Diderot, Britannica, Wikipedia & Knowledge

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes —

The Apollo program's lunar landing module featured spindly legs too weak to land in the earth's gravity, but strong enough for the moon's 1/6 gravity. In this image of The Enterprise being assembled in space dock, a ship that would collapse in the weight of the earth's gravity, is able to exist in the weightlessness of space. And similarly, Encyclopaedia Britannica was, perhaps, as large as an encyclopedia could get given the "gravitational pull" of paper... but in the weightlessness of The Cloud, impossibly grand structures like Wikipedia, or The Internet itself, have become possible.

CHICAGO, 13 March — surprising no one, 244 year-old Encyclopaedia Britannica announced today the end of their print edition. In 1751 Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert published the first encyclopedia. 17 years later Britannica was first published, and in 2001, 250 years after Diderot, Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia. While many, including this author, will be nostalgic at the end of an aspiration so grand, most see the developments as an enormous plus for the curation and dissemination of knowledge. It’s the kind of day you want to shout, “the king is dead, long live the king.” I have on many occasions lamented the restrictions of speech on numerous Web2.0 platforms, but certainly the overall dissemination of encyclopedic knowledge has never been more robust than today.

For Diderot the goal of the first 4,000 copies was to present in clear, accessible prose the fruits of accumulated knowledge and learning. At least for the 4,000 recipients. It was a bold, unprecedented vision. 250 years later Wales famously stated,

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.

Even though 5 of 7 billion humans are un-wired today, this remains as bold a vision for sharing knowledge as the world has ever seen. Oh, maybe except for that Berners-Lee thing.

No doubt we all intuitively understand the move from paper to digital for reasons of accessibility, power, and cost, but in his blog post David Weinberger, author of Too Big To Know and Everything is Miscellaneous provides a nicely detailed list of the specific reasons that a paper encyclopedia can’t compete with The Internet, Search, and Wikipedia.

On the end of the print edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica:
New York Times Article
David Weinberger
Matthew Battles
David A. Bell

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