When Wikipedia Went Dark

January 29, 2012 - 3:32pm

Earlier this month, Wikipedia campaigned against the Stop Online Piracy Act with a self-imposed blackout and the tagline "Imagine a World Without Free Knowledge." Taking up the gambit, I tried to imagine a world without the online encyclopedia and wondered: would losing Wikipedia permanently usher in a new version of the "dark ages"?

The visual language of Wikipedia's message to its users during the blackout evoked what has now become unthinkable: with its familiar white background switched to black, the website implied that the unprecedented, global work that continues to build Wikipedia might vanish. For the site that lit up computer screens with 7,000,000,000 page views in 2011 alone, going dark for a full 24 hours was a warning that a new dark age could overtake us if we didn't monitor the laws that govern digital media and the internet. This political move was effective and SOPA has been derailed, at least for now.

For some critics, however, Wikipedia's very success and cultural force signals another kind of "dark age": the kind in which the internet causes (some of) our neurons to go dark -- no longer firing in deep connections and thus offering no more illuminations in quiet contemplation -- our wetware rewired for, in Nicholas Carr's words, "an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning." Carr made this argument in his popular book The Shallows, casting the "shallow age" as the inheritor of the dark age and implicitly challenging the democratic, enlightenment ideals upon which Wikipedia claims to be founded.

Medievalists and early modernists have known for a long time that the term "dark ages," like "barbarians," isn't that good to think with. Even so, as the Wikipedia blackout illustrates, the fabled dark ages remain a bogeyman, haunting the current era of digital knowledge environments. Rather than making a judgement call about whether or not Wikipedia is bringing on a new dark age or saving us from it, I wonder if we could shift away from the dark and light, shallow and deep contrast. When trying to make sense of a 21st-century phenomenon like Wikipedia through the past, it might serve us better to avoid grand schemes and oppositional epochs, and instead aim for something more modest.

A thinker like Robert Burton (1577-1640), for example, offers a different Renaissance commonplace through which we could understand the encyclopedic impulse, past and present. Burton describes his sprawling work The Anatomy of Melancholy as the product of omnivorous and even distracted reading habits. By his own account, his "running wit" led him to tear across a wide field of knowledge to make a medical treatise with encyclopedic scope: "like a ranging spaniel, that barks at every bird he sees, leaving his game, I have followed all, saving that which I should, and may justly complain, and truly, qui ubique est, nusquam est [he who is everywhere is nowhere]."

While this sounds like an apology for The Anatomy's seeming lack of focus, the "ranging spaniel" commonplace is radical in its own way and indicative of a way of thinking that Burton, like other writers from the sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, knew how to value. That way of thinking was called wit, and understood at turns to be ephemeral, transitory, hyperbolic, controversial, lightening-quick and yes, sometimes shallow.

I'm suggesting we evaluate Wikipedia next to a text like Burton's Anatomy, the product of an age of wit, rather than Petrarchan Renaissance periodizing or Enlightenment ideals. Instead of imagining the lights going out, we could embrace (or at least try to understand better) our moment as one of wit, in which, like Burton's spaniel, we go down the "rabbit hole" of links on a Wikipedia page, finding ourselves everywhere and nowhere at the same time.