Destroying the Archive

By jrobbins

In “Search for The Great Community,” Dewey argues that democracy is not created by individuals acting in intelligent self-interest, or by “democratic” forms of governing (suffrage, elections, majority rule). Rather, it is created by individuals acting in relation to others, in a community, with the recognition that the community’s needs must be upheld. Communication between members of the community is the crucial tool furthering that recognition. Dewey suggests that knowledge is a function of association and communication.

Communication transmits the symbols and indicators of meaning. Derrida and Foucault posit that archives are a way to control the meaning of history by communicating that meaning. The symbols and indicators, in the archive context, are the classification systems, the taxonomies, the tools of knowledge organization. That is how the data or information in the archive is contextualized and presented to the world.

Destroying an archive, then, can appear to be a profoundly rational (but arguably misguided) political decision. Mali, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, India, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Poland, Yugoslavia, China, Germany, Ireland, Belgium, Burma, the United States, Wales, Mexico and Guatemala, the Ottoman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, Ancient Persia, Ancient China – the list of archives or libraries that have been destroyed by hostile political forces is truly extensive. Destroying the archives disrupts the intellectual habits of the community, creating the possibility of a societal “tabula rasa,” allowing new habits to be imposed. According to Dewey, though, the creation of a “tabula rasa” in order to permit the creation of a new order is “so impossible as to set at naught both the hope of buoyant revolutionaries and the timidity of scared conservatives.”

Dewey posits that when old habits, particularly of opinion, are thrown out, the first change that results is the disintegration of old beliefs and the substitution of “floating, volatile and accidentally snatched up opinions.” This is far from the ideal condition to harbor democracy. The political volatility of countries implicated in the “Arab Spring” may be, in part, related to the overthrowing of old habits of opinion.

Instead, Dewey suggests that freedom of social inquiry and freedom of distribution of its conclusions would be crucial conditions that would allow individuals to perceive the community context of knowledge. As Dewey puts it: “No [person] and no mind was ever emancipated merely by being left alone.” It is hard not to be reminded of our own political situation, with a vocal and obstreperous minority of Republicans arguing that democracy would be best served by government leaving its citizens alone. It may not be coincidence that there is overlap between Tea Party members and religious fundamentalists and climate change deniers. Fundamentalists often insist that the Bible be read literally, with no reference to historical context, prevailing social mores or current affairs. Climate change deniers ignore the weight of opinion in the scientific community. Each position prizes isolation of thought.

Dewey, writing in 1927, says that our ability to collect information has outrun our ability to inquire into and organize its results by placing them into their community context. In a presentation this year at the MIT Technology Review’s EmTech event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Kate Crawford of Microsoft Research highlighted that same concern when she pointed out that people are ill-informed of the ways in which “big data,” i.e. the wealth of data collected by monitoring of internet use and social media, is used to impinge on their rights. Crawford pointed to efforts by insurers to discover what health problems people research online to enable the insurer to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. She argues that a new legal right to “data due process” may be necessary to protect people from infringements on their right of privacy. The immense archive of information that is generated on the internet is being effectively used by commerce but is outrunning our ability to organize it in a community context, with appropriate protections.

One way to ensure that archives convey meaning that supports communities, and thus supports democracy, would be to make the classification systems more open, to allow different members of the community to say what they believe the meaning of the archive is. How this idea could be applied to the classification of internet-derived information remains to be seen.

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