The story is told — probably apocryphally — of the child who pointed to a large set of very dusty books in the library and asked her what they were. The mother said they were a set of encyclopedias. He asked, incredulously, “They printed out the whole web site?!”
Microsoft has just announced that it will be ceasing publication of its encyclopedia, Encarta. Britannica is now becoming more participatory, accepting “suggestions” from its readers and allowing “Web publishers,” such as bloggers, free access to its pages.
Of course, all of this is due to the incredible word-of-mouth phenomenon known as Wikipedia. Some interesting insights into the Wikipedia phenomenon can be found here.
I found one paragraph in the above cited article particularly interesting and relevant to the current financial crisis:
Jimbo Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, first conceived of the notion of a free, user-content-driven encyclopedia after [reading] an essay on "The Use of Knowledge in Society" by Nobel Prize-winning Austrian economist F.A. Hayek. [Comment: The essay is brilliant. Hayek is one of the greatest economic thinkers of all time and is largely neglected today.] Hayek too was a proponent of "democracy," in the "power to the people" sense, but his prize-winning economic views were not in favor of monolithic, bureaucratic, social democratic systems. Rather, Hayek's work showed the superior efficiency of resource allocation by decentralized information analysis among many voluntary actors in the marketplace, each acting to bring about his or her own self-interested ends. Centrally planned bureaucracies cannot do what the market does because, "[t]he 'data' from which the economic calculus starts are never for the whole society 'given' to a single mind which could work out the implications and can never be so given." No one can know everything that is potentially relevant to everything else, and since no one can know everything, no one mind can rightfully be charged with efficiently allocating all scarce resources. It is only through the distributed information processing of the market, rather than the linear processing of any one entity, that an optimal result can be reached.
I wish the principles of Wikipedia were applied to our society. Oh, wait a minute, that would be laissez-faire capitalism and would mean an end to our current corporatism (democratic socialism). Look them up in Wikipedia!
In my opinion, the importance of Wikipedia and of the whole wiki phenomenon has been severely underestimated and underappreciated. It is a true division of labor and a meritocracy of clarity.