The collecting and sharing of information is probably as old as the human race. It is a vital and instinctive process, allowing societies to maintain traditions, advance, and, at a basic level, survive. Moreover, it provides opportunities for collaborative work both within and beyond the community.
However, this is not necessarily a positive or even benign process. In creating loci of knowledge there are important implications regarding the sources, motivation, and implementation of the material. Michel Foucault is useful here, identifying some values associated with the knowledge/power structure:
Perhaps we should abandon the belief that power makes mad and that, by the same token, the renunciation of power is one of the conditions of knowledge. We should admit rather that power produces knowledge; that power and knowledge directly imply one another; that there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.
While Foucault is concerned mainly with the exploitation of knowledge to facilitate control, these ideas can be helpful in considering the restrictive and empowering possibilities of an encyclopedic work. Works created and maintained by only a few—rather than a community—present a dictatorial knowledge source representing the limited intellectual will of its creators. It is possible for an excellent encyclopedia to be created in this manner, however, it subjugates its readers to its inherent associated controls.
How this process has occurred has changed dramatically over time, and I plan to examine three major incarnations, each of which has presented a unique power/knowledge structure: oral traditions, encyclopedias, and wikis, specifically Wikipedia. These mediums represent the two most traditional forms of encyclopedic (as in comprehensive) knowledge, and the latest attempt to codify human knowledge.