Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Encarta Passes Beyond The Veil

Many may not remember this, but there was a time not too long ago when if you wanted to look something up on a computer, you bought a computer-based encyclopedia. That time appears to have come to an end:

On October 31, 2009, MSN® Encarta® Web sites worldwide will be discontinued, with the exception of Encarta Japan, which will be discontinued on December 31, 2009. Additionally, Microsoft will cease to sell Microsoft Student and Encarta Premium software products worldwide by June 2009. We understand that Encarta users may have questions regarding this announcement so we have prepared this list of questions and answers below. Please keep reading if you would like more information about these changes to Encarta.

Microsoft Encarta FAQ

At one time, multimedia encyclopedias seemed like the future of encyclopedias. In some ways, they are, but the advent of Wiki technology has moved the location of that multimedia encyclopedia from your hard disk to the Web. As the Encarta FAQ goes on to explain:

Why are these Encarta Web sites and software products being discontinued?

Encarta has been a popular product around the world for many years. However, the category of traditional encyclopedias and reference material has changed. People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past. As part of Microsoft’s goal to deliver the most effective and engaging resources for today’s consumer, it has made the decision to exit the Encarta business.

Microsoft Encarta FAQ

That's Microsoft-speak for "We got hammered by Wikipedia".

How does the new technology compare to the old? Christopher Dawson of ZDNet provides some insight:

I’m not saying Encarta was a bad product. On the contrary, it did a fine job of making encyclopedic articles searchable and accessible on a computer. However, I’m thrilled to see it go because of what it represents. Kids will just go to Wikipedia or the first three hits on Google, now, right? While that remains too true, what it really represents is the absolute challenge to educators to teach kids real Web-based research skills.

Good riddance, Encarta!

In some ways, it will definitely be an improvement. There was a level of trust we've always had for bound or otherwise published encyclopedias that we don't get from the Internet. Everything I see is something I try to be skeptical of, at least if it's not in an area of knowledge that I'm pretty certain of. That's probably a good thing, though, since even the old style encyclopedias could be wrong. The Skeptic Society is aware of how things work now, as they demonstrate in a list of things people can do to promote skepticism and science:

96. Contribute responsible edits to Wikipedia.

  • For many in the general public, Wikipedia will be the only source they consult on a given topic.

  • For almost any paranormal topic, the Wikipedia entry is the number one Google hit. Amazingly, skeptical links and citations can be placed on that top page any time, by any skeptic — for free!

  • Help students and the public by making responsible, careful edits to Wikipedia entries about science, skepticism, and the paranormal.

  • Wikipedia has strict policies that you must follow. Before getting started, study Wikipedia’s formatting rules and Manual of Style.

  • The article “Why Skeptics Should Pay Close Attention to Wikipedia” (by Tim Farley) is a great practical introduction to this rich opportunity.

105 Ways To Promote Skeptical Activism: Quick Reference Guide

How to avoid believing nonsense while reading a Wikipedia entry is probably a subject for another article, but one principle to keep in mind is to check for citations, and check those citations to see if they are accurate and, just as importantly, accurately represented in the text of the Wikipedia entry.

In reality, these are things that we should do with any source of information. In many ways, the Internet has made that easier. That it has also added new ways to fool the credulous is, unfortunately, also a fact.


shoephone said...

I guess I'm in the minority -- I think this is an unfortunate passing, not because Encarta is so great but because Wikipedia is so unreliable. Wikipedia is notorious for inaccurate postings on musicians, their bios, their discographies and on other subjects as well. Wikipedia is one of the last sites I ever seek out for information.

And if I want information on engineering... I'm coming to Slobber & Spittle first!

Dana Hunter said...

I used to have a Webster's Encyclopedia set. It was state-of-the-art and super awesome - until the intertoobz came along and gave me up-to-the-second info sources. Even though I have to use two or three to make sure I've got the right info, it's still faster and more accurate, and a lot more comprehensive.

Cujo359 said...

OTOH, shoephone, there probably aren't all that many entries for artists in a standard encyclopedia. They'd cover the big ones, of course, but you probably couldn't look up Green Day or Enya there, let alone obscure artists from thirty years ago. Wikipedia at least offers entries, and with any luck there will be some citations or references.

I still like using old-style references, because there's a high probability that someone edited and fact-checked them. Wikipedia's less likely to have had that done for its less popular subjects, but at least it has entries, and they're a jumping-off point for finding out more. Plus, as Dana mentions, the Wikipedia entries are frequently updated as soon as something about the subject changes. With published encyclopedias, you were lucky to be only a few months out of date.