take for example the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. In Wikipedia-world, both France and Germany (or more precisely French and German speakers) can each construct and present their own version of the conflict. In this case, neither account is at all chauvinistic, but each has its own tone and distinctive manner of presentation. The German account is about twice as long (c.2,800 vs. c.1,400 words; given the structure of German grammar and word formation, that understates the difference). It even provides more detail on the Paris Commune. The French account includes the delicious detail that France lacked sufficient ammunition for its shoulder arms because the Prussian crown prince was the major shareholder in France's Belgian supplier! But the point here is because Wikipedia is organized by language, each language community, and in this instance nation, can provide its own version.

Consider by contrast the American Revolution or the War of 1812 where the principal belligerents were Great Britain and the emergent American republic. Because there is one English-language Wikipedia, the quite different perspectives of the two nations (and Canada) have to be homogenized in one account. What should we expect the outcome to be?

In both cases we are presented with conventional accounts written primarily from a patriotic American perspective. There is no attempt to perceive the situation from Great Britain’s vantage point, beyond the occasional throw-away line. (I would contend that the American Revolution article does not represent the current state of scholarship even from an American whig perspective, but that is not the issue here.)

It’s entirely reasonable that Americans should be able to present an account of their nation’s founding and early struggles from their own perspective. But it’s equally reasonable to expect that the other side should get an equivalent opportunity to present its case.

Wikipedia’s much vaunted neutral-point-of-view (NPOV) is paraded as providing a level playing field. In cases such as those cited, it is suggested that the solution would be to provide section (a) ‘Americans interpret this….’ , and section (b) ‘the British interpret this…’ -- if one has to acknowledge national perspectives at all.

But the very longevity of an American patriotic perspective in these and other articles indicates that a NPOV is often culturally determined. A sentence or two, or even a paragraph, inserted into an article whose whole premise and architecture is developed from an assumed conviction of the righteousness of the American position is hardly a solution.

The English language article on King George III provides an instructive illustration. Ignore the redundancies, misprints, and stylistic infelicities which a competent copyedit could rectify. Note the entire paragraph given to the entirely spurious allegation of a 1759 marriage, an allegation made only a century later. Note the basic misunderstanding of the nature and role of British ministers and cabinets in the eighteenth-century, as well as the creation of peerages. Note the retailing of George’s alleged mental affliction in 1765, a contention refuted by John Brooke in his biography (1972; p.337-38), and which has generally been accepted by historians.

But especially note the highly disproportionate space give to George’s role (or alleged role) in the American Revolution, and to his ‘insanity’ and ‘mental illness’ as it is variously and repetitively labelled. Here of course is why the 1765 allegation is important: his insanity antedated, and thus implicitly was a causal factor of the Revolution (most historians date the onset of his illness to 1788).

These perspectives just happen to coincide with American popular beliefs about King George. To be fair, they were once partially supported by nineteenth-century whiggish British historians. But since the work of Sir Lewis Namier in the late-1920s, as well as that of Richard Pares, Herbert Butterfield, and more recently that of Linda Colley and many others, the tide has run strongly in the other direction, and a much more balanced and nuanced picture has emerged. But of all these authors, the contributors to this article are innocent. (The first of only four books referenced is Mark Bryant’s Private Lives: Curious Facts About the Famous and Infamous; it certainly sounds like a first-rate source.)

Yet this Wikipedia article has been ‘peer-reviewed’ and rated “one of the best articles produced by the Wikipedia community.” The criteria for the accolade: “Definitive. Outstanding, thorough article; a great source for encyclopedic information….No further editing necessary, unless new published information has come to light.”

If this is as good as we can expect it to get, it is both telling and distressing. But it vividly illustrates how NPOV in practice is strongly influenced by national cultures.

The general issue is not confined to the English-language version of Wikipedia. La Francophonie is a very big space; does it make sense for France and its former colonies in the Maghreb, West Africa and elsewhere to have to arrive at a common version of their historical interaction? Should Canadians be surprised when the French article on Louis Joseph de Montcalm-Gozon, marquis de Saint-Véran, is only 233 words? Or that the Rebellion of 1837-38, so significant in the Quebec mentality, is dispatched in fewer than 400 words?

Should Spain and its former colonies have to agree on the one account of the process of colonization, or the wars of liberation of the early nineteenth-century? Should Germans and Austrians have to agree on the Anschluss? Should French and Algerians have to agree on the Pied-Noirs (my read is that the existing French article conveys little sense of the indigenous Algerian viewpoint)? Should Irish and English have to agree on one account of centuries of invasion and destructive conflict?

The language-first principle means that the Basques get to tell their own story, but Mexicans do not. In France, there are Norman and Breton editions; in Germany, Niederdeusch; an Alemannisch (Alsatian) version straddles the two countries. So communities with their own language get a green light to tell their own tale; those that share a common language do not.

The argument here is not a case for extreme nationalism. It is an argument that nations are real, and that nationhood should be allowed legitimate expression. Wikipedia’s language-first principle of organization serves well the many cases in which language and nation are congruent. Where several nations share a common language, however, it in practice too often privileges the dominant country and reduces the others to subaltern status.

This is at root an argument a priori. One can easily find examples of potentially contested issues where Canadians, for example, would find the English Wikipedia article quite adequate. One is probably the Fenian Raids of 1866-1871. (The only reference provided is a book recently published in Canada, and the article may be largely derived from it.)

But that doesn’t negate the point of this post that there should be room for country-based versions of Wikipedia. At present, articles on Canadian topics are submerged in the huge mass of Wikipedia, and so obscured despite the search function and hyperlinks. And, especially in articles which span the borders, Canadians and others have American spellings and stylistic conventions imposed on them.


NPOV is one of the trinity of core content policies of Wikipedia, and the contributor is offered scores of pages (when copied into a Word file) on what it means, including FAQs, and the advice of Wikipedia Project: Countering Systemic Bias. As defined, NPOV specifically recognizes nationalistic biases.

But a nationalistic bias should not be conflated with a national perspective. There are several reasons why it is not only not possible, but not desirable, to eliminate national perspectives in dealing with historical topics. In brief:

First, history writing is a field of contested ideas and interpretations. Once one moves beyond basic facts and deals with causal factors, significance, implications, relationships between events, or among historical actors, or between actors and events, one commonly finds a lack of unanimity among historians even within one country or language, much less across those boundaries.

Second, long before post-modernism, it was recognized that there could be different legitimate historical narratives and traditions. Seventy years ago for example, G.M. Young, commenting on Gibbon, noted that larger historical issues were presented “as the individual observer (i.e., historian) sees it.” [Victorian England, p.185] As is tiresomely recited today – but apparently not often enough for Wikipedians to have heard – there is no single master, privileged, historical account.

Third, given the above, and especially since Wikipedia bans original research (which at times at least temporarily does resolve some differences among historians), how realistic is it to expect a well-grounded consensus to emerge in its pages through a Humean ‘come let us reason together’ process?

Fourth, a constituting part of our identity is the values embedded in the matrix of cultures in which we each live and have our being – generational, religious, ethnic, professional, and even national. To demand and expect that history be void of culture and values is not to raise it to a purer and more objective level, but rather to eviscerate it. An understanding, at times partisan and tinged with pride, of the history of our communities is part of how our identity is shaped and reproduced.

Fifth, we should recognize that many readers would learn from reading different accounts of the same topic, which reflected, in part, different national perspectives. These perspectives often exist, and we learn nothing when they are made invisible in Wikipedia’s one master language account.

Finally, Wikipedia seems to have a blind spot just where it should be focussing the spot light. It warns against numerous sources of bias: gender, age cohort, education, employment, ethnicity, nationalism, etc. But it is unable to recognize and own up to its having a pronounced American bias -- entirely to be expected given its origin and the simple weight of numbers. The closest it can come is to acknowledge an ‘Anglo-American focus’ which is contrary to NPOV. Remarkable. Two centuries after the rebel victory, it is still those Brits screwing things up.


According to one list, there appears to be almost one thousand ‘Wikipedians in Canada’ who are contributors to the current English-language Wikipedia. But even the rubric ‘Wikipedians IN Canada’ indicates the anti-national bias. I haven’t found a similar list for the French-language version, but there is a Quebec listing, and even a group which meets monthly in Montreal.

The New Yorker’s ‘Wikipedia Mania’ article (to give it the newsstand cover title) reported that an unnamed Canadian was the most prolific contributor. The Globe and Mail (4 August 2006) quickly tracked down Simon Pulsifer, 24, a University of Toronto history graduate, who has edited about 78,000 articles and drafted a few thousand. His first was on the Panama Canal. The Globe even ran an on-line discussion with him.

Wikipedia contains several resources on Canadian material. There’s a Canadian Wikipedian Notice Board which lists requested articles, and ones needing improvement. There is the Canada Collaboration which is "an effort to improve Canada-related articles in Wikipedia.” The ‘Category Canada’ page lists 26 categories of articles on Canadian topics, each one of which leads to many specific articles. So one cannot suggest that Canada is ignored, but all these guides are common to other areas of the world, and several other versions.

As well, there are resources for those who wish to start a new Wikipedia in a language not yet covered. I have found no formal policy against multiple Wikipedias in any one language, but all of the material on starting new ones is framed in terms of additional languages: “So we encourage anyone who wants to build a wiki in their own language.” It may be that the question of national Wikipedias has never been seriously considered.

How might one go about starting a Canadian Wikipedia? The idea could be tested on those who have identified themselves as Wikipedians in Canada to see how many might be interested and at what level. In terms of content, there are the existing relevant articles in the English and French language Wikipedias.

But what if the on-line Canadian Encyclopedia (TCE), both French and English versions, were made available to seed a Canadian Wikipedia? The éclat with which TCE was greeted in the mid-1980s when it sold over 150,000 copies (a huge number for a work of popular fiction much less a multi-volume reference work) is part of the rationale for advocating a Canadian Wikipedia now. The on-line TCE appears to be selectively updated; the article on Stephen Harper, for example, carries his career up through his becoming prime minister. But most articles seem to be current only until the last print edition in 1988; the softwood lumber dispute, for example. It would require the consent and co-operation of the Historica Foundation which provides the TCE on-line. This proposal assumes that the existing on-line TCE would and should continue to be available. If a Canadian Wikipedia were to take off, it would quickly vary unrecognizably, both for better and worse, from the TCE articles which had seeded it. A TCE starting point would encourage a Canadian Wikipedia which included articles in both English and French.

In putting this post to bed, I stumbled across a group which earlier this year was exploring forming a Canadian chapter of Wikipedia, and perhaps even a Canadian version. The discussion seems to have stalled mid-year, and I am currently trying to contact the proponents to determine the status.

The existing English (American) Wikipedia is as much as instrument of American cultural hegemony as Hollywood, and more dangerous by being more disingenuous. It’s time for Canadians to have our own.