The Iraq war Wikipedia entry: A case study in real-time history
Tuesday, September 21, 2010 at 01:41AM
Melody in Iraq, Online Community, Wikipedia

James Bridle at released an amazing project and reflection this month: a consideration of how Wikipedia provides "a framework for understanding how knowledge came to be and to be understood" illustrated through the printed and bound collation of all edits made to the "Iraq War" entry over 5 years. It is amassed in 12 volumes, or what looks to be about the size of Encylopedia Britannica in its entirety.

It's a terrific way to visualize the power and impact that is Wikipedia - our collective consciousness and knowledge of information. But it also highlights the an ideological debate about history that the continual editing format of Wikipedia offers. James Bridle posits:

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 see two main types of evolutions that compose such a "process":

  1. New information. The Iraq war is still on-going (even if combat operations are over), so the entry needs to be updated. Also, new and more accurate information emerges regarding past events that should be included in revisions.
  2. New perceptions and interpretations of the same information.

For the first instance, Wikipedia is wildly useful. But for the second, to me, it is troublesome, as history becomes not something that has happened in the past, but rather our current interpretation of those events.

Illustratively, I think the first sentence in the article is striking: "The Iraq War (also known as the Occupation of Iraq, the Second Gulf War, and Operation Iraqi Freedom) is a military campaign that began on March 20, 2003 ..." In how many circles is this war known as "the occupation of Iraq"? When was that change made and when will that interpretation be erased? That expression is cited from one article from 2007, but it is a loaded interpretation, not a fact, and in this Wikipedia article, it is the TENTH word. Later, after the initial summary and table of contents for the article, the second sentence includes the phrase: "a Pentagon document dated March 5, 2001, entitled Foreign Suitors for Iraqi Oilfield Contracts, included a map of potential areas for petroleum exploration." This is an interesting choice for a way to describe the initial period of debating whether to go to war. It clearly is a sentence to support the current interpretation of many observers of our reason to go to war. But is it the critical piece of data to describe "2001-2003: Iraq disarmament crisis and pre-war intelligence" as the section header suggests?

I wonder what the "Iraq War" entry will look like in 10 years, 20 years. Clearly the number of edits will decrease as interest wanes, but will the reference be recognizable? If Iraq becomes a thriving democracy, will that sentence on speculation over foreign suitors for oil remain? That article is a fact, but will it be seen as relevant to include in that section (or will it instead reference another obscure article that is now considered prescient and was entitled say, Democracy in Iraq: The Future)? Will the Iraq War still be "also known as the occupation of Iraq"?

The broad question remains: Is there a danger to institutionalizing revisionist history as Wikipedia becomes the standard? James Bridle wants to "challenge absolutist narratives of the past, and thus, those of the present and our future." But is there any point at which we should stop editing a reference article of a historical event? As the long term impact and context of events continue to shift over time, that may be a step too far, but I do believe that we should be more cognizent that Wikipedia only provides us a current snapshot of our collective impressions of an event. That may be better than the fixed impression of a single set of historians (as in the days of Encarta), but it presents new dangers.

James Bridle's Wikipedia project illustrated, as he describes, "what culture actually looks like: a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual and not always correct codification." This is certainly fascinating for scholars of this subject. But is it reference and is it history or are we continuing down a path of constant commentary and reinterpreation based only on today's consciousness?

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