I'm starting here because I think it sheds light, in the usual roundabout sort of way, on the recent clusterfuck over on Wikipedia. If you haven't been following the conflict, the long and short of it is that Gamergate, the violently misogynistic hate group ostensibly dedicated to "ethics in game journalism" but in fact dedicated to hounding women out of the game industry, has been gaming (ahah.) Wikipedia's systems for a while now in order to gain dominance over the article about them. A group dubbed the Five Horsemen has repeatedly opposed their efforts. Wikipedia's Arbitration Committee ("ArbCom") responded by handing down a decision that ousted the Five Horsemen along with a few gamergater burner accounts, patted itself on the back for a job well done, and effectively handed gamergate the keys to the kingdom. You can read about this on the blog of Mark Bernstein (and on his twitter), who broke the story and was banned and denounced in retaliation, or on Wikipedia itself in this editorial by user Protonk... who of course was ALSO banned and denounced in retaliation. Exciting times over on Wikipedia. The story's continued since then but those are the basic facts in the case that I think are worth relaying.
Before getting back to Wikipedia though let's take a moment to talk about the culture of Tumblr and its attitude towards its leaders. Any time Tumblr's staff updates the site there's immediately a race to see who can figure out the best ways to break the new features, or at least do something truly bizarre with the new features. Some of this of course stems from the endless frustration that we all have with a staff that prioritizes trivialities over critically absent core features (a functional blocking system! a functional inbox!) but more broadly speaking I think there's also an attitude on the site that if something CAN be fucked with, it SHOULD be fucked with. It's a creative attitude, and an oppositional one as well, one that resists rather than encourages consensus.
It's this attitude, more than any other form of resistance, that feels to me like the right strategy for dealing with Wikipedia's increasingly glaring flaws. Wikipedia is an engine for generating consensus, so artistic interventions--more plainly, vandalism, or even more plainly, fucking shit up--are essential for disrupting that engine. If Wikipedia has failed to live up to its ideals, instead becoming mired in the dehumanizing mechanisms of a bureaucracy that only a plutocracy of technocrats can engage with, then it's time to stop thinking about incrementally transforming the system, and start thinking about a way of breaking the system in half.
|There's a really obvious pun I could make here but I'll resist.|
I don't actually feel like getting into a whole schpiel about neutrality though so that's where I'll leave the topic, beyond saying that if you're arguing to me that actual literal neonazis deserve equal intellectual consideration we aren't gonna have a good time. I actually don't think we have to go Full Theory here, actually. We can instead look at the concrete failures of the system.
For example, we could look at the demographics of wikipedia and note how they are overwhelmingly white cishet men from STEM fields. For information on this, feel free to glance at this wikipedia essay (which, importantly, means it is NOT official policy) which talks a little bit about the absolutely godawful stats of the website. The article has been marked as outdated but there seems very little on the talk page to justify it, but hey, how would I know when wiki editors speak in incomprehensible jargon much of the time? More on that in a moment. Anyway, this results in the kind of predictable biases one might expect. What's more, correcting these issues seems to be a problem of tilting at windmills. Blogger Zara Rahman, for example, discusses the way her attempts to fix the article on Hedy Lamar to more prominently feature her work with radio technology resulted in the article being edited into an even worse state than before! (The article as it currently stands is different, but certainly no better, than the final example Rahman gives.)
Rahman seems to have avoided some (though not all) of the pedantry of Wikipedia, but others are not so lucky. Tom Simonite in the MIT Technology Review two years ago described Wikipedia as in deep decline in part due to the development of a series of edit-reversing robots, and in part due to the proliferation of policies, jargon, and shibboleths that make the actual process of reading a talk page a descent into a kind of gibbering Lovecraftian apocalyptic log. My struggles to see through the pea soup of Wikipedia's internal logic is part of what delayed this article by several months, and then delayed it another day beyond the initial posting schedule I had set for myself.
I would argue that this is in fact a problem that assails Wikipedia at every level. Sometimes when I make comments critical of this "democratization of knowledge" bee that so many techno-utopians have in their bonnets (or fedoras, perhaps) I get responses full of outrage and/or disbelief. How could the spreading of knowledge be a bad thing?! Well, demographically speaking Wikipedia is spreading predominantly the knowledge of the same cishet white tech dudes who run everything in the world anyway. Beyond that, though, have you ever tried to read a tech article on Wikipedia? Clear as mud, the lot of them. I'm not convinced that Wikipedia is really spreading knowledge as effectively as its proponents claim.
Ultimately, then, Wikipedia seems to be plagued by inaccessibility. But when you can gain a foothold, hoo boy, you are golden! I got quite a bit of violent recrimation on Twitter recently for suggesting that articles on fascism should be treated with care and written in a way to denounce fascism's political program. We can't be having with that, people (including quite a few actual neo nazis) howled!
And yet, the REVERSE is happening right now! In Croatia, actual honest to god fascists have hijacked the entire project. Turns out that when you have an admin system as labyrinthine and unregulated as Wikipedia's, it's quite possible to simply stage a coup and determine what reality is going to be. This possibility is something completely unaddressed, from what I have seen, by Wikipedia's higher ups. Jimmy Wales, for example, seems to have a bafflingly naive understanding of how the Internet actually works. Some nitwit liked me to a series of tweets by Wales to prove, I don't know, some point or other, and I think they're fairly representative of Wales's blithe and childlike innocence: someone uses the term "sealioning" and links him to the comic that coined the term--a term applied to assholes who materialize out of nowhere when you, say, suggest that Fascists have shitty beliefs, or suggest that maybe it's not about Ethics In Game Journalism.
Wales, however, can ONLY conceive of the comic in term of... racism.
The possibility that it could be about anything else does not occur to this person despite it being mentioned in the context of an organized harassment and terrorism campaign.
This absolute inability to conceive of Internet culture in any but the shallowest, most unimaginative terms is unappealing when coming from a 14 year old pimply redditor. When coming from the founder of Wikipedia it's deeply troubling.
I won't speculate here as to the connections between this apparent inability to work through abstract concepts to any measurable degree and Wales's apparent enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels and politics.
I will, however, note that I got into a bit of a tussle with Wales months ago when this first hit, because I described Wikipedia as a fundamentally unsafe environment. Wales took issue with this, because--and this is crucial for understanding Wikipedia's official stance on Gamergate--as long as harassment doesn't happen ON WIKIPEDIA, from the perspective of Wikipedia, it DOES NOT ACTUALLY EXIST. And, you'll be appalled to know, Wikipedia defines "harassment" specifically with respect to editing Wikipedia.
13) Harassment is a pattern of offensive behavior that appears to a reasonable observer to have the purpose of adversely affecting one or more targeted persons, usually (but not always) for the purpose of threatening or intimidating them. The intended outcome may be to make editing Wikipedia unpleasant for targeted persons, to undermine them, to frighten them, or to discourage them from editing entirely.While the behavior listed isn't wrong, that last sentence is a real doozie. Wikipedia's ArbCom has their heads stuck so far up their own asses that they apparently cannot conceive of these issues from any perspective beyond the editing of Wikipedia. If you think I'm exaggerating, here's the Wikimedia Foundation's own perspective on what "really matters:"
Civility is an important concept for Wikipedia: it is what allows people to collaborate and disagree constructively even on difficult topics. It ensures people are able to focus their energy on what really matters: building a collaborative free encyclopedia for the world.Fucking incredible.
I think, given this, and given that now we're at a point where even retweeting Mark Berstein nets me actual neonazis calling me sexual slurs, that I have ample reason to feel unsafe, Mister Wales.
But it goes deeper than this, than any of this really. At its core, Wikipedia has become an engine of dehumanization.
Let me explain.
The case of Chelsea Manning is a good example of the way Wikipedia, far from resisting existing power structures, upholds them unless they can be countered specifically by way of the website's bizarre bubble world logic. Manning, a hero who has been imprisoned in the United States for exposing the country's various war crimes, is transgender, and predictably the moderate and conservative outrage-o-sphere shat its own eyeballs out when she came out.
All of this posed an troubling question for Wikipedia: should Manning's article exist under her real namespace... or under her dead name?
I'm going to link to the actual decision document here but I'm going to provide a trigger warning because while the Committee of Unelected Stooges ultimately came to the only human decision (referring to her by her real name) I find their reasoning to be dehumanizing to the point where they trigger my dysphoria and my anxiety. Here's their rationale.
Notice first of all how neutral and rational they are on this issue of whether a woman's identity is going to be treated as real. That's pretty disgusting but I get that the Internet has a huge fucking stiffy for objective disinterest.
But what I really find horrifying is the way these people treat the problem of Manning's identity as one fundamentally of Wikipedia's internal bureaucracy, with the arguments ultimately hinging entirely on which arbitrary nonsense principles trump one another in the parabolic mirror world that the Wikimedia foundation has constructed around itself. It's all down to this matter of bureaucratic arguments--not, it should be noted, democratic voting, so just in case you're still tempted to see Wikipedia's problems as stemming from popular vote, well, there's that supposition gone! No, this is a plutocracy of rules lawyers, rule by people that any sensible party would immediately jettison from their D&D game for coming to the table with ten obscure splatbooks and a whiny argument that the rules clearly state their character should be able to ascend to godhood by level three.
And Chelsea Manning's humanity and fundamental right to determine her own identity is on the line.
I really need to stress for those folks who aren't trans how deeply disturbing this is to me. The basic dignity of her identity, of my identity, is from the perspective of Wikipedia's ruling party a matter of whether the rules permit self-identification and whether the corporate press decides to respect that identity. I cannot read a passage like the following:
A lack of reliable sourcing would be, per COMMONNAME, a good reason to overrule an article subject's preferences, but it appears, based on the evidence presented in this move request, that the reliable sources have generally (although certainly not unanimously) gotten on board with Manning's request to be referred to as Chelsea. It therefore does not seem credible to say that WP:COMMONNAME and the subject's wishes are on the opposite sides of the scale.without my blood freezing in my veins. If, god forbid, I ever get my own Wikipedia page, my identity--and therefore the identity that search engines like Google display as definitive truth--exists only in so far as "reliable sources have generally gotten on board" with my identity.
This is objectifying in the purest sense. This is the treatment of people like things. The fact that this particular instance represents the treatment of my people as things should not make it impossible, I think, to extrapolate more broadly, in conjunction with what we've covered thus far, to see the ways in which Wikipedia acts as a dehumanizing force particularly targeting those people who fall outside of Wikipedia's narrow white cishet STEM demographics. Wikipedia has become the very engine of exclusivity and control that, by abandoning academia, it seemed to dissolve.
If these are the crimes of Wikipedia I think it would be logical to jump to a reformist platform. There's something to be said for that--I'm a fan of the principles behind wiki storming for example--but I'm somewhat suspicious of them because of all the issues listed above. There's a marked hostility to change on Wikipedia and the staggering, nightmarish hivemind of rules lawyers looks pretty unshakeable at this point.
For myself, I'm not really interested in reform, because reform implies that I believe in the underlying principles of Wikipedia as they now stand. I can't imagine in good consciousness backing a system that decides someone's humanity for purely technical reasons. So, instead of lending support to the structures, what I want to suggest is that we short circuit the system itself.
Let's introduce a little dada into the works.
What is dadaism exactly, though? Just what do I mean by that? Well, dada is anti-dada, among other things, which should give you a sense of how frustrating it is to talk about. Dada is kind of anti-everything. A movement that sprung up in the aftermath of the Great War and the devastating epidemic and entrenching of bourgeois capitalist politics that followed, Dada took one long look at the carnage that seemingly rational post-Enlightenment thought had enabled, the majesty of science used to slaughter an entire generation, and said the hell with this shit.
Folks like Marcel Duchamp, Georges Grosz, and my personal favorite Hannah Hoch developed a wide and heterogenious set of art practices all designed, one way or another, to tweak the nose of the establishment and the systems of rational order that led to such carnage. While their purpose was serious, I think there's some value in seeing the Dadaists as grand scale pranksters, carrying out a variety of jokes and cons on the world. There are stories, for example, of their performances at the Cafe Voltaire being triple booked, so that ticketholders would arrive to find people already occupying their seats, causing fistfights to break out before the show even began. It's this aesthetic that I think we might turn to with Wikipedia.
I want to specifically draw an analogy between what's happening with Wikipedia and one of Marcel Duchamp's most infamous artistic interventions. In 1917 Duchamp was in New York (he was apparently there because Americans hated his work, and Duchamp, being a relentless troll, decided this was the ideal environment for Dada) sitting on the board of an artist group in the city. The group sent out a call an unjuried show of art, where they would, purportedly, accept any works so long as the six dollar entry fee was paid.
Now, for those not familiar with the art world, usually large scale shows with open submissions are subject to a jury which decides which pieces gain entrance. This is a test of quality... and it is also potentially a major barrier to entry for avant garde works. This show, however, had no jury.
One barrier to entry was down.
Is this starting to sound familiar?
Well, Duchamp entered a urinal. He turned a urinal on its back, signed it "R Mutt", and entered it into the show under the title "Fountain."
The piece was refused admittance.
Duchamp wrote a defense of the piece, and then resigned from the board of directors in protest.
Now, I've heard a number of different accounts as to what Duchamp's motivations really were, and whether or not this "ready-made" was really as "ready-made" as he claimed--I talked about that latter point a bit in my article on parafiction. I'm not going to go into all that though because I'm ultimately more interested in the implications and the consequences.
Duchamp entered something into an unjuried show that was still refused admittance, and in doing so rocked the art world and forced a reconsideration of what constituted art. Ultimately, the next century was defined by this act, with Duchamp influencing and paving the way for everyone from Jasper Johns to Claes Oldenberg to Andy Warhol. Folks like Damien Hirst in our present day are, to a large extent, merely retelling the same joke Duchamp told a century ago.
Duchamp's "Fountain," and many of his other works, forced a reconsideration of what constituted an art practice and permissible entries into the Art World. And he did all this while revealing that a supposedly open system was, in fact, still bounded by limits, limits that his urinal crossed.
But Keeper, I hear you scoff as you wave your drink wildly, the art world in the early 20th century cannot be compared to the People's Encyclopedia!
Faugh, on the contrary, it most certainly can be!
See here's the thing about Wikipedia and the Art World. Both ultimately represent systems of making knowledge. Basically, in both the art world and in Wikipedia you have a whole array of processes used to get at "accurate" information, and then implement that information. In fact, classical training in art--and I speak from experience here--is not that different even from the code that underlies Wikipedia. You write the underlying script correctly and you get a proper output. It doesn't matter whether this is scripting for a wiki template, or following the ordering principles of the golden section's geometry and the Impressionist color wheel. I would argue that Dada emerged at perhaps the absolute peak of the rational ordering of art, when the belief that art could be scientifically ordered and neutrally understood.
It's this ordering of knowledge that Duchamp, and several other artists before him, ultimately overturned. If the rational ordering of the world--not merely the art world but the wider political landscape as well--led to the slaughtering fields of the First World War, then there was an urgent need for something to challenge this system which saw people fundamentally as objects to be maneuvered in various ways. Duchamp notably did not have something "in place" to replace the kind of knowledges he was vying against--that's not really in keeping with Dada, after all, a school of art that is anti-art and opposed to even itself let alone any kind of new systems. Instead, he presented an opposition to the system from which new possibilities might emerge.
My beef with Wikipedia is totally in line with the Dadaist beef with the art establishment and with Western Civilization as a whole: ultimately, we've got a whole bunch of institutions that gain cultural credibility from appearing both open and accessible, and neutrally objective. These ostensibly open and neutral systems, however, have very real and very obscure boundaries drawn around what ideas are conceivable. In this system, white nationalism and fascism might be seen as merely another viewpoint that must be approached neutrally and weighed as an intellectual equal, but personal testimonies of harassment and terrorism are treated as inadmissible and beyond the purview of Wikipedia's concern. This is the long con of not just Wikipedia but bourgeois "enlightened" thought and intellectual neutrality: the belief that we can erase the connections between Wikipedia and the terrorism of Gamergate, that we can occlude the relationship between the engine of rational scientific progress and the machine fetishization of the fascist Italian Futurists.
While I respect the attitude of the reformists, I cannot in good conscience join them, because to work within the system is to lend credibility to this ideology of neutrality, this belief that we can stand outside ourselves and outside history and judge on a purely rational basis. It is this belief that truth might be arrived at through compromise and the seeking of middle ground that I find so reprehensible, so odious.
Instead, I say open the floodgates! Deface, disturb, disrupt! Fold, spindle, and mutilate! Find any way that you can to disorient and dislocate the Wikipedia reader. Embrace that attitude we see on sites like Tumblr that seeks ways to wrench the system apart. Embrace the impulse to sign your name to a urinal and call it art. I call for a parafictional intervention into Wikipedia's space, the launching of a campaign of hooliganism that might expose the absurdity of the machine. Meet absurdity with absurdity.
Too, turn absurdity against itself. If you have the time and tenacity, follow the lead of the Gamergaters: learn Wikipedia's ridiculous strictures inside and out and mobilize them to stall, misdirect, confound, frustrate, and discombobulate anyone's ability to accomplish anything on the site. We know it can be done, and we know that ArbCom has even given tacit approval of these tactics!
Ultimately this kind of intervention strikes me as crucial not just because of Gamergate's malignance but because of the dehumanizing nature of Wikipedia's rules. While Gamergate's invasion of the site was the inciting incident here, ultimately what I come back to again and again is that decision to grudgingly acknowledge Chelsea Manning's humanity. The machinery of that decision was so inhuman, so robotic, that it revolts me to my core.
It is for this example alone that I titled my article the way I did, even though it veers away again from this discussion of dada. My title is a reference to the Harlan Ellison story "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," in which the titular Harlequin and Ticktockman are engaged in a battle of pranksterism vs rational order, with the basic idea of humanity at stake. In the story's dystopian setting, time is rationalized as a precious resource, and those who are too late too often are exterminated--their set amount of time that they are allotted is subtracted from their projected lifespan until their lives are snuffed out. The harlequin's response is to use various methods to delay that perverse machinery, to remind people that there's value to being late, to being human.
Wikipedia has become a vast resource for the chewing up and spitting out of lives as processed truthisms, as plutocratically determined realities. It is an engine of dehumanization that alienates utterances from their consequences by way of the vast, incomprehensible mechanisms of wiki law. With the increasing reliance by google upon the most surface level information from Wikipedia's pages, increasingly these byzantine mechanisms are both more crucial to the determination of truth, and more obscured and intangible as mechanisms.
Make no mistake, this battle over Gamergate is one site of conflict in a larger battle for our humanity. These battles share components to a greater or lesser extent (the fascist takeover of the Hugos might be more exemplary of the reactionary counter-revolution in geek culture, while the manipulation of what is seen and hidden on Twitter by algorithms speaks more broadly to the invisible construction of truth by obscure machines) but they are all ultimately centered upon the question of who shall determine the truth of the world: a bunch of pasty-faced nerd boys who think wearing a V mask and hanging around on Reddit makes them "revolutionary," or the broader public and those voices disenfranchised by both the old structures of academia and the new, faux-revolutionary structures of "democratized knowledge."
What I am suggesting is that a crucial tool in this struggle will be that same impulse we see on Tumblr, and the same impulse we see in Duchamp's "Fountain:" the impulse to just straight up wreck shit whenever we have the chance.
This true rebellion, this spirit of revolution as chaos and resistance as humor and hooliganism, is one way that we might continually reassert, in the face of the machine bureaucracies of Web 2.0, that we are human.
Next week I'll be seeing my one partner for the first time in several months, so I'll be skipping a week. StIT will update the Sunday after that, July 12th, with an article taking this same theme into our physical reality, with an examination of Black Lives Matter, protest art, and the reasons why intervening in public space--even at the cost of "inconveniencing" people--is not only reasonable but democratically necessary.
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ALSO KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR MY FIRST ARTICLE OMNIBUS: MY SUPERPOWER IS MANPAIN!
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