SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 1 FEBRUARY 2004
THIS cold spell has reminded me of similar weather, a long time ago, when I jumped from the fireplace to answer a knock on the door.
Outside in the frozen night air stood a man with what looked like a giant briefcase by his side. He was selling encyclopedias and I knew he had picked the wrong house.
But he looked miserable and feeling sorry for him, I invited him in. Big mistake. Someone selling something had been brought into the house and my father was stirred from a snooze. To mitigate the circumstances my mother went to talk to the icicle man and when he took out one of the encyclopedia volumes she seemed to warm to him and ushered him into the relatively safety of the kitchen.
Because if the old man got a whiff of who was in the house, your man would find himself on the other side of the hall door with the empty milk bottles and Jack Frost for company.
Encyclopedias were really expensive. They still are. The going rate now for a full set of Britannica's best is over a thousand of Her Majesty's one pound coins.
Encyclopedias were tortuous for most parents, because they knew of their great educational benefits but at the same time the cost was prohibitive (cue violin). Because of this, encyclopedias were serious status symbol currency.
The strange thing was that anybody who owned a set generally left it to the mercy of the dust mites. I got a chance to flick through a a set in a mate's house. I made the most of it and managed to get through the section on reproduction by the time his parents arrived home.
Encyclopedias as status symbol were eventually replaced by other totems: second televisions, aluminium windows etc etc. It was secondary school education which did for the good ship Britannica and when computers arrived, Microsoft's Encarta Encyclopedia CD holed her below the waterline. The little that was left was sunk without trace once the internet took off.
The high price of encyclopedias was gone forever but that's not all that changed. Encyclopedias represented a way of providing information which hadn't changed much since Britannica was founded in 1768. The way it gathered information in the first place didn't change very much either.
Detailed papers and explanations were painstakingly put together from various experts in the subject areas required. Everything would be checked, double checked and re-checked again. An encyclopedia lived and died by its accuracy. The amount of work involved must have been staggering but that was the only way of doing it at that time.
Now there are other ways and one of them is very different from the past and impossible to even imagine back then. Collaboration. People themselves acting as both contributors and benefactors of information and knowledge and, best of all, for gratis.
While the idea of not relying on proven experts might seem like an invitation to a monkey's tea party, especially as the internet is involved, there is another side to it.
If you think you have expertise on something, would you have enough confidence in your knowledge to put it to the test? In front of thousands of people, many of whom would take great effort and pleasure in examining every minute detail of your wisdom for weakness?
And that's the essence of a resource I couldn't do without. The Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org) is a giant, global compository of facts and knowledge on the go for the last three years. It's an American non-profit organisation, which uses collaboration to both build the encyclopedia and provide the funding.
As of the beginning of this month, Wikipedia contained over 190,000 articles in English and over 200,000 in other languages. The project has also expanded into a dictionary, quotations and textbooks and other public domain literature. A worldwide travel guide has recently been launched.
Having so many people pool their resources is what makes Wikipedia a project of its time and one of many outstanding examples of the enormous potential of a globally interconnected communications network.
And it's also just one example of the type of collaboration which would be impossible without the net. Mailing lists, blogging, wikis, bulletin boards and even Usenet (violins again) are just some of the facilities people use, and which the Americans (as usual) have named 'social software'.
Social software is under the spotlight at the moment because of the Democratic primary elections and the rise and rise of Howard Dean. The mainsteam media were taken with the notion that Dean's popularity was driven by his prolific use of the internet, propelled by inestimable resources with low visibility and high impact.
But following his poor showing in Iowa, there were questions about the potential of collaboration to bring about real change. Respected internet commentator Clay Shirky set out his stall:
"We know well from past attempts to use social software to organise groups for political change that it is hard, very hard, because participation in online communities often provides a sense of satisfaction that actually dampens a willingness to interact with the real world.
"....There are many reasons for this, but the main one seems to be that the pleasures of life online are precisely the way they provide a respite from the vagaries of the real world.
"Both the way the online environment flattens interaction and the way everything gets arranged for the convenience of the user makes the threshold between talking about changing the world and changing the world even steeper than usual." (Clay Shirky, Jan 26 2004)
Steeper? Oh I don't know. As my father once told me over a pint: "the pubs are full of people on bar stools whose encyclopedic knowledge of the world's woes has no connection whatsoever with their willingness to do anything about it".