Close Mobile Menu

Mitch Kapor Loves Wikipedia

March 31, 2010
by Patrick Dillon

An interview with technology entrepreneur and internet visionary Mitch Kapor

Mitch Kapor has been a commercial disc jockey, Transcendental Meditation teacher, mental health worker, and computer programmer. He bought an Apple II personal computer in 1978 and, four years later, founded Lotus Development Corp., creating software known as Lotus 1-2-3, which enabled personal computers to be deployed in the business world. Nearly 30 years later, he’s still advocating democratizing software development and the delivery of high-quality software, arguing that the more open and available information is, the greater the payoff to society. He is a guest lecturer at Cal’s School of Information Management and Systems, collaborating with law professor Pamela Samuelson to explore the economic and social implications of open-source computing, whose most recent manifestation—Wikipedia—is an online encyclopedia written, corrected, and updated by its users. In this interview, he discusses his fascination with emerging Internet communities and the future of the Internet itself, which he thinks may outpace software behemoths such as Microsoft, and—dare we say it—even current Internet powerhouse Google.

How has Internet use changed during the past decade?

A decade ago we were at the dawn of that era, and not at all clear about what it was going to be like. Now we are part of the way into it, so some things, like e-mail and e-commerce, we can safely assume are going to be major features of life for the next half century. And there are new phenomena rising out of the Internet that were utterly—or almost utterly—unanticipated, like Wikipedia, which is creating a new online community bent on upgrading our communal knowledge. We’re not at the end of innovation, we’re at the beginning.

You love Wikipedia. Describe it.

Wikipedia is an encyclopedia on the Internet that aspires to have all the world’s knowledge, which is entirely created and maintained by the people who use it. And it’s free, in all of the languages that people speak. That’s the aspiration. Every page, every article is editable by anyone at any time. It’s bigger now than Britannica. It’s certainly more current. It’s remarkable that something like this would work at all—much less work well—most of the time.

But where is the systematic arbitration of truth? Where is the gatekeeping?

Who said the arbitration of truth is ever systematic? Or that it could be or should be? Who said that quality emerges out of gatekeeping? There are issues of information quality in Wikipedia. There was recently an entry that was put in as basically some kind of joke, which made an untrue allegation that went unchallenged for several months. But that’s the exception, not the rule. If there are issues of information quality, you then ask the right question. The right question is not, “Why is Wikipedia bad?” The question is, “How do you manage to be so good?” Not perfect, given how it operates. In other words, there are new phenomena—it’s a bit like the immune system. It’s emerging. It trains itself.

Is that its beauty?

Yes. When people hear any page can be edited at any time by anybody, they’re horrified. Because they imagine that mostly means people are going to say stupid, wrong things, or advance their agendas because there are no controls. Because there’s no one in charge. They think you have to have somebody in charge. I say the fact that any page can be edited by anybody at any time means every single bit of it can always be improved. If there is a problem, you can fix it. Or somebody else can. Or you can say, “This ought to be fixed,” and post a note—and then somebody else comes along and fixes it. So the dynamics for improvement—assuming that’s what the community believes in, and that there’s a critical mass of people that value that—that’s what drives up the quality and the usefulness. There’s got to be a critical mass of people who believe in democracy and are willing to practice it, or it’ll wither and die. So this Tinkerbell idea that you have to believe in it—which people are going to identify as a weakness—is a fundamental condition of all social systems. Money is also an illusion. If we stop believing in money, the whole system breaks down. People construct long, irrefutable, beautiful arguments about it, but money is still an illusion. So is democracy.

Describe the community around Open Source. Have we passed the threshold of acceptance? What are the key attributes?

Well, there are many different communities. They have some attributes in common. You have communities of software developers who work on large projects, whether it’s Linux (an open-source operating system enabling computers to perform multiple tasks), or the Mozilla project (providing intellectual property and funds to develop open-source software projects), or the Firefox Web browser. You also have a community of people who contribute to Wikipedia. They don’t have the same technical skills, they don’t write code. They actually write text and edit and so on. But they’re all collaborative undertakings, meaning they succeed because people are able to cooperate voluntarily. There’s no hierarchy. There’s nobody in charge. It’s not a business. People are there because they want to be there. But the interesting thing is, unlike a lot of groups and discourse on the Internet that is very fractious, these communities actually work. They’re tied together by values and practices and they get things done. But how do they manage this? What is it like as a production process? What are the motivations? How is the activity coordinated if nobody’s in charge? That’s worth studying.

In an open-source era, where will a proprietary power such as Microsoft stand?

Well, it’s antithetical to their business models. They’re going to shift to providing services. I think it’s important, actually, not to make a complete dichotomy between Open Source and Microsoft because you have a variety of very popular kinds of services, like the Google services—Gmail and Google maps—that are free. They are open to that extent, because if you are a developer, you can remix or you can match using Google maps and so on. But they’re not fully open. The source code isn’t open. They control the data. So here’s the question: What will be the most stable, profitable new forms? And to what extent are some of them going to be more purely Open Source? Will everything be open? To what extent are some of them going to be intermediate kinds of things?

What about Google. Is Google evil?

(Laughing) Ask a metaphysician.

It’s a rhetorical play on their motto—Don’t do evil.

The founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, grew up around the Internet. They could not imagine life without it. And the Internet has to be open and participatory. A Google search engine makes no sense if there isn’t this large, vibrant Internet. So in that sense, they can never take over the Internet. The thought wouldn’t occur to them to do that, whereas Microsoft, and others, in earlier phases, actually had the aspiration to take over the Internet, which would have been a very bad thing. So Google’s aspirations, in my view, are not for the kind of complete world domination that you sometimes see. On the other hand, they have a large, overarching ambition to exercise dominion in ways that there’s no guarantee would be in everybody else’s interests. The jury is still out. They’ll be judged—not by the slogan—but by their actions and their impact. The problem, as John Perry Barlow has pointed out, is that corporations are like organisms: They fight for their own survival. Large organizations have a way of becoming self-referential—what matters is their success. And in the course of pursuing what large corporations assume to be their rightful destiny, they’ve often done great amounts of harm and damage.

You didn’t even mention their lack of transparency. They don’t want anybody cracking their code, including the Justice Department.

Right. It’s like, how open should things be? I’ll tell you where I think the rubber may hit the road on that. They have services. Yahoo has services. But the data in those services, even if it is created by individual users, is owned by them, and you can’t get at it in its entirety. Not so with Wikipedia. You can, by virtue of its license, download the whole Wikipedia. There are 200 websites that just mirror Wikipedia and sell ads. It’s not a value-added kind of thing, but they do it because they can. The value in Wikipedia is the community. You can get what everyone has already contributed for free. But the real value of these peer-production systems is that they’re ongoing, that they have a community that contributes not only today but will contribute tomorrow, and the next week, and the next week. If they don’t stop doing that, the service retains its value. And there are benefits to making it totally open, which will be a competitive advantage against those who don’t. So the long-term future favors more radical openness, but that could be a long way off.

With John Perry Barlow, you founded the Electronic Frontier Foundation advocating both privacy and openness. How do you reconcile this seeming incongruity—openness and privacy?

I believe in the power of voluntary associations and the collaborative effort of individuals freely joining together because they have shared values and practices. And three of the values for those collaborative efforts that I believe in very strongly are openness and transparency and accountability. At the same time, though, whether an individual chooses to join and what they choose to put in or not put in, i.e., where they have their boundary between self and not-self privacy, I think is very much an individual choice. It’s not in fundamental conflict because it’s at a different level. But I don’t think that exhausts the question. Another arena where the balance between openness and privacy comes up is institutions. That’s where we need accountability. How is the government spending our money? Who did what? I also believe in privacy for individuals’ protection—for people to lead their lives free from surveillance and free from unwarranted interference. These issues become practical when someone locates where you are by your cell phone and when people surrender huge amounts of privacy because of the way technical systems are designed. They do not have to be designed in that fashion. You could give people more privacy and some anonymity and still track traffic patterns and flows.

But isn’t that antithetical to governmental control?

Right. But a lot of it happens because technology is so complicated. There’s a disconnect between the policymakers and the technologists about that. It’s easier to build things that require people to surrender their privacy. Some of it is not explicit, like the Patriot Act is. Some of the loss of privacy is an emergent phenomenon.

If a company such as Google can afford to hire rocket scientists, couldn’t they easily afford to hire an ethicist to consider societal sensibilities during their programming? And a sociologist, and someone from Boalt Hall, too?

They could and ought to be thinking about those things. And to date, the concerns about what Google is doing with Gmail have been coming more from the fringe and the theoretical. That underplays the seriousness of the issue for the long term. I have a Gmail account—all my mail is in Gmail. There are no safeguards in place, so it is subject to abuse. I’ll share this rumor even though I can’t remember where I heard it. I’m gossip mongering: People from Microsoft and Yahoo do searches on Google. Google could, in tracking the search queries from Microsoft and Yahoo domains, analyze them to see what subjects they’re studying.

Of course, open source spying?

Should they be doing that? No. Is it against Google’s policy? I don’t know, it might be. Is it happening? If I were Google, I would be worried about this. And I would be doing things about it. First, I’d worry as to whether I had the right policies in place. I’d put some teeth in them. Second, I would see if there were some technical ways of protecting people’s privacy better that was auditable. I don’t know if that’s possible, but they’ve got a lot of rocket scientists, so they could put them to work on it.

Do you feel romantic about Wikipedia?

Unfortunately, yes. I have to say that’s who I am. I recognize that’s something in my character. It’s not a universal. I don’t think other people will, or should, get as passionate or excited about it. Some people like to ride horses. Some people paint pictures. I work in information technology innovation—and have for 25-plus years—and Wikipedia is the most interesting thing out there. But setting aside romantic notions for the moment, Wikipedia is very important for what it portends. There will be more things like it. It will be transformative. My bet is that it will be like the personal computer. When I bought my Apple II in 1978, long before they became a major factor on the scene, I said personal computers were going to be big—there’s going to be millions of these things. I didn’t say billions because that was too audacious. But I was on it then, and I also saw the rise of the Internet as a global resource in the late eighties and early nineties. I look at Wikipedia and things like it—these non-commerce-based, peer production systems, and I say, “very important.” Embryonic today in terms of their impact, but transformative in the ways they will become central to everybody’s life in the next decade or two. So you don’t have to be a romantic to believe.

Patrick Dillon is the executive editor of California magazine.

From the March April 2006 Can We Know Everything issue of California.

Share this article