We all know Wikipedia. We all love it, we all use it, and we all love to ridicule anyone who uses it as their primary source. Wikipedia is a game-changer. It is the reason for Wangston's Law: Humans should not waste their time discussing things that can be answered by Wikipedia.
What is it that makes Wikipedia so special and so unique? The fact that it IS unique. If you need to know about anything that is a noun, proper or common, it's the first place to go. And, if you are an expert on a subject and want to make sure it is properly represented to the internet (and, maybe, get your name out there as an expert), you know where everyone will look first. This is how Wikipedia has managed to reach 5,275,000 unique articles in English alone (not counting those removed for being too "unimportant").
So What's Left?
If we can't discuss petty facts over the dinner table, what are humans to do? It turns out there is a whole area of conversation not covered by Wikipedia: Debate. Opinion. Controversy. Basically, anything that isn't a static fact. Let's breathe a sigh of relief that Wikipedia won't be ruining tonight's cocktail party.
But then let's take a look at how we, as humans, are doing with those leftovers, using the imminent presidential election as our prism:
You're So Vague
We just chose as a nation who will be the most powerful executive officer in what is currently the world's only super power. And yet, rather than going into details on the specifics, news reports focused on the scandals and personal lives, ads tried to elicit a feeling rather than engage with intellect, and even discussions on "issues", whenever they popped up, were so high level that you could get away with agreeing with both sides, or none.
It's not that the information isn't out there. It's ALL OVER THE PLACE! Never before have we had so MUCH information. And that's part of the problem. Where to go? (Right, Google… but then, which link to click??) Also, everywhere we go, we only get a part of the story. And often, complete contradictions, with no way to bring it all together into some sort of consensus.
As a rule, the BEST information is generally locked up in academic research, in papers behind paywalls, in a language that is totally incomprehensible to most of us, and definitely not linkable. People are dedicating their lives to policy-relevant information that no one will read.
Our decision-making process is totally inverted: the expert information is "down in the weeds" where we don't see it, while unsubstantiated clickbait flickers mesmerizingly before our eyes.
Living In a Bubble
Given the fogginess of the situation, one can be excused when the "facts" are made subject to interpretation. As anyone familiar with cognitive biases can attest, those interpretations will naturally reinforce whatever was believed before, and whatever "side" we were originally on. We surround ourselves in Facebook, Twitter, and cocktail parties with people that agree with us (or agree to avoid uncomfortable discussions) until we are armed more with in-jokes that are funny to our friends than we are with deep policy insights.
How is it possible that Donald Trump, the most narcissistic public figure alive, who doesn’t pay taxes, is a father-made billionaire, and is known to stiff his employees and cheat business partners, can be seen as the one person that is in this race for the good of the common middle class worker? How can anyone vote for someone like that?
How is it possible that the most corrupt woman in politics, under investigation by the FBI, embroiled in multiple scandals, who uses political power and supposed philanthropy for personal profit, and who was caught on tape as being secretly in the pocket of Wall Street, can claim to be the champion of the poor and the powerless? And how can anyone vote to give someone like that access to the most powerful post in the world?
The real question is: how can so many people accept exactly one of these two statements at face value, while discussing ad infinitum the reasons the other is wrong. And why is there no in-between?
La la la la la! I Can't Heeeeeear You!
When chance (or, more often than not, family) brings us in contact with someone with whom to exchange opposing views, we greet them as "opponents" with idiotic misconceptions that must be ridiculed and smited (smitten? smot? I'm open for discussion…). This is the most infuriating and useless exercise possible. Fireworks and epithets fly as both sides spout half-remembered half-truths, red herrings and straw men, and just for yucks, the aforementioned in-jokes in a frustrated attempt to belittle our enemy before all.
(I would like to take an aside here and declare what I am hereby calling High's Law (Tim's Law? Troll's Law? more discussion…) of the Internet, which is: Anything you say online can and will be interpreted in the absolute worst way possible… which is really what makes this sort of thing so entertaining, and so hard to walk away from.)
The point here is that this kind of behavior probably shouldn't be considered discussion. It's about taking turns lobbing snotty logic grenades, ducking back down for cover, and watching for the next grenade just long enough to figure out where to aim our next attack.
It Doesn't Add Up
You've tried that, right? Did it feel good? Did you accomplish something? Or did you come out with an empty feeling, a weird mix of shame and rage? And the next time you talked about this same subject with someone else, did it go better? Were you enriched with the tools and information you learned in the previous exchange? Or did you start all over from zero, armed only with your puny arsenal of hearsay facts taken way out of context?
The problem is that the way we conduct our debates, in person and online, it just doesn't accumulate. If we're building an ivory tower of wisdom, we are doing it one grain of sand at a time, with no glue to cement it together. In a strong wind. With our eyes closed.
Just Give Me the Elevator Pitch
I don't want it to be like this! I want to be informed! I want to see both sides, evenly and without hyperbole. And I want it in 30 seconds or less. Is that asking too much?
I want there to be exactly one place that I can trust will have all the information I need on any controversial subject, rolled up nicely and neatly into the top 5 or so relevant arguments from each side.
I want to trust that these arguments have been vetted by experts on the subject, they themselves having been discussed and bantered about, with evidence that has itself been openly discussed.
I want to see the pros and cons, the expected impacts and outcomes of a decision, also openly debated.
When I have a point to make, or supporting evidence, or an opinion about the relevance or validity of something, I want to be able to contribute it once, and once only, to the one place I know others will see it.
I want there to be one canonical place where I can send all trolls, doubters and outright fibbers whenever an absurd claim is made, be it in a Facebook comment, a Tweet, a news site comment section, or, uh, on national TV.
I want the Wikipedia for Debates!
[Update] Since this article was written, I have joined together with a growing group of like-minded people within the Democracy Earth community. We have formed a group we call the Canonical Debate Lab in order to create a white paper describing our approach, and eventually create a fully transparent, free and open source solution to this problem.