Human identity and science fiction

I’ve been working through Octavia Butler‘s Xenogenesis trilogy (a.k.a., Lilith’s Brood) in preparation for qualifiers. Butler, who died a year ago today, was an African American novelist who was the first science fiction author to win a MacArthur Fellowship. Her early work focuses heavily on the themes of race and gender (among others). With the Xenogenesis series, began in 1987, Butler makes human identity in general the central issue. A species of alien genetic engineers attempts to save the human species in the wake of a nuclear holocaust, but their means of doing so, genetic hybridization and improvement, destabilizes the meaning humanity. Characters argue about what it is to be human and what price should be paid for survival.

It’s interesting to read Butler against ST:TNG, which also premiered in 1987. Unlike the original Star Trek, which juxtaposed a utopian post-racist, post-sexist, post-nationalist humanity in the persons of Uhura and Chekov against the Klingon other who could stand in for blacks or Commies in turn, Next Generation took a more complex view of “human” nature. Humans and aliens, despite outward appearances, are usually treated as biological and social (if not political) equals; the species barriers are more cultural than biological. (The most interesting exception is the Ferengi, whose roles can be interpreted in a number of ways ranging from blatant anti-Semitism to an attack on misogyny and materialism to, in their DS9 iterations, a critique of the Trekkian leftist utopia itself.) In general, biology is secondary; humanity can be extended for all practical purposes to Klingons, Romulans, maybe even androids.

In Butler’s universe, biology is the root of human society and culture. Dawn opens many years after the end of human civilization; according to the Oankali who have “saved” humanity, humans are inherently intelligent and hierarchical–a combination that inevitably leads to disaster. Thus the only fix for humanity is a genetic one. For the aliens, almost all aspects of culture, even technology and material culture, are biological. The aliens commit no intentional violence, but have a deadly instinctual sting reflex; 3-way alien sex is primarily chemical and neurobiological, and doesn’t even involve physical contact except to interconnect their nervous systems. For Butler’s (post-)human characters the end of civilization is a small thing compared to biological transformations. The only value in the remains of Earth civilization, mainly of interest to the bio-luddite resisters, comes from whatever practical use can be derived from salvage.

So how does the culture- and knowledge-centric Star Trek universe line up with the bio-centric Xenogenesis universe? The Borg offer the clearest point of entry. While in-universe discussions of the origin of the Borg are numerous, their literary-cinematic origins are much more obscure. It’s certainly possible, though, that the Borg were partly inspired by Butler’s Oankali. Butler’s tendencies toward biological determinism would have been anathema to Gene Roddenberry; the Borg are the only recurring Star Trek species that offer no hope of cultural assimilation into the
peaceful Federation vision of humanity, and make a fitting arch-nemesis for the good collective (i.e., all the other humanoid races).

The Prime Directive makes for another interesting comparison. This doctrine of non-interference was a frequent point of contention as the Trek franchise evolved. The sentiment behind it was there in a few original series episodes, but in the Next Generation era (perhaps still feeling the weight of the Vietnam) the Prime Directive became a central practical and philosophical motif. New life and new civilizations means taking an anthropological perspective, and occasionally there are civilizations too unstable to keep from destroying themselves… sort of a Social Darwinism of the stars. This is what tempers the cultural assimilation aspects of the Federation. It’s the distinction between the third world and indigenous peoples. Even with the third world (i.e., post-warp civilizations), it’s more about the Open Door and the Big Stick than outright imperialism. In the later seasons, the movies, and in DS9 and Voyager (I can’t say much about Star Trek: Enterprise, since I’ve never seen it) there are plenty of points where the Prime Directive is pinched and poked, but for the most part it remains in place.

For Butler’s aliens, there can be no prime directive; they would stagnate and die themselves without new genetic trading partners, and here “trade” is of the non-optional, colonial (perhaps even slave trade) kind. The ethical crux is that the paternalistic higher beings really are saving the lower peoples from themselves. I’m not quite sure how to read this, especially from a feminist and anti-racist perspective. Whether we sympathize with Lilith (the black woman protagonist who grudgingly accepts the alien-imposed breeding program) or the resisters, neither offers much in the way of hope going forward… just different moral judgments on history.

Wikipedia, Original Research, and popular culture

Wikipedia has a (nominally) strict policy of “No Original Research” (NOR), which is for the most part both necessary and beneficial. After all, for most topics that warrant inclusion, there has been more than enough analysis in reliable published sources that original arguments are not necessary and simply degrade the quality and reliability of articles.

Occasionally, this policy leads to the deletion of valuable material, but mostly it keeps out the crap. (I recently instigated the deletion of one interesting and informative–and, I’m fairly certain, true–article that very clearly violated NOR. It left a bad taste in my mouth and reminded me why I don’t participate in any of the constant push to delete content that is clearly accurate but fails to meet the requirements for Notability and NOR.)

But there is (at least) one conspicuous area where banning original research gets in the way of creating high-quality content. Articles about popular culture fiction (for example, Battlestar Galactica episodes or little-known novels from “paraliterary” genres like science fiction) represent the borders of what can–and in many cases can’t–be analyzed using reliable published sources. Yet amateur literature or film analysis is often of high quality (especially when it can be contested, debated, and talked out among a group of intelligent fans), even comparable to academic criticism.

Of course, some kinds of original analysis are better than others. The Wikipedia Manual of Style guideline for “writing about fiction” (the only substantive guideline I’ve had a hand in developing and implementing as official) requires that articles on fictional content take an “out-of-universe” approach, looking at the work of fiction as a work of fiction rather than part of a “real” timeline. Out-of-universe analysis prevents some of the most egregious and useless original research, but the main reason why I supported (and continue to support) the “writing about fiction” guideline is that it just makes for better, more useful articles. Placing cultural products in cultural context is what makes for the most useful and interesting content. But the downside of this is that many articles, especially for fiction about which little or no criticism has been published, can offer no more than a plot summary.

See for example, the many articles on Battlestar Galactica (re-imagining) episodes. Following the letter of Wikipedia’s rules would mean deleting all or nearly all of them; there are no reliable, independent sources to established the notability (much less analysis) of every individual episode. And yet, these kinds of articles are of great interest to readers (especially since Wikipedia has so many, for a wide and growing range of tastes). However, current conventions lead to sterile plot-summary-only articles because original research about the allusions and symbolism, artistic and technical elements, dramatic development, acting, and resonance with contemporary cultural and political issues cannot be included. Even aspects that do have relevant sources are frequently excluded because articles are written more based on examples (e.g., other plot-summary-only articles) than on official guidelines. Most editors understand NOR, but not very many know about the “writing about fiction” guideline.

Case in point: Chief Tyrol’s speech as union leader in the final episode of season 2 comes almost word-for-word from Mario Savio’s famous Dec. 2, 1964 speech at Berkeley–“you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels”. Though the episode’s article makes no mention of it (as of now), the speech and its source are discussed in a podcast from the director–according to the Mario Savio article. But even if there were no official source, astute fans notice things like this. They notice when one piece of fictional material alludes to another one. They notice when an episode’s plot parallels what’s been in the news lately. They notice obvious hints and foreshadowing conveyed through camera work and music. These things aren’t part of a plot summary per se (and are decidedly out-of-universe, since they are related more to the viewing experience than to the internal “causes” of plot events), but they are often straightforward. Such analysis certainly involves a high level of originality (by both Wikipedia and conventional definitions), but when done judiciously it can be close enough to “right” (as far as there is a right interpretation of a work of fiction) to secure the consensus of nearly anyone who views or reads the work.

So that’s my argument. Wikipedia original research isn’t all bad, and Wikipedia’s rules about notability and NOR should be a little more lenient when it comes to cultural artifacts (music, movies, books, TV, etc.).

Joe Lieberman and the spectre of an Iran war

My occasional hobby is sending emails to my elected officials about important issues. The nice thing about this is that somebody, at least, reads them (enough to figure out what I’m complaining about) and I often get back a response with a moderately detailed position statement following a moderately coherent argument.

After the recent news about Iranian weapons in Iraq, which seemed like a possible repeat of the prelude to Iraq, I sent a letter to (among others) my senator, Joe Lieberman, urging him in the strongest terms not to let this turn into justification for another war fiasco. Fortunately, it looks like the White House is not going to use this to launch another war, but whether that was the original intention is an open question. Anyhow, here’s the message I got back from Joe:

Dear Mr. Ross:

Thank you for contacting me about the escalating situation in Iran concerning its nuclear program.

So now EFPs contribute to the “escalating situation” of the Iranian nuclear program? I’m confused. Tell me more, Joe.

As you know, the accession of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as President of Iran has increased the concern of the United States, as well as our allies, due to his recent remarks regarding the annihilation of Israel and the United States, as well as his support for Iran’s nuclear program. President Ahmadinejad’s declaration that Iran had enriched uranium, and Iran’s refusal to date to suspend enrichment in defiance of a call by the United Nations (UN) to halt its nuclear program, further complicates an already troubling situation.

U.S. sanctions currently in effect ban or strictly limit U.S. trade, aid, and investment in Iran and penalize foreign firms that invest in Iran’s energy sector; but unilateral U.S. sanctions do not appear to have materially slowed Iran’s weapons of mass destruction programs or shaken the regime’s grip on power. Over the past two years, the Bush Administration has been engaged with our partners and allies, particularly European nations and Russia, to curb Iran’s nuclear program. Unfortunately, the Government of Iran has responded by reneging on multiple treaty obligations and other pledges and continuing to push forward with its nuclear program.

Hmm. I thought there was a distinction between Iran’s nuclear program and the issue of weapons of mass destruction. Guess not. Wait, I think I’m starting to understand. EFP (of dubious provenance)=IED=bomb=weapon of mass destruction=nuclear weapon=nuclear program. Ok, go on.

It also contains provisions that authorize assistance to peaceful pro-democracy groups inside and outside Iran and provides additional tools to curb money laundering efforts that finance and support weapons of mass destruction proliferation. I cosponsored an earlier version of this legislation (S. 333) in 2005, and I supported H.R. 6198. I was very pleased that the measure was adopted by the Senate and that it is now law. In addition, I supported S.Res. 633, which the Senate adopted by unanimous consent in December 2006. S.Res. 633 condemned a conference in Iran denying that the Holocaust occurred. The Conference was hosted by the Government of Iran and its President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

We cannot, and must not, stand on the sidelines while Iran continues to develop nuclear capabilities and threaten the security and stability of the world. I strongly believe the United States must work diplomatically with our allies as well as the UN to alleviate this situation. I believe all options for dealing with Iran’s quest to develop nuclear weapons should remain on the table. As your Senator, please be assured I will continue to monitor this situation closely.

So all options should remain on the table (such as pre-emptive nuclear strikes) despite the fact that UN inspections and extensive investigation by US and other intelligence agencies have revealed nothing to contradict the Iranian public position that it is abiding by the NPT? Given the candor of Ahmadinejad about Holocaust denial and the annihilation of Israel, it doesn’t make sense (to me at least) that he would in such strong terms not only endorse the NPT, but also state that developing nuclear weapons would be against his nation’s religious principles, unless it was true. It’s certainly prudent not to take the word from Tehran as gospel, and to make contingency plans, but can we at least refrain from saber-rattling until we evidence and/or statements from Iranian official to suggest that they actually are trying to develop nukes?

Maybe I should look at this optimistically: nobody actually read my message, and a computer automatically put it in the “Iran weapons of mass destruction” inbox based on keywords. It’s good that my senator has everything figured out already, so he doesn’t have to pay attention to the silly ideas of his constituents.

Wikipedia as a source

Yale Daily News ran a story on Wednesday, “Profs question students’ Wikipedia dependency“. I guess it’s a disturbing sign that I thought angry and vindictive thoughts about the student, freshman John Behan, who created a number of fake articles. I used to think that kind of thing was funny, and I feel like I should still (in principle, at least; Behan’s work didn’t even rise to the level of BJAODN). The article focuses on one fake in particular, “emysphilia” (turtle fetish). But as it turns out, emysphilia (Behan’s “most successful” article) was deleted rather quickly; its only traction came from syndication on It’s unclear whether anyone besides people with direct knowledge of the hoax and the Wikipedians voting to delete it even read the article; it’s not something one would just run into on without searching for the non-existent term.

The YDN article goes on with some quotes from professors about how Wikipedia is not an acceptable academic source. The headline for the page 6 continuation is “Inaccuracies make Wikipedia an unreliable academic source”, which is a pretty mediocre summary of what the faculty actual say about the subject. One prof makes reference to the “rigorous editing standards of hard copy sources”, compared to an anecdote about a Wikipedia article (with accurate, referenced information) giving the wrong first name (James Boswell instead of John Boswell) for a source. Unfortunately, the professor failed to take any action; I just tracked down the article I presume he was referring to, which it took 5 seconds to correct. (I have my own share of anecdotes about contradictions between a hard copy scholarly source and WP where it’s the hard copy that is wrong, but I digress.)

Like most stories about Wikipedia as an academic source, the Yale story misses the point. Another professor hits on the legitimate basis for excluding Wikipedia as an academic source: it’s an encyclopedia. 5 years from now, Wikipedia is going to be more accurate than any general print encyclopedia (at least on topics that traditional encyclopedias actually cover). And for random contradictions between a book source and a referenced Wikipedia article, Wikipedia will be the correct one more often than not. But it still won’t be an acceptable academic source, except perhaps as a place to point readers for peripheral background information. Because it will still be a tertiary source.

This issue has been in the news a lot since the Middlebury College Wikipedia ban and the Chronicle of Higher Education story on it.

Here’s a similar blog post about the issue, from a clear-headed historian.

What the frack?

I generally resort to snobbery and my newfound east coast elitism when it comes to things like blog memes, but out of respect for Dave at Patahistory, I’ll play along.

5 Things You Don’t Know About Me

1. One of my tuxedo cat is missing.

(Courtesy of The Onion)

2. My aloe vera plant is named Al the third (the grandchild of my dad’s original Al, who is still thriving in Reno), and his children include Alvin, Al the fourth, Alistair, Alliam, Alexander, Albert, Allen, Ali, Allie, Alec, and about 5 others whose names I forget. Like many Americans, Al is obese (at about 11 kg and .6 m, he as a BMI just above 30); he actually has to be propped up against the window. Fortunately, he’s very charismatic (even if Faith doesn’t like him). As you can see, he gets plenty of attention from the orchid next door.
3. Despite the mean, petty, jealous, vindictive things Matt “teacher’s pet” Gunterman has been saying about me lately, I have nothing but respect for him. I especially respect his nose.
4. MSG is my favorite food additive. It’s good on just about everything. (Really.)
5. I sometimes wear a cat scarf.

What will Wikipedia be like 5 years from now?

With the continued growth of Wikipedia and its sister projects, it’s worth asking what the Wikimedia ecosystem will look like down the road. Here’s my vision of what it will and/or should be like.

Necessary functional improvements:

  1. Search. Wikipedia’s current internal search program is horrible. It is bizarrely sensitive to case, but lacks all the features we’ve come to expect from search. Quotation marks mean nothing. Results are often woefully incomplete (I often have to use a site-specific Google search to find what I’m looking for on Wikipedia). The interface is clunky, especially with all the check boxes at the bottom for different namespaces (and the fact that checking/unchecking only registers if you use the right search box, of the three available). But when search finally gets done right on Wikipedia, it will be a great thing; we’ll need a new verb to complement “to google” (“look it up on Wikipedia” just doesn’t have the same ring). Wikipedia search will be cross-project, with redirects and related entries (Wiktionary and Wikisaurus, Wikimedia Commons, articles in other languages) nested together. It should have some of the elements of Google’s search algorithm; the readable text of piped links should affect results, and results should be ordered by a sort of internal PageRank with the option of reordering them by size, date of last edit, etc.
  2. Stable versions and Approved versions. It’s been in the works for a while now, but there is still no system for managing stable articles where acceptable edits are few and far between, nor is there a good way to flag vetted versions (e.g., a version approved as a Featured Article). Semi-protection is a mediocre substitute for version control, while proposals to implement similar features manually have been too complicated for the community to accept. For stable, largely complete articles, new edits should not show up until they have been screened by one or a few other editors. And for ultra-stable articles, there should be an integrated system for revision and draft work while the consensus version remains viewable to readers.
  3. Audio/Visual accessibility. Because the major formats are all patented and could potentially have significant use limitations placed on them, Wikipedia uses Ogg files with free and open encoding to store and serve audio and video content. For the most part, users must go through a bit of trouble (i.e., downloading and installing codecs from off-site), although audio content now has rudimentary in-browser support. Obviously, the ideal would be integrated audio-video content without leaving the article; YouTube and Google Video have done this fairly well, though with proprietary technology (Adobe Flash with patented codecs). Video (both historical and user-created) will undoubtedly become a much bigger part of Wikipedia and Commons in the future.
  4. Unified login. Obviously, it would be convenient to have a single account for all the Wikimedia projects. It’s been in the works for a while now, but it’s more of a convenience for editors (and a correction of a design flaw) than a major improvement.
  5. Metadata handling. The current system of templates, categories, and other article metadata (beyond basic linking and formatting markup) is unintuitive, inconsistent, awkward, and intimidating to new editors, and the categories are difficult to navigate and far less useful than they could be. Something like a metadata namespace, for infoboxes, categories, Featured Article stars, interwiki links and the like, would be very beneficial.
  6. Categories. Related to the metadata issue, the category system needs to be completely overhauled. In the current system, categories must be divided and subdivided to maintain usefulness, and editors (new and established) often apply overly general categories to new articles. Instead, Wikipedia subdivides large categories into more specific ones. Broad categories like “American people” or “Songs” must be constantly monitored so they do not grow out of control. For example, for a given song, the subdivision branches into a wilderness of partially-overlapping subcategories like “songs by year”, “songs by artist”, “songs by lyricist”, “songs by nationality”, and “songs by genre”, along with a host of other possible orthogonal categories like “songs with sexual themes” and “cat songs”. Ideally, categorization would be both simpler and more flexible. Assigning broad categories (“songs”, “folk music”, “1963”, “protest”, “Bob Dylan”), with some semantic information (“is”, “from”, “related to”, “performed by”) should automatically create appropriate subcategories (Blowin’ in the Wind is a song and is folk music , from 1963, related to protest, performed by Bob Dylan).

Hoped-for functional improvements:

  1. Verifiability assessment. Eventually, Wikipedia will need a way to sort articles according to verifiability and sourcing (as a proxy for reliability, the direct measurement of which will always run into the problem of self-reference and the authority of editors). Readers should be able to tell immediately (before even beginning to read) whether an article is based on peer-reviewed articles and scholarly books, mainstream media sources, local or niche-oriented professional journalism, blogs and internet sites, primary sources, etc. Potentially, this could solve some of the perennial contentious issues about notability and the borderline of original research. The volume of material on minor topics (especially related to popular culture, current events, and minor/local institutions) is growing much faster than it can be strictly vetted (and deleted when appropriate) according to the current notability and verifiability guidelines, and there is a lot of material that is de facto acceptable, even if it doesn’t strictly comply with the current rules. And a lot of this is good, accurate material that readers and editors find useful. If material with few or potentially unreliable sources is clearly flagged as such, there will be less incentive to wage futile wars of deletionism on what is undeniably valuable. In other words, a compromise between elitist and populist visions of what Wikipedia should be.
  2. Discussion forums. I envision a discussion board for each article, separate from the talk page, where users (editors and readers alike) can discuss the subject of the article without the concern of trying to improve the article. This departs somewhat from the core mission of Wikipedia, but I think it would be beneficial is several ways. First, it would direct most of the irrelevant commentary away from talk pages, making collaboration among editors run more smoothly. Second, it could host ads for the support of the Wikimedia Foundation, without compromising the non-commercial nature of Wikipedia itself. And third, it would enhance the usefulness of Wikipedia at the borders of verifiability; readers who want more than the article has to offer can turn to the other forum participants for the speculation, rumor, and strained interpretation they seek.
  3. Stat tracking. Mainly for performance reasons, Wikipedia does very little in the way of internal stat tracking. But in the long run, it would be useful, both for identifying popular articles and for studying Wikipedia itself. In addition to hit counters for every article, the site should track (without retaining any potential identifying information) visit paths as readers surf from one article to another. And for those with editcountitis, some automatic sophisticated contribution analysis (like what can be done through JavaScript hacks by knowledgeable editors now) would be nice: things like total content added, deleted, histograms of edit size and frequency, etc.

So what will the future Wikipedia be like in a broader sense? Its cultural authority and perceived reliability will continue to increase, but surely both will begin to level off within the next few years. Traditional non-specialist encyclopedias will simply be irrelevant, and probably bankrupt. Given the degree of brand success Wikipedia has already achieved, the chances for a successful fork are quickly approaching nil. Citizendium seemed like it had an outside chance at becoming a viable competitor, but it has been managed poorly thus far and I think the window of opportunity is closing rapidly. Citizendium membership is turning out as odd mix of people who don’t edit Wikipedia because it doesn’t respect (their) authority enough, and because it respects authority (of published sources) too much; thus, many of the same issues that drive experts away from Wikipedia will show up in Citizendium if it grows large enough to matter. If it retains the GFDL license, Citizendium may have a place as a minor satellite of Wikipedia from which content is occasionally imported.

Wikipedia will also seriously eat away at the specialist encyclopedia market. I expect the viability of specialist encyclopedias will vary by field, according to which experts embrace and contribute to Wikipedia. In general, scientists (especially in the “harder” fields) and mathematicians have shown a great deal more enthusiasm than humanists, with social scientists somewhere between. (I find this ironic, because humanities fields have so much more to gain from an integrated and cross-linked ecology of knowledge; despite constant flux and discipline genesis at the borders and the current rhetorical vogue of “interdisciplinary” research, science topics are relatively self-contained compared to humanities topics.) It’s an open question whether the academic culture of the humanities will get on board in a significant way. Unfortunately, I think the Ivory Tower mentality and its paradoxical counterpart of academic careerism (especially in the current tight job market) are too entrenched; I expect participation just to continue with incremental gains through the recruitment of individual humanist Wikipedians.

As more and more people look to Wikipedia as their first (and often only) source for arbitrary information, Wikipedia will begin to seriously encroach on the market share of the search companies. It’s entirely possible that one or more of the major portals (most likely and Yahoo!) will replace Wikipedia search results with mirrored content with added advertising. And if implemented well, some users might even prefer this; after all, ads results are sometimes just what you were looking for. (Similarly, Wikipedia itself might implement optional ads, which would only appear if explicitly enabled by users.) The ecosystem of value-added and exploitive businesses making a living off of Wikipedia will expand dramatically, which is bound to create plenty of unforeseen issues and controversies. But I don’t expect any major crises in that respect, since Wikipedia has always been built with the (legal and practical) potential for commercial exploitation.

The bigger problem will be professional PR and information management. In the next year or two, Wikipedia will have to create a system to deal with the complaints and requests of powerful economic and political entities. The recent Microsoft brouhaha over paid editing is the tip of the iceberg. It will be a challenge to create a system that is acceptable to the community but also acceptable enough to outsiders that they will use it instead of guerrilla editing. However, 5 years from now I think there will be some kind of stable equilibrium through a combination of an official system for dealing with accusations of bias from article subjects and vigilant groups of Wikipedians on the lookout for whitewashing.

In addition to encyclopedias, search, and PR, a number of other industries are going to feel pressure from the free content behemoth of Wikimedia projects. Wikimedia Commons will cut drastically into the market for stock photography, although Getty Images and Corbis will still have control of plenty of images that can’t be reproduced, and free media from limited-access venues (like celebrity functions) will still be hard to come by. (Wikipedia has tried, unsuccessfully thus far, to get Wikipedian photographers into red carpet events and award shows.) The glut of easily available images is already prompting stock photography companies to go the MPAA/RIAA route of suing liberally over copyright.

Politically, Wikipedia will do a lot to foster the free culture movement and especially to improve the atmosphere for copyright reform. It’s probably too optimistic to expect a reduction of copyright terms within the next five years, but at least any further extension (beyond the atrocious Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998) should be unlikely. Unfortunately, there’s no good way to show people how lame 95 year copyright terms are until the great content from the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s starts to come into the public domain. (That stuff is our cultural heritage and ought to be in the public domain already; I think something like 50 years or the life of the author plus 20 is more than enough protection to serve the intended purpose of copyright.)

That’s all…the crystal’s gone dark.