Ward Cunningham – Wiki and the rise of gift economies
Creator of wiki software, Ward Cunningham, argues that the proliferation of wikis has proved that the for-pay economy is not the only way to create value and celebrates the fact that we have now more choices. He recounts that his “specific purpose for the first wiki was to create an environment where we might link together each other’s experience to discover the pattern language of programming. In creating wiki, I also wanted to stroke that story-telling nature in all of us.”
An interview to Thanasis Priftis for Re-public
Thanasis Priftis: When you created wiki software did you ever imagine a derivative like Wikipedia? How do you feel of the fact that some universities departments in the US ban references based on Wikipedia?
Ward Cunningham: My specific purpose for the first wiki was to create an environment where we might link together each other’s experience to discover the pattern language of programming. I also had more general goals for wiki. First, I think that humans have a compelling urge to talk. In creating wiki, I wanted to stroke that story-telling nature in all of us. Second, and perhaps most important, I wanted people who wouldn’t normally author to find it comfortable authoring, so that there stood a chance of us discovering the structure of what they had to say.
I knew wiki would be good for many things. I thought it would be good for an encyclopedia too but didn’t imagine that the encyclopedia would be the largest application of the technology today. Kudos to Wikipedia.
University students should understand the difference between primary and secondary sources. I don’t believe that Wikipedia or any other encyclopedia should be singled out. To do so is to misunderstand the form.
T.P.: How hard is managing an open source project? Would you highlight some key points of extreme programming that change the way we approach organizational models in general?
W.C.: To succeed in the long term, an open source project must be transparent and permeable as well as open. Permeable means that others can introduce improvements. One’s psychology resists that. Extreme programming avoids this unwanted possessiveness by jointly owning code from the beginning. When I can take pride in your accomplishments I’m most of the way there.
The decisions I made designing wiki were very much inspired by my desire to create a model for the collaborative process I thought should happen in large code bases. I wanted wiki to mimic that. So for example, say there’s a problem in a bunch of code. You know the solution to the problem, but the solution touches a bunch of modules. The needed refactoring is a lot of hard work, and it’s made even extra hard if you have to go negotiate with every original author. You just want to try and make it right.
T.P.: Does the proliferation of wikis mark the eventual end of peer review? How is this development changing the nature of scientific communities?
W.C.: Wiki does not threaten peer review. Science needs peer review and it will get it. I do not see knowledge produced through wikis as being on the same ground with scientific knowledge. Wiki is best seen as a way of reporting, sharing, coordinating, problem framing and agenda setting. A wiki works best where you’re trying to answer a question that you can’t easily pose, where there’s not a natural structure that’s known in advance to what you need to know.
Science is based on repeatable experiment. The peer review is a means of assessing the quality of the experiments, not voting on the preference for a particular result. But we should not forget that what you get as a wiki reader is access to people who had no voice before. The people to whom we are giving voice are aware of what it’s like to write, and ship, a computer program.
If you want to contribute to a scientific journal you should be peer reviewed. Part of peer review is that you’re familiar with all the other literature. And the other literature somehow that has spiralled off into irrelevance. What was being written about programming didn’t match what practicing programmers felt. With wiki, practicing programmers who don’t have time to master the literature and get a column in a journal that’s going to be read have a place where they could say things that are important to them. The wiki provides a different view. In fact you can tell when someone is writing on wiki from their personal experience versus when they are quoting what they last read.
T.P.: What are your thoughts on “end user value” at technical or content level? Do you see it playing a more and more important social and economic role?
W.C.: Wiki proves that the for-pay economy is not the only way to create value. We should celebrate the fact that we have choices. These choices do not necessarily play against each other (ex. gift economy vs. pay-economy). The wide spread distribution of computers and the dramatically reduced cost of networking has changed the balance slightly. However, the revolution that has ensued is modest compared to, say, the telegraph, before which the fastest a message could travel was the speed of a horse.
A feature of a market economy is that it can adjust to these changes, large and small.
T.P.: Various discover, through “wiki tools”, collaborative methods of work and action. What would you say is crucial for the successful application of wikis in this type of environments?
W.C.: Collaboration happens when values align and individuals take the time to develop trust. Humans do this. The startling thing about wiki is that trust can form in slow motion over a text channel. This tells us more about people than about wiki.
Political organisations and NGOs should bear in mind that the power of collaborative development has only just begun to be realized, and open-source software will continue to spur more collaboration and more innovation.
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