A Time And A Place For The Sticky Wiki

July 29, 2017

Today was the annual Bughouse Square Debates in Washington Park (once commonly referred to as Bughouse Square), across from the prestigious Newberry Library in Chicago.  I was honored to participate as one of the speakers, and witness the presentation of both the Altgeld Freedom of Speech Award and the Dill Pickle Award (neither of which I won).

The Dill Pickle Award is presented to honor the champion soapbox orator.  The Dill (sometimes spelled Dil) Pickle Club was founded by labor activist and Bughouse soapboxer Jack Jones in 1914 to provide and indoor forum for free expression.  By 1917 the Dill Pickle had relocated just across the corner from Bughouse Square and the Newberry.

Picklers attended lectures, plays, dances, concerts, and of course had plenty of talk.  Carl Sandberg, Clarence Darrow, Maxwell Bodenheim, Lucy Parsons, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Sherwood Anderson, and Ben Reitman were just a few of the literary, political, and social luminaries who regularly attended.  The club closed in 1933.

Bughouse Square (bughouse is slang for mental health facility), the popular name for Washington Square Park, was Chicago’s most boisterous and radical free-speech space from the 1910s through the 1950s.  Bohemians, socialists, atheists, and religionists of all persuasions mounted soapboxes, spoke to vocal crowds, and competed informally for attention and donations.  The square’s core contributors, however, came from the Industrial Workers of the World union members whose radical views and wit made them perennial crowd favorites.

In the park’s heyday during the 1920s and 1930s, as busloads of tourists ogled the scene, thousands of people gathered on summer evenings.  World War II and a post-war crackdown against socialists and communists led to Bughouse Square’s decline, and, by the mid-1960s, it had all but ceased to exist.  The Newberry and community activists like Studs Terkel officially revived the spirit of the park with the Bughouse Square Debates in 1986.

The Altgeld Freedom of Speech Award is dedicated to the memory of former Illinois governor (1892-96) who pardoned the former anarchists wrongfully convicted of the Haymarket bombing in 1886.

My speech, titled “A Time And A Place For The Sticky Wiki”, has been transcribed here.

What a great way to make use of a fantastic summer’s day. Mild. Let’s enjoy it.  By next week that Mid-day sun may not be fit for Mad Dogs nor Englishmen, as Mr. Coward put it.

Well, right to it then.  Ladies and Gentlemen, Citizens and Fellows, hear what I have to say.

I am a Futurist, Historian, Writer and I dabble a bit as an illustrator and photographer.  I enjoy deep dives into Roman-Britain, the Early Middle Ages, and ancient Saxon Tales, and I write historical fiction.  That is to say I put words into the mouths of historical figures, and in my recent book THE RED AND THE GOLD, in fact there is an actual WikiPedia page for nearly every main character. 

Much of my research is done right here at the Newberry, where I find very old volumes that cannot be found as screen images on the internet where one must click and click and click again.  Volumes that need to be touched, and smelled.  Pages need turning.

So I tell stories.  Here are two short ones.

First. The headline read, “Blind Boy Uses Ancient Power To Win County Fair Bean Counting Contest”.   The news article went on to say just how.  In Wendell County the most popular event was Guessing the Number of Dried Beans in the Giant Glass Urn.  A big board listed the locals’ guesses and their names, mainly so their neighbors and friends could be shamed into also putting in a Benjamin Franklin and a guess.  After all, it was for charity.  Joe Smith had a mark of 100,000 beans next to his name, while his brother-in-law Buford Boxley guessed 100,001, simply to irritate his sister’s husband.  Some guessed as low as 6,000 (the age of the Earth as Pastor Peterson taught) – others as high as 11,111,111 – that was Wanda the Whirlygig lady at the end of the road and everyone knew where her head was at.

Young Billy, blind since a hunting accident at age 6 insisted on guessing.  His father, always accommodating, was still a bit skeptical, “You sure?”  “Let me feel the jar”, said Billy, “And tell me all of the guesses so far.”

When the actual number was announced by Fair Commissioner Pickler, all were astounded.  The blind boy’s guess was exactly correct.

“How?” asked stunned fairgoers.  “Easy,” said his proud father as he accepted the grand prize of one large Holstein cow.  “He calculated the mean average in his head.  He let your guesses lead him to the correct number.”

Story Two.  At a 1906 country fair in Plymouth, 800 people participated in a contest to estimate the weight of a slaughtered and dressed ox. Statistician Francis Galton observed that the median guess, 1207 pounds, was accurate within 1% of the true weight of 1198 pounds. This has contributed to the insight in cognitive science that a crowd’s individual judgments can be modeled as a probability distribution of responses with the median centered near the true value of the quantity to be estimated.

The particulars in this story were cited by one James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds, published in 2004 by Doubleday, and by an article called “Vox populi” in a 1907 issue of the publication Nature by the aforementioned Mr. Galton. (issue 75, pgs 450–451), among many other references.

Now here is the difference between the two:  The latter was properly cited and referenced and found on the WikiPedia page describing “The Wisdom of the Crowd.” The former, Story One, was taken from a so-called news website run by individuals of dubious background and secretive locale who generate what is commonly known as ‘clickbait’.

At its inception, Wikipedia was universally panned by scholars, wonks and nerds who know more about the minutia of Dungeons and Dragons history, as full of falsehood, unreliability, and brouhaha.

WikiPedia is of course the online crowd sourced encyclopedia of knowledge. Its inception in the 1990s, from WikiWikiWeb the name of the first website of this kind, comes from the Hawaiian term wiki wiki ‘very quick’, and is defined by Webster’s as a website or database developed collaboratively by a community of users, allowing any user to add and edit content.

It use it quite often.  Let me read an excerpt from the Acknowledgment page of my recent book, THE RED AND THE GOLD Part One:

                Few historian have had the resources to research their subject as we have in this new information age.  Wikipedia was just the beginning of my prospecting.  The sheer volume of data available at the click of a mouse, or spoken command to some soothing yet disembodied voice in a box is staggering.

“Hey Siri, when did the Lady of Mercia live?”

Or “Hey Alexa, where are the bones of Richard III?”

Or as Star Trek’s Chief Engineer ‘Scotty’ would say, “Com-PU-ter?”

Truth is suddenly at our beck and call.  How fortunate we are to live in this shiny new information age. Or are we?

There are many Wiki’s out there in the in the cyber universe we’ve created.

There’s WikiHow, WikiBooks, WikiMapia, WikiNews and WikiQuote.  All manner of Wiki.   WikEM for your Emergency Room Questions.

And there is Wikileaks, orchestrated by that Swedish swindler, that purveyor of disharmony, that Skinny SKELPIE-LIMMER and RAKEFIRE to the Embassy of Ecuador.

The World Wide Web is not neat.  The world wide web is in fact a cobweb of information, littered with the flotsam and carcass of disinformation, of misinformation.  Perjuries and bold faced lies collect like so many splattered bugs on the windshield as one traverses the information superhighway.  Some get right in our face. 

Ever swallowed a bug?  Ever had a lie jammed down your throat?  Look a Twitter a while!

It should be no surprise that Gnashgabbers, Politicians, and Weasel Worders of all sort prey on the gullibility of the public to spread fake news to further their own ambitions.  Flat Earthers and Science Skeptics who spew denials in the face of hard evidence.

Repetitive rumors, repetitive mis- — or dis—information, repetitive lies, become belief, a belief that begets the death of reason. 

Perhaps a Filter is needed, a vetting mechanism to weed out equivocation and hyperbole.  But Freedom of Speech!

There is much to be said for the Wisdom of the crowd.

Scott E. Page introduced the diversity prediction theorem: “The squared error of the collective prediction equals the average squared error minus the predictive diversity”. Therefore, when the diversity in a group is large, the error of the crowd is small;

Crowds tend to work best when there is a correct answer to the question being posed, such as a question about geography or mathematics, like the weight of an ox or number of beans.  When there is not a precise answer crowds can come to arbitrary conclusions.

The wisdom of the crowd effect is easily undermined. Social influence can cause the average of the crowd answers to be wildly inaccurate, while the geometric mean and the median are far more robust.  (This all from the WikiPedia page on Wisdom of the Crowd)

The more knowledge we share, the more knowledge we have – as a collective. And are we not all part of a collective?  A collective of humans.  A collective of Americans.  A collective of academics, or doctors, or auto racing enthusiasts.  In my case, a collective of early middle ages historians.

The more specialized pages on these Wiki’s, the deeper dives of wonkier wonks, do not tolerate rhetoric or political grandstanding by self indulgent blowhards.  Or worse yet, by state run disinformation machines feeding us a 1984 future.  We the people control the Wiki’s and the truthier the wiki post, the better it sticks.

 Are we not all a collective of inquisitive minds who desire – above all else – the truth?

Challenge misperceptions.  Do not let the Gillie-Wet-Foots of the world win. The time for Truth is always. The place for truth is everywhere, but especially on Wiki pages.  Add your expertise, add your footnote.

I leave it to you, good citizens, to decide if you want to police yourselves in all manner of honest information, or let a corporate police state spoon feed you an Orwellian truth.

Be part of the movement of truth.  Be part of the critical mass of truth.  Be part of the sticky wiki of truth.