Friday, May 22, 2009

Pondering the Implications of the Wikipedia Experiment for the Spindle Law Experiment

Spindle Law is undertaking a grand experiment with the development of online legal material for legal professionals.

Will the experiment work?

The story of an analogous (yet different) experiment must be considered:

David Runciman, "Like Boiling a Frog," London Review of Books (May 28, 2009):

That’s how [Wikipedia] works. The puzzle is why it works, given that this way of compiling an encyclopedia seems to have a flaw so obvious it is hardly worth stating: if no entry is ever nailed down, how do you know when you are reading an entry that someone hasn’t just interfered with it, making it thoroughly unreliable? The early years of Wikipedia were dogged by this suspicion, and many people – including a lot of schoolteachers and university lecturers who could remember the distant days before 2002 when books were books and editors actually edited – were openly derisive of a work of reference that appeared to make no effort to discriminate between good information and bad. It is easy to assume that some version of Gresham’s Law, which states that bad money will always drive out good, must apply to the circulation of facts as well. Why would anyone with good information want to put it in a place where bad information could contaminate it at the touch of a button? Wouldn’t they choose to keep it to themselves, or at the very least give it to someone who could recognise its true value, leaving open-access encyclopedias to the mercies of all the flakes and grudge-bearers who want to use its veneer of objectivity to force their craziness down other people’s throats? Well, the answer is apparently not. One of the remarkable achievements of Wikipedia is to show that on the internet Gresham’s Law can work in reverse: Wikipedia has turned into a relatively reliable source of information on the widest possible range of subjects because, on the whole, the good drives out the bad. When someone sabotages or messes with an otherwise sound entry, there are plenty of people out there who see it as their job to undo the damage, often within seconds of its happening. It turns out that the people who believe in truth and objectivity are at least as numerous as all the crazies, pranksters and time-wasters, and they are often considerably more tenacious, ruthless and monomaniacal. On Wikipedia, it’s the good guys who will hunt you down.
I recommend you read the entire Runciman article. He considers some interesting issues. For example, Runciman discusses the apparently now-common suggestion in the sciences that academic works be published in draft form and that readers of such draft works be allowed to discuss, critique, and edit the draft works. This sort of suggestion is not far removed from the sort of collaborative, or "distributed," yet professional process of development that Spindle Law contemplates. (However, Spindle Law may be even a mite more radical -- because it is possible that the collaboration of many legal professionals will lead to statements of legal rules and principles that are far different from the initial foundation that an editor [such as P. Tillers] provides to get the work underway. [Lawyers, after all, are a contentious lot: contention is a major part of the reason for their existence.] Spindle Law's founders and this Spindle Law editor do not expect that the initial foundation for a particular area of the law will undergo a radical transformation. But Spindle Law is a new kind of enterprise and only time will tell precisely how the experiment plays out.)

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The dynamic evidence page

Coming soon: the law of evidence on Spindle Law

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