Wikipedia, to my mind at least, is one of the seven wonders of the internet. A vast resource of detailed information on almost every topic under the sun, each topic just one click away from its relations. One can visit the site to look up a subject like a TV show you watched as a child, only to find yourself an hour later reading about the latest development in molecular biology, having alighted upon the history of Ford Motors, the 2008 Financial Crisis, and an obscure actor who was once an extra in Corrie along the way. So easy is it to skip from subject to subject that there is a mildly fun Wikipedia version of the six degrees of separation game: try getting from one random subject to something totally unrelated in the least amount of clicks. Like I said, mildly fun.
Perhaps more importantly, Wikipedia is often more than mildly informative. As a student, I expected my tutors to regard Wikipedia with withering contempt, but in fact they often told me it was their own first port of call when researching something. As long as it’s not your last port of call, they would add. Wikipedia is often mocked for being inaccurate, but in fact, according to the scientific journal Nature, it is as reliable as the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
There is more to like in its collaborative, communitarian spirit. The site is not for profit, free to use and funded by the donations of its users. Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world spend their valuable time contributing edits and articles for no monetary reward. They do it presumably just to spread information and knowledge amongst their fellow humans. All wonderful stuff, particularly to those of a leftish bent.
It makes it rather surprising then that Wikipedia’s founder and main promoter, Jimmy Wales, is a self-described Objectivist and devotee of Ayn Rand.
For those unfamiliar with this this philosophy, in its political aspect it is a sort of extreme libertarianism, regarded by most philosophers to be tendentiously derived from various metaphysical and epistemological underpinnings. Rand, its creator, maintained that the only proper purpose of a person’s life is the pursuit of their own happiness, and that the only social system consistent with this morality is laissez-faire capitalism. The philosophy is chiefly expounded in her two lengthy novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, books which have not, to say the least, been met with praise by critics. Even the oft-regarded founder of contemporary American conservatism William F. Buckley, Jr. claimed he had to “flog himself” to read them. Less Catholic than Buckley, I am not disposed to flogging myself, and so have not read them, but from reading the plot summaries – on Wikipedia, of course! – they appear to tell the story of powerful men, quite probably of Aryan extraction, whose admirable pursuit of their own self-interest is thwarted by parasitical bureaucrats and moochers. “Selfishness is the only virtue” according to Rand, which, as Gore Vidal pointed out, “is a philosophy almost perfect in its immorality”.
It is also a philosophy in apparent contradiction to the ethos of Wikipedia. Jimmy Wales himself has said that some people react to him by wondering, “Gee, this is a guy who is very pro-capitalist and yet he started a non-profit foundation for sharing knowledge”. His tone suggests that there should be nothing surprising about this, but I venture that it is actually rather rare for a former options trader (for that is what Wales is) and supporter of Ayn Rand’s pro-selfishness ideology to give up his very financially rewarding career to start a website with massive money making potential, but to choose to run it as a non-profit, free to use, and ad-free site. Jimmy Wales could be a billionaire, and he isn’t.
There are at least a couple of resolutions to this apparent paradox, or pseudo-paradox as Wales would have it.
The first of which, propounded by Seth Finkelstein, a programmer and web-censorship activist, is that Jimmy Wales is playing a long game with Wikipedia, which will in the end see him earn much more money. In Finkelstein’s cynical view, Wikipedia is merely a front of house branding tool for Wales’ web-hosting service, Wikia. Other people can use the Wikia software to set up Wikipedia like sites, such as Uncyclopedia or Conservapedia, which do run ads, and so do make money.
What Finkelstein’s view fails to take into account is that Wales could just start putting ads on Wikipedia, and by doing so, make much more money. Wikipedia’s page views must outnumber all the other Wiki sites combined by a factor of ten, and is likely to continue to do so. That Wales has not monetised this traffic suggests he is motivated by something more altruistic.
Wales’s comments on Objectivism suggest his interpretation of the philosophy is a little more subtle than the pro-selfishness, damn the moochers sentiments commonly associated with Ayn Rand. When asked about Rand by the American TV interviewer Brian Lamb, Wales said that one of the “core things that is very applicable to my life today is the virtue of independence”. He elaborates:
“But I think for me one of the core things that is very applicable to my life today is the virtue of independence – is the vision, you know, if you know the idea of Howard Roark who is the architect in “The Fountainhead” who has a vision for what he wants to accomplish and, you know, there‘s some time in the book when he is frustrated in his career because people don‘t want to build the type of buildings he wants to build. And he‘s given a choice, a difficult choice, to compromise his integrity or to essentially go out of business. And he has to go and take a job working in a quarry.
And for me that model has a lot of – a lot of resonance for me. You know when I think about what I‘m doing – what I‘m doing and the way I‘m doing it is more important to me than any amount of money or anything like that because it‘s my artistic work.”
I have heard this kind of interpretation of Objectivism before: it is less about selfishly making money, and more about not letting other people interfere with, and thereby by compromise, the integrity of your project. In this way, painters and poets are objectivists, as well as entrepreneurs and industrialists.
In this way, it is a rather appealing philosophy, but why Wales and its other subscribers have to go to Ayn Rand for it, I don’t know. From the Romantic poets to Ricky Gervais, there are countless artists who have said similar things about not letting other people compromise the integrity of a project.
Still, if Ayn Rand, helped to give us Wikipedia, I suppose we ought to be grateful.