Truly transformative technologies integrate themselves seamlessly into our daily routines, making our lives easier and richer—and making it difficult to remember what it was like before those newfangled contraptions seemingly appeared out of the blue. What's more, such technologies live on in spirit long after they've been rendered obsolete by newer developments.
To take one example: Video cassette recorders became widely available only in the early 1980s, but they quickly revolutionized how we related not only to film and television but to other forms of art. By allowing people to watch programs and movies on their own schedules (rather than those of corporate moguls) and to share everything from cheap home movies to commercial-free copies of Hollywood offerings, VCRs helped usher in our current culture-on-demand age.
Thanks to the VCR—and a host of other technologies, ranging from cheap audio equipment to personal computers to the Internet—we now not only expect to get art, music, film, and other forms of creative expression when we want them; we're far more comfortable making our own stuff. And even as the VCR has been supplanted by the DVD player and joins the audiocassette, the vinyl record, the Super 8 film reel, and other outmoded media in the technological dustbin, it will remain an inspiration as long as we continue to embrace do-it-yourself culture.
The same holds true for Wikipedia, the controversial online encyclopedia "that anyone can edit," which quickly became one of the 10 most popular sites on the World Wide Web after its debut in 2001. As Associate Editor Katherine Mangu-Ward writes in her profile of the site's founder, Jimmy Wales ("Wikipedia and Beyond," page 18), "It is almost impossible to remember how much more circumscribed our world was before it existed." If you're online, odds are that you use Wikipedia on something close to a daily basis as the starting point for information on topics ranging from atheism to Zoroastrianism.
"We make the Internet not suck," explains Wales, who was inspired by F.A. Hayek's insight that knowledge is dispersed throughout society. Wikipedia succeeds in large part because it creates a framework through which individuals voluntarily build communities of shared interest and expertise. In discussing the promise of Wikipedia—and the potential of his new, for-profit venture, Wikia—Wales reminds us that we often take for granted the things that enliven our world.
I seriously doubt that Wikipedia will still be going strong in its current form in a decade. But there seems no question that its wildly successful experiment in aggregating information and staging ongoing conversations about everything under the sun (at press time, the site boasts more than 6 million articles in 251 different languages) will provide a model for even more expansive efforts in the future. When Wikipedia joins the VCR as a quaint relic of a less advanced (and less interesting) past, it will still be with us in spirit.