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The networked life of professional encyclopaedias: Quantification, tradition, and trustworthiness


DOI: 10.5210/fm.v18i6.4383

SUNDIN, Olof; HAIDER, Jutta. The networked life of professional encyclopaedias: Quantification, tradition, and trustworthiness. First Monday, [S.l.], may. 2013. ISSN 13960466. Available at: http://journals.uic.edu/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4383.

p.1: This paper aims at making visible new orders of encyclopaedic knowledge by means of an ethnographic study carried out during eight months at the editorial office of the leading commercial encyclopaedia in Sweden, Nationalencyklopedin (NE). The investigation is framed in a socio–technical understanding of how people, technologies and practices relate to each other. Three themes were identified during the analysis: Organisation of labour amongst the editors, the use of statistics, and the contrast between NE as a producer of facts and NE as a producer of analysis. The analysis revolves around the ambivalence, uncertainty, sometimes even friction, between traditional encyclopaedic knowledge and network culture. The often routine–based practices of updating articles meet ideas of project work, of open data, of algorithms and most of all of quantification. -- Highlighted mar 21, 2014

p.1: The very way in which encyclopaedias are produced has changed, at the same time as communication and use of encyclopaedic knowledge has become different, always available and in constant competition with other sources -- Highlighted mar 21, 2014

p.2: By means of an ethnographic study at the editorial office of NE, this article aims at making visible new orders of encyclopaedic knowledge. Specifically what guides our investigation is a loose focus on trustworthiness. This is sharpened by two overarching aspects that emerged as significant throughout the investigation and to which we return. These are first, the ambivalence between a powerful tradition and emerging new orders and second, the quantification of life, particularly of knowledge settings and knowledge work. -- Highlighted mar 21, 2014

p.3: Today’s knowledge society is, as Knorr Cetina (2007) shows, permeated with knowledge cultures and continuously growing numbers of knowledge settings. She argues for the need to investigate the very arrangements that constitute the production cultures engaged. Specifically Knorr Cetina’s notion of epistemic culture becomes relevant here:

The notion of epistemic culture is designed to capture these interiorised processes of knowledge creation. It refers to those sets of practices, those amalgams of arrangements and mechanisms — bounded through affinity, necessity, and historical coincidence — which, in a given field, make up how we know what we know.

-- Highlighted mar 21, 2014

p.3: Mainly connected to science technology studies (STS), this perspective has guided the study of laboratory work in order to open the so–called “black box” of scientific knowledge (Latour, 1987). In this tradition, knowledge production in science is exposed as a messy process, not always in accordance with portrayals of the scientific ideal of rationality. For the purpose of the present study, such a perspective is adopted to examine the “black box” of encyclopaedic knowledge production. In the spotlight for our study are the “machineries of knowledge construction” [2]; that is, those techniques, practices, ways of understanding encyclopaedic knowledge, systems, technologies and of course people that are involved in producing trustworthy encyclopaedic knowledge. -- Highlighted mar 21, 2014

p.8: For instance, in order to unwrap how encyclopaedic knowledge is established as precisely encyclopaedic knowledge, one has to go backwards and follow the traces that led to the present, and then back again. Scientific knowledge and its expressions in journals and books is one type of aggregation. To quote Latour: “/.../ “the wonderful thing about science /.../ is that there exists — thanks to footnotes, references and citations — an almost uninterrupted set of traces /.../”” [7]. -- Highlighted mar 21, 2014

p.9: The increased value of quantitative knowledge together with the radical changes in handling statistics and data visualisation in a traditional humanistic endeavour, such as is that of creating an encyclopaedia, are striking. Yet, if we take Tarde’s perspective and his call for understanding knowledge as aggregation seriously, it makes perfect sense. With the digitisation of knowledge follow extremely rich possibilities for quantifying it, and increasingly practices of knowledge quantification become important. In this sense, the way the Facts & Figures project is talked about, conceptualised and planned for demonstrates an attempt by NE to become a “truly” contemporary, digital and networked encyclopaedia — not just in terms of the communication of the content, but also in how encyclopaedic knowledge is created in the first place. -- Highlighted mar 21, 2014

p.10: In a similar spirit, another editor highlights how important he thinks it is, in contrast to producing pure facts, to “focus on telling a story in relation to facts” (Interview with Editor 4, 28 June 2012). Once again, ambivalence shapes the constellation, with respect to what the prime task of an encyclopaedia is — a pure “fact agency” or an institution providing the reader with first–hand human interpretations. In this question something else is embedded, a question of how trustworthiness is constructed — through ‘traditional’, external experts’ in–depth understanding and ability to construct a narrative, or in the (often graphic) narrative of quantitative data aggregation? This is an uncertainty over where to situate control; control over who gets a say in creating a whole from individual entities — the user or the expert? However, we argue, this is a question that remains superficial and that the question should be one about differences in expertise — who gets to compile and interpret, the programmer and her algorithms or the editor and her network of external experts? -- Highlighted mar 21, 2014