When I was a young man, I was obsessed by computers. I remember perfectly the first time I sat at a keyboard – at a “line printing” terminal, which had an endless sheet of paper spooling through it – to play a game of “Star Trek”. The fascination I felt at that moment has never really ended, nor the sense of wonder, or the desire to dive in and learn everything about this seemingly magical machinery. My timing was excellent; within a few years the first “microcomputers”, such as the Tandy TRS-80, came onto the market at affordable prices, and I could plumb the guts of computing with my very own machine.
This was incredibly fortuitous, because I was not a good student at University; or rather, I excelled at some classes and completely failed others. I had not yet learned the discipline to apply myself to unpleasant tasks (even today, nearly thirty years later, it presents difficulties), so my grades were a perfect reflection of my obsessions. If something interested me, I got As. Otherwise, well, my transcript speaks for itself. The University noted this as well, and politely asked me to “get lost” for a few years, until I had acquired the necessary discipline to focus on my education. That marked the end of my formal education, but that doesn’t mean I stopped learning. Far from it.
From my earliest years, I have been a sponge for information; my parents bought me the World Book Encyclopedia when I was six – twenty red-and-black leather-bound volumes, full of photographs and illustrations – and by the time I was eight, I’d read the whole thing. (I hadn’t memorized it, but I had read through it.) Once I discovered computers, I devoured anything I could find on the subject, in particular the January 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, which featured the MITS Altair 8800 – the world’s first microcomputer – on its cover. I dived in, learning everything about microcomputers: how they worked, how to program them, what they could be used for, until I had one of my own. Then I learned everything about that computer (the Tandy TRS-80), its CPU (the Zilog Z-80), experimented with programming it in BASIC and assembly language, becoming completely obsessive about it.
When I found myself tossed out of University, my obsession quickly turned into a job offer programming Intel 8080 systems (very similar to the Z-80), which led to a fifteen-year career as a software engineer, for which I was well paid, and within a field where my lack of University degrees in no way hindered my professional advancement. In the 1980s, nearly everyone working within microcomputing was an autodidact; almost none of these people had completed a university degree. I had the fortune to work with a few truly brilliant programmers in my earliest professional years, who mentored me in best programming practices. I learned from their own expertise as they transferred their wealth of experience and helped me to make it my own.
It is said that programming is more of a craft than a profession, in that it takes years of apprenticeship, working under masters of the craft, to reach proficiency. This is equally true of most professions: medicine, the law, even (or perhaps, especially) such arcana as synthetic chemistry. At its best, post-graduate education is a mentorship process which wires the obsessions of the apprentice to the wisdom of the master. The apprentice proposes, the master disposes, until the apprentice surpasses the master. The back-and-forth informs both apprentice and master; both are learning, though each learn different things.
Everyone is an expert. From a toddler, expert in the precarious balance of towering wooden blocks, to a nanotechnologist, expert in the precarious juxtaposition of atom against atom, everyone has some field of study wherein they excel – however esoteric or profane it might seem to the rest of us. The hows and whys of this are essential to human nature; we’re an obsessive species, and our obsessions can form around almost any object which engages our attentions. Most of these obsessions seem completely natural, in context: a Pitjandjara child learns an enormous amount about the flora and fauna of the central Australian desert, knows where to find water and shade, can recite the dreamings which place her within the greater cosmos. In the age before agriculture, all of us grew up with similar skills, each of us entirely obsessed with the world around us, because within that obsession lay the best opportunity for survival. Those of our ancestors who were most apt with obsession (up to a point) would thrive even in the worst of times, passing those behaviors (some genetic, some cultural) down through time to ourselves. But obsession is not a vestigial behavior; the entire bedrock of civilization is built upon it: specialization, that peculiar feature of civilization, where each assumes a particular set of duties for the whole, is simply obsession by another name.
A century ago, Jean Piaget realized that small children are obsessed with the physics of the world. Piaget watched as his own children struggled, inchoate, with elaborate hypotheses of causality, volume, and difference, constantly testing their own theories of how the world works, an operation as intent as any performed in the laboratory.
Language acquisition is arguably the most marvelous of all childish obsessions; in the space of just a few years – coincident with developments in the nervous system – the child moves from sonorous babbling into rich, flexible, meaningful speech – a process which occurs whether or not explicit instruction is given to the child. In fact, the only way to keep a child from learning language is to separate them from the community of other human beings. Even the banter of adults is enough for a child to grow into language.
Somewhere between early childhood and early adulthood the thick rope of obsession unwinds to a few mere threads. Most of us are not that obsessive, most of the time, or rather, our obsessions have shifted from the material to the immaterial. Adolescent girls become obsessive people-watchers, huddling together in cliques whose hierarchies and connections are so rich and so obscure as to be worthy of any hermetic cult. This process occurs precisely at the time their highest brain functions are realized, when they become acutely aware of the social networks within which they operate. Physics pales into insignificance when weighed against the esteem (or contempt) of one’s peers. This, too, is a survival mechanism: women, as the principle caregivers, need strong social networks to ensure that their offspring are well-cared for. Women who obsessively establish and maintain strong social deliver their children a decisive advantage in life, and so pass this behavior along to their children. Or so the thinking goes.
Mentoring is an embodied relationship, and does not scale beyond individuals. The sharing of expertise, on the other hand, has grown hand in hand with the printing press, the broadcast media, and the Web. Publishing and broadcasting both act as unintentional gatekeepers on the sharing of expertise; the costs of publishing a book (or magazine, or pamphlet), and the costs of broadcast spectrum set a lower limit on what specific examples of individual expertise make the transition into the public mind. For every Julia Child or Nigella Lawson, there are a thousand cooks who produce wonders from their kitchens; for every Simon Schama or David Halberstam, there are a thousand historians (most of whom are not white English-speakers) spinning tales of antiquity. These voices were lost to us, because they could not negotiate the transition into popularity. This is should not be read as a flat assessment of quality, but as a critique of the function of the market. Mass markets thrive on mass tastes; the specific is sacrificed for the broad. Yet the specific is often far more significant to the individual, containing within itself the quality of salience. Salience – that which is significant to us – is driven by our obsessions; things are salient because we are obsessed by them. The “salience gap” between the expertise delivered by the marketplace, and the burning thirst for knowledge of obsessed individuals has finally collapsed with the introduction of the Wiki.
At its most essential, a Wiki is simply a web page that is editable within a Web browser. While significant, that is not enough to explain why Wikis have unlocked humanity’s hidden and vast resources of expertise. That you can edit a web page in situ is less important than the goal of the editor. It took several years before it occurred to anyone that the editor could use a Wiki to share expertise. However, once that innovation occurred, it was rapidly replicated throughout the Internet on countless other Wikis.
Early in this process, Wikipedia launched and began its completely unexpected rise into utility. In some ways, Wikipedia has an easy job: as an encyclopedia it must provide a basic summary of facts, not a detailed exploration of a topic, and it is generally possible for someone with a basic background in a topic to provide this much information. Yet this critique overlooks the immense breadth of Wikipedia (as of this writing, nearly 2.3 million articles in its English-language version). By casting its net wide – inviting all experts, everywhere, to contribute their specific knowledge – not only has Wikipedia covered the basics, it’s also covering everything else. No other encyclopedia could hope to be as comprehensive as Wikipedia, because no group of individuals – short of the billion internet-connected individuals who have access to Wikipedia – could be so comprehensively knowledgeable on such a wide range of subjects.
Wikipedia will ever remain a summary of human knowledge; that is its intent, and there are signs that the Wikipedians are becoming increasingly zealous in their enforcement of this goal. Summaries are significant and important (particularly for the mass of us who are casually interested in a particular topic), but summaries do not satisfy our obsessive natures. Although Wikipedia provides an outlet for expertise, it does not cross the salience gap. This left an opening for a new generation of Wikis designed to provide depth immersion in a particular obsession. (Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, realized this, and created Wikia.com as a resource where these individuals can create highly detailed Wikis.)
While one individual may have an obsession, it takes a community of individuals, sharing their obsession, to create a successful Wiki. No one’s knowledge is complete, or completely accurate. To create a resource useful to a broader community – who may not be as deeply obsessed – this “start-up” community must pool both their expertise and their criticism. Beginnings are delicate times, and more so for a Wiki, because obsessive individuals too often tie their identity to their expertise; questioning their expertise is taken as a personal affront. If the start-up community can not get through this first crisis, the Wiki will fail.
Furthermore, it takes weeks to months to get a sufficient quantity of expertise into a Wiki. A Wiki must reach “critical mass” before it has enough “gravitational attraction” to lure other obsessive individuals to the Wiki, where it is hoped they will make their own edits and additions to it. Thus, the start-up phase isn’t merely contentious, it’s also thankless – there are few visible results for all of the hard work. If the start-up community lacks discipline in equal measure to their forbearance, the Wiki will fail.
Given these natural barriers, it’s a wonder that Wikis ever succeed. The vast majority of Wikis are stillborn, but those which do succeed in attracting the attentions of the broader community of obsessive individuals cross the salience gap, and, in that lucky moment, the Wiki begins to grow on its own, drawing in expertise from a broad but strongly-connected social network, because individuals obsessed with something will tend to have strong connections to other similar individuals. Very quickly the knowledge within the community is immensely amplified, as knowledge and expertise pours out of individual heads and into the Wiki.
This phenomenon – which I have termed “hyperintelligence” – creates a situation where the community is smarter as a whole (and as individuals) because of their interactions with the Wiki. In short, the community will be more effective in the pursuit of its obsession because of the Wiki, and this increase in effectiveness will make them more closely bound to the Wiki. This process feeds back on itself until the idea of the community without the Wiki becomes quite literally unthinkable. The Wiki is the “common mind” of the community; for this reason it will be contentious, but, more significantly, it will be vital, an electronic representation of the power of obsession, an embodied form of the community’s depth of expertise.
What this community does with its newfound effectiveness is the open question.