Jan 152011

A comment on Clay Shirky’s piece in the Guardian entitled ‘Wikipedia—an unplanned miracle’ hath pleased me:

by any traditional view about how the world works, Wikipedia shouldn’t even exist

I can understand what you mean, if we replace “traditional” with “orthodox”, and I remember that this is The Guardian.

Elsewhere, the idea of emergent order, and its superiority to centrally planned order, has been commonplace for centuries, described by Smith, Hume, Bastiat, Hayek, etc.

This is an unplanned miracle, like “the market” deciding how much bread goes in the store.

Suspicious quotes around “the market”! Perfect.

But you have a point… no need to tax anyone, no need to order anyone to do anything. Mystifying, to be sure. Maybe worth further investigation?

Wikipedia, though, is even odder than the market: not only is all that material contributed for free, not only is all that material contributed for free, it is available to you free; even the servers and system administrators are funded through donations.

Actually the greatest writers on emergent order often wrote about the emergence of the Law, which is also (hopefully) not driven by money changing hands. A more recent example, almost contemporary with Wikipedia, is open source software.

People don’t always value only money; most people want respect and admiration, an many get it from their visible contributions to things regarded as socially valuable.

When a minority were very rich, they would make extravagant gestures like building whole hospitals, orphanages, colleges, etc. (obviously with a nice statue of the generous founder). These days large swathes of the middle classes have enough spare time and income to be a little bit philanthropic, leave their mark and feel good about themselves (and how others see them).

As people get better off, there is less and less need to order them to take care of their society. And people are getting better off. So the real mystery is not that something like wikipedia works, but that we don’t let other things work the same way.

I wonder if Clay Shirky, author of a book subtitled ‘The power of organising without organisations’, is really so blind he thinks his insights only apply to the internet, or if the suggestion this might be the case is the fault of some overly-zealous Guardian editors.