The Most Revolutionary Act

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The Wikipedia Revolution – Part I

Posted By on December 7, 2011

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By Andrew Lih

(Aurun Press Ltd 2009)

Book Review

(I have divided this review into two parts. Part I describes Open Source innovations that were integral to the creation of the world’s most famous and popular encyclopedia. Part II describes the Wikipedia project itself.)

Lih’s Wilkipedia Revolution stands as a testament to the unsung heroes of the Open Source movement. From the outset, there has been a split between entrepreneurs like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who have viewed the Internet as an opportunity to become enormously rich, and true visionaries like Jimmy Wales, who see it as a medium of social change with the potential to improve the lives of billions of people. I have always regarded Open Source activities like Wikipedia and Wikileaks as the Occupy Wall Street of the Internet. Like OWS, Open Source reclaims electronic communications as a “commons” – a public space to be jointly owned and used by all of us for the common good.

In Lih’s view, Wikipedia would never have been possible without the freely shared knowledge and software of the Open Source movement. He makes this clear by skillfully interweaving the personal biography of Jimmy Wales with the history of the Internet, the World Wide Web and the O S movement itself.

Hacker Ethics and the Open Source Movement

Wales, who has a master’s degree in finance, had a first career selling derivatives for Chicago Options Associates. In 1996, he used his programming and hacking skills to start a dot com in his spare time with Tim Shell, who he met through an on-line philosophy mailing list. Wales is a big fan of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, the belief in obtaining objective knowledge form measurement. This would ultimately inspire his faith in using measurement by the masses to create an on-line reference work.

Wales and Shell called their dot com Bitter Old Men in Suits (BOMIS). Their first project was a Yahoo-style directory for the city of Chicago. This was around the time (1996) that two Sun Microsystems engineers started DMOZ (directorymozilla.org), the first Internet-wide search engine. They did so with the explicit intent of employing volunteer labor and freely distributing it to the public, under the principle of “Copyleft” or General Public License that underpinned the free software movement (now known as Open Source). The latter was started by MIT hacker Richard Stallman had started in 1985 with an extensive on-line network of hackers.

The hacker community has a very strong ethic that it’s okay to hack into computers and steal software code provided you use it to improve and share the software. In contrast, refusing to share what you have stolen (and improved on) for personal profit is considered totally unethical. The phenomenal success of Open Source products  is based on the principle that making your software code public, instead of keeping it secret, allows thousands of programmers to improve it. This is the main reason free downloadable Open Source programs have fewer operating and security glitches than Microsoft and other proprietary software.

Netscape, Linux and Wikiwiki Web

DMOZ subsequently morphed into Netscape, which dropped out of public view after Microsoft pirated and monopolized the concept, by arranging for Microsoft Explorer to be loaded along with windows on every new PC. It was subsequently reborn as Mozilla Firefox, a free Open Source browser greatly preferred by many Internet users for its greater safety and reliability. Because the code that runs it is freely available to the public, it undergoes continuous quality improvement by the thousands of programmers who use it.

Despite its popularity among hackers, the free software movement remained virtually unknown to the wider public until 1992, when a Finnish hacker named Linus Torvalds created Linux, the first free Open Source operating system. Unlike commercial operating systems, such as Windows and Mac OS X, the code on Linux is publicly available, which means its users are constantly improving on it.

Other significant innovations that made Wikipedia possible were the creation of the World Wide Web in 1992 by Tim Berners-Lee and the creation of Wikiwiki Web by Ward Cunningham in 1994. Prior to 1992, there were a half dozen different protocols (including Gopher and WAIS) that had to be laboriously typed out to access documents posted on the Internet. Berners-Lee created a Uniform Resource Locator (URL), using a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (http) for finding on-line documents. Cunningham’s Wiki software enabled any user anywhere to edit any website without having specialized software or knowledge of programming or html (the language used to construct a web page).

To be continued.


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