< Hitting Print on The Iraq War


Friday, April 22, 2011

BOB GARFIELD: In other printing out the Internet news, we turn to James Bridle. Bridle is a publisher, a blogger and all-around techie. Last year, he chose one entry on Wikipedia, an entry being the Iraq War, and he printed it out, but not just the page you see when you look up the Iraq War on Wikipedia today. He used Wikipedia’s history function to print every single edit made to the Iraq War article on Wikipedia between December 2004 and November 2009, every single edit over the course of five years. Why on earth would anyone want to do that? The answer for Bridle has something to do with documenting how history is written and with the fleeting nature of information online. It turns out to print out history you need a lot of paper. Bridle says Wikipedia’s Iraq War article resulted in a series of printed books the size of an average analog encyclopedia.

JAMES BRIDLE: Twelve large hardback books, small type, three columns per page, 7,000 pages. That collection actually embodies the complete history of that article, every change it’s gone through, not just the finished version you'll see when you go to the site now.

BOB GARFIELD: So that’s what it is. [LAUGHS] What it isn't, I guess, is intended to be beach reading. In fact, you’re not publishing this for mass distribution at all, are you?

JAMES BRIDLE: No. I quite like to think of it, actually, as a bad visualization, as in a visualization that isn't immediately obvious how you should use it. What it does show you is the sheer weight of information, of argument and of people’s time that goes into constructing what appears to be a single medium-sized article on the Wikipedia as it stands at present.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so I have this fantasy of a radio program called What the – fill in the blank – is the Matter with You, with Bob Garfield. And if you were my first guest, and you might be, my question for you would be, what the ___ is the matter with you?

JAMES BRIDLE: [LAUGHS] My answer, Bob, would probably start by saying that I'm a bibliophile. It’s a deep and abiding love for books that borders on the obsessive, and also makes me see books around me in everything that there is and try and make books out of them.

BOB GARFIELD: But this is beyond a love of books. This is about watching kind of in real time how history coalesces? Can you give me an example of a change or a sequence of changes to the Iraq War article that is a vivid demonstration of the importance of seeing the whole evolution of a Wikipedia entry?

JAMES BRIDLE: There’s two main examples, and the first one is vandalism, where someone has gone in and simply erased the entire article and written, God damn Saddam Hussein, or, screw you, Iraq, or, screw you, U.S. And that’s reverted and changed back to the previous version within seconds. The other one is the arguments over casualty figures. There’s a particular period during 2004-2005 when there were a number of competing standards essentially for how the war and its casualty rates were judged. The U.S. general in charge famously said, we don't do body counts. As a result, there’s a number of organizations – there’s one called Iraq Body Count, there was another famous study done by The Lancet, a British medical journal, trying to work out some kind of authoritative body count for both combatants and civilians in the war. And you can see over, through 2004, early 2005, if you look through the changes in the Wikipedia article, you'll see these different figures being used with different prominences. There’s a huge amount of political fighting going on over which figures should be used by Wikipedia as the authoritative figures.

BOB GARFIELD: There’s something paradoxical about the Internet, and especially, I guess, history on the Internet. On the one hand, everything that shows up there is there in perpetuity. Anybody who has ever been slandered online knows that it’s essentially impossible to expunge. On the other hand, everything has this maddeningly transitory nature because it’s there for a moment and, at least on Wikipedia, then, whhh, it’s gone. To your mind, which aspect of the Internet more informs how we perceive history and everything else?

JAMES BRIDLE: I think that understanding of the Internet as, as something that means it’s there forever is, is a huge and, and quite dangerous fallacy. My case example for this was Geocities. Geocities was the first make-your- own-home-page site on the Web. By the end of the last decade, it had millions of users, millions and millions of Web pages on it. It was many people’s first experience of the Internet. And then two years ago, Yahoo! deleted it. Now, a portion of it was, was saved. A couple of organizations went in there and archived as much as it could. But actually, a huge part of popular culture, something that really shaped the Internet as we know it now, was quite simply deleted and wiped away. And that actually is happening all the time on the Internet. It’s incredibly important that we start to address these issues, as the Internet matures, that we need to think very carefully about what of it we should be archiving and how much of it we should be saving.

BOB GARFIELD: James, thank you very, very much.

JAMES BRIDLE: Thank you very much. Good to talk to you.

BOB GARFIELD: James Bridle is a publisher based in England.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] He writes about the nexus of the Internet and history at Booktwo.org.