Beyond the legacy of the Enlightenment? Online encyclopaedias as digital heterotopias
First Monday

Beyond the legacy of the Enlightenment? Online encyclopaedias as digital heterotopias

This article explores how we can understand contemporary participatory online encyclopaedic expressions, particularly Wikipedia, in their traditional role as continuation of the Enlightenment ideal, as well as in the distinctly different space of the Internet. Firstly we position these encyclopaedias in a historical tradition. Secondly, we assign them a place in contemporary digital networks which marks them out as sites in which Enlightenment ideals of universal knowledge take on a new shape. We argue that the Foucauldian concept of heterotopia, that is special spaces which exist within society, transferred online, can serve to understand Wikipedia and similar participatory online encyclopaedias in their role as unique spaces for the construction of knowledge, memory and culture in late modern society.


Types of online encyclopaedias
The Enlightenment and the encyclopaedic tradition
Online encyclopaedias and heterotopia
Wikipedia: The rules of the house and its architecture
Knowledge spaces: The end of knowledge as we know it?




In Flaubert’s (2005 [1881]) novel Bouvard and Pécuchet the main characters, two Parisian copy clerks after which the book is named, retire, move to the countryside and initiate a number of projects in which they try to realise what they know from books in real life. They cover just about any branch of knowledge, from agriculture via education to politics. Needless to say, all their ambitious projects fail miserably. What drives them is their blind faith in Enlightenment ideals, above all the rationality of mankind and of human knowledge and the possibility of getting access to this knowledge through encyclopaedias, dictionaries and other written sources.

Bouvard and Pécuchet was published (unfinished) after Flaubert’s death. The book is sometimes said to be a forestalling of post–modernity, especially because of Flaubert’s ironic take on the ideal of lossless representation of universal knowledge [1]. At the end of the novel, Bouvard and Pécuchet give up their grand plans and instead start working on a Dictionary of accepted ideas.

When hundreds of thousand people contribute to the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia every day, they are engaged in the continuation of an Enlightenment project which can be traced back a long time in history, a tradition in which also Bouvard and Pécuchet stand [2]. However, they are not simply late modern re–incarnations of Flaubert’s eccentric heroes Bouvard and Pécuchet, they are also participating in something new and altogether contemporary.

The wish to gather and organise all human knowledge in one ‘information system’ is certainly not a new one; neither is the desire to give people access to this knowledge in order to help them make rational choices and lead a more enlightened life. Clear historical ties exist between today’s online encyclopaedias, such as Wikipedia, and related projects, with the manifold examples of earlier encyclopaedias and libraries with ambitions of universal character. In this sense, it is certainly no coincidence that in 2008 the new library of Alexandria was chosen as the location for Wikimania 2008 (cf., Pentzold, 2009), an annual conference for participators in various wiki projects.

In its modern manifestation, however, the encyclopaedic project goes back to the age of Enlightenment. As such, it carries with it, as Yeo [3] points out, “assumptions about the public character of information and the desirability of free intellectual and political exchange that became distinctive features of the European enlightenment.” These assumptions find their continuation in today’s online encyclopaedias. The most famous one of these is arguably Wikipedia, which takes the ideal of free and public accessibility further than any other encyclopaedia before it. It describes itself as the encyclopaedia that “anyone can edit” [4], and this is exactly how it works. Anybody who is online can contribute to Wikipedia’s content and structure. However, while they continue enlightenment ideals, Wikipedia and other participatory online encyclopaedias also have characteristics which distinguish them from their predecessors. These, we argue, seem to be mainly the result of the place where they exist, the Internet. Yet, if they are the same, but different, then what needs to be asked is, how can we understand them in their traditional role as continuation of the Enlightenment ideal, as well as situated and embedded in the distinctly different space of online networks? This is the main question we will focus our attention on.

It seems to us there are two interconnected issues that then need to be explored — an issue of time and an issue of space: On the one hand, there is the line that can be drawn through the centuries from various earlier manifestations of the Enlightenment ideal up to today’s online encyclopaedias — not neglecting of course the changes and shifts that have occurred. On the other hand, there is the position of these sites existing within the networked space of the Internet. Hence, what we will do in the following can be subsumed as follows: Firstly we will position contemporary participatory online encyclopaedias in a longstanding tradition. Secondly, we will assign them, and especially Wikipedia, a special place in contemporary digital networks. This place marks them out as sites in which Enlightenment ideals of universal knowledge take on a new shape and where today’s metaphorical Bouvards and Pécuchets get new and finally more purposeful tasks to carry out. Significantly, these are tasks at which they succeed.

Thus, we will sketch a very rough line connecting contemporary online encyclopaedias back to some of their enlightened predecessors. We pick out a small number of encyclopaedic projects which existed throughout history and which are interesting because of their utopian aspirations and scale, but also because of their underlying ideals of education and knowledge for the greater good of the people as well as of a universal knowledge system. These are ideals which they share with contemporary online projects. Yet in their manifestation it is also that which distinguishes them from the newer versions. We will then argue that the Foucauldian (1998 [1967]) concept of heterotopia, that are special spaces which exist within society, transferred online, can serve to understand Wikipedia and similar participatory online encyclopaedias in their role as unique spaces for the construction of knowledge, memory, and culture.

In the following, while we will discuss various kinds of other encyclopaedic projects, what we particularly have in mind is Wikipedia. And what we want to come at is a better understanding of the encyclopaedic tradition in which it stands as well as of its uniquely contemporary character which for one breaks with the tradition of controlled expertise and secondly makes it constitute a digital space which is more and something different than a (printed) encyclopaedia.

To keep things short, we will discuss how Wikipedia can be regarded as a contemporary heterotopia connecting Enlightenment and modern traditions of encyclopaedism with a late modern notion of production, organisation and consumption of knowledge. First of all, however, to clarify what we talk about and to situate Wikipedia in the appropriate context, we will look at the various types of existing online encyclopaedias. Subsequently, we turn to introducing Foucault’s notion of heterotopia.



Types of online encyclopaedias

Traditionally, an encyclopaedia aspires to exhaustive coverage of knowledge, either of a specific field or of some sort of idealised total of all human knowledge. It is typically divided into separate ‘articles’ written by different authors or, in the case of Wikipedia and similar projects, of an unnamed author collective in which the individual author remains anonymous. Furthermore, the separate articles are often, but not always, related to each other in some kind of systematic order and/or with cross references.

Somewhat simplified, we can distinguish between roughly three types of online encyclopaedias. Firstly, there are what we could call traditional online encyclopaedias, often moved onto the Web from earlier print versions. For instance, Encyclopaedia Britannica Online is a more or less direct conversion of the printed into an online version. By contrast, Microsoft’s Encarta is, or rather was — since it was discontinued in late 2009 — an online encyclopaedia produced only and specifically for digital display (originally on CD–ROM). Although, Encarta meant the introduction of multimedia in encyclopaedias during the 1990s, it still functions very much like a traditional encyclopaedia. These transfer the traditional Enlightenment ideals to digital environments and are produced and used very much like printed encyclopaedias. Except of course, they have better possibilities for updating content, new search functions, multimedia display and they make use of hyperlinks. As a business model, these encyclopaedias have had difficulties to compete in the online environment and the discontinuation of Encarta is but one telling example of this.

Secondly, there are — what we might term — calculating online encyclopaedias. Actually, encyclopaedia is better kept in the singular, since until now this type is represented only by one example, Wolfram|Alpha ( Even if it is more of a cross between an ‘expert system’ and an encyclopaedia, it is equally universal in its ambitions and in its manifestation it is clearly related. Also, as we will see later, it stands in the same historical tradition. Wolfram|Alpha aims at giving precise answers to user questions and at doing so with mathematical precision. It does this by drawing on an enormous database of collected, controlled and reviewed information.

Finally, there are user–generated or participatory encyclopaedias. These invite users not just to read, but also welcome them as co–workers in the knowledge building process itself. As the name suggests, they are based on user generated and participatory content production and organisation. It is currently the most influential kind. While there exist others, Wikipedia is arguably the most successful encyclopaedia based on this model. In fact, Wikipedia is so successful it has come to personify this type, not to say it personifies online encyclopaedias in general. Wikipedia involves hundreds of thousands of contributors all over the world. They make it a highly successful and up–to–date encyclopaedia. However, these participants also make Wikipedia into something more and different. For one of course, they turn it into a site (or rather many sites) in a worldwide and contemporary movement for (adult) education in the spirit of the Enlightenment. Secondly, as Christian Pentzold (2009) argues convincingly, they establish it as a global memory place, as a site in which the presence turns into history while it happens, and which is, we would like to add, a special kind of digital heterotopia [5].

Foucault’s (1998 [1967]) concept of heterotopia opens up intriguing possibilities for understanding Wikipedia as a digital knowledge and memory space. With heterotopia Foucault means “actually realized utopias in which the real emplacements, all the other real emplacements that can be found within the culture are, at the same time, represented, contested and reversed” [6]. Heterotopias are spaces inside and yet simultaneously outside society, best described perhaps as beside the ‘normal’ spaces of society.

There are numerous examples and different kinds, also changing over time, yet what they all have in common is that some of the ‘normal’ rules for society’s cultural spaces are arrested or that they contain other spaces and other chronologies within their confines. Famous examples include a cemetery, ship, brothel, garden, theatre, cinema, and of course our foremost memory institutions, libraries and museums and, we can add, archives.

Libraries, archives and museums, can be understood as heterotopias in the sense that artefacts, and representations of artefacts, all with different chronologies, are located simultaneously in spaces in which these objects of knowledge are assigned different meanings. They are “heterotopias of time that accumulates indefinitely” and in which “time never ceases to pile up and perch on its own summit” [7].

If we see the Internet as a networked space consisting of various interlinked sites of all kinds of cultural expressions and activities — including online versions of cemeteries and brothels — then it is intriguing to propose an understanding of participatory online encyclopaedias, and most notably of Wikipedia, as heterotopias within this space. It is all the more tempting to make this translation if we follow Christian Pentzold in his understanding of Wikipedia as a global memory place (Pentzold, 2009). This, we argue, also allows for Wikipedia and similar online encyclopaedias to be situated in the twenty–first century and to be understood as more than merely continuation and culmination of the project of enlightenment, which they are, yet they are also something else.

In order to develop this argument, however, we will first turn our attention backwards in time and concentrate on some earlier projects to which Wikipedia is a successor and an apostate. And we will begin with a very physical collection, the library.



The Enlightenment and the encyclopaedic tradition

History is full of examples of utopian dreams of universally organised and accessibly systemised knowledge [8] and equally many disappointments. Often cited is the case of Etienne–Louis Boullée, who back in 1785 developed a plan for a royal library measuring 30x100 meters. At the time, the size must have seemed enormous. Yet the rapid increase in the number of books, which also occurred at this time, quickly made the library too small and the human capacity to survey and comprehend became fast insufficient (Chartier, 1994). However, even then this was no novelty:

We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Unless we try to prevent this danger by separating those books which we must throw out or leave in oblivion from those which one should save and within the latter between what is useful and what is not. [9]

When the Sisyphean task of collecting the entire world’s books in one place proved impossible, the idea of bibliographies of various kinds began to take shape [10]. Universal bibliographies and catalogues are on most occasions only used as pointers to the artefact, to the actual document. These have developed and expanded over the centuries and also found their expression in the online world. It could be argued that contemporary (Web) search engines are further developments of the bibliography, in the sense that each search returns a collection of pointers to the actual objects of interest.

There exists of course a difference between collecting physical items, such as books, or even collecting just pointers to them and the wish to collect and represent all human knowledge in an encyclopaedia. Yet, bibliographies and encyclopaedias stem from the same desire and they appeared as remedies to the same problem. The unstoppable growth of books was, as the quote above illustrates, regarded as a serious problem by many. The bibliography appeared as one solution. Another solution, enabling a form of continued control, came in the shape of encyclopaedias. These offered a way of organising knowledge at the same time as controlling the content. [11]

Encyclopaedias can look back on a tradition going back to the middle ages. Yet, as Richard Yeo (2001) points out, it was not until modern times and eighteenth century Enlightenment that the idea of a closed and definite universe of knowledge was questioned. This changed view of knowledge led to the emergence of the modern notion of what an encyclopaedia is and should be. Since then encyclopaedias have come to “symbolis[e] the achievements of science and reason, but also epitomising the success of print capitalism” [12]. This triangle of encyclopaedism, capitalism and enlightenment is not our focus here. However, it is interesting to bear it in mind when thinking about Wikipedia, which is based on the ideal of open access and free digital information. It is after all the most successful contemporary online encyclopaedia which dominates in today’s late capitalist society.

The prime example for and expression of the enlightenment ideal in Europe is the famous French Encyclopédie (1717–1783) by Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert. In a total of 17 volumes and 11 volumes with plates the two encyclopaedists tried to collect and represent the entire knowledge of their time [13]. Together with the belief in the unity of science, as it is stated in Diderot’s entry on encyclopaedism, the Encyclopédie has become a symbol not just of encyclopaedic ambition as such, but also of Enlightenment itself [14]. The changed view of knowledge which emerged made it possible for the encyclopaedic ideal to move away from the ideal of the Middle Ages, that is “to summarise and record the best of knowledge from what was conceived of as a stable, divinely sanctioned body of knowledge” [15]. Instead encyclopaedias began “to take snapshots of a progressive mass of information produced by increasingly specialised disciplines” [16]. It is since this time that the knowledge of humanity (in the Western world) has been identified with science. The idea of knowledge as accumulative, as constantly changing, developing, and improving began to take shape. Accordingly, from then on, encyclopaedic projects have been temporary in character. One could argue that in the new generation of participatory online encyclopaedias this transience has reached its peak.

A historic example of the modern encyclopaedic notion which enforces this principle of accumulative and temporary knowledge, closer to our own time, is the International Encyclopedia of the Unified Sciences from the early twentieth century. This encyclopaedic project also means a shift of focus from the educated elite (rèpublique de lettre) to the broad masses of common workers. The person behind this encyclopaedia is Otto Neurath (1882–1945), one of the famous intellectuals of the so–called Vienna Circle. When planning the project, Neurath explicitly stressed its close relationship with that of the two French encyclopaedists, Diderot and d’Alembert [17]. In the introduction to volume one he writes, “this encyclopedia continues the work of the famous French Encyclopédie[18]. Neurath was also in touch with one the time’s foremost scientists, Albert Einstein, who is reported to have commented and approved Neurath’s plans with the following words:

You have convinced me that your plan of building up a Peoples’ Library (Volksbibliothek) is well suited to match the deep concern of many people for education in a really effective way /…/ Your project can achieve the same meaning for the broad mass of the population as the encyclopedia did in the eighteenth century for the educated France. [19]

As many encyclopaedic projects, Neurath’s International Encyclopedia of the Unified Sciences was a utopian one. Neurath did not live long enough to see the project to its finish. Between 1938 and 1969 two volumes consisting of 20 monographs were published. However, at one point, Neurath’s plan had been to publish a total of 26 volumes, totalling 260 monographs, as well as a 10–volume visual thesaurus [20]. It was not just the number of volumes that was ambitious in a utopian way. The idea was ambitious also in the way that it was supposed to demonstrate — as the name suggests — the unity and integration of all sciences.

Although different in format, Diderot’s and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie and Neurath’s International Encyclopedia of the Unified Sciences share the same mission, namely the mission of promoting rational and universal knowledge for the enlightenment of the people (Dahms, 1996). However, to extend the possible audience also to those with less formal education as well as to avoid the imprecision of language, Neurath furthermore proposed an ambitious system based on visual representation of knowledge, called ISOTYPE (International System of Typographic Picture Education) (Reisch, 1996). He also planned for three language versions of the encyclopaedia and his idea for the future was for a constantly developing and updated encyclopaedia (Reisch, 1996).

Wikipedia goes further than that. Rather than perfecting the system of representation in order to be more inclusive to potential users, it opens up the entire production side of the encyclopaedia, taking away control from the experts. There are no named authors, all articles are unsigned. At the surface and at least in the ideal aspired to, all authors are equally important as all readers. The writers can chose to be entirely anonymous. Authority comes from the sheer size of it and from its topicality as well as up–to–dateness and — at least for Wikipedians themselves — from references to external sources. Giving up control of the production has also led to a proliferation of different language versions, far beyond the number of three envisioned by Neurath (and it includes versions in dialects and even in invented languages).

At the time, Neurath was not alone with his utopian ambitions of collecting all knowledge in one place. Another interesting figure in the history of encyclopaedias was the Belgian Paul Otlet (1868–1944) usually associated with documentation and hence a kind of founding figure for information science. Otlet starts from the need to standardise and systematise the fast and ever growing body of knowledge collected by using the time’s state–of–the–art technology. At the time, the possibilities of science and technology seemed endless and the central question was how this continuously advancing knowledge should be communicated to the people and how it, inspired by taylorist principles, could remain up–to–date (Rayward, 2008).

To approach the problem of constantly changing and accumulating knowledge, Otlet proposed something which he called the ‘monographic principle’ [21]. The monographic principle should enable an organic, ‘auto–updating’ encyclopaedia that always contained all the collected knowledge of the world. Otlet proposed to extract factual statements out of books, articles, letters and so forth which could be re–arranged and reordered in all possible kinds of ways and formats. In a wonderfully illustrative picture called the Laboratorium Mundaneum, his ideas take the metaphorical shape of a huge machinery [22]. The picture was meant for Otlet’s never finished project Encyclopedia Universal Mundial, in which he wanted to visualise his many ideas [23]. The raw material — that is ‘mountains’ of journals, books, statistics, letters and so forth — are fed into the machine and the end products are pure facts in form of the universal decimal classification system being transported away in little railway carriages [24]. The utopian goal for Otlet was to create a Universal Book of Knowledge which was constituted by the condensed factual statements of everything written:

[Information] will be recorded on separate leaves or cards rather than confined in volumes … By gathering these leaves together, and classifying and organizing them according to the headings of a reliable and detailed classification, we will create the ‘Universal Book of Knowledge’ [25].

Otlet was critical of the social sciences for being too subjectivist. Instead he idealised the natural sciences’ methodological rigour and standardised way of presenting knowledge (Frohmann, 2008). Encyclopaedic projects often have a link to an ideal of the unity of science or to a universal knowledge, which is supposed to be translated into classification codes or to be mathematically calculated. The tendency to idealise automation was very strong around the turn of the last century. However, it goes back a lot longer than that and it is influential even today. Famously, already Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646–1717) proposed the development of an encyclopaedia which should be integrated with a universal language. Tellingly called Characteristica Universalis, this was meant to provide a resource and formula for depicting all human knowledge (Mittelstraß, 2005). Also this encyclopaedic project was a project of a universal general science and based on a symbolic mathematical language. The outcome was intended to be a collection of “all knowledge demonstrative”, which would “allow disputes to be resolved by precise calculation” [26].

Otlet’s and Leibniz’s visions are closely related to the second type of online encyclopaedias, calculating online encyclopaedias, which we briefly mentioned at the outset. Wolfram|Alpha, with its enormous database, is the logical continuation of this approach. It continuously extracts computated knowledge, which is mostly reduced to figures and one–sentence statements, lacking all context. Wolfram|Alpha strives for a way to objectively process knowledge. Its founders position it explicitly in the tradition of Leibniz [27].

Wikipedia, on the other hand, while being made possible only through an advanced system of computer networks, takes an entirely different and actually very un–modern approach. It is not a perfect machine which hardly needs any human intervention for extracting or processing the most up–to–date and accurate knowledge. On the contrary, it relies on an enormous cohort of contributors doing the filtering, re–working and re–arranging, trying out numerous possible combinations until it fits. It is somewhat of a knowledge sweatshop, especially in comparison to Otlet’s vision of taylorist mechanical perfection and also when considering that Wikipedia is based entirely on free labour and that at an age in which knowledge is supposed to be the most important economical resource.



Online encyclopaedias and heterotopia

The Web is constituted of an incalculable and constantly changing amount of non–linear interlinked digital objects which together create an enormous and continuously growing digital space or rather spaces. It is a well–known analogy where the Web itself appears as the personification of the encyclopaedic ideal of universal knowledge. However, leaving aside this comparison, the Internet, and particularly the Web, is, as we know, also the site of explicit encyclopaedic projects.

One could be tempted to think that the encyclopaedic notion would go out of fashion when (Web) search engines create instant access to most digital content, as some sort of all–encompassing meta–bibliography. Yet, quite the opposite seems to be the case. The wish to gather, organise and make accessible universal knowledge is today embodied not only in the Web itself, but also in a considerable number of online encyclopaedias.

Wikipedia, in its many language versions, is undoubtedly the best known online encyclopaedia in general, but specifically of the participatory kind. Being a continuation of the encyclopaedic project means that it is also a remediation (Bolter and Grusin, 1999) of a genre which found its form and shape in the world of print. This remediation brings with it a change of site and the encyclopaedic notion is transferred from its personification in the printed book to being a space in which people meet, quarrel, negotiate and collaboratively build knowledge.

They do this much more openly than ever before and in a very specific setting. The borders to the rest of the Web are very open and not fixed, yet they do exist. Wikipedia is a space of its own, fluidly constituted within the Web and beside it. It is calm and stable in its existence at the same time as it is constantly changing and moving in itself. In this sense, it is a particular space within the space of the Web. It can be described as a site of contention, a mirror of the Web which is part of the Web, yet which is also besides it. Calling Wikipedia a digital, a networked heterotopia [28] is a very fitting description since it takes account of all these characteristics.

In “Different spaces”, originally prepared as a lecture in 1967, Foucault speaks of an “era of the simultaneous” [29]. He argues for a shift in balance from an “obsession” with history to an “age of space”, “when the world is experiencing, I believe, something less like a great life that would develop through time than like a network that connects points and weaves its skein” [30]. Foucault points out that spaces are relational, that is “[we] are in an age when space is presented to us in the form of relations of emplacements” [31]. It is in this sense that heterotopia has to be understood. It is a space in which new relations between existing sites are formed. Sites and events, which are not normally supposed to share the same space, are juxtaposed. However, in contrast to utopias, they are ‘real’ spaces. They exist.

Since the time when Foucault wrote these words, the meaning of network has changed and gained new, unanticipated meanings and its importance has become more obvious. Without wanting to make too literal a translation from Foucault’s network intersecting with itself — which is of course more than a question of technical infrastructure — to the Internet, the Web’s existence has changed our presence and also made the entrance of an “era of the simultaneous” much more direct and obvious, as it has also — even if this is a lot less obvious — given new meaning and significance to notions of space (e.g., Castells, 2000).

Hypertextual architecture, which is the basis of the Web, is fundamentally spatial in character and it contributes tirelessly to a blurring and re–drawing of boundaries. We move seamlessly — even if not always painlessly — between online and off–line, between work and private, and between consumption and production. It is interesting to ask what happens when production, publishing and organisation of knowledge is transferred from fixed objects (traditionally most often books) to participatory online spaces. What happens when the production of knowledge and cultural memory is moved to heterotopic sites, such as Wikipedia, where people come together and by applying certain quite strict rules create new representations of the world?

Foucault [32] writes: “The heterotopia has the ability to juxtapose in a single real place several emplacements that are incompatible in themselves”. Wikipedia forms such a site of parallel existence. Other incompatible spaces meet themselves and meet each other within its confines. Being this space of juxtaposition, of collecting endlessly, of simultaneous flatness and hierarchy, of constant growth, which exists inside the Web, yet which takes in a distinct position, that sets it aside, and of functioning guided by a strict set of self–imposed rules, is what makes Wikipedia so special and so fascinating for many as well as of course contested.

However, more to the point, being this privileged and very unique site within the space of the Web, makes it also different from a print encyclopaedia in the analogue world which lacks this spatial component. A printed encyclopaedia refers of course to all kinds of incompatible spaces, yet it does not itself operate as a space at the same level. Rather, to draw another comparison, Wikipedia takes on a lot of the functions of libraries, archives and museums and — perhaps more importantly for us here — it takes on a lot of the specificities of these institutions in terms of how they act as spaces for knowledge and memory production. These are for one meeting places for people and for objects, and secondly they open up to and contain other spaces.



Wikipedia: The rules of the house and its architecture

As all spaces, even the most anarchic ones, Wikipedia works according to certain rules. Although largely self–imposed, these rules are quite stable. Together they create a certain kind of knowledge, or perhaps more precisely, the rules act as a mould which forms a special type of knowledge and makes it ‘representative’ and ‘adequate’ or maybe quite simply ‘right’.

On the first page of the English language Wikipedia it can be read: “Welcome to Wikipedia, the free encyclopaedia that anyone can edit.” [33] The regulation of participation differs between language versions, but the overall idea is to create an open access encyclopaedia, with no commercial advertisement, for and by everyone. ‘Editing’ means in Wikipedia not just to provide content, but also to organise and classify this content. It also means to argue and discuss one’s own editing as well as that of others. Except for some core policy documents, nothing is fixed, and everything is negotiable [34].

All this does not mean that everything is constantly overthrown or vandalised. Instead, Wikipedia is remarkably robust. This is the consequence of the technology used as well as of the norms and values which guide the editors, or Wikipedians as they are called, and which are also formed in relation to the technical prerequisites. The norms and values act — one could argue — as a set of house rules. Although they are open for interpretation — at least to a degree — overstepping them is ‘prosecuted’ by blocking users for longer or shorter periods of time. These house rules are expressed in the form of a set of core policies which the community is committed to. The most significant and most consequential of these rules is arguably the one prescribing a Neutral Point of View (NPOV), from which Wikipedians are expected to write and edit their contributions:

Article content should clearly describe, represent, and characterize disputes within topics, but should not endorse any particular point of view. Instead, articles should provide background on who believes what, and why, and on which points of view are more popular. [35]

The notion of representing the truest or at least the best knowledge is neglected in favour of representing ideally all possible, but in reality the supposedly most relevant versions of an occurrence. Neutrality is supposed to stem from juxtaposing different perspectives, cancelling out each others’ biases and blind spots, resulting in a sort of total panorama picture. The perspectivisation and simultaneity of knowledge is built into this policy. Ideally, this multitude of knowledge is formed through collaborative work and the striving for consensus and stability. This method of negotiation neutrally and objectively until consensus is reached unites a late modern view of knowledge as versions with a modern belief in the power of enlightened and rational discussion. The Neutral Point of View rule goes hand in hand with another rule which requires back–up for these various viewpoints, the so–called verifiability policy:

The threshold for inclusion in Wikipedia is verifiability, not truth — that is, whether readers are able to check that material added to Wikipedia has already been published by a reliable source, not whether we think it is true. Editors should provide a reliable source for quotations and for any material that is challenged or likely to be challenged, or the material may be removed. [36]

While throwing out the truth has become a necessary move in late modernity and neutrality requires it, doing so explicitly is quite a feat for an encyclopaedia. It is a rule that is complemented and strengthened by yet another rule expressed in the No Original Research Policy [37]. This rule expressed just what its name says. Since it is neutrality and most of all verifiability we are after, original research has no place on Wikipedia. Instead, Wikipedians have to be able to verify their writing by means of references to other sources, outside Wikipedia. These sources are hierarchically organised and take much of their value from the world of scholarly publishing. If we translate that into a spatial terminology, it means that for our heterotopias to work legitimately it is not enough to just bring in other spaces and juxtapose them. These spaces’ existence and their positions along side each other have to be justified by alluding to outside spaces through citations and references. In these outside spaces there are others who can claim that these first spaces exist, in other words that they are real.

Wikipedia blurs all distinctions between what is known as ‘high’ culture and what is called ‘popular’ culture and between science and non–science. They exist alongside each other with no authority deciding one is worth more than the other. As long as a topic has encyclopaedic value, according to Wikipedia’s policy, and as long as the respective article is written according to the NPOV guidelines and verified with sources, it has its place. Accordingly, discussions on reliability or neutrality can be as intense regarding a popular culture phenomenon as in science articles.

While hierarchies within Wikipedia are comparatively flat and experts have no special standing, in the world outside Wikipedia experts and named authors are alive and kicking. Wikipedia relies on that. Experts also exert their influence in Wikipedia. Yet, there is no way for them to make sure their name is the only one that stands for the accepted version. Wikipedia, despite its prominent standing as a proponent precisely of digital culture, in fact acts as a door between a digital landscape of late modernity and a traditional print culture. In the sense that print culture still functions as verifier for Wikipedia’s credibility. In fact, the reliance on second hand knowledge is stronger in Wikipedia than it is in traditional encyclopaedias, where authority is predominantly derived from publishers (cf., Brandt, 2009).

Having said that, it is also the very break with the named author and the accredited expert which makes Wikipedia such a particular space, justifiably called a heterotopia. Everyone can work next to everybody else. Everybody, even the most renowned experts, moves in a space — incognito — which allows them to be laypersons and still collect and create knowledge and be responsible for building an enormous cultural memorial. As a digital heterotopia of the twenty–first century Wikipedia allows for people to come and go more or less as they like and under whichever name they choose. Formal expertise and credentials of the author are significantly less important than the reputation users build up through their collected contributions. The real name amounts to nothing; user name and the contributions attributed to it to everything.

What becomes obvious with this is also that the rules of the house are specific to certain architecture. In the case of Wikipedia this architecture is open in many ways, yet it is not free of limits and technical features which define these limits. One of most interesting technical traits of Wikipedia is what is called ‘page history’. This is something it shares with other wikis based on the same software. Basically, all versions of an article are kept and it is always possible to go back to earlier versions and see what has been changed. More specifically, when a Wikipedia article is changed, actually just another version is being added as a new layer. The older versions always exist in an archive, slowly sinking further and further down, yet never reaching the bottom. The page history function allows for all versions of all articles always to be present at the same time.

Wikipedia constitutes an open archive, but it is also a site for different versions of knowledge. It forms what Foucault calls “heterochronies” [38]. Unlimited ‘editions’ of knowledge are presented and accessible side by side. We wrote above that Wikipedia signals a peak in encyclopaedic temporariness, which requires constant updating and change. Interestingly though, with Wikipedia also permanence has reached a new height. In Wikipedia, all versions of all articles are always accessible for all. Everything is constantly changing at the same time as it is always saved and stable, archived. This gives the idea of the online encyclopaedia as a global memory place (Pentzold, 2009) yet another dimension. It functions not just as a place of memory for our culture and its expressions; it is a site of memory for itself.

Another important technical feature are the ‘talk pages’. These are what could be described as discussion forums which come with each article in Wikipedia. They function as forms of seminar rooms and editors are encouraged to use them as meeting spaces to discuss and argue over an article. These discussion forums (talk pages), the various layers of previous knowledge versions piling up on top of each other as well as the latest one of these versions, that is the article itself, together form a unity and an entry in Wikipedia.



Knowledge spaces: The end of knowledge as we know it?

Following Foucault, heterotopias are infinite relational knowledge spaces in which everything is represented,

/…/ the idea of accumulating everything, the idea of constituting as sort of general archive, the desire to contain all times, all ages, all forms, all tastes in one place, the idea of constituting a place of all times that is itself outside time and protected from its erosion, the project of thus organizing a kind of perpetual and indefinite accumulation of time in a place that will not move — well, in fact, all of this belongs to our modernity [39].

If archives, libraries and museums are heterotopias of modernity, as Foucault suggests, and we see the notion of modernity and the ideal of enlightenment as belonging together, what does that say about digital heterotopias in the twenty–first century? Can Wikipedia’s take on “the idea of accumulating everything” so long as it occurs adhering to certain rules take these heterotopias from modernity to late modernity?

Jimmy Wales, one of the co–founders of Wikipedia, states on the introduction page to Wikipedia the following:

Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge. That’s what we’re doing. [40]

In Wikipedia the ideals of the Enlightenment are clearly alive. At the same time, as we have argued, Wikipedia, but potentially also other user–generated or participatory encyclopaedias, constitute a challenge to this tradition. They form new kinds of digital heterotopias; cultural memory spaces, which juxtapose many otherwise incompatible spaces, online and offline, experts and amateurs, science and popular culture, which make endless knowledge claims, but which do so with a rational belief in the power of consensus. In this sense, Wikipedia embodies not just the continuation of an encyclopaedic tradition believing in the possibility of representing universal knowledge and the educational ideals coming with it, it also forms a bridge from modern to late modern versions of knowledge production.

In the novel Bouvard and Pécuchet, the two heroes finally give up their continuously failing attempts at applying all the good advice they came across in books and get back to their work: “Let’s copy! The page must be filled, the momentum completed. All things are equal: good and evil, beautiful and ugly, insignificant and characteristic. There is no truth in phenomena.” [41] They begin by composing a Dictionary of accepted ideas. It contains a hotchpotch of entries, everything is blended, without hierarchies or system, except of course the alphabet. As a distorted picture of encyclopaedism, the entry Encyclopédie reads: “Laugh at it pityingly as an outdated work, and even thunder against it.” [42] One could be tempted to declare, encyclopaedism is dead, long live encyclopaedism. Wikipedia has taken the ideals of the Encyclopédie, the very symbol of enlightenment, further than ever. At the same time it has broken with this very ideal and has, although always dead serious, become somewhat of an ironic comment on encyclopaedism.

To sum up, claiming that Wikipedia constitutes a break with enlightenment and with modernity would go too far, but it seems save to say that it represents a fissure. In many ways, Wikipedia has come to symbolise contemporary views on knowledge. It does that in its striving for neutrality through the simultaneous representations of different versions of knowledge, held in place with references, and in the way in which it enhances the status of lay people as well as in its functioning as a space for our cultural memory, in all its versions.

Thus, the online encyclopaedic project of Wikipedia embodies not the end of knowledge as we know it, but rather the marriage between modernity and late modernity within the heterotopian spaces of Wikipedia’s different language versions. In this sense, while a cynical interpretation of Wikipedia’s reliance on other texts and outside sources, could be called ‘source positivism’, or be described as a late modern strategy in which text is everything, seeing it as a digital heterotopia allows us to offer a more positive interpretation. Since we understand Wikipedia in spatial terms as a site of juxtaposition and simultaneity, a digital memory place in which people meet and create knowledge and knowledge structures, and most of all as a space which constantly changes, it points to a more fundamental shift. Our metaphorical heroes from the start of the paper, Bouvard and Pécuchet, have found something worthwhile to do, in Wikipedia writing is doing and copying is no longer a sign of defeat. End of article


About the authors

Jutta Haider is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences, Lund University, Sweden. She received her PhD from the Department of Information Science at City University London, U.K. Her research interests include digital cultures and critical Internet studies.

Olof Sundin, docent, is a researcher at the Department of Education, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, and a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences, Lund University, Sweden. He received his PhD from University of Gothenburg, Sweden. His research interests include information literacies as well as information practices.



Olof Sundin is a member of the Linnaeus Centre for Research on Learning, Interaction and Mediated Communication in Contemporary Society (LinCS) at University of Gothenburg and University of Borås. He is in receipt of funding from the Swedish Research Council for the EXACT Project.

We would like to thank Louise Limberg for commenting and Alexandra Rauter for proofreading.



1. e.g., Polizotti, 2005, p. xiv.

2. There is a growing body of interesting research on knowledge construction in Wikipedia which falls outside the scope of this article. For an excellent overview, see Luyt, et al. (2008).

3. Yeo, 2001, p. xxi.

4. English Wikipedia, 2009–09–16.

5. Our focus is merely on the heterotopic character of participatory online encyclopaedias. Other applications of the heterotopia concept within the space of the Internet are of course possible. For instance, Swertz and Dzierzbicka (2008) go as far as proposing an understanding of the Internet as “a collection of heterotopias”. Furthermore, Rainer Warning (2005) undertakes a highly interesting reading of Flaubert’s novel through the lens of the Foucauldian concept of heteropia. However, he situates Bouvard and Pécuchet’s heterotopian spaces within the imaginary of the text and explicitly — in order to maintain the possibility of meaning — withdraws the place of writing from heterotopia (Warning 2005, p. 189). In contrast, we do concentrate on the very place of writing, i.e., Wikipedia, and make it play the role of heterotopia. Of course, this turning inwards of the focus, onto the spot from which the text emanates, is made possible only since our text — that is Wikipedia — has been converted into a social event fully exploiting the networking possibilities and spatial characteristics of the Internet.

6. Foucault, 1998 [1967], p. 178.

7. Foucault, 1998 [1967], p. 182.

8. Chartier, 1994, p. 62.

9. Bailet, 1685 in Blair, 2003, p. 11.

10. Chartier, 1994, p. 71.

11. Yeo, 2001, p. 87 sq.

12. Yeo, 2001, p. xii; cf., Darnton, 1979.

13. Dahms, 1996, p. 57.

14. Cat, 2006, p. 843; Yeo, 2001, p. xii.

15. Yeo, 2001, p. 78.

16. Ibid.

17. Dahms, 1996, p. 53.

18. Neurath, 1969, p. 2.

19. Cited in Dahms, 1996, p. 53 sq.

20. Morris, 1969, p. x.

21. Frohmann, 2008, p. 78 sq.; van den Heuvel, 2008, p. 131 sq.

22. van den Heuvel, 2008, p. 133.

23. van den Heuvel, 2008, p. 139.

24. cf., van den Heuvel, 2008, p. 139.

25. Otlet, 1903 in Rayward, 2008, p. 15.

26. Cat, 2006, p. 843.

27. cf., Wolfram|Alpha Blog, 29 June 2009.

28. The remediation of the encyclopaedic genre goes not just one way. Wikipedia as an encyclopaedia also remediates a changed notion of what an encyclopaedia is ‘back’ to traditional encyclopaedias, at least in their online incarnations. The ways in which traditional online encyclopaedias today have begun to invite their readers to participate in the creation of their products, although they are keeping editorial control, is an expressions of this re–remediation. In other words, the idea of the sweatshop knowledge factory is recycled and turned into a new business model for traditional online encyclopaedias.

29. Foucault, 1998 [1967], p. 175.

30. Ibid.

31. Foucault, 1998 [1967], p. 177.

32. Foucault, 1998 [1967], p.181.

33. English Wikipedia, 2009–09–16.

34. There are locked and semi–locked articles on Wikipedia which have frequently been vandalised, but they clearly represent a minority.

35. English Wikipedia, 2009–09–30a.

36. English Wikipedia, 2009–09–17, emphasis in original.

37. English Wikipedia, 2009–09–30b.

38. Foucault, 1998 [1967], p. 182.

39. Ibid.

40. English Wikipedia, 2009–10–02.

41. Flaubert, 2005 [1881], p. 281.

42. Flaubert, 2005 [1881], p. 297.



Ann Blair, 2003. “Reading strategies for coping with information overload ca. 1550–1700,” Journal of the History of Ideas, volume 64, number 1, pp. 11–28.

Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, 1999. Remediation: Understanding new media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Dina Brandt, 2009. “Postmoderne Wissenschaftsorganisation oder: Wie subversiv ist Wikipedia?” LIBREAS. Library Ideas, volume 1, pp. 4–18, and at, accessed 27 December 2009.

Manuel Castells, 2000. The rise of the network society. Second edition. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.

Jodi Cat, 2006. “Unity and disunity of science,” In: Sahotra Sarkar and Jessica Pfeifer (editors). The philosophy of science: An encyclopedia. Routledge: New York, Volume 2, pp. 842–847.

Roger Chartier, 1994. The order of books: Readers, authors, and libraries in Europe between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. Translated by Lydia G. Cochrane. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Hans–Joachim Dahms, 1996. “Vienna Circle and French Enlightenment: A comparison of Diderot’s Encyclopédie with Neurath’s International Encyclopedia of Unified Sciences,” In: Elisabeth Nemeth and Friedrich Stadler (editors). Encyclopedia and utopia: The life and work of Otto Neurath (1882–1945). Dortrecht: Kluwer, pp. 53–61.

Robert Darnton, 1979. The business of Enlightenment: A publishing history of the Encyclopédie 1775–1800. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

English Wikipedia, 2009–10–02. “Introduction,” at, accessed 2 October 2009.

English Wikipedia, 2009–09–30a. “Neutral Point of View,” at, accessed 2 October 2009.

English Wikipedia, 2009–09–30b. “No Original Research Policy,” at, accessed 2 October 2009.

English Wikipedia, 2009–09–17. ”Verifiability,“ at, accessed 17 November 2009.

English Wikipedia, 2009–09–16. ”Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia” [start page], at, accessed 2 October 2009.

Gustave Flaubert, 2005 [1881]. Bouvard and Pécuchet. Translated by Mark Polizzotti. Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press.

Michel Foucault, 1998. “Different spaces,” In: James D. Faubion (editor). Essential works of Foucault, 1954–1984. Volume 2: Aesthetics, method, and epistemology. London: Allen Lane, pp. 175–185.

Bernd Frohmann, 2008. “The role of facts in Paul Otlet’s modernist project of documentation,” In: W. Boyd Rayward (editor). European modernism and the information society: Informing the present, understanding the past. Ashgate: Aldershot, pp. 75–88.

Charles van den Heuvel, 2008. “Building society, constructing knowledge, weaving the Web: Otlet’s visualizations of a global information society and his concept of a universal civilization,” In: W. Boyd Rayward (editor). European modernism and the information society: Informing the present, understanding the past. Ashgate: Aldershot, pp. 127–153.

Brendan Luyt, Tay Chee Hsien Aaron, Lim Hai Thian, and Cheng Kian Hong, 2008. “Improving Wikipedia’s accuracy: Is edit age a solution?” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, volume 59, number 2, pp. 318–330.

Jürgen Mittelstraß, 2005. “Das Ganze und seine Teile. Enzyklopädien, das Alphabet des Denkens und die Einheit des Wissens,” In: Waltraud Wiethölter, Frauke Berndt and Stephan Kammer (editors). Vom Weltbuch bis zum World Wide Web: Enzyklopädische Literaturen. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, pp. 53–67.

Charles Morris, 1969. “On the history of the International Encyclopedia of Unified Sciences,” In: Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap and Charles W. Morris (editors). Foundations of the unity of science: Toward an international encyclopedia of the unified sciences, Volume 1, numbers 1–10. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. ix–xii.

Otto Neurath, 1969. “Unified science as encyclopedic integration,” In: Otto Neurath, Rudolf Carnap and Charles W. Morris (editors). Foundations of the unity of science: Toward an international encyclopedia of the unified sciences, Volume 1, numbers 1–10. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 1–27.

Christian Pentzold, 2009. “Fixing the floating gap: The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia as a global memory place,” Memory Studies, volume 2, number 2, pp. 255–272.

Mark Polizotti, 2005. “Stan and Ollie in the lab,” Introduction in Bouvard and Pécuchet. Normal, Ill.: Dalkey Archive Press.

W. Boyd Rayward, 2008. “European modernism and the information society: Introduction,” In: W. Boyd Rayward (editor). European modernism and the information society: Informing the present, understanding the past. Ashgate: Aldershot, pp. 1–25.

George Reisch, 1996. “Terminology in action: Neurath and the International Encyclopedia of Unified Sciences,” In: Elisabeth Nemeth and Friedrich Stadler (editors). Encyclopedia and utopia: The life and work of Otto Neurath (1882–1945). Dortrecht: Kluwer, pp. 79–86.

Christian Swertz and Agnieszka Dzierzbicka, 2008. “The decomposition of privacy. The shift of power in virtual learning rooms,” In: Piet Kommer and Pedro Isaias (editors). E–society ’08: Proceedings of the IADIS international conference, pp. 597–601; preprint at, accessed 2 October 2009.

Rainer Warning, 2005. “Enzyklopädie und Idiotie: Flauberts Bouvard and Pécuchet,” In: Waltraud Wiethölter, Frauke Berndt and Stephan Kammer (editors). Vom Weltbuch bis zum World Wide Web: Enzyklopädische Literaturen. Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, pp. 165–192.

Wolfram|Alpha Blog, 2009–06–29. “Stephen Wolfram on the quest for computable knowledge,” at, accessed 10 September 2009.

Richard Yeo, 2001. Encyclopaedic visions: Scientific dictionaries and enlightenment culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Editorial history

Paper received 3 November 2009; revised 23 December 2009; accepted 24 December 2009.

Creative Commons License
“Beyond the legacy of the Enlightenment? Online encyclopaedias as digital heterotopias” by Jutta Haider and Olof Sundin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution–Noncommercial–No Derivative Works 2.5 Sweden License.

Beyond the legacy of the Enlightenment? Online encyclopaedias as digital heterotopias
by Jutta Haider and Olof Sundin.
First Monday, Volume 15, Number 1 - 4 January 2010

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2020. ISSN 1396-0466.