I saw today that the English Wikipedia has passed 3.9 million articles. Not a particularly noteworthy number, but it was fairly round and got me thinking about how to make that number meaningful. Expressing it in number of equivalent printed volumes doesn’t help too much, since I have difficulty fathoming reading a large number of books like that.
Imagine you read 10 Wikipedia articles a day (a reasonable pace, since while you may open more than that in a given day, how many do you actually read in their entirety?), it would take you over a thousand years to read them all. Never mind that the number of articles is continuing to increase at a hefty pace. In fact, a rough average for the past few years has been an increase of ~1000 articles per day, so you’re already in a hopeless position before you get started.
Let’s be kind, though. Say you take a snapshot of Wikipedia as it currently is, at 3.9 million articles and say that’s enough for me. Could an individual human being conceivably read it “cover to cover”? It would take essentially impossible dedication: If you read 100 articles a day, spending 14 hours a day doing so (that’s one article every 8.4 minutes assuming no breaks to eat, use the washroom, have any form of social contact, etc) it would take you 107 years to get through it all. Assuming you learned to read at high school level when you were 5, you’d be 112 when you died (provided you don’t go insane from leading such a life). For all practical purposes it’s an impossible task, but it’s at least on the razor’s edge of achievability.
Remember, though, that we already poisoned the well by ignoring further additions to the size of the pool. Over the next few years that already faint hope will pass beyond the horizon of the imaginable. Assuming the same 100 articles a day it takes an additional 2.7 years for every extra 100,000 articles, and 300,000 articles have been adding each year for the past few years (this number is admittedly falling). In a year the number of years required will be 115 (meaning, if you started when you were 5, it would take you until you were 120-years-old, which seems to be the longevity ceiling at present), and then the horizon will pass into the utterly impossible (assuming no major increases in longevity, but then we’re assuming zero increase in the size of Wikipedia).
Oh, by the way: A legend has died. Coincidence?