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Wikipedia Historiography

James Bridle, author of the blog Book Two, has compiled the entire editing process of one Wikipedia page – that of the Iraq War – in a book. Or rather, an entire encyclopedia, as all the editing between between December 2004 and November 2009 amounts to a total of 7,000 pages, or twelve volumes. He has done this because, to him, this is historiography: the continuing debate about history, colored by differences in viewpoints, ideology and factical estimates.

Bridle illustrates his argument in a beautiful way, showing at once the relevance and the impossibility of history writing:

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.

I don’t know whether I agree entirely with him, though. Maybe it’s professional bias, but I kinda feel like history writing should be left to historians. The premise of the whole Wikipedia project is that the more people work on something, the truer it is likely to be. It’s a sort of knowledge democracy. Historians, on the other hand, are trained to thorougly scrutinize every piece of evidence, to understand that what they see is only one part of the truth, and to perpetually question whatever they – and their peers – find. Hopefully, in this way, a “more true” account of history can be construed, although it’s always a debate. The editing page of a Wikipedia entry is more like folklore; the collected wisdom of a community.

A brilliant project though, although probably a highly boring read.

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.

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