In a recent interview, Wikipedia’s self-described “ex-founder” Larry Sanger mentioned his project at the Knowledge Standards Foundation to create “Encyclosphere” standards and software, which others would use to create encyclopedia-reader apps. This ecosystem, which would have cooperation along the supply chain but competition between suppliers, would collect articles from lots of sources and would publish selections.
Encyclosphere apps would canvass more views, so these apps could readily become superior to Wikipedia. Broader apps like these could guide users to more useful information, so such apps could certainly become superior to current search engines. That a premier tech innovator is focusing on next-generation tech to bring such welcome improvements is cause for great hope.
This cause would be significantly helped by the simple shift in perspective and tactics described here.
Neutrality vs. Assertiveness
A key objective long advocated by Sanger is to make traditionally neutral texts more closely approach actual neutrality. In his article “Why Neutrality?,” which he updated in his book Essays on Free Knowledge, Sanger elaborated (and here I summarize) what constitutes a style of neutrality:
N0) An encyclopedia or reference, a straight news report, or a basic textbook need not mention an issue that’s disputed.
N1) If this content mentions an issue that’s disputed, the creators should take no position.
N2) They should present all main views about the issue using each view’s best, most-convincing arguments, evidence, and representatives.
N3) They should apportion to each main view a fair or equitable proportion of coverage.
I support offering neutrality by allowing users to select various views. But I support each individual view being provided in a style of assertiveness:
A0) Content should address issues that are disputed.
A1) The creator should assert his view.
A2) He should provide the information that best supports his view.
A3) He should decide if there are points on which it will be helpful to refute others’ views, and on these points he should provide the information that best refutes those views.
Visualize neutrality and assertiveness the way audiences experience them.
Neutrality is like a politician’s stump speech. Controversial views are avoided or are carefully surrounded by feel-good messaging, leaving these views downplayed and weakened.
Assertiveness is like a scientific paper. A single view is supported with new data.
A stump speech provides little information, slowly. A scientific paper’s new data provides lots of information, quickly.
Politics as usual doesn’t work, while science (done right) does work.
The reasons for this difference are built into our nature.
Assertiveness is natural.
A content creator will naturally seek out the information that seems to him most optimum to add at each point in time. His view, then, is naturally informed by a better base of subject-matter information, and is shaped by that information.
When he articulates his own view, this articulation is the one that’s the most informed and the most persuasive.
If this articulation would be interrupted by those of other members of a committee, it would become less clear, less vigorous, and less-fully supported.
Assertiveness reflects thinking.
From a content creator’s perspective, given his lifetime of both lived and vicarious experience, at every point in time his thinking is the best approximation of the truth that he can offer.
If the content from each creator is the best approximation of the truth that he can offer, then all content is the best approximation of the truth that any person is offering.
Assertiveness tells a story.
A content creator’s knowledge has an underlying structure into which each component part fits.
Acquiring this knowledge, then fashioning it into strong content, requires copious information-gathering, understanding, craft, and style. In both the thinking and the telling, a content creator is guided both by intuition and by aesthetics. The content presents the underlying knowledge, but the telling is a creative act.
When content assertively reveals its underlying story, the audience members learn naturally and learn better.
Assertiveness is efficient.
Each content creator, given his own receptiveness to information in his area of expertise, and given all the information he assimilates, is naturally efficient at approaching the truth.
Whatever the truth is, ensembles of such content creators are naturally efficient at approaching the truth.
In turn, the audience members who learn from such content creators are themselves more efficient at approaching the truth.
When all audience members can most readily and more efficiently approach the truth, they all get closer earlier in life, and they all progress further over the course of their lives.
Sanger’s article “Why Neutrality?”, although advocating a single view, addresses many facets of this view. In this way, it mimics the broad coverage provided by a style of neutrality.
That article has an average reading time of 64 minutes. The present article “Why Assertiveness?,” focusing on a single view, has an average reading time of five minutes.
If such a ratio of reading times holds true as a first approximation, then compared to neutrality, assertiveness could be used to learn a single view 13-times faster. Assertiveness could be used to compare two opposing views 6 times faster.
Assertiveness respects audiences.
Each audience member approaches new content with a significant background and preferences. He’s not a blank slate. There is simply no reason that each time he seeks new information he should be forced to run a gauntlet of content issuing from different understandings—understandings that for the time being he already has decided, for what he considers good causes, to reject.
It’s best—and it’s efficient for him—if he is offered such other content in other streams, for whenever from time to time he chooses to devote some of his time to those streams.
But in the meantime, he is treated the most respectfully, and he has the most freedom, if content curators help him freely learn information from others who share his general background understanding and who are well prepared to offer him more information.
Time is short, and there is no end to content. Everyone benefits from being treated respectfully and learning naturally.
Assertiveness is ideal.