I have an odd habit. When I have spare time, I spend it reading truly scathing reviews of popular books and films. I don't know why, but hearing popular works torn apart makes me chuckle. Most likely because people are usually at their best when writing about what they despise. Hagiography tends to be all of a kind, there is little variation to praise. But hatred tends to have a language all its own, and in reading the most negative of reviews, I have found a lot of intentional, and even more unintentional, wit.
Today, one such negative review on Amazon gave me something I never expected, however, and that was a better insight into my ongoing distaste for Wikipedia. As reader surely know, I have many objections to amazon, from its absurd methodology to its elitist editorial system to its tendency to reflect the worst peccadilloes of modern academia, but more than anything, what I find troubling is the tendency to embrace what I have called the taxonomy of trivia. In an essay of that name ("The Taxonomy of Trivia") I commented that it reminded me of a much more vapid version of the 18th and 19th century obsession with cataloging everything. Though perhaps it would be better to refer to it as the Victoria and Albert Museum for the Gilligan's Island set, as it very much resembles the "Queen's handbag" except that it is filled with pop culture cruft rather than the bejeweled knick knacks accumulated in six decades of reign over the world's largest empire.
However, even with those descriptions, I still had not quite hit upon the right feeling for my distaste until I read this review. In his description of "hipster" this reviewer manages to put his finger on precisely what troubles me about Wikipedia. Oh, not the articles on mathematics or science (though those often suffer from technical jargon simply for the sake of showing off one's erudition, but that is another matter), but the bulk of Wikipedia is Diderot's encyclopedia written by and for hipsters. And what precisely is a hipster? That is where the review come sin, with the perfect definition:
Let me explain what I mean by the word "hipster." A hipster is an illiterate nerd. Neither Perkus nor Chase read very much in the book, and their references are almost exclusively cinematic or musical. Not to mention mostly exoteric. The closest they come to approaching literature is by way of Kafka: Perkus recites a passage from Kafka's "Forschungen eines Hundes" at one point (in bad English translation). He neither discusses the story's form nor its meaning. This is very telling. Both hipsters do what all hipsters do: They merely stockpile and warehouse cultural detritus without thinking about what any of it might signify or how it is constructed. And so both characters mindlessly compile references to cultural trash, without any purpose or sense of an overarching project. They might as well have an encyclopedic knowledge of vegetables: "Have you ever eaten a carrot?" "Did you know that there exists an orange cauliflower? I read about it on Wikipedia." And so forth and so on.I really need to say little more. The person described here is exactly the person who fills page after page of Wikipedia with trivial listings of useless ephemera. Even in supposedly academic subjects it seems there is more trivia than content. As I said, even the technical areas tend to be filled with so much jargon it distances the average reader. Just look up any mathematical subject you thought you understood and see how much jargon is used to describe even the most basic concept. If the point of Wikipedia is to put information within the reach of the average reader, it is failing miserably. Either it is a grand catalog of television and music, or it is an overly wordy and far too jargon ridden technical encyclopedia written by third year physics majors trying to show off.
The point to be made is the following: Lethem's hipsters are not readers. They are not thinkers. They are not artists. They are not creators. They are not even scholars of cultural trash.
They are repositories of media junk.
Either way, it is hardly a useful source of reliable information, and certainly not something of which our society should be proud.
My previous complaints about Wikipedia can be found in my posts "Grind Those Axes, WikiEditors!", "Why I Won't Be Contributing to Wikipedia", "The Taxonomy of Trivia", "The Failure of Wikipedia", "Final Comment on Wikipedia (For Now, Anyway)", "Wikipedia?", "Now I know Why", "One More Wikipedia Problem","Very Short Digression On Wikipedia", "Wikipedia Absurdity, Or How To Create Your Own Citation", "Wikipedia Syndrome", "Wikipedia Absurdities ", "Stop Confusing Me With The Facts!", "Mystery Quotes", "Opinion Masquerading as Fact", "Funny Numbers", "Endangered Species", "Sterility of Formal Economics", "Wikipedia Absurdity, Or How To Create Your Own Citation", "Some Libertarian Analogies ", "Proof Positive", "Why People Don't Take Academics Seriously", "Deceiving Themselves?", "A Question About Language", "Roman Legions, Hopscotch, Killer Gays, "Got AIDS Yet", WMDs and a "Damn Piece of Paper"", "Very Short Digression On Wikipedia", "One More Wikipedia Problem", "The Power of Myth on the Internet", "Vindication", "Life is Strange" and "The Tragedy of the Creative Commons".
I do not mean by citing this review to agree with the author's view of any particular work (though in a few cases I do), or to endorse his criticisms, he simply hit upon exactly what troubles me about so many Wikipedia hipsters, their complete lack of an grounding in anything older than the music of the 60's or maybe Jack Kerouac. As if everything that went before that (excluding maybe Camus, Sartre and Kierkegaard) never existed. That is what I failed to notice in all this faux erudition and endless generation of lists and hierarchies. And thus, whatever the value of his reviews, I must give him credit for pointing out something I simply failed to grasp until I found it in his review.
UPDATE (Later the same day): I have to confess that it appears someone has been doing good work at Wikipedia, for once. Recalling that some of the most dense, jargon-ridden and overly technical definitions had been used for mathematical concepts (including the use of all manner of symbols and technical terminology standing in for some very ordinary, understandable words), I went back to find some examples and was stunned to discover that, at least in some of the more basic mathematical concepts, someone appears to have gone back and tidied up the language to be intelligible to the average educated reader, removing needless jargon and symbols. I am still not sure if my first choice to define the quadratic equation would be "a univariate polynomial equation of the second degree", but at least all of those terms are easily understood and don't refer you to other Wikipedia articles which are equally impenetrable as many of the mathematical ones once did. I did not have time to check the (at least previously) opaque articles on physics and chemistry (and this from a former chem/physics dual major), but I hope someone did a similar job cleaning them up as well. Of course, as soon as the juniors and seniors go on winter break from their universities -- or older geeks notice the easily understood words -- we will see a return to arcane, oblique verbiage, but until then, I have to admit many of these articles can almost be understood.
Originally posted in Random Notes on 2012/09/05.