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Why Wikipedia Works Really Well in Practice, Just Not in Theory

Harvard University's Jonathan Zittrain explores the amazing success of Wikipedia, a concept that "works really well in practice, just not in theory."

Jonathan Zittrain: There's a great saying that Wikipedia works really well in practice, just not in theory. And that is true. Wikipedia's success is so singular, so spectacular that figuring out whether it's a model for anything other than Wikipedia is a puzzle that even the folks behind Wikipedia have faced as they've tried to do Wikisearch, Wikinews, and Wiktionary at different times. But the idea of having a scheme where the day-to-day governance, the day-to-day edits, whether done for substance to improve the truth level of an article in the view of the editor or done for process, oh that edit shouldn't have been made; it breaks the following rule; I'm going to revert it. To have the people doing that be members of the public at large is an extraordinary devolution of responsibility out to people who are in one way or another, implicitly or explicitly sort of taking an oath to subscribe to the principles behind Wikipedia of neutrality, of fairness, of learning — kind of the values of the enlightenment. And can that survive itself over the long haul? I don't know. As you get more and more importance attached to Wikipedia, more and more places that draw from Wikipedia as a source of data, whether it's something like the Wolfram Alpha Knowledge engine or Google to assemble basic facts for results in a search. There may be more and more reason for entities to want to game the results.

If you can just put yourself in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the longest beard or something and you don't actually have to grow anything, it's like well why not? I'll vote myself rich. These are problems that Wikipedia has had to deal with so far relatively successfully. And there's a level of humility that I think it has to maintain in order to recognize new problems, to recognize where there might the structural forms of bias or discrimination going on. And to be able to endure the more targeted intentional attempts to basically poison the well of truth that Wikipedia at least aspires to be. What would I propose as a longer-term way of shoring it up? I think we should solve a problem with a problem. We haven't really figured out in the early 21st century what to do with kids who are in school for hours at a time every day sort of warehoused in daycare; I think it would be wonderful to make as part of the curriculum from, say, sixth grade onward part of your task and what you'll be graded on is to edit and make the case for your edits to an article on a service like Wikipedia and then we'll have new ranks of people being supervised by teachers who are working on the articles and on the product and that maybe even will apprentice to the norms by which you have an argument over what is true and what isn't. And maybe some of them will choose to continue on as Wikipedians even after the assignment is over. So to me if I think of an advanced civics class, it's great to learn that there are three branches of government and X vote overrides a veto, but having the civics of a collective hallucination like Wikipedia also be part of the curriculum I think would be valuable.


 

 

Harvard University's Jonathan Zittrain explores the amazing success of Wikipedia, a concept that "works really well in practice, just not in theory." Not only is it a remarkable and unique model of a self-regulating entity, but also its governors and stakeholders are both members of the public at large. Zittrain examines whether Wikipedia is something that can be sustained long-term, whether it will need to adapt or grow in the future, and whether such adaptations and growth could potentially scuttle the entire operation. Finally, Zittrain offers up a suggestion for how to apply Wikipedia in an academic setting: Why not turn Wikipedia articles into long-term research projects?

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

Videos
  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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No, the Yellowstone supervolcano is not ‘overdue’

Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.

Image: USGS - public domain
Strange Maps
  • The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
  • Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
  • The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
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Spiders lace webs in toxins to paralyze prey

Just what every arachnophobe needed to hear.

Luciano Marra from São Paulo, Brasil - Aranha de Teia (Nephila clavipes), CC BY-SA 2.0
Surprising Science
  • A new study suggests some spiders might lace their webs with neruotoxins similar to the ones in their venom.
  • The toxins were shown to be effective at paralyzing insects injected with them.
  • Previous studies showed that other spiders lace their webs with chemicals that repel large insects.
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