And we’re just supposed to take his word for it
Every once in a while, Jimbo Wales will mistakenly schedule an interview with a reporter or talk-show host who is actually willing to broach the subject of how Wikipedia might cause problems for society overall, or have negative effects on individuals or social institutions. In most such situations, his response is to point out that Wikipedia is “benign,” as if this is somehow self-evident, and that he fails to understand how or why anyone could possibly think otherwise.
Unfortunately, many highly successful technological innovations, no matter how seemingly “benign” they might be when considered at face value, can actually have devastating unintended consequences. One example of this is the modern toilet. Like Wikipedia, the toilet is a receptacle for human effluvia and other waste products. Unlike Wikipedia, it’s a fairly simple mechanical device that provides a seemingly clean and efficient means of disposing of that waste, minimizing its unpleasant stench and effectively eliminating the equally-unpleasant task of manual removing it from people’s homes. Nearly 200 years after its invention, it is difficult to imagine a modern, “civilized” society without toilets. But when they were first introduced, the story was rather different - indeed, a case study of disastrous unintended consequences.
In fact, the toilet, much like today’s Web 2.0, was introduced into a society for which a public infrastructure sufficient to deal with its effects simply did not exist. Traditionally, human waste in cities was removed from homes by residents or servants, dumped in large public cesspools, and later taken away by various people for use in agriculture, tanning, and other purposes, and also for fuel. Needless to say, the stench was horrendous, but the process was relatively safe from a epidemiological perspective; it was, in effect, an early form of recycling. Early toilets, however, were plumbed so as to simply dump waste into public sewers. But early 19th-century sewers had been designed to carry water runoff from streets during rainstorms, not to handle large volumes of unprocessed human waste. The sewers usually led directly into rivers and streams that were then used as public water supplies, not into the kind of sewage treatment plants society has now to process such waste and prevent the contamination of drinking water.
As toilet use increased, sewer systems became overwhelmed and, in many cities, overflowed and failed on a regular basis, seeping into public wells and spreading toxic contamination even more widely. It took some cities decades (and enormous amounts of public money) to catch up with the “improved” technology of waste removal brought about by the increased use of toilets, but in the meantime, hundreds of thousands of city-dwellers worldwide died of cholera and other lethal bacterial epidemics that would not have spread anywhere near as widely under the older, ostensibly less “modern” system.
In the end, the invention of the toilet forced cities to retrofit their sewers with expensive sealed drainage pipes which usually led into segregated containment areas (the precursors to sewage-treatment plants). Increased deaths from cholera, typhoid fever, and amoebic dysentery also helped accelerate the development of the microbiological sciences. However, it could very easily be argued that microbiology could have developed just as readily without hundreds of thousands of deaths resulting from poor sanitation, indirectly caused by a highly popular, “benign” technological innovation unleashed on an unsuspecting society that was structurally unprepared for it, and unable to predict its side-effects. A society better prepared for such a drastic change in waste-removal procedure could have saved many, if not most, of those people.
So, we have to ask the question: Could Wikipedia actually kill people? That might be a subject for another blog post, but we mustn’t forget that Wikipedia, one of the most popular and exhaustively informational sites on the worldwide internet, is an extremely effective vehicle for Western cultural and technological hegemony. Spreading Western culture via communications technology doesn’t merely threaten the uniqueness and vitality of other cultures; it means greater demand for cars, televisions, Microsoft Windows, credit cards, advanced weaponry, Jimmy Buffett, and a whole host of other things that the entire world might actually be better off without.