TCS Daily

On Getting It: The Faith-Based Encyclopedia and Me

By Robert McHenry - February 1, 2005 12:00 AM

I recently published an article in which I was critical of a very popular online "encyclopedia" which I shall not name here. The article attracted a certain amount of attention, chiefly from partisans of the "encyclopedia" who sprang to its defense in blogs and message boards. They disagreed with me in a variety of ways.

Some pointed to my affiliation, now some years ceased, with another encyclopedia. These respondents alleged or merely implied that I could not therefore be trusted to render an objective judgment. They said this even though in my article I made no comparison of the two and confined my criticism to the "encyclopedia's" stated theory and concrete performance. Presently I shall speculate on the source of this distrust.

Others took issue with my methodology. The single article I used to illustrate my argument against the working principle of the "encyclopedia" was shown by one mathematically inclined writer to constitute an insufficient sample for producing statistically valid inferences. I had not suggested otherwise.

A great many of those who reacted against my article, however, seemed unable, or else they found it unnecessary, to respond to my argument at all. Instead, they explained that my argument -- the fact of it, not the form or validity of it -- simply showed that I didn't "get it." My not "getting it" was pronounced in terms more suggestive of sorrow than of anger, though with a distinct air of satisfaction. I think the satisfaction arose from their sense that I am just the sort of person who, had there been occasion to do so, they would have predicted would not "get it," and thus I had validated their world view. The circularity of this thinking does not seem to concern them.

"Getting it" and "not getting it," as specific phrases, are I believe products of the computer -- and especially of the Internet -- culture. The notion of some radical kind of insight, perception, or knowledge that separates an enlightened elite from the mass of humankind is, of course, nothing new. Examples range from the mysteries of Eleusis to the Merry Pranksters of Ken Kesey ("You're either on the bus, or you're off the bus"), and I'm hoping that I've just written the first sentence ever to couple the two. And, perhaps more aptly, let's not forget the servants of Landru ("Are you of the body?") in an episode of the original Star Trek television series.

Like most forms of gnosis, what it is that is either gotten or not is either ineffable or at least very hard to express in mere words, and none of my critics did so. They did not need to; it was enough for any one to announce to the others that I was not of the body. There was no point in rehearsing what they all already "get."

Based on scattered hints, however, I can hazard some guesses as to what "it" is. It is all very metaphysical, of course, although that is not a word used by the getters (or should that be "the gotten"?). First, there is some mystical quality in communication via the internet -- email, naturally, but more so message boards and chat rooms and instant messaging -- that is absent from, say, writing books or talking on the telephone. This quality evidently has something to do with the absolute openness of the internet. Second, in one of those seeming paradoxes that are the sign of true mystery, this mystical quality is greatly enhanced when groups of the like-minded establish exclusive little areas for their talk, where they are not disturbed by the moronic questions and objections of the uninitiated.

Third, it has something to do with freedom from the taint of money. It has often been noted how many of the "information wants to be free" school of philosophers had the free use of their employers' or universities' computer networks with which to spread their message. No doubt this is simply tactical opportunism. One consequence of this attitude, it would appear, is that my former employment by an organization that publishes an encyclopedia for profit (that is the intention, anyway) has left me permanently defiled. It would be a mistake, I think, to see this attitude as just an aspect of the wider anticorporate, antiglobalist movement. It is less a political stance than an implication of a positive belief in the efficacy of community and collaboration, a belief that is not open to question or testing and so is an element of dogma.

Fourth, as the term "dogma" might suggest, there is the enormous advantage of having the demands on one's cognitive faculties eased. In order to "get it," one need not work through lengthy disquisitions or demonstrations, nor memorize long tracts, nor be able to uphold one's position in debate before the house. One need only assent. Just a nod, and a couple of passwords, and one need never again be in doubt.

Finally, there is the well understood thrill of believing oneself to be in on the secret and on the right side of history. The Illuminati, if they exist, surely feel this, as did the Bolsheviks and the Anti-Masons and the cargo cultists of New Guinea. No one ever put it better than Dobie Gray when he sang

        I'm in with the In Crowd;
        I go where the In Crowd goes.
        I'm in with the In Crowd,
        And I know what the In Crowd knows.
And, like Peter Pan, who absolutely got it, you need never grow up.

Robert McHenry is Former Editor in Chief, the Encyclop├Ždia Britannica, and author of How to Know (, 2004). His article The Faith-Based Encyclopedia was published in November.


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