Mary Wakefield: Wikipedia doesn't have all the answers

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So Wikipedia is dying, scuppered by its power-hungry editors who guard their turf too zealously and delete new entries. It was (is still) such a noble project, it should be a tragedy that people have stopped contributing to it.

It should be a tragedy, but for me I'm afraid it's been a relief. News of its demise has coincided with a growing awareness that over the past few years I have become dependent on Wikipedia, a wiki-addict. The way I use Wikipedia is compulsive and continuous. Its tendrils have grown up around and into my brain like ivy, and like ivy they've begun to sap the energy from the living thing beneath.

It was always the intention of internet evangelists that the worldwide web should become, not just a resource but an actual part of man's mind.

"If you had all the world's information attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you'd be better off" said Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google. I'm a moron about the internet. I don't know where it is or what it's made of. But from a user's perspective, I think, with huge respect, that Sergey is dangerously wrong.

The first pernicious effect of my wiki-addiction is that I no longer ever admit to ignorance. If (when) in the course of conversation someone mentions a place or a politician I don't know, instead of asking for guidance I nod wisely as if I'm an expert, while secretly and simultaneously tapping Wikipedia for the info.

I'd always assumed that I was a lone charlatan in a world of experts, but I have proof that it's not just me. After an office-wide debate this week I leapt up and took a brisk walk around the island of desks and found the history of our collective conversation mapped out on colleagues' computer screens – names Wikipediad, facts Googled. I live in a den of wiki-frauds.

So Wikipedia creates a world in which no one can be wrong, but worse: I suspect it's building a community of amnesiacs. I upload information from cyberspace to cerebrum almost every minute of every day, but I rarely retain a single fact. I have Wikipediad great oceans of information over the years. I should by now be an expert on shadow cabinet ministers, dog breeds, the jellyfish of the Marian trench. I should be able to bore on for hours about anthropogenic global warming or the workings of the Cern collider. Instead, my mind contains just one feeble little thought: "I'm sure I used to know something about that." Though I stamp my foot and demand that my mind retrieve the facts, all I can summon up is an overwhelming urge to Google. Where does all the info go? Perhaps Sergey Brin would say that it doesn't matter, that the internet will serve as a replacement memory. Wikipedia may crumble but other sites will rise take its place. I need never remember again.

But it's not just about the missing facts; it's that the patterns of behaviour I learn online have begun to affect my real, non-virtual life. I no longer find it easy to concentrate on long and serious articles. Yes, I'll search for them online, yes I'll print them out – but then they're left unread. I find it an effort now to read a serious book or listen to a complicated anecdote without drifting off, longing for easy-to-digest Wikipedia-style snippets.

I may be imagining this last effect (and it's not of course just Wikipedia's fault), but I think I've also noticed a sort of manic multitasking around the house that mirrors the way I work on a computer – flitting from one task to another, doing everything simultaneously to avoid serious concentration.

I've found (through Google, obviously) a book by a developmental psychologist called Maryanne Wolf (Proust and the Squid) which makes the very good point that we are not only what we read but how we read. When we read online we are "mere decoders of information", she says, rather than deep thinkers, analysts and interpreters.

So encouraged by Maryanne, kick the wiki-habit week begins on Monday. Time for serious concentrated thoughts, in-depth offline reading and most important: a readiness to admit to not having a clue.

Women still find murder an aberration

Everything about Jane Andrews Fergie's former aide who was on the lam from jail last week, was riveting, but most interesting of all was the way men and women reacted completely differently to her story. I've noticed this before with other female murderers. A girl reader's response is to think of violent women as an aberration: isn't it weird and abnormal? Male readers, on the other hand, nod with grim satisfaction, as if Andrews et al somehow demonstrate that all women are psychos at heart.

The Yanks have got our SuBo right

*Bless America for taking lovely Susan Boyle to heart and for accepting her, oddities and all. As much as we cheer on SuBo over here, we also tear her apart and poke fun of her hip swivels and thumb-sucking. We can't help it. It's in our nature. We often sneer at Yanks for being sentimental but in this case they're right. SuBo should send for Pebbles the cat and stay stateside, basking in America's uncomplicated adoration.

Low hopes of hi-tech wonders

*The Human Genetics Commission has reported that police are routinely arresting people to collect DNA for their exciting new database – as if somehow the more hi-tech information they gather the less crime there'll be. I suspect the opposite may be true. This week I had my first experience of security technology in action and it seemed to present criminals not with a problem but with terrific opportunities.

I was at Gatwick, home from holiday, about to join the depressing EU queue when, as the holder of a sexy new biometric passport, I was ushered towards the chip machines. Hooray! Innovation! The usually dour immigration ladies were smiling proudly, letting their hands trail over the machines in the manner of car salesroom girls. Poor ladies. Their smiles soon faded. My chip refused to register, as did the chips of others near me. We pressed our passports lovingly on to the scanner again but no joy. The screen just said "no entry". So what to do when hi-tech fails? Oh never mind, said the airport staff and waved us through unchecked.

*I know it's possible to overdo the business of Christmas card analysis, but this year David Cameron's cards have given me a shiver of anxiety about the man who would be PM. First there's that horrid logo – the Tory tree scribble – which appears on every card. A reminder of Dave's background in PR. Then there's the message – "seasons greetings" – when only two years ago DC said that cards which don't mention Christmas were "insulting tosh". It's not the hypocrisy that worries me so much as the suspicion that in a really professional political outfit, some spin doctor would have seen the problem coming a mile off.

*It's fashionable for politicians to pretend to care about transparency these days (over expenses, say) but don't believe a word of it. As of a few weeks ago, the Coroners Bill became law, which means that whenever it fancies, the Government can hold secret inquests into controversial deaths such as that of Jean Charles de Menezes. MPs of all political stripes voted this horror through and in doing so showed how little they really care what normal people think.

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