On July 31, 2007, an old Japanese silver mine known as Iwami Ginzan was declared by Unesco to have “outstanding universal value” and added to the World Heritage List alongside Stonehenge and the Pyramids. Local Japanese were bewildered. Abandoned in 1923, the site now consists of little more than a hole in the ground.
Fast-forward four years. At the Wikimedia Conference in March, a German coalition proposed that Wikipedia become the first digital World Heritage site. A petition was drafted, declaring Wikipedia “a masterpiece of human creative genius.” Unesco was not impressed. A spokeswoman suggested that Wikipedia apply for something called the Memory of the World Register.
Never heard of that before? Recent inductees and applicants include the Stockholm City Planning Committee Archives, the Benz patent of 1886, and Autochthonous Ethnic Music of the Caucasus on CD-ROM.
No offense to the ethnic music community, but Wikipedia deserves more credit. Indeed, the site’s monumental compilation of 19 million entries in 282 languages has already had a greater cultural impact worldwide than that now-defunct silver mine and most of the other 936 sites recognized for “outstanding universal value” on the World Heritage List. (Upper Harz Water Management System, anyone?)
But however much it may deserve designation, the truth is that Wikipedia doesn’t need the World Heritage List. The World Heritage List needs Wikipedia.
Unesco established the list in 1972 to help the UN foster “conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, based upon respect for commonly shared values.” (Sound like a certain online encyclopedia?) But rampant politicking has nudged a rapidly expanding assortment of water management systems and silver mines into the league of universally significant landmarks like Persepolis and the Taj Mahal.
However, Unesco is plagued by an even deeper problem. Since the World Heritage Convention was written in 1972, the delegates haven’t known quite how to handle “intangible cultural heritage”—the traditions and wisdom that are as significant to civilizations as their monuments. After spending 31 years sorting out the intellectual property rights of ethnic groups, the delegates decided to create a whole separate convention for abstract landmarks, a second, independent roster. You’ll find the historic center of Bruges, Belgium, on the World Heritage List, and Bruges’ annual Procession of the Holy Blood ceremony on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
That’s ludicrous. Intangible cultural context is the essence of heritage, making wood and stone worthy of our interest. To merit the name, World Heritage sites need to encompass the intangibles, to be virtual at least as much as they’re physical.
That’s why Wikipedia is an ideal candidate to set the World Heritage List right. The Wikipedia World Heritage site would be more than a plaque on a server farm in Tampa. It would be data. But not a particular data set, since the data is always changing, and that mutability is what makes it a wiki. As more of the world goes digital and grows more networked, world heritage will increasingly have this characteristic. The World Heritage Committee will have to adapt to it or become obsolete.
Wikipedia has another, related lesson to teach the traditionalists at Unesco: Change is not necessarily antagonistic to preservation. That false assumption has put the World Heritage Committee at odds with the very people whose heritage Unesco claims to support. For example, the people of Djenné, Mali, whose mud-brick houses were inscribed on the list in 1988, have ever since been bullied by heritage professionals to avoid making alterations that would facilitate modern amenities like showers and tile floors. One irate local compares a room in his neighbor’s dirt house to a grave. Unesco’s static concept of physical heritage is exterminating the evolving intangible heritage of the Djenné people.
Wikipedia protects the past without impeding the future. That’s the genius of the View History tab, which allows anyone to browse and compare every single version of an entry going back to 2001. Of course, multiple versions of the physical world cannot be physically preserved. But if all World Heritage sites were virtualized like Wikipedia, the physical places could continue to change with the people. The mud huts of Djennécould be preserved as three-dimensional models, augmented with historical and cultural information contributed by both archaeologists and locals, wiki-style. Layers of alteration to the houses could be digitally recorded and accessed by anyone anywhere. Rapid prototyping technology means the huts could even be printed out and physically explored. Were world heritage wikified, people’s homes would no longer be reduced to graves, sacrificed to outmoded Unesco principles. Djenné would not become a moribund ghost-town-cum-tourist-attraction like Iwami Ginzan.