• The Amnesia Issue

    Wikipedia’s Apocalyptic Fear of Loss and Chaos

    The Amnesia Issue
    Wikipedia commonmemory

    Common Memory

    Wikipedia’s apocalyptic fear of loss tells history in a certain way. We should take charge of the crowdsourced archive to tell our version.

    According to Wikipedia “[c]ollective memory is the shared pool of knowledge and information in the memories of two or more members of a social group.” This ostensibly collective page has been edited countless times since its inception in 2005 (at which time the entry was a meagre 50 words). There have been 21 noteable edits since September 2015 alone. Collective memory, or at least the definition of it, is also conflicted memory, memory poised for revision by those who ostensibly share it.

    Although memory is typically thought of in ethereal terms, as something that both forms how we know and is just outside the grasp of proper knowing, the project of producing solid, lasting collective memories is longstanding. Among other things, the attempt to consolidate and negotiate collective memory is the basis of most nation-building projects. These forms of collective memory (or perhaps collective misremembering and systematic forgetting) rely on producing a notion of shared memory as such, whose content comes to stand in for a shared ‘truth.’ In fact, the existence of something as ambitious (and ambiguous) as a nation is predicated on this shared memory-truth. The construction, circulation, perpetuation, and institutionalization of these “shared pools of knowledge” occur through a myriad of technologies, such as the museum, the archive, the database.

    Wikipedia, the resource we started with, is itself deeply involved in the (re)production of certain types of knowledge. Until mid-October, the data-hungry Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that manages Wikipedia and several other wiki-based projects, promoted its now annual monuments campaign. “Wiki Loves Monuments,” proclaims a banner at the top of every page, much like during their fundraising campaigns. Essentially, the project is just a photo competition to collect images of monuments for free access on Wikimedia Commons. 

    The monument, and the closely related memorial, are some of the most obvious projects of reifying and directing (often institutional) collective memory. The memorial, of course, is etymological kin to memory – it is memory made object. It is memory that endures, that we can engage with. User LilyOfTheWest, the international organizer of Wiki Loves Monuments, notes “[p]hotographing these monuments now offers a way to preserve them so that a record of these sites may exist in our collective memory [emphasis mine] – for other generations to learn from and enjoy for many years to come.”

    In Wikipedia’s monument project there is a preservation anxiety located in a total fear of loss, and in this desire to overcome that loss, there is a paradoxical recognition of its inevitability. (As Lily says: “[W]e know that our precious monuments will not last forever.”) Wikipedia wishes to forestall loss, that is forgetting, by describing the world. It’s as if the job of any documentarian is to just try and keep up. The compulsion to preserve is very much componential to the desire to archive, the desire to give order to an otherwise orderless and ever escaping abundance of information. Encyclopedia-ing, documenting, photographing, wiki-ing manifest a desire to make the archived, the textual, the photographed map onto the world in such a way that it might never be lost, an irony on a form that itself presents so much apocalyptic anxiety in its eternal flux and digital immateriality as Wikipedia (just see projects such as Michael Mandiberg’s Print Wikipedia (2015), where the artist filled and decorated a room with thousands of pages from Wikipedia as it existed on a single day).

    Monuments are potent signs of preservation and erasure. They both signify the fact of memory, of remembering in general, and the particularities of what may or may not have happened in a spatial and temporal context then wrought in bronze or stone. They insert certain histories to foreclose ones inconvenient to those who build the monument. Monuments crystalize memory by producing spaces to consider that memory and memory at all. No wonder then, that throughout history these objects have been beloved object of iconophiles and the targets of iconoclasts. They give form to the production of collective memory. As architectonic, spatial, community, and state-based project makes them the natural receivers of symbolic and material violence, a violence which performs into ‘public’ the possibility of new memories, collective memories, and different forms of remembering. Memory Wound, a memorial proposed by Jonas Dahlberg to be built on Utøya island, Norway, the site of the 2011 right-wing massacre that left 77 dead, has recently resurfaced as numerous artists and curators signed onto a petition supporting its completion and the importance of memorialization. Memory Wound was slated for completion in 2015, however has found itself in the midst of a legal battle with local residents who have described it as “hideous” and nothing but a “tourist attraction.” This legal controversy highlights the controversy of making history.

    Monuments and memorials attempt to convene into existence their own particular publics by presupposing their necessity-to-be. Monuments dictate historicization, and the histories of engaging with (be that taking photographs or blowing up) these monuments is an arena of negotiating what common memories we make matter to whom. They can be violent impositions, and the violence against them draws strong lines. The fall of regime often comes with a toppling of monuments. Memory scholars of the European Holocaust often focus on what Nazi buildings and sites are destroyed, and what are memorialized, as part of a project of both memorialization and sanitization. In what is today Croatia, the area of the Sajmište concentration camp had over time become a vital and vibrant Roma community. However, the Croatian government attempted to use the guise of European Union Holocaust museum and memorial laws to displace those living there, a people who themselves were victims of Nazi and later nationalist ethnic cleansings. While Forensic Architecture at Goldsmiths was able to propose an intervention for a “Living Death Camp,” the strange and dangerous nature of memorializing the past against the present truly is shown. The history of how they make history is important, and so it is admirable that Wikipedia wants to remember the objects of remembrance for posterity. Monuments, as things and space, make memory and make memory’s making and contestation visible. 

    Memory and the way we remember how memory is made are critical to how we build, view, and change our world. Historicization and contestation on Wikipedia highlight the problems and hopes of making memory online. Wikipedia’s monument pages can tell us the legacy of Memory Wound, who put a colonial statue down, or what monument was toppled over. However, one of the most glaring problems, of course, is how the information on Wikipedia reproduces structural problems in the history of knowledge and broader world as a whole. Articles on women, particularly women of color, for example are frequently non-existent, “stubs (Wikipedia’s term for unduly short articles),” or have quantifiably different linguistic representation. It’s not just that there are less pages, but also that those pages that do exist are shorter, treated differently, and do not have follow-throughs on their links, or their link-throughs lead to dominant histories and knowledges, centering white Western patriarchal history as all history’s ground. When, according to Rebecca Solnit, New York City already has just five monuments to women, how do we document this monumental absence? Nora Almeida, a librarian and archivist in New York, committed to “making visible things that could otherwise be forgotten or lost,” has helped to organize edit-a-thons for the Art+Feminism editing initiative of Wikipedia, where people come in (and in her case largely rely upon the resources of Interference Archive in Brooklyn, a place that she hopes is “living,” and informs “how we read the past,” rather than the dusty, ossifying sense an archive can often have) to build new articles and bolster existing ones about women. Other groups such as AfroCROWD, are also using tools like Wikipedia to make the histories and presents of Black people more visible and written in their own words, things which unveil the ways that memory and knowledge can still be contested and hopefully produce better futures via these crowdsourcing tools. 

    However, Wikipedia’s appeal to neutrality is in many ways an appeal to a liberal ideal that reinforces the stratified, biased, violent ideology that undergirds society at large. As Almeida points out “Wikipedia does not exist in a vacuum. Verifiability is a real problem, because not only are women and minorities underrepresented on Wikipedia, they’re underrepresented in general.” Wikipedia prefers a slew of secondary sources to back up pages, particularly “authoritative” ones. Yet, authority is precisely the problem. Not only does more limited textual content exist on historically marginalized individuals, movements, and groups, an issue that this type of verifiability perpetuates, but also so-called ‘authoritative’ texts on marginal people and revolutionary moments are often fewer and further between or productive of the type of authority that has led to exclusion in the first place. Crowdsourcing itself, as a technical solution to a social problem that does not undo any underpinning structural inequities, but instead obfuscates the need to battle them through its mythic sense of community, in some sense is not a radical break, but a logical conclusion to a long march of muddying measures of liberal “community-building and empiricist phallological fascinations, as well as its technological production. If we can only remember by certain means, certain verifiable things, then we are just recomposing a tired history that does a disservice, creating a cognitive dissonance between the memory we are supposed to share and the memory we have outside of narratives made official through majoritarian validity.

    Crowdsourced services like Wikipedia certainly offer some good to all of us in the material present. I use it daily, both for practical reasons and for the joy of diving deep into the hyperlinked encyclopedia K-hole. I take the point that they’re more accessible, revisable, and in many ways, comprehensive, than an encyclopedia “proper.” But this is all to say that crowdsourcing is not the answer to our problems, or it is a liberal-libertarian answer. Returning to the Wikipedia pages of monuments, LilyOfTheWest duly notes that there is a “gap between the information captured in the photo and what has been felt by the photographer.” However, while this ekphrastic moment is important, it “is not directly applicable” on Wikipedia. While at first this may seem fair, LilyOfTheWest, in distant, business-friendly language, acknowledges that this type of reaction and information may be “valuable information for other types of products and services on the internet.” However this moment of encounter with a monument is both present in all interpretations of it, regardless of its espoused neutrality and reflects how “different humans perceive the same building differently, depending on their backgrounds, history, and knowledge.” These “different humans,” those of difference who might propose narratives of difference, who might collectivize feeling, anger, ‘alternative’ knowledges and histories, for and against the monument into an internet compendium are thus not the “humans” whose history may matter. Writing the history of conflict ought not to be a history of too much conflict, it seems. When difference is precisely what must be averaged out to arrive at a narrative of agreed-upon “truth,” then all potential to instigate and revolutionize through difference is lost. 

    Our collective memories and our collective ways of remembering are among our revolutionary tools. We must have a form of ‘verifiability’ in print, online, and in our interactions, that is of our very imaginations, a way of making collective memory matter outside of dominant white, patriarchal, priveleged, reproductive logics that not only give voice but give power to the marginalized and maligned memories and knowledges. The re-monumentalization as the preservation of the monument’s supposed neutrality rather than active part in producing memory and history and active engagement with those who encounter it does a disservice to the realities we face. If crowdsourcing is capitalism’s answer to community, then we must oppose it with a communalism that derives from another form of “crowdsourcing.” The internet is predicated on surveillance. Crowdsourcing, no matter how useful, is a bandaid technological fix to broader social concerns that must be addressed as such. We must build and revolt from collectivities and archives and memories that always thrived and opposed and imagined outside of the now. We must trust ourselves and our community to ‘verify’ on our own terms. If crowdsourcing and the internet’s post-bureaucratic memory-machine, then crowdsourcing is opposed to community. Our crowdsourcing must do better, or better yet, do different, and answer back to science with science fiction.

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