Wikipedia is 10 years old tomorrow. For anyone who doesn’t know what it is, and especially for those who misread the word and want it placed on some sort of register, Wikipedia is the largest online encyclopaedia in the world. Its goal is to publish the sum of all human knowledge. What a wonderfully egalitarian prospect that is. If you wanted to know who won the 1909 Cork Junior B Football Championship or how to do open heart surgery, there’d be no need to consult so-called ‘experts’. The information will be right there at your finger-tips. (Fermoy by two points; once the perfusionist has connected up the heart-lung machine, slow the heart by cooling the blood and then stop the heart by feeding a serum containing a concentrated solution of potassium ions into the coronary artery…)
My life is already dominated by Wikipedia. As soon as a sentence containing any kind of question mark forms in my brain, my immediate reaction is to “Look it up”. This has almost become an involuntary impulse, to the extent that recently I had to stop myself from searching for the answer to “Where are my bloody keys gone NOW?”
Before the Internet and Wikipedia, “looking it up” was very much limited by what kind of “up where?” you had in your house. There was AERTEL, which did its best but there was only so often you needed to find out what Readymix’s Share Price was, or find a penfriend for penship maybe more.
The other option was to use whatever encyclopaedia you happened to have in the sitting room. If you were lucky, it was relatively up-to-date. Ours – The Children’s Encyclopaedia edited by Arthur Mee – was from 1939. Which made it difficult when doing school projects on technology. “And we may once see the day when a cathode ray tube televisual apparatus will be in all homes throughout the land.” Nevertheless it gave a fascinating glimpse into the attitudes of the time.
PC, it was not. African people rarely featured in the Children’s Encyclopaedia. When they did, they were usually depicted in a drawing, standing around a feverish looking white explorer, appearing concerned as he succumbed to some deadly malady. And while the book doesn’t say so explicitly, it does imply that it’s sort-of the natives’ fault. If their country wasn’t so remote and unknown and full of natural resources, Sir Frederick Suchandsuchington wouldn’t be risking his life trying to explore it.
There was no hand-wringing over the environment either. Jungles were terrifying places that must be cleared by “fire and machine”. In an article with the glorious title Eight Cousins of the Pussy-By-the-Fire, we were introduced to some of the large cats that roam the wild. Nowadays these cats would be the subject of lovingly-shot documentaries which all follow a familiar pattern. Cat Stalks Prey. Cat Chases Prey. Cat Eats Prey. Breathless Voiceover Says: “But today the leopard’s greatest challenge comes, not from a gazelle, but from Man.” Then there is a shot of a giant tree-cutting machine and a leopard slinking off, looking annoyed and upset.
The Children’s Encyclopaedia had no truck with this kind of nonsense. It didn’t castigate mankind about the fate of wildlife. Big cats were a menace and there was only one thing for them. “The leopards, are the animal scourge of India, about 5,000 of whom are dispatched each year”
Wikipedia is silent on whether leopards are a scourge, but with 17 million articles in over 200 languages already available online, it does have a lot to say about nearly everything else. The temptation of all that information is hard to resist. You may go on the site with the intention of finding out one thing but come to your senses hours later not quite sure how you got there. Like falling asleep on a bus, missing your stop and waking up in the terminus.
A typical Wikipedic journey would – in fact did – go like this: Look up Cork. Read about Cork. Notice the line at the top of the page: This article is about the city in Ireland. For other uses, see Cork (disambiguation) which is a link to all the other pages in Wikipedia with Cork in the title. This is Wikipedia’s way of saying, “Hey, you busy? Didn’t think so. What’s say you and me take a little trip?”. Depending on the word, the next page may then come as something of a surprise – especially if the word is teabag.
On the Cork Disambiguation page there’s a link to Cork Encoding. What can that be? – is it: “he’d-a-be all nice to your face like but then after he’d-a-be giving out stink like” ? No. Turns out it’s some sort of computer thing. Snore. But “it was introduced for LaTeX”. Sounds promising. Click. LaTeX is a “document mark up language”. Doublesnore. There’s a Latex disambiguation page. Click. Latex Clothing. CLICK. Latex suits were worn in Charlie’s Angels. Click. Cameron Diaz was in that film. Click. She was also in Gangs of New York. Click. Daniel Day Lewis was in it too. Click. Daniel Day-Lewis is on the List of People On Stamps Of Ireland. Click. So is Jack Lynch. Click. Jack Lynch is from Cork and I’m back where I began.
Half the day has been wasted on Wikipedia. I’ve done no work. I think there might be a link…