I talked about a number of things. I started out talking about Geocities, and how it was a very real thing, a place that I grew up in, and how it was lost too easily. This, despite efforts like the Wayback Machine from the Internet Archive (which, incidentally, is kept in a shipping container).
William Gibson spoke recently at BEA. He said this:
“If you’re fifteen or so, today, I suspect that you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient communal prosthetic memory. I also suspect that you don’t know it, because, as anthropologists tell us, one cannot know one’s own culture.”
Which struck me pretty hard, that bit about atemporality, and the flatness of digital memory, but particularly our lack of awareness of this situation. I talked about the Library of Alexandria, and the Yo La Long Dia, and the National Libraries of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq—all examples of cultural destruction caused in part by neglect and willful disregard for our shared patrimony.
These losses, despite their horror, will always happen: but what can we do to mitigate and understand them? In a world obsessed with “facts”, a more nuanced comprehension of historical process would enable us to better weigh truth, whether it concerns the evidence for going to war, the proliferation of damaging conspiracy theories, the polarisation of debate on climate change, or so many other issues. This sounds utopian, and it is. But I do believe that we’re building systems that allow us to do this better, and one of our responsibilities should be to design and architect those systems to make this explicit, and to educate.
One of the ways to do this might be to talk more not only about history, but about historiography. History not as a set of facts, but as a process, and one in which, whether we agree or not with the writers, our own opinions and biases are always to be challenged
I talked about Wikipedia because for me, Wikipedia is a useful subset of the entire internet, and as such a subset of all human culture. It’s not only a resource for collating all human knowledge, but a framework for understanding how that knowledge came to be and to be understood; what was allowed to stand and what was not; what we agree on, and what we cannot.
As is my wont, I made a book to illustrate this. Physical objects are useful props in debates like this: immediately illustrative, and useful to hang an argument and peoples’ attention on.
This particular book—or rather, set of books—is every edit made to a single Wikipedia article, The Iraq War, during the five years between the article’s inception in December 2004 and November 2009, a total of 12,000 changes and almost 7,000 pages.
It amounts to twelve volumes: the size of a single old-style encyclopaedia. It contains arguments over numbers, differences of opinion on relevance and political standpoints, and frequent moments when someone erases the whole thing and just writes “Saddam Hussein was a dickhead”.
This is historiography. This is what culture actually looks like: a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual and not always correct codification.
And for the first time in history, we’re building a system that, perhaps only for a brief time but certainly for the moment, is capable of recording every single one of those infinitely valuable pieces of information. Everything should have a history button. We need to talk about historiography, to surface this process, to challenge absolutist narratives of the past, and thus, those of the present and our future.
More photos of the books are, as ever, available on Flickr.
NOTE: Yes, the books are out of order in the photos. Kindly do not draw inferences from this. It’s just a photograph. Seriously.