Wednesday, January 30, 2013

How Do They Find the Time?

Clay Shirky, in his book “Here Comes Everybody,” makes a great deal of the amateur, volunteer effort that goes constantly into creating Wikipedia, the online Encyclopedia of Everything.

Thing is, it’s been done before. 

I’m currently reading Simon Winchester’s "The Professor and the Madman," subtitled “A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.” Therein, Winchester traces the history of the OED and how it came about. 

Winchester recounts the story of Richard Chenevix Trench, Anglican archbishop, dean of Westiminster, and poet who proposed, in 1857, that a new dictionary in which every word ever spoken in English be compiled. Here’s what he has to say, by way of Winchester. See if any of it sounds familiar: 

The undertaking of the scheme, he said, was beyond the ability of any one man. To peruse all of English literature – and to comb the London and New York newspapers and the most literate of the magazines and journals – must be instead “the combined action of many.” It would be necessary to recruit a team – moreover, a huge one – probably comprising of hundreds and hundreds of unpaid amateurs, all of them working as volunteers. 

The audience murmured with surprise. Such an idea, obvious though it may sound today, had never been put forward before. But then, some members said as the meeting was breaking up, it did have some real merit. It had a rough, rather democratic appeal. It was an idea consonant with Trench’s underlying thought, that any grand new dictionary ought to be itself a democratic product, a book that demonstrated the primacy of individual freedoms, of the notion that one could use words freely, as one liked, without hard and fast rules of lexical conduct.
I’m sure I’m not the only one to connect these dots, but it certainly is fascinating to think of. The time and effort and volunteer zeal was certainly there to help the OED go from idea to finished yet evolving product, just as with Wikipedia today. And the OED has its critics in that they say it is not as democratic as many would think – but the same can be said of Wikipedia.

It’s fascinating to think of volunteers scattered all over the English-speaking world making contributions to the OED. And they kind of hit a scatter plot as Shirky describes in his book – a handful of contributors add a pile of contributions, while many, many others just add a few.

Humans are an amazingly consistent species, no matter the technology used.

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