Kevin Myers: I have been libelled by Wikipedia, and I regard it as a potential source of great evil
Published 24/01/2012 | 17:00
THE black rat, courtesy of bubonic plague, proved this was one world. The great Asian flu in 1918-19 did something similar. And the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and 1990s did likewise, this time proving that a rectum in New York could within hours be infecting one in Berlin. This one world is now united by the internet, the great sewer in cyberspace. One world: one colony; one colon.
If you haven't been libelled by Wikipedia, you probably love it. I have been libelled by it, and I regard it as a potential source of very great evil. The Wikipedia entry on me a couple of years ago said I was a child-rapist who sodomised boys in Belfast, my crimes being covered up by my masters in British intelligence. It is impossible to imagine a more wicked and lethal libel, an incitement to murder in a land replete with murderers. That's Wikipedia for you, the intellectual bathhouse of our times, in which you can swap personal fluids and fatal viruses with complete strangers.
Do this. Find out the name of a really big banker on Wall Street, and just see how little information Wikipedia has on him. Then check anyone in Irish life who is well-known but not rich. Contrast the entries. The really rich powerful man probably has a skeletal entry, not too many scandals, and no information about where he lives. But the entry of the less powerful will not merely list his home address but also much private material, plus -- if he has any enemies -- possibly many falsehoods, as I discovered.
Newspapers came into existence to counter the baleful influence of pamphleteers, the first bloggers in history, who -- with the invention of the printing press -- found they could say almost anything about anyone, without consequence. It's no coincidence that the terrible events of the reformation of the 16th century and the abominable religious wars of the 17th century owed much of their venom to the printing press and the lies that it made possible. The massacres of Protestant settlers in Ireland in 1641, dreadful as they were, were not so much bloodier than any of the massacres that had accompanied the wars of the Roses, or the aftermath of any of the risings in England. It was the printing press which embedded 1641 in the English mind, with consequences that live with us still. By the end of the 17th century, there were so many pamphlets saying so many untrue things that governments across Europe decided -- and the people largely agreed -- that society needed responsible sources for its news. Hence the emergence of licensed newspapers.
In the past decade, Wikipedia has produced the greatest "information" revolution in history. But what actually is a "fact" in an internet-world that consists of a cyber-rabble bawling malevolent gibberish along with scientific truth? Who knows which is which? And who are the thousands of people who write the Wikipedia entries? Do you know any of their names? Thanks to the internet, we have travelled back to the intellectual anarchy of the 17th century pamphleteers.
The day-long closure of Wikipedia last week was said to have blacked out the world. Not my world, it didn't. Moreover, I don't blog and I don't tweet, or read blogs or twitters, because I don't know how to. I treat Wikipedia with the same intellectual respect I would a football chant. I am in a minority. Wikipedia, the most powerful tool for informing people in world history, has transformed how most people acquire information.
Plagiarised Wikipedia quotes, copied and pasted, are now universal media-fare. The word viral takes on a new meaning: the sewers are no longer underground, but are pumping their bilge into the food-fair. And as we wade knee-deep in all this mixture of nourishment and effluent, who knows what is good and what is toxic rubbish?
Jimmy Wales, the inventor of Wikipedia, having turned it into a charity, is clearly not a greedy man. But the concept of "charity" actually means that in essence, it is personally unaccountable. Moreover, he is an ideological supporter of a free internet. But even the slightest idea in public always exacts a price: on the internet, there's no such thing as a free hunch. For where there is untrammelled "freedom", you soon get untrammelled barons with untrammelled powers.
THE real beauty of the free market is that it is not really free. It has rules about where and when it takes place, about what you can call a potato and what you can call a pear, about not selling whiskey to a child, and not selling rotgut to anyone.
In other words, freedom needs consensual rules -- otherwise the outcome is the freedom to tyrannise, to bully, to marginalise, to cheat, to oppress. This is what we are already seeing in the sordid universe of the free internet, with its depraved galaxies of hysteria, its solar systems of malice and its malevolently circling comets of vindictive dementia. What happens when a really powerful force is able to mobilise such cosmic hatreds? History -- 1789, 1917 -- supplies the answer.