Larry Sanger, Wikipedia Co-founder

 By Mary Alice Casey

Posted 12/2/09 

Larry Sanger has made his living on the Internet. He co-founded Wikipedia, one of the world’s top 10 Web sites with more than 65 million visitors monthly, and he now leads two other ambitious online projects. So why does he fear what the Internet is doing to our minds and those of our children? 

What effect do you believe the Internet has had on learning?

For a long time, I thought that the Internet was shaping up to be an unequivocal good in terms of its educational impact. And I still think that it’s really, for the most part, a force for good. It’s amazing that you can find and search the full text of all the great works of literature. You can find out anything about any important topic. . . . 

But the problem, and one I suppose that I didn’t foresee—I think a lot of people didn’t foresee it—was how the instant availability of information would make some people . . . believe that it’s not necessary to actually learn. Because if there’s anything you might want to memorize or solidify in your own mind, well, you can just look it up.  This completely misunderstands the  whole notion of what it is to be educated. It’s extremely pernicious, this idea. And it’s not just an idea; it’s a whole attitude that people live by. . . . We’re getting lazy. . . . We’re getting dumber.

How can we guard against that?

Keep reading books. Keep doing the sorts of things we’ve always done to become well-educated. There are things that the Internet offers, tools for education [such as videos and maps]. . . . 

It’s very sad to me that our younger people and too many people responsible for their education don’t realize how important it is to really carefully study things in depth, to read books about subjects, to look at different media. That’s what studying means. . . . 

The Internet makes it too easy to be a passive consumer of information.

You hold three degrees in philosophy. How have your studies contributed to your Internet projects? 

Studying philosophy has given me the ability to think in a way that is at once very critical and very creative. Philosophers imagine some of the most bizarre propositions and take them seriously and examine whether they might be true or not, even if they’re totally contrary to common sense. That requires a certain amount of imagination or certain amount of willingness to suspend disbelief, I suppose. 

To that extent, I think philosophy can give you a broader outlook on life, a sense of more possibilities than what immediately meets the eye. That’s what a liberal education generally does,
I think, not just philosophy. n

To his credit

Here’s a look at some of Larry Sanger’s past, present, and future projects: Bomis Inc. hired Sanger in February 2000 to serve as editor in chief of Nupedia, a free online encyclopedia to which the public was invited to contribute. When content creation proved too slow, Sanger sought a new approach, eventually employing wiki technology, which allows content to be created and edited easily, and suggesting the name Wikipedia. He left the project in February 2002 when the Internet bubble burst and Bomis was unable to pay him. At the time, Wikipedia featured some 20,000 articles. Today, it is published in more than 260 languages, and the English version boasts more than 3 million articles. Sanger launched this open wiki project, which takes its name from its goal of being a “citizens’ compendium of everything,” in March 2007. Funded by private donations, it seeks to become an “enormous, free, and reliable encyclopedia” that improves on the Wikipedia concept through the use of “gentle expert oversight.” It offers more than 12,000 articles. Sanger’s latest project, which graduated from its beta phase in October, is a directory of free educational videos for children of all ages. Teachers and other contributors link to videos hosted elsewhere on the Web, such as YouTube, and make them accessible in a directory sorted by subject. It currently offers more than 11,000 educational videos. An anonymous philanthropist is providing support. What Sanger describes
as his ultimate Internet endeavor isn’t yet reality, although a proposal for it
can be found at its Web site. He envisions it as a set of projects that would organize the information contained in books, dictionaries, essays, and news articles into a “single outline of human knowledge.”

This story originally appeared in Ohio State Alumni Magazine.