Encyclopaedia Britannica vs. Wikipedia?

Before the diffusion of the web with its ability to reach every point on the globe, in order to obtain information or to consider a topic in more detail, it was necessary to physically carry out research. We had to scroll through books, browse catalogs, retrieve tapes or CDs in libraries etc.

One of the compendium models that best represented this era was of course the encyclopedia. For non-digital natives, it was a convenient and compact source of information packed into one or more volumes – depending on the edition. One was able to find a concise synthesis of the majority of human knowledge put together by professionals.

The fact that this model has been struggling for some time now is obviously nothing new. But what is of interest, has been the breaking announcement of two weeks ago: the Encyclopaedia Britannica – perhaps the most famous in the world of its kind – is going out of print. After 244 years as one of the most famous reference books, it will no longer be reprinted.

The comment by Jorge Cauz, Encyclopaedia Britannica’s President is an extremely practical one: “It’s a rite of passage in this new era. Some people will feel sad about it and be nostalgic about it. But we have a better tool now. The Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it is multimedia.” And that’s not all: It’s also much cheaper, since the volumes cost $1395 – and has seen a sharp decline in sales: going from 120,000 copies in 1990 to a mere 8,000 in 2010.

But in no way are we talking about the end of a story, just the beginning of a new chapterBritannica’s official blog sums it up perfectly – the encyclopedia will live on, reinvented in bigger and more vibrant (digital) forms. Its goal remains the same, but with just a touch extra “to serve knowledge and learning in new ways that go way beyond reference works.”

If we get some doubts about something, then automatically we will go and search it via Wikipedia. Moreover, it helps us to come out from many complex confusions and that is the main reason for it to get an infinite number of trustable users. It is also probable to download the Wikipedia application on our laptops or smartphone since it is a useful reference for all of us. We have to subscribe to the channel so that we can immediate notifications about the new things posted on it.

From a purely practical point of view, Britannica’s choice is truly sacrosanct. An annual subscription to the site costs only $70. A figure totally within the means of just about everyone, in exchange for an extraordinary amount of information that doesn’t take up any physical space. Faced with the choice of going digital – especially in terms of greater openness and dissemination of knowledge, even for those with economic constraints – any talk of nostalgia (simply) falls flat on its face.

With this move, moreover, Britannica could give itself a much-needed boost in its “normal” struggle with Wikipedia.

When it comes to the epistemological statute of Wikipedia – in other words its knowledge model, which is based on a form of mass collaboration and self-correction – it is written and muddled over a lot. Its cliché Achilles’ heal is well known: if you can’t rely on editors or professional writers, there’s no guarantee of reliability.

But is this really the case? Between 2005 and 2006, Nature published a comparison between the two encyclopedias and concluded that there wasn’t such a marked difference: Of course, Britannica’s error rate was lower, but not so significant as one might have expected. Britannica immediately retaliated and there was a heated exchange, particularly in terms of the methodology.

Moreover, in one of the best articles dealing with this issue, Towards an Epistemology of Wikipedia by the philosopher Don Fallis, he outlined other virtues of the system: speed, power, fertility and an overall good level of control. Virtues that somehow make up for its lack of reliability.

The main point is, there’s not much you can do about it: everybody uses Wikipedia. At least as a starting point and general overview – but wasn’t this the very purpose of the encyclopedia-model? Exactly how many people in the future will be willing to spend even $70 a year for something that – “perhaps in a less accurate way” – they can get free on Wikipedia?

This question raises another one: whether an evolution in the media supporting and transmitting knowledge, will also imply a change in the very concept of knowledge itself.

For David Weinberger, the answer is yes: in his latest book, Too Big To Know, he explores the ways in which the old paradigm of knowledge contained in static volumes and passed on in a vertical manner is being completely blown away. The Web, the ever increasing influx of data, and the extraordinary speed with which information is transmitted, amended or changed: all of which work together to build a very different epistemic universe from the previous one.

The price to pay for all of this is a much larger bias, the difficulty of filtering out the good from the nonsense, and the end of a well-known authoritative model. In return we will have a continuously greater interconnected world, a kind of relevance based on the wisdom of the masses instead of individual experts, a “club of knowledge” that is increasingly broader and more open, and an extraordinary flow of ideas.

Everything that the old hardcopy encyclopedia couldn’t guarantee. For better or for worse.

It remains to be seen whether the digital evolution of the traditional encyclopedia, as wished by Britannica, will be able to replicate its professional model.


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