Microsoft has announced that it’s terminating its encyclopedia effort Encarta after 16 years in the business of collecting and publishing knowledge and historic information. The reasons for Encarta’s doom are obvious: it’s become increasingly technologically irrelevant–in a wonderful parallel to a theory on encyclopedias crafted by sci-fi master Douglas Adams.
Because there’s a new-technology competitor that’s already successful and free, operating on a totally different model: Wikipedia. While Encarta represented an echo of “traditional” encyclopedias, with episodic releases of editor-based knowledge about certain defined fields that carried the stamp of peer-informed authority, Wikipedia is crowd-sourced and a continual dynamic font of information on almost any fact, fiction, or fantasy you can imagine.
And all this has, rather fabulously, been fictionally foretold by Douglas Adams. Here’s the relevant bits from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “the Hitch Hiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words Don’t Panic inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
H2G2 still thrives, but it’s Wikipedia that’s the most famous. Fascinatingly, even Britannica has conceded to the Adams/Wikipedia model recently and announced in January of this year it will accept edits and submissions from the public in an effort for its online version to try to keep up–it gets 184 times fewer page views than Wikipedia. The traditional book-form Britannica will live on as privately-edited for a while yet, since it carries a historic name and the inertia of authority. That’s something Encarta just couldn’t do.
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