December 27, 2005
Micro vs. Macro in a Duel to the Death
Get ready: I am about to compare Wikipedia to Wal-Mart.
Chris Anderson says the magic of Wikipedia (and other internet systems, e.g. Google) is that they work on hugely macro “probabilistic” scales. Think of it like this:
To put it another way, the quality range in Britannica goes from, say, 5 to 9, with an average of 7. Wikipedia goes from 0 to 10, with an average of, say, 5. But given that Wikipedia has ten times as many entries as Britannica, your chances of finding a reasonable entry on the topic you’re looking for are actually higher on Wikipedia. That doesn’t mean that any given entry will be better, only that the overall value of Wikipedia is higher than Britannica when you consider it from this statistical perspective.
OK, but what are the broader consequences? Might not this statistical optimization of “value” at the macroscale be a recipe for mediocrity at the microscale — the scale, it’s worth remembering, that defines our own individual lives and the culture that surrounds us?
So here goes: This seems analogous to the debate over Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart saved American shoppers about $250 billion in 2004.1 That’s huge. (More than enough to cover the cost of the war in Iraq, even! Thanks Wal-Mart!) And yet, Wal-Mart inflicts all sorts of costs on a more human scale.
I hesitate to compare Wikipedia to Wal-Mart in any way, of course, but I really do think the same line is being deployed in defense of both: “The good of the many outweighs the good of the few… or the one.” (c.f. Star Trek IV)
And this argument against that logic (a comment on Anderson’s post) is more than old-school hand-wringing, I think:
I agree that Wikipedia as a whole has more total value than Britannica as a whole. It probably does produce more social utility than Britannica, just as the Web + Google produces more utility than a good library + a card catalog.
But no one needs the whole of Wikipedia. They need the article they need, and they need it to be (mostly) right.
It’s actually a smart re-focusing. Pure macro-statistics (like Anderson’s rough numbers up top) cannot really guide us in much, because there’s so much we can’t count.
So instead we need to look at real lives and see how big systems, Wikipedia and Wal-Mart alike, operate at that level. For the record, based on my experience, I think Wikipedia is a joy (though not without room for improvement) and Wal-Mart is depressing (though not without some really smart innovations).
Frankly, I think if someone disagrees with either assessment, the road to a resolution is conversation — not arithmetic. It’s just never enough to say “hey, it works in aggregate” and call it a day.
1. Source: Skeezy press release, but fairly legit-seeming research (PDF). Note that it’s not all direct savings — much of the total comes from the downward pressure on prices that Wal-Mart’s cheaptasticness exerts on other stores.