Wikipedia's bold bid for World Heritage status

By Samanth Subramanian

Even by the standards of the dot-com universe, Wikipedia has been an especially bold enterprise. It was bold to hope that many thousands of people would give of their time to build encyclopedia entries in return for not so much as a byline. It was bold to presume that this anonymous community would police itself well enough to create a resource of surprising detail and accuracy. Even its fundraising efforts are nerveless and edgy; last year, Wikipedia tested a banner ad, displayed prominently at the top of every page, that read: “Admit it – without Wikipedia, you never could have finished that report. Click here to keep Wikipedia free for future students.”

This roll-call of audacity notwithstanding, Wikipedia’s latest move may be its boldest yet. A few days ago, a German chapter of the Wikimedia Foundation announced plans to apply for a UNESCO World Heritage label, arguing that the site “is a masterpiece of human creative genius and is also of universal human value".

In the case of Wikipedia, a World Heritage status would promise a crucial degree of financial solvency and freedom from advertisements. In the pic: Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Reuters

These words weren’t chosen casually; UNESCO insists, as a part of its six criteria for cultural heritage, that the property “represent a masterpiece of human creative genius” and that it exhibit “an important interchange of human values". For Wikipedia, these two claims are debatable, but when I went through the other four stipulations, I found some remarkable overlaps. Wikipedia can certainly maintain that it “bears a unique… testimony to a cultural tradition", that it is an “outstanding example of… a technological ensemble” and of “human interaction” with a particular environment, and that it is directly associated with “ideas… of outstanding universal significance". UNESCO, for its part, has played all this cautiously. “Anyone can apply,” Susan Williams, the head of media relations at UNESCO in Paris, told the New York Times. “But it may have difficulty fulfilling the criteria.”

In the case of Wikipedia, perhaps more than in the case of other UNESCO properties, a World Heritage status would promise a crucial degree of financial solvency and freedom from advertisements. Last November, Jay Walsh, a Wikimedia communications official, mentioned that the foundation’s operating budget for the 2010-2011 fiscal year was slated at $20 million, $16 million of which it hoped to raise through donations – not the most stable of business models. A World Heritage label would makes properties eligible for limited UNESCO funding, but it also makes member nations responsible for keeping these properties in shape.

Wikipedia’s gambit is an odd one: It has to assert that it is vigorously relevant even as it asks to be put on a list that otherwise includes defunct monuments or endangered natural formations. Moreover, it has to redefine – for UNESCO and for us – the very concept of heritage in a digital age. Can a 10-year-old website – housed in fragments on various servers in various countries, present everywhere and nowhere, belonging to everyone and no-one – even be a heritage artifact?

Aditya Dev Sood thinks it can. Sood is the founder of the Center for Knowledge Societies, a New Delhi-based consultancy that works closely in the digital environment. There is, Sood says, a continuity of cultural technology that Wikipedia fits into, and that continuity confers a certain historical relevance upon Wikipedia. He identifies as parts of this lineage the Rosetta Stone – the tablet that helped decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs – and the Antikythera Mechanism, a mechanical computer dating back to around 150 BC. Neither is on UNESCO’s list, but unlike them, Wikipedia fulfills an additional role: It is at the centre of a large, involved community, as a heritage property ought to be.

“My instinct is, it would be facile for Wikipedia to just apply on the basis that there’s nothing else like it,” Sood says. “They need to go beyond that, to say that they are the first real exemplar of the model of free knowledge – a model that is spreading, as our world is Wikifying rapidly.” Indeed, this is what Wikipedia is arguing in its petition which states:

[I]t is not our main objective to meet single UNESCO criteria but to emphasise the project as the greatest ever collection of human knowledge... It is not only a success story in the history of the Internet, but a success story for a paradigm change in the treatment of free knowledge.

There is also the most obvious question of antiquity. The youngest site on the World Heritage list, the Sydney Opera House, is 38 years old, but the ages of most of the others number in the centuries.  “In general, the older a site is, the more interesting it is, and the more curious it gets to be. We stand before it and ask: ‘How did people relate to it? How did they do it? What was that world like?’” says Sunil Kumar, a cultural historian at Delhi University. Kumar observes also that manmade heritage sites are usually “dead” – frozen for posterity in a particular form – even if they’re still functional. The Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus is still a working railway station, for example, but retains the form of the original Victoria Terminus of the early 1900s. Its World Heritage status, in fact, is supposed to prevent that form from evolving or being replaced.

Sood makes a convincing argument for Wikipedia here too. With its meticulously kept archives and extensive record of edits, Wikipedia can offer frozen snapshots of itself at any point in its history. And this archival material would offer an answer, in one sense, to the question that Kumar sets up: “What was that world like?” You could, Sood says, “look to these snapshots to examine, say, the state of different arguments on the Israel-Palestine issue, from 2003 or 2006 or whatever. And that could be a very valuable resource for historians.”

Ironically, what may scuttle Wikipedia’s ambition is precisely what has made it so valuable in the first place: its freedom from any political or national affiliation. UNESCO requires that a country sponsor a property’s nomination. While the Wikimedia Foundation has announced that it will look to Germany to fulfill this requirement, it is a random choice; it could, just as convincingly or unconvincingly, look to Indonesia, Slovenia or Turkey, in whose languages Wikipedia pages exist.

UNESCO’s requirement is partly pragmatic – because, after all, a member state must bear the responsibility for a site’s maintenance – but is also rooted in practice. The standard way that historians understand manmade heritage today, Kumar says, is in terms of a national identity, such that a heritage property forms a stitch in the fabric of a country’s cultural patrimony.

Wikipedia cannot claim to be a part of any country’s patrimony. Indeed, it must not. What it can argue, however, is that it represents a new type of heritage property: an intangible one that has, right from its inception, been created by and belonged to humanity at large, maintained by a foundation or a corporation. It is a redefinition that will start to fit more and more of our virtual creations, built on behalf of stateless entities in an increasingly borderless world.

The writer is a contributing writer and the host of Firstpost’s literary salon. He is the Indian correspondent for The National and the author of Following Fish: Travels around the Indian Coast (Penguin, 2010).


Updated Date: May 30, 2011 13:26 PM

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