Would You Pay for Wikipedia If It Contained Humanism?

Where would we be without Wikipedia? While the online encyclopedia’s accuracy has sometimes been called into question, its mission of providing free and comprehensive information to anyone with an Internet connection is a noble goal. Ever-evolving as its entries are updated, debated, and then updated again, Wikipedia not only strives to encompass “the sum of all human knowledge” but also reflects the process by which knowledge is generated. Human knowledge, much like the content of our current digital age, is never static but is always dynamically progressing and changing as we acquire new information and synthesize current findings with previous understandings.

Given the appropriateness of a digital medium for an online encyclopedia, why would anyone bother translating it into a static print medium? Yet this is exactly the project of Professor Michael Mandiberg, an artist who is working on a project to create print volumes of all of the current English-language Wikipedia entries. On Thursday of last week, according to a New York Times article, Mandiberg began his project by uploading Wikipedia entries to the print-on-demand site Lulu.com.

One of the goals of the project, as suggested in the Times, is to give an idea just how vast the knowledge contained within Wikipedia actually is. A total of 7,600 volumes will be created, though not all will be printed. “We don’t need to see the whole thing in order to understand how big it is,” Mandiberg told the Times, although the moment the last volume finishes uploading, a “Buy It Now” button will appear at Lulu.com where the whole thing could, if it were possible, be bought for $500,000. Alas, an order so large would virtually break Lulu.com’s shopping cart, however, individual volumes can be purchased for $80 each.

Offering a free online encyclopedia as an expensive print series is just one of the many contradictions of the project. In fact, according to the New York Times, Mandiberg sees this exercise as highlighting the contradictions of humanism, stating that Wikipedia’s algorithms of word clusters “represent humanism’s failing as an idea, even as Wikipedia itself is an incredible act of humanism.”

When TheHumanist.com reached out to Mandiberg for clarification about his remarks, he replied that he was “commenting on the poetic presence of the entries for ‘Hulk (Aqua Teen Hunger Force)’ and ‘Humanitarianism in Africa’ as the first and last entries [in a volume that contains the article on ‘humanism’].” He elaborated, “I see the need for humanitarianism not as an example of humanism but as a failure viz Agamben and bare life.” (Agamben is Giorgio Agamben, who, according to Wikipedia, is “an Italian continental philosopher best known for his work investigating the concepts of the state of exception, form-of-life and homo sacer, but you probably already knew that.)

I’d venture that many humanists would at least agree that the need for humanitarianism not merely in Africa but around the world represents a failure of compassion and empathy to prevent such poverty and tragedy in the first place, and Mandiberg’s dismissal of humanism may have more to do with perceptions of Enlightenment humanism than it does with secular humanism as it is practiced today. For all of the brilliant insights that the Enlightenment thinkers had regarding human rights and reason, they were woefully shortsighted in many ways and blinded to the lived experiences of anyone who was not a Western, white, educated, property-owning man. While the humanism of the Enlightenment was revolutionary for its time, it unfortunately also upheld many social orders and inequalities. Furthermore, the Enlightenment has often been criticized for stratifying knowledge into hierarchies, which now seem to be unraveling in our digital age of information based upon algorithms and webs of interrelated terms and keywords, all of which resists hierarchy.

While there are many valid critiques of the Enlightenment, the humanism that sprang from it is not the only type of humanism, and humanism as a worldview has come a long way since the seventeenth century. Arguably, humanism’s emphasis on constant inquiry and critical thinking are one of its greatest strengths. Unlike static religious dogma, humanism is dynamic and willing to incorporate new knowledge or jettison outmoded and inaccurate thinking. The Humanist Manifesto is currently in its third iteration, and it will hardly be the last and final word on what humanism is.

In an age where knowledge is determined by web-like connections between terms and interrelations between separate bodies of knowledge, humanism’s ability to grow and change speaks to its continued relevance. Debates about what knowledge is and what constitutes knowledge and accurate information play out in Wikipedia, but they also shape our entire media landscape and permeate our understanding of the state of the world and our place in it. Is global warming real and caused by human activity? Are vaccines responsible for autism in children? Is a blastocyst a person deserving of the same rights as a woman? These are all questions that our media grapple with daily, in online and offline spaces, where a multitude of voices clamor to present their own knowledge on these topics. Sifting through the facts and the fiction, the truth and the lies, to find the evidence and make a decision can seem nearly impossible.

For this reason, humanism is hardly a failure as an idea but instead is perhaps needed now more than ever before. After all, algorithms may order our search terms and keywords, but it’s still up to us to make sense of the results. In a world where anyone can write a blog or update a Wikipedia entry (with correct and incorrect information), the critical thinking emphasized by humanism is vitally important. Much like the free encyclopedia’s inability to ever truly be bound into static print volumes, humanism cannot be contained merely to one era of history or mode of thought. Instead, for its ability to evolve and grow, humanism has proved its continued relevance. I’m not sure we can say the same for Mr. Mandiberg’s print Wikipedia volumes.