The size of the Internet can be difficult to comprehend if you’re not a computer genius. It helps to get some perspective.
Michael Mandiberg, a New York artist and professor, will do just that with his “Print Wikipedia” project Thursday in New York’s Denny Gallery. Called “From Aaaaa! to ZZZap!” the installation will feature a fraction of the crowdsourcing site’s content, as well as a live upload of Wikipedia’s entire contents to Lulu.com, a printing Web site. The upload is estimated to take between 11 and 14 days.
After that, if you’re so inclined, you can buy the whole thing for $500,000.
Mandiberg’s goal with the project is to “turn” how people understand the Internet to offer new perspective. In a phone interview with The Post, Mandiberg said he hopes the exhibit will offer enhanced perspective on just how much data the crowdsourced encyclopedia holds.
“One of threads in my work has been appropriation and authorship and exploring what kind of meanings change as things are copied and transformed,” he said. “One of the things I’m interested in, in this appropriation process, is trying to find the move, the smallest move that I can make that transforms work into something different and adds new meaning.”
The exhibit opens Thursday in New York’s Denny Gallery. Of the estimated 7,600 volumes that Wikipedia’s database fills, only 106 have been printed for display. However, pictures of the spines of roughly a third of the volumes will paper the walls of the room. Mandiberg said books are a helpful unit of measurement.
“They’re really great as a kind of marker of volume. Like … you understand what a novel is or, ‘There’s this many volumes of books;’ you understand what that is,” he said.
Elizabeth Denny, owner of Denny Gallery, said Mandiberg is a blend of artist and activist and that he “comes at his work from a different direction.” In an interview with The Post, Denny said she’s excited about the project and believes it will “make people think about where our information comes from.”
Accuracy has long been a pressing topic for Wikipedia; with so many editors contributing, it’s difficult to fact check everything. But while Mandiberg acknowledges some articles need to be read with a grain of salt, he defends Wikipedia and encourages people to be cautious consumers of all media.
“We have to become information-literate and Wikipedia is frankly one of the most transparent things,” he said.
An important piece of the encyclopedia is 36 volumes filled with nothing but names of contributors. According to Katherine Maher, Wikimedia’s Chief Communications Officer, around 7.5 million different users have contributed to Wikipedia since its launch in 2001, with 75,000 different individuals contributing monthly.
“I think that [the contributor index] is at the core of Wikipedia,” she said. “In total, it really has been a project by millions on behalf of millions, and that’s pretty incredible.”
Mandiberg started contributing to Wikipedia in 2008 during a “Wiki-marathon” editing session, during which he worked to combat sexism and racism on the site. He’s been a contributor ever since.
“One of the most exciting things about Wikipedia is that people are constantly coming up with new ways to not just contribute to it,” Maher said, “but to use it in ways that expand the way that we think about knowledge.”
In terms of the encyclopedia’s practical use, Mandiberg is being clear that he doesn’t expect people to actually use it. He acknowledged that by printing the Web site it is instantly out of date. Since Mandiberg started working in April of this year, there have been seven million edits made to the site, Maher said.
Still, the volumes are up for sale through Lulu.com and Web site CEO Nigel Lee said he expects some interest in the volumes. He said Mandiberg’s project bridges the gap between the tangible and digital.
“The world is free to choose how it consumes any media,” Lee said.
This isn’t the first time someone has tried to print Wikipedia. German-based PediaPress started raising money last year to create an 1,000-volume set of all the pages.
Still others have explored creating a hard-copy of the Internet. In 2013, a contemporary art gallery in Mexico City encouraged people to mail in printed pages of the Internet and received over ten tons of material. One estimate puts the total number of paper pages needed to print everything online at close to 305.5 billion. Paper Later, a London based company, launched and folded an effort to send printed pages of the Web on request.
This fascination with printing the digital goes against the grain of the trend toward computerization. Even Encyclopedia Britannica discontinued printing their 32-volume resource in 2012.