Last summer I read Asimov’s “Foundation” and enjoyed it. The plot twist early on (*spoiler alert*) of having the encyclopedia project function as a ruse to get scientists to an outlying planet hooked me for the duration. In the story, the mere act of compiling information wasted time.
Reading Niall Ferguson’s “Civilization, The West and the Rest” got me thinking about encyclopedias again. Here is my review, and here is another slightly more positive take from which I extracted this quotation (thanks to Marginal Revolution for the link):
In 1420, when London was a backwater, Nanjing was the world’s largest city, and Ming China “had an incontrovertible claim to be [its] most advanced civilization.” That it was a center of learning he makes plain with a typically entertaining detail: the Emperor tasked 2,000 scholars with creating “a compendium of Chinese learning” that “filled more than 11,000 volumes,” which was “surpassed as the world’s largest encyclopedia only in 2007 … by Wikipedia.” So what happened?
Ferguson then goes on to outline the swift decline in China’s navy as the main answer, just as Paul Kennedy did in his The Rise and Fall of Great Powers. Like Asimov, I have a different theory: China’s encyclopedia itself was a symptom of a disease that already manifested itself in the body politic.
The Roman’s first encyclopedia, for example, came in its post-Diocletian phase, a time of desperate attempts to conserve what they had lost centuries earlier. There’s the rub; most often, encyclopedias and dictionaries come from a conservative reaction against change.* A fear of losing something pushes us to gather our nuts frantically for the coming winter. Thus, it makes perfect sense that the Chinese followed up its massive encyclopedia with a concomitant reaction against traveling to contact new people and ideas and risk losing what they had so carefully tried to preserve.
I use Wikipedia in desperate moments when I forget a date before class, and I think that it has gotten more reliable over the years in giving a general idea of things. But I have no sympathy with the pleas it makes for support. For one, we could easily do without it, but something deeper bothers me. Many, many creative, curious, and intelligent people spend their time for Wikipedia merely repeating and compiling what others have already said elsewhere. What Truman Capote famously said of “On the Road” could be said of Wikipedia: “That’s not writing. It’s typing.”
*I admit that the Dictionary made by the French philosophes had a more militant, aggressive character, and is an exception to this rule.