Wikipedia is a privilege - an opinion piece by Justin W. Flory

Wikipedia is a privilege

Originally written as an essay response for ENGL-450 Free and Open Source Culture at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Growing up with easy access to the Internet grants the privilege of experiencing effortless knowledge and high availability of information. Wikipedia is an example of 21st century cooperation and collaboration. For many, it represents a beacon of free information and self-education. Some might credit it for charting wider participation in the movement towards free content and open resources.

Yet Wikipedia remains a tool of power and privilege, absent for many as societal myths perpetuate in the lives of children. As children are exposed to the Internet at earlier ages, their comprehension and correlation to the real world is in the context of living in a digitized society. In simpler words, everything they ever know always has technology, tablets, smart-phones, and smart devices present. There is no split experience of going from have-nots to haves.

For me, the split experience was my experience. As I became older, information became within click’s reach and a moment of patience. In prior generations, factual information existed in factual places, such as a library or a home study (for those privileged to own encyclopedias in their homes as children). Caught without any reference to support or dissent against a societal myth, the truth remained far enough out of reach for only the most motivated (and privileged) to continue searching for truth.

Today, this process takes seconds. From devices in pockets to sitting at desks. Desks now conveniently feature a computer workstation over “old school” writing utensils, books, and paper. Externally-verified information is available for those who seek truth or supporting evidence to define their own understanding of truth (additionally, misinformation is equally spreadable depending on prior motivations, but will not be covered in this short opinion).

If the answers are so near and available, it enables increased self-awareness among youth. The Internet’s ludicrous goals of a more interconnected species came not boldly, but subtly. It crept into our culture and perception of the world. As more gratis and factual information (academic work, scientific research, investigative reporting, and others, often under free licenses) creeps into the search-able Internet, answers remain convenient with a few taps on an LCD screen. Perhaps today’s youth, privileged to early Internet exposure, have subconsciously understood their perception of information as naturally free and available (with different understandings of what is true or false). For those searching for secularism, the true science remains easy to find and discover.

And thus, the root of the issue. What is the role of privilege? What early childhood development possibilities are created within information-rich societies? Are children better able to cast away their own doubts and suspicions? Do they avoid buying into a system designed to feed from them?

But what of the contrary? What is the experience to go without this privilege? It can be lack of access to information. The perception of information is opposite of naturally free and available, but costly and hidden. The odds are stacked higher against you because of poor accessibility to tools and resources.

But is access to free knowledge like Wikipedia truly inaccessible for even the most impoverished? Since even some of the poorest countries have better access to smart-phones than piped water, exposure to the wider Internet (including Wikipedia) is inevitable. But the timing is late. The critical period of early childhood development is missed. Early childhood development has three phases: conception, the first 1000 days (birth to three years old), and pre-school / pre-primary years. The brain of a child is most sensitive, almost like a sponge, in those first 1000 days. Researchers defend this period’s impact on child-society and community cohesion as critical, even influencing the neurobiology of peace.¹ So then what of those who have the privilege of exposure to technology in those first 1000 days? What of the billions, nearly trillion, dollars of advertising that slip through the cracks of what these children are exposed to? Are we subtly being written before language is even learned?

Global advertising spending from 2014 to 2021 (in billion U.S. dollars). Shows increase of spending by 268.96 billion dollars in advertising from 2014 projected to 2021. Sourced from Statista.
Increase in spending on advertising by 268.96 billion dollars from 2014 projected into 2021

In this way, the open and closed systems compete in the Internet state. There are positive and negative qualities from both free information and black-box systems in information-rich societies. Wikipedia is a privilege, but it is only one small part of something bigger. A privilege of truth. A privilege of access. A privilege of self-liberation.

¹ Britto, Pia. “Building Brains, Building Futures.” Online webinar, UNICEF, 24 January 2018. Keynote address.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash.

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