(The following is excerpted and condensed from an op-ed in yesterday's Washington Post.)
In the past year, Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that "anyone can edit," has been cited four times as often as the Encyclopedia Britannica in judicial opinions, and the number is rapidly growing. In just two years, YouTube has become a household word and one of the world's most successful Web sites. Such astounding growth and success demonstrate society's unstoppable movement toward shared production of information, as diverse groups of people in multiple fields pool their knowledge and draw from each other's resources.
Developing one of the most important ideas of the 20th century, Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek attacked socialist planning on the grounds that no planner could possibly obtain the "dispersed bits" of information held by individual members of society. Hayek insisted that the knowledge of individuals, taken as a whole, is far greater than that of any commission or board, however diligent and expert. The magic of the system of prices and of economic markets is that they incorporate a great deal of diffuse knowledge.
Wikipedia's entries are not exactly prices, but they do aggregate the widely dispersed information of countless volunteer writers and editors. In this respect, Wikipedia is merely one of many experiments in aggregating knowledge and creativity, that have been made possible by new technologies.
The Central Intelligence Agency disclosed the existence of its top-secret Intellipedia project, based on Wikipedia software (and now containing more than 28,000 pages), in late October. The agency hopes to use dispersed information to reduce the risk of intelligence failures. NASA officials have adopted a wiki site to program NASA software, allowing many participants to make improvements. . . .
But wikis are merely one way to assemble dispersed knowledge. The number of prediction markets has also climbed over the past decade. These markets aggregate information by inviting people to "bet" on future events -- the outcome of elections, changes in gross domestic product, the likelihood of a natural disaster or an outbreak of avian flu. . . . (If you want to learn who is likely to win the Oscars, check out the Hollywood Stock Exchange at http://www.hsx.com.) . . .
Of course, collaborative projects can go badly wrong. Pranksters have altered Wikipedia entries to say that Tony Blair's middle name is "Whoop-de Do"; that David Beckham was a Chinese goalkeeper in the 18th century; that the golfer Fuzzy Zoeller had abused alcohol and drugs; and that John Seigenthaler, a respected journalist, was thought to be involved in the assassinations of both Kennedys (before absconding to the Soviet Union).
The falsehoods about Zoeller and Seigenthaler were no laughing matter, and more serious mistakes, endangering reputations or causing financial losses, are possible. Anyone can vandalize an encyclopedia that "anyone can edit." No less than stock prices, prediction markets may be subject to manipulation. And in medicine and biotechnology, as elsewhere, intellectual property law may be needed to provide adequate incentives for innovation.
But the track record of the new collaborations suggests that they have immense potential. In just a few years, Wikipedia has become the most influential encyclopedia in the world, consulted by judges as well as those who cannot afford to buy books. If the past is prologue, we're seeing the tip of a very large iceberg.