Richard Smith: Medpedia – inspired by the counterculture of the 60s

Richard Smith Medpedia, a medical version of Wikipedia, had to happen, and now it has. The full site will launch later in 2008, but a preview is already available.

The founders—James Currier and Mitch Kapor, both serial entrepreneurs from Silicon Valley—aim to create “the most comprehensive and collaborative medical resource in the world.” I see no reason why they shouldn’t succeed, simultaneously creating an invaluable asset for the world and putting out of business a host of organisations that peddle fragments of information.

Wikipedia, one of the first manifestations of web 2.0, is the obvious inspiration for Medpedia, and like Wikipedia Medpedia will start with a big chunk of pukka information—provided by organisations like Harvard Medical School, Stanford Medical School, the Oxford Health Alliance, and many other medical bodies. Very soon, according to the BMJ, the NHS will contribute its content.

Anybody can contribute to Wikipedia, and I hope that you’ve done so. You have a duty to share what you know. Launched in 2001, Wikipedia by April 2008 had 10 million articles in 253 languages. Search for almost anything on Google, and the Wikipedia entry comes up first. There have, of course, been anxieties about accuracy and bias, but its accuracy is comparable to that of Encyclopaedia Britannica and much greater than the average British newspaper. It’s also much less biased than any British newspaper or even the BMJ, which, edited by a small group, has a particular view of the world. Plus, Wikipedia is comprehensive and current: Medpedia already has an entry.

Another inspiration for Medpedia is E O Wilson’s Encyclopaedia of Life, which aims collaboratively to document all 1.8 million species on earth. It too began with a trusted core of information, and it has an elaborate three stage quality control process. There are two things that are particularly exciting about the Encyclopedia of Life. Firstly, one of the most interesting features will be what is not there—what we don’t know but should. Medpedia should soon achieve the same. Secondly, “citizen scientists” can contribute, rekindling the original amateur tradition of science. Medpedia must find a way of incorporating what patients know—because they know a lot that is important that doctors don’t.

Medpedia begins trailing clouds of academic glory, and I can understand why. As the Public Library of Medicine has shown, if you want to be deemed respectable in the highly conservative world of medicine you must begin with links with organisations like Harvard and Stanford.

But what I find so exciting about enterprises like Medpedia is that as I enter my dotage they take me back to my 60s countercultural roots. Ivan Illich—author of Limits to Medicine and Deschooling Society and the thinker who has influenced me more than any other—is the intellectual father of Web 2.0 and Wikipedia. In 1971 Illich imagined a world where people learnt mostly from each other rather than from experts and where information would be available everywhere anytime—in railway stations, factories, cafes, hospitals everywhere. What seemed flakey then has now arrived.

Similarly E F Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, wanted “production by the masses not for the masses,” while Roland Barthes, the French structuralist urged “the death of the author” to allow for “the birth of the reader.” Meanwhile, anarchist Guy Debord argued for the destruction of “society of spectacle” to give rise to “the opposite of dialogue.”

Charles Leadbetter traces these intellectual roots of Web 2.0 in his book We-Think: Mass Innovation not Mass Production, which is said to be the current reading of Gordon Brown. Leadbetter’s core argument is that we must use “we think” to organise the explosion of information generated by “I think.”

“The web will work best for us” he writes, “when the power of mass collaboration orders the chaos of mass self-expression.”

Medpedia is an important step in that direction, but to be truly valuable it needs to capture and organise not just the wisdom of professors but also of citizen scientists, who are also known as patients.