The Philosophy Of Blockchain Encyclopedias – Everipedia with Dr. Larry Sanger
While baby boomers grew up with encyclopedia in stacks, Millennials grew up with online references easily accessed with just a click. Technology keeps on advancing every single day, and online encyclopedias are now blockchain-based. Dr. Larry Sanger, Chief Information Officer of Everipedia, enlightens us on the purpose of putting encyclopedias on the blockchain. Best known as Wikipedia’s co-founder, he breaks down how Everipedia is the improved and trustworthy version of Wikipedia. Learn the difficulties and challenges of putting up a place to have data that are more trustworthy and not pulled out of all references. As Dr. Larry touches on the three different categories of writing and neutralism, find out the three types of skepticism in this age where it’s hard to trust the information you see on the internet and the future of blockchain.
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The Philosophy Of Blockchain Encyclopedias – Everipedia with Dr. Larry Sanger
I’m really excited to have Dr. Larry Sanger on. He and I were on Larry King Now together on the panel and he wraps up by having all the panelists on. I’m excited to have him because he’s got an interesting life. He’s got an interesting career path. He’s best known as Wikipedia’s Cofounder. He has started or helped start many educational and reference websites: Nupedia, Encyclopedia of Earth, WatchKnowLearn, Reading Bear, Infobitt and Everipedia which he has joined as Chief Information Officer. He has a Philosophy Ph.D. and his dissertation is concerned with the Theory of Knowledge. Sanger has also written and spoken about the philosophy of the internet, online communities and social media in specifics. He lives in Ohio with his wife and two homeschooled boys. Larry, thank you so much for joining me.
Thanks for having me on.
You founded Wikipedia. I don’t know too many of us who haven’t trafficked the pages, used it. I don’t actually know a ton of people who write on the pages. How is it that I haven’t come across that?
There are a lot more people who use it than who have actually contributed to it. Why is that the case? There are a lot of different theories. One is simply that it requires a little bit of technical know how to use the markup language that Wikis are written in. It’s not difficult. It just puts some people off. There are a lot more people who have made one edit. Have you ever made one edit on Wikipedia? Not even a single one? That’s fine. A lot of people have, like millions and millions, but they don’t make many more than that. I think part of the reason is they come away from experience feeling like this is geeky, wonky. It isn’t for them. If you haven’t experienced interacting with the Wikipedia community, you’ll find that it’s a weird place. The people have an alphabet soup of rules and bureaucratic-sounding procedures and regulations that really don’t get applied all the time consistently. It can be off-putting for a lot of people.
Are you changing that with Everipedia?
Everipedia is already a lot more opening, a lot more welcoming. I think that’s a reflection on basically the founders. They’re a lot easier going younger guys, much more tolerant of all different articles and interests and so forth. More than that, we will launch the new front end of the site. I’m very excited about this actually. We have a WYSIWYG interface, What You See Is What You Get. You don’t have to use that editing mark-up.
What you’re referring to is the complications on the Wiki side.
It’s going to be even easier on Everipedia. It will be as easy to edit an Everipedia page as it is to a Medium page. We are going through user testing and putting final touches on a lot of the features. It will be the first time that you have a Wiki encyclopedia with a blockchain back end that is as easy to edit as Medium or the new WordPress. If you’ve ever edited these sites, they divide content into chunks. You can apply different styles to each chunk.
I publish a column in Medium all the time for podcasters. It’s super simple. It’s like, “This is a subtitle. This is a headline. This is body copy.” It’s super easy. “Let’s add an image.” There is no way you could mess that up.
We’re going to be doing that, but it’s also going to be collaborative. It will be real-time collaboration too. In the same way that you can see somebody else’s edits going on as you do on Google Docs, you’ll be able to see somebody else editing the text in the article. Nobody has ever re-designed Wiki software this way before. As a Wiki connoisseur or somebody who’s used a number of different Wiki software tools, I’m excited about what the team has put together.
You talked about having a blockchain back end and that’s what we talk about here. Why was that the choice?
There are several different reasons. Initially, we were running ads on the site. This is before I joined the company, so I’m not a cofounder. I joined actually when we moved to the blockchain because I saw the huge potential of putting it on the blockchain. Before that, we were running ads and we were disappointed with the way it looked. We thought that if it’s really going to take off, then we’ve got to get rid of that and think of a different business model. Part of it is just driven by the notion that if we tokenize the editing of encyclopedic content, we will be able to pay ourselves in tokens basically. We’ll be doing the community a justifiable service in maintaining the software and so forth. In addition, even more importantly from the community point of view, we are incentivizing the editing of an encyclopedia. We’re not paying people to write because it is a blockchain. They’re interacting with the blockchain using smart contracts.
You are actually mining tokens for yourself by writing an encyclopedia article or editing somebody else’s encyclopedia article. That’s going to be interesting to see what ultimate impact that has on motivation levels of people contributing to an encyclopedia. One of the reasons why it was difficult to motivate a lot of experts to participate in the predecessor of Wikipedia called Nupedia is that a lot of professors expected to be paid when they write encyclopedia articles, which is one thing that they do. That’s also I think one of the reasons why a lot of high ranking professionals just don’t spend that much time on Wikipedia too. It’s not remunerative and they’ve got other better things to do with their time.
Does the blockchain also help? You were talking about that there’s this complex set of rules on Wikipedia that are not always equally applied. Is that part of the blockchain building in that ability to trust that the rules are being applied?Encyclopedia articles, journalism, and textbooks are the three things we generally expect to be neutral. Click To Tweet
Yes and no. At least right now, that’s the way it works. Editorial decisions are being made by the Everipedia community using the blockchain. If a new submission contains copyrighted material, then we’ll have it taken down, we’ll downvote it, and we have a fairly straightforward process. We don’t need to debate about it. Although we can, we have the tools, and those tools are going to get even better, but we don’t have to. We can just vote it down. That’s generally what happens. There have been many numbers of people who have tried to put massive amounts of encyclopedic content onto Everipedia that it was easy to see it was plagiarized from elsewhere. It looks encyclopedic, but we don’t allow plagiarism.
You’re not duplicating what’s already out there on Wikipedia and other places. You want new content.
That is definitely another one of the advantages. Going forward in a new phase of development, we want to keep the bar of inclusion high enough only to get rid of the obviously bad stuff like copyright infringement, perhaps libel and some other legally actionable stuff. We want also to keep the bar low enough that there can be multiple competing articles on different subjects. This is to continue answering your previous question of what the purpose of putting it on the blockchain is. We want it to be decentralized. We don’t just want to have a back end for Everipedia.org. It’s not just a database for a single website. We want to create an encyclopedia network. One of the first things that I did when I joined the company was to reach out to some people that I knew from my time building different reference works at other encyclopedias and ask them, “Would you be interested in contributing some or all of your stuff to the Everipedia network?” They said yes.
One person was quite enthusiastic and wanted to put all of their stuff as soon as it’s possible. Another person said, “Sure, we could do that. Maybe we’ll come up with a program.” Another person was interested in auto-generating certain reference articles, which I think really would be useful. We’re in the process now of putting the final touches on the first phase of the development and we will begin the second phase of development in earnest, which will support multiple competing articles. That means that we can’t actually use the blockchain as a strict editorial mechanism because different sources are going to have different editorial policies and that’s as it should be. We need to respect that, especially if we’re going to support at an international audience where there are radically different ideas. We’re going to want to allow Communist China if they want to put a state-approved encyclopedia on the blockchain if they want to, alongside libertarian encyclopedia or whatever. They’re definitely going to have different ideas about what is correct and what it should pass muster.
You’re bringing up actually in some ways there is the difference going on. Is that going to be really apparent? Is that going to be transparent to us as readers of that?
Is there a difference? I would hope so. I think so. One logistical difficulty we’re going to have to deal with going forward is actually identifying when two different articles are about the same subject because is it going to be just based on the title of the article? Maybe, but there’s going to be slightly different versions. One article might be George W. Bush and another one might be George Bush, Jr. There is a slight variance on names. How do you decide if they are articles about the same thing? Once you’ve decided that, then there’s going to be presumably different front ends. Everipedia.org will be one of them, but you could make an app based on this same data. It’s going to be open content and available via IPFS. You’ll be able to make a page that concerns one topic, say God, and there will be articles from lots of different sources about God all linked from the same page. One thing I’m really excited about, and this is yet another advantage of putting it on the blockchain, is the idea that it’s totally decentralized and the entire project is mediated through neutral protocols essentially. It’s much more likely that you can motivate people to spend a significant amount of time to rate the different articles. Imagine if you wanted to create a global project to rate all the encyclopedia articles in the world, it would be difficult to motivate people to do the hard work of reading an article and then putting a number on it, going out on a limb and doing that.
I think the only way you could motivate people to participate in that program is if they knew the data was going to be open content, but just the content version of open source. It can be shared and re-developed by anyone at will. Having it decentralized is going to make it possible for people to work together in this way on at global competition, basically, to find the best articles on each topic. From every point of view, especially if we enable people to identify themselves uniquely and then share information about themselves so that you could say, “According to the Christians, what is the best article about God?” or “According to the Muslims, what’s the best article about God?” It’d be really interesting to compare the two, but it’s only the blockchain that would actually allow that thing to happen.
Is there some amount of machine learning going on to find those and compare and contrast the articles? You can have President George Bush and George W. Bush, but how do you bring them together? Is that maybe a future plan part of it to try to help them bring those together and find them for you? Hopefully, your community will, but it doesn’t always.
Certainly, we’ll have different tools that will enable people to identify similar articles and they do all kinds of other things. We’ve been talking about how we can use tools. Maybe we’ll even buy a subscription to a tool that already existed to locate test submissions for a copyright violation.
Let’s talk a little bit about what’s going on. There has been lots of controversy about Wikipedia for instance, and that there is systematic scraping of information and data and other things like that out of articles and other places. What are you putting in place to prevent that so that the data is more trustworthy so that we aren’t pulling out all references? I think the article I read was pulling out references to climate change and crazy stuff like that.
The bar for inclusion is going to be pretty low. If somebody uses government data, for example, and mashes it up to create a reference work that’s actually useful, but it is derivative. I’m not sure that if it’s significantly different from other things that are on offer, then we’ll allow it. One of the big questions that we are going to have to answer is for those several active projects that are working on versions of Wikipedia articles, not necessarily working on Wikipedia and contributing back to Wikipedia, but who have forked particular articles. We have done that. We’re not the only ones, but we’re probably the biggest. In that case, how do we determine which version of the article we want to keep in the resource or do we want to support all of them and then allow the users to determine what they think is the best version? Even in that case, if that’s the case, then we would need to be able to automatically identify when a couple of articles are so similar and yet legitimate. It isn’t just copyright violation. They’re similar, so we want to group them. You can see if you’re trying to catalog all the encyclopedia articles in the world, especially in a world that supports open content, and forking of content in other words. It’s going to end up being complicated, hopefully not complicated for the end user.
This is complicated as a writer. I write a column for Inc. Magazine. I write a column for Authority Magazine. Between those two, the part that’s difficult as a writer in general is that you have an inherent bias. There’s no way around that. It just happens that you have a viewpoint. The people that you choose to interview happened to be the people that you meet. That’s exactly how it happened with you. We ended up in the same circle on the same panel and now I’m interviewing you. It’s who you run across. It is in your circles. That inherent bias comes with writing. It comes with the process of journalism in general. It’s there. How can we make that more apparent but still more trustworthy? For instance, I write about innovation, specifically product launching, but I have 27 years of experience doing that. My writing about it is a whole lot more deep knowledge than someone who’s been an Amazon seller for three years, for instance. How do you bring that out? How do you bring out what’s more trustworthy? What’s deeper knowledge? That’s a judgment call. That’s hard.
There are two things I want to comment on there. First of all, I wrote an article called Why Neutrality?. I’m going to keep pushing this until I die. I think there are three different categories of the writing of that people have a right to expect will be neutral and serve their own purposes in deciding what to believe for themselves. One of them is encyclopedia articles, another is journalism, and there are textbooks. These three things we generally do expect to be neutral. In this paper, I actually argue the opposite thesis to yours. I don’t disagree with you at all that we carry biases. You can’t do anything about that. That doesn’t mean that you have to write in a biased way.
No, you’re right about that. I try very hard to make sure that we’re presenting both sides or we’re presenting all the information. I believe that that’s the job of a journalist, but I’m also not a trained journalist. That’s not my experience. I’m a trained designer, so it’s not the same thing. Obviously, when we ask lay people, when we ask people who are not trained as journalists not having that background, we’re asking them to write again and again. 90% of our contributing writers to almost all of our online publications are not trained as journalists. They don’t know any of the rules, nothing about it.When it comes to writing reviews and writing blog posts, there is no requirement to be unbiased. Click To Tweet
I think when it comes to writing reviews and writing blog posts, there is no requirement to be unbiased.
True news should be, that’s the idea.
That’s all I’m saying. I just wanted to say that. This is related to the second part of your question. The concern is there are people who know the stuff well than other people. We call them experts and it’s absolutely true. The difficulty is when the experts disagree or when a large number of experts are systematically mistaken, which has happened throughout the history of ideas and the history of science. For a very long time, all the greatest minds thought the earth was the center of the universe. For a long time, one of the leading theories of what was out there in space was ether. More recently, in living memory, still actually there even are some psychologists who have believed that the mind is reducible to behavior. When you’re studying the mind, you’re doing nothing but studying behavior and there’s really nothing more to it than that. All of these things are expert opinions that the best or most knowledgeable of people have spent all of their lives thinking about certain things were systematically wrong. What do you do in the case of things like blockchain where there’s no way of knowing what the future is going to be like, there’s no way of knowing how various things should be set up. We’re all babes in the woods learning together technology. You have the technology or more than half the technology that will govern the future of blockchain systems which hasn’t been conceived of yet.
Larry, I think that the why neutrality is a really interesting way to put it because why is that important? Why is it important for decentralization? Let’s talk a little bit about what’s going on in social media. We’re getting to a generation who doesn’t believe that anything is trustworthy, especially their textbooks, their news, their encyclopedia in a sense from what’s been reported on about Wikipedia. Don’t believe any of it anymore. We have a whole different generation growing up, and I have daughters that range from age 24 down to five. They have different viewpoints on the world. This is something that we’re coming to. Your article is spot on and asking why we need this. We do need this.
I’ve talked to a number of young people and I know what you’re saying. They expressed skepticism about a lot of different things. As a philosophical skeptic, I’m sympathetic to that point of view, but there’s critical skepticism and then there is easy, almost anti-intellectual skepticism. There’s a big difference. The difference is if you are a critical skeptic, then you actually inform yourself of what is believed, what has been learned and you satisfy yourself on certain points that aren’t controversial that people generally agree with. You have developed the intellectual and academic tools. You have the mental wherewithal to be able to come to those conclusions for yourself.
I was raised to be a critical skeptic. I was absolutely raised by my father to do that. My father’s answer to everything was that you are not allowed to read one source material ever and you are not allowed to read derivative materials. If you find one and you realize that they’re citing a source, you have to go to the source. That’s what I was raised to do. If you didn’t get three to five sources, then you couldn’t form an opinion. That was how I was raised or brought up. What I see in my daughters is trying to encourage that it’s difficult for them. That questioning happens. “Is this real? Is this sourced?” We created a sense of they’re not sure. They don’t know how to answer that in what’s going on. That’s a really hard place to have brought them up.
There’s a reason for this and it ultimately has to do with the sociology of philosophy. That’s how I would put it basically. We have as a society embraced a lot of the attitudes that post-modernism has taught quite frankly. If you take a course in post-modernism, the main tenets that you will bring away is, as they put it, there are no privileged texts. What that really means is anything goes. You can make up your own mind. There’s nothing wrong with that. The point is that there isn’t anything that can be blessed with the title facts. You’re just building competing holistic systems and you can’t do any better than that. There’s no place to stand. Anti-foundationalism is another way to put it. The Foundationalist Theory, now we’re getting into epistemology, says that there is a firm solid foundation somewhere, somehow for our beliefs. If you are of a more scientific cast of mind as I am, then you believe that comes from experience.
Perhaps there are certain beliefs that we have that are innate in some sense. We can debate about that. What isn’t the case is that we should just believe whatever the crowd believes or we should believe whatever the state, talk radio or whatever tells us to believe. That ultimately, with this foundationalist view, is I would argue part and parcel of the traditional notion of rationalism, the notion that by using our reason, we can actually come to reasonable or justified conclusions. If you have no place to begin or if you begin with a place that is admittedly irrational, like the party line or whatever it is, then you’re giving up reason.
The point is our young people have not been taught the habits. They certainly haven’t been taught philosophy. That isn’t the worst part about it. The worst part about it is that these habits of thought that maybe you and I learned earlier in our science classes, which we’re encouraged in other classes, scientific and rationalistic methods of thought have not been passed on basically. Another big source, another reason for this is simply the way that we engage with each other in social media, and for that matter, journalism. If you pick up even good journalism or supposedly good journalism like The Atlantic or Harper’s or something like that, which goes into depth and actually does get into some arguments, it’s still lightweight.
It’s because we have a different speed that’s part of what’s going on.
You have to slow down if you want to be rational.
It’s a totally different speed. This is so interesting and what has fascinated me is that Everipedia has and you’ve joined them with this philosophy background. I think that shows a real depth of the goals of the company and trying to make sure that we’re thinking this all the way through. That we’re building something that is going to be useful, that is going to be incentivized, that is going to be trustworthy at the end of the day.
Basically, I told the guys I didn’t want to get on board if I wasn’t able to work on that project that I described before, competing for encyclopedia articles that are rated and ranked according to different affinity groups and so forth. What I want to see exist in the next version of Wikipedia 2.0 is the ability to compare the very best take on the topic of God from different points of view. I want to see the best article according to Catholics versus Sunni Muslims versus atheists versus agnostics versus Buddhists. These would still be encyclopedia articles. They wouldn’t be intended to be opinionated introductions from each point of view. That’s not the point.
Would you be able to see maybe this alignment of a series of histories that they each have and the way that they talk about God or talk about their mythic growth?You have to slow down if you want to be rational. Click To Tweet
Where do they agree is actually one of the most interesting questions that we’ll be able to ask or rather to have answered.
I love that, Larry, because now we’re talking about helping our children and helping ourselves. See what critical thinking looks like because you’re supposed to compare and contrast. It’s a part of the critical thinking process. You’ve got no way to compare because you just don’t know where to pull this stuff to begin with. You can’t do that.
I was doing another podcast interview with a guy who had a Ph.D. in Islamic history. He’s written some books about that subject, one of which is just on the concept of jihad. He was basically shadow banned from Facebook because he used the word jihad and you’re not supposed to or something, which is absolutely absurd. It doesn’t even begin to make sense. It’s a thing in the world.
Proper usage of a word in discussion and not in hate is a totally different thing.
I don’t know his case fully, so maybe he misrepresented. I doubt it. He was a straight shooter, but maybe he misrepresented it and there was more to it than that, but here’s the point. There could be a really interesting discussion to be had if we simply compare the top-ranked articles about jihad, compare the one that would be approved by imams on the one hand and the ones that would be approved by Western scholars of Islamic history on the other hand. How about foreign correspondents that cover the Middle East? If you could actually pry apart those different groups and then look at how the article’s about jihad differ and are similar, then no longer would anyone be able to come up with an absurd policy.
Does putting this word in means you’re out?
Yes, exactly. I think that would be doing the world a great service. Basically, if we can demonstrate where we agree, then we agree on a lot more than then we want to let on. Even Christians and Muslims, they agree on a lot. They actually do.
Do you think that some of the problems are being exacerbated by the artificial intelligence, the algorithms, the bots that they’re utilizing just to be efficient at the levels of social media? They’re trying to go through this like simple scraping. If this word shows up, get rid of it. If they appeal, then it goes through the group and we’ll take a look at it.
It looks that way. Having written a few algorithms in my time, I find it hard to believe that it would be that simple.
That’s how it feels on the other side. Why is this ad not approved? Why did my article not get pushed out? A lot of times, it’s, “Look at the language in that.” You’re like, “I’m talking about that critically.” One of the issues is that if we post lots of social media on The New Trust Economy, if we post about Bitcoin, which we don’t always talk about. We do talk about cryptocurrency occasionally, but mostly on the tokenization side of things. If it does, those posts are significantly downgraded. You can see our general traffic, but if it happens to mention Bitcoin, it doesn’t happen. I just look at that and go, “There has to be something there.”
They’re going to be changing that soon, I heard.
It probably will be. That’s an interesting thing that we’re coming across because I would say I’m not an anti-AI in the articles that I write. I think that there’s a really interesting place for artificial intelligence and machine learning, but it requires diversity, it requires critical thinking built into it or it requires that compare and contrast, women, minorities and other groups to get involved in it. When we don’t have that, then it can become dangerous. That’s the way that I look at it. It becomes arbitrary in how it feels applied to those of us on the other side. Larry, I’m excited about the future. What do you see? What’s the future of blockchain? Where do you see it going? What needs to happen? It’s pretty early, it’s infancy. What’s next for blockchain?
I’m not necessarily the best person to ask about that. I have a few things that I say when people ask me that. One of them is the main reason why a lot of depths have not been accepted is that people have been working so hard on the blockchain side that they haven’t worked very hard on the traditional UX and other stuff that they need to. From the end user’s point of view, you’re competing with non-blockchain solutions to people’s problems. The blockchain component doesn’t really solve very many problems for the average user. Basically, you have to be at least as good as the existing offerings of whatever you’re trying to do, and then blockchain becomes the differentiator that makes it actually better. That’s what we’re trying to do with Everipedia. I hope we will be an example. I do think that in the next couple of years there’s going to be more and more breakout products that demonstrate the value of blockchain.
I think so too. That’s our take here and our look on that is that there are a lot of things coming that are demonstrating the value of blockchain and how it’s really going to be a better foundational structure.If we can demonstrate where we agree, then we can agree on a lot more than we want to let on. Click To Tweet
I’m looking forward to the EO which is supposed to be launching some social media network or something. I’m not really sure. They’re very vague. That should be interesting. Obviously, we had a big bear market. I actually noticed that just the sheer numbers of invitations that I got to speak dropped off the second half of the year. Now it’s back way up.
Dr. Larry Sanger, thank you so much for coming on the show. I really appreciate it. Everipedia.org is the website. I’m so glad we got to talk more, get to know each other a little better and get you to paint a little bit of philosophy.
It was my pleasure, absolutely. Thank you.
Thanks so much for joining us here on The New Trust Economy.
- Dr. Larry Sanger
- Encyclopedia of Earth
- Reading Bear
- Inc. Magazine
- Authority Magazine
- Why Neutrality? – Article
- The Atlantic
About Dr. Larry Sanger
Dr. Larry Sanger, best known as Wikipedia’s co-founder, has started or helped start many educational and reference websites: Nupedia, Encyclopedia of Earth, WatchKnowLearn, Reading Bear, Infobitt, and most recently Everipedia, which he has joined as Chief Information Officer.
A philosophy Ph.D. whose dissertation concerned the theory of knowledge, Sanger has also written and spoken about the philosophy of the Internet and of online communities. Sanger currently lives in Ohio, U.S.A., with his wife and two homeschooled boys.