Moulton Lava

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Abolishing the Wikipedia Bans As a Governance Tool

The following article originally appeared as an add-on comment in the P2P Foundation's blog. Michel Bauwens, the editor of the site, elevated the comment to a main article in its own right.

The governance model of Wikipedia was so anachronistic that it took me over a year to place it in the timeline of historic governance models adopted at various times in the annals of human history.

The thing that stymied me was the prominence of blocking and banning as the primary tool of governance. I simply couldn’t place that among the recognized tools of governance in any historic context.

And then I happened to take a look at the oldest surviving account of secular law — the Code of Hammurabi of 1760 BC.

Of the 282 laws that Hammurabi of Mesopotamia carved into the stone tablets, take note of the very first one:

1. If any one ensnare another, putting a ban upon him, but he can not prove it, then he that ensnared him shall be put to death.

Evidently, banning (ostracism) was a common practice in the tribal cultures in the Middle East some 4000 years ago, at the dawn of civilization. Capricious and spurious banning was evidently such a common and egregious abuse of tribal overlords that Hammurabi made it a capital offense to ban someone without proving just cause.

And yet, on Wikipedia, indefinite blocks and bans without due process are a common occurrence. That is to say, the prevailing governance model of Wikipedia corresponds to a pre-Hammurabic tribal ochlocracy that is so anachronistic, it predates the advent of the Rule of Law.

When Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders drafted the US Constitution, one of the provisions they put in Article One was a prohibition against Bills of Attainder. A Bill of Attainder is the technical term in the law for declaring a person to be an outlaw (without respect to having violated any specific law that applies equally to everyone). The Founders excluded Bills of Attainder from the tools of governance because 4000 years of political history had demonstrated that such a toxic practice is corrosive and ridden with corruption, and invariably sinks any government that comes to rely on it.

The irony here is that Wikipedia purports to be the “sum of all knowledge” with an educational mission that reaches out to students, teachers, and scholars around the world. And yet those exercising power in Wikipedia have not yet learned the oldest and most profound lessons in the annals of human history — lessons enshrined in the first written law and in the first article of the US Constitution.

The consequence of adopting such an anachronistic governance model is that Wikipedians are fated to relive and reify the long-forgotten lessons of history. They relive those lessons by reprising the same kind of political dramas that fill the history books since the dawn of civilization.

The anachronistic governance model which Jimbo Wales foolishly and mindlessly introjected into Wikipedia is simply not a sustainable model in this day and age. Summary and capricious banning wasn’t even a sustainable model some 3768 years ago when Hammurabi first singled it out as an unacceptable practice in a civilized culture.

So what to do about it? The answer can be found in the second law of Hammurabi’s Code. As Hammurabi advises, the solution is to tell them to go jump in the lake.

Or as they say in Yiddish, Nem zich a vaneh!

Further comments by readers of the P2P Foundation may be found here. Additional comments by participants of Wikipedia Review may be found here.

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