Liang: De-Classify and Un-Authorize

Lawrence Liang is an Indian legal researcher and lawyer residing in Bagalore. With his speech he tries to place current debates into a historical context. There are a variety of controversies which he tries to place in perspective.

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Throughout the latest years there have been different responses considering the rise of Wikipedia:

  • Refutation: It is not as reliable as Britannica.
  • Intentionality: What’s the motor behind all this?
  • Pragmatic steps: How to improve upon?

Overall a rather somber tone dominated, Liang argues. What remained stable and unchallenged was the authority of knowledge. Therefore Liang tries to point us to a manner which is a little more realistic.

He continues with an early history of the book itself, the book as an object of knowledge. His goal is bringing the notion of the authority of knowledge back, in a sense, to the contemporary realm. It’s an important debate, not confined to Wikipedia, he says.

The book has not always been seen as reliable; there were various inherent problems of copy. During the print revolution, the volume of the total amount of books increased tremendously. The reliability of book were constantly challenged. He shows some quotes of people contesting the supposed inherent truth of books. It not only happened in the realm of religion. Also science struggled how to classify things constantly, of which Borges has given a famous example.

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The physical copy introduced simultaneously the right to grant permission to copy it. It was not just accessing. The popular account of pre-print cultures is that of slavish copying, but – as many might not realize – also that of annotators, compilers and correctors. Medieval book owners and scribes actively shaped the text they read.

Authority was never given. Readers didn’t have the tools to check this either. It was a question of trust. Tracking the original source was very difficult.

The emergence of authority was born later on. We now take for granted things like the publisher’s name, the cover design etc. They are all meant to make the total package appear to be reliable.

His end argument, then, is to try to de-classify and un-authorize encyclopedias and Wikipedia in particular. Encyclopedias are an attempt to authoritatively classify the world, an act to create certainty that doesn’t exist. We should move to a certain idea of the uncertainty of knowledge. Not as reform or to make Wikipedia better, but as a precondition to just think of the production of knowledge.

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