Wiki ‘way back when’

The Odyssey began life as a wiki page.

While that statement is (probably) not true, it’s something I’d like to explore a bit. The Iliad and the Odyssey were written in the eighth century BCE by a Greek bard called Homer. Actually, instead of saying ‘written’, I should say ‘written down’. Because those two books are a collection of stories passed down verbally from bard to bard through the centuries, as a way of retaining the history and philosophy of the loosely-associated groups of people we now call Greeks.

Each bard would learn the stories from another bard. The stories came with standardised chunks of words, to make them easier to remember, plus gaps and opportunities for the new bard to add his own improvisations and improvements. It was a way of storing and continually refining the people’s intellectual property.

That’s kind of what a wiki does.

Then Homer, or someone else with the same name😉 came along and wrote it all down. Suddenly the stories were stuck in a fixed medium. Homer probably got a bit of bad press for that. I’d guess the other bards felt excluded.

SocratesThose ancient Greeks were wise dudes. A few centuries after Homer, Socrates happened along. He was totally opposed to writing things down, because it led to a shallow conception of the truth. But I like to think he’d have made an exception for wikis. Socrates spent his time talking to people, showing them that they knew nothing at all, and persuading them to search for the truth by endless discussion. Every now and then, he’d stop talking and go into a bit of a trance. They say he was a very ugly dude. Yet everyone had great affection and respect for him – well, except for the people who made him swallow poison. And now, two and a half thousand years later, we still know his name.

So, in Socrates’ view, discussion is the best way to get at the final product, or the truth, or at least your best stab at the truth. You keep thinking about it, talking about it, and refining it until the real thing becomes self-evident. A wiki would have helped. Maybe he’d even have avoided death by hemlock, if everyone had been able to see and comment on his philosophy and that of his opponents.

Socrates and Confucius were around at more or less the same time. Confucius, like Socrates, believed that discussion is the best way to arrive at the truth. (OK, so Confucius wasn’t Greek, but he is ancient.) They never met. Would a wiki have brought them together? Imagine how different the world would be now. Hmmm, Microsoft might never have been thought of.

Democracy took off in Greece around the fifth century BCE. Any eloquent man could have his say in the Assembly. (Women and slaves were excluded, but hey, it was a while ago now.) You didn’t have to be a nobleman to get your voice heard. A wiki is a bit like that too. On a corporate wiki, anyone can put up their opinions, theories and ideas. And if they do it well, they may get more readers than the CEO. A wiki is a great leveller.

So what about the present day – what comes to mind when I think of Greek people? Corner cafés, with people talking and gesturing over good coffee and baclava. Planning, proposing and refining concepts. That’s a good image for a wiki.

Some dates and things:

  • Homer, about the 8th century BCE, Greek bard credited with writing the Iliad and the Odyssey and other poems (though some people say there was no such person).
  • Confucius, about 551-479 BCE, Chinese philosopher and teacher.
  • Socrates, about 469–399 BCE, Greek philosopher and teacher. Plato was his pupil, and wrote down much of what he said. I guess Plato would have liked a wiki too.
  • BCE = before the common era. The common era started in the year 1. We are now in the year 2007. So 800 BCE is about 2800 years ago.
  • OK, so Confucius and Socrates may not have been around at exactly the same time. But I think we’re probably not precise with these dates. Anyway, allow me a bit of artistic licence here.

About Sarah Maddox

Technical writer, author and blogger in Sydney

Posted on 6 October 2007, in philosophy, wiki and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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