This Explains Why People Try to do The Things They Know Are...

This Explains Why People Try to do The Things They Know Are Impossible

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With a healthy attitude, striving for the impossible can yield new discoveries, ideas, and concepts, and foster skills and cohesion. Dare to be different.

“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.”

Eivind Kjørstad on Why People Try to do The Things They Know are Impossible.

I’ll tell you a story.

A dozen years ago, a small group of nerds came together. We wanted to change the world. More specifically, we wanted to improve humanity’s knowledge. The Web was invented, and it was a marvellous way of sharing knowledge, but too much of it was locked up, closed down, owned by the few.

It was a new medium: the Internet, where everyone has the capacity to be not only a consumer, but also an active participant and a contributor, yet this was severely underutilized. We wanted to change that, to make it possible for ordinary people to help improve a pool of shared knowledge, belonging to humanity as a whole.

We were not many. Perhaps a dozen nerds, spread out around the world, and it was hubris beyond the reasonable to believe that we could make a difference. We took on the largest most impressive collection of “owned” knowledge first:

Encyclopedia Britannica.

We’re a dozen nerds, and we’re going to make them more-or-less completely irrelevant. People laughed. To put it in perspective, EB has more than 4000 paid contributors, including more than 100 nobel prize winners and 5 former presidents. It has been published since 1768 and honed to perfection ever since. It encompasses more than 20 very large very thick volumes of compressed knowledge. 

People ridiculed us, but they also talked about us. Gradually a trickle of new contributors started arriving at our doors. For a while I logged in every day just to see the stats. 10 new articles in a day ! 300 edits from 17 countries while I was asleep ! More than 10.000 visitors yesterday !

It was like watching a snowball in a cartoon-movie rolling down a hillside. It looks kinda cute at first, but pretty soon it becomes tremendously large.

I remember the first day when our traffic surpassed that of EB. It was only something like a month after the first time we’d crossed 10% of their traffic. We hung out and chatted on IRC. There was excitement. It was a party.

The rest, of course, is history.

Today, we’re ranked #6 on the Internet in terms of traffic. Britannica is ranked #6000. If you ask young people today about Encyclopedia Britannica, they ain’t heard of it. And if you explain it to them they invariably say: “Oh yeah, so it’s like a sort of Wikipedia, only you can’t edit it ?”

If EB closed their doors tomorrow, and redirected all their web-traffic to us, we would not even notice the difference. The behemoth is now a pebble.

We’re not done yet !

Yeah, we produced the largest encyclopedia mankind has ever had. It’s also available in more languages, and has more contributors than any other. And in fact it’s got a fair claim on being the largest project ever undertaken by mankind.

But we’re not done.

Our mission is much larger than this. Wanna hear it ?

To provide the sum total of all human knowledge to every human being on the planet, in all human languages, for free.

We’ve got a map of the world. We’ve got an encyclopedia. We’ve got some textbooks. We’ve got an Academy. We’ve got quite a bit, but there’s of course a near-infinite amount of things left to do.

If we had not been willing to try the impossible, none of this would’ve happened.

And get me right: I’m fully aware that the encyclopedia that we built is full of a long list of serious problems. We have not come even close to perfection, and I doubt we ever will.

But looking at what we built, and thinking back to the humble starts, just a dozen nerds, a mailing-list and a website, it’s still clear that we’ve come a long way.