The Ark in the Archives: Toward A Theory of Link-Oriented Antiepistemology | MIT Center for Civic Media
Chris Peterson is an admissions officer, teaching assistant, and researcher at MIT. He works at the intersection of digital strategy, new media, and social change.
In addition to his research affiliation with Civic, he is on the Board of the National Coalition Against Censorship, a Fellow at the National Center for Technology and Dispute Resolution, and the founder, owner, and sole-proprietor of BurgerMap.org.
He earned his B.A. in Critical Legal Studies from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he completed his thesis on Facebook privacy and/as contextual integrity advised by Ethan Katsh and Alan Gaitenby. He earned his S.M. in Comparative Media Studies from MIT, where he completed his thesis on user-generated censorship advised by Ian Condry, Ethan Zuckerman, and Nancy Baym.
The Ark in the Archives: Toward A Theory of Link-Oriented Antiepistemology
Imagine an expressive object. A book, a painting, or a website will do. This object, in literary terms, constitutes a text, with a meaning to be interpreted by readers.
Assume that a given audience would like to read this text (that is, the text is not already subject to some form of internalized, repressive foreclosure). However, you, for any number of reasons, wish to intercede and prevent them from reading it. How might you go about doing this?
One way to do it would be to act on object itself: that is, to subject the object to some form of overt cultural regulation. If it is a painting, you might ask a museum to remove it from its walls. If it is a book, you might demand a library remove it from its shelves, or even organize a burning in the town common. If it is an embarrassing or dangerous government secret, you might classify it and keep it under lock and key, available to only those with the proper clearance.
Professor Peter Galison's article Removing Knowledge discusses the processes and practices of classifying documents. Galison notes that, if one counts pages, the volume of classified material produced each year far outstrips that entered into the Library of Congress. "Our commonsense picture may well be far too sanguine, even inverted," Galison writes. "The closed world is not a small strongbox in the corner of our collective house of codified and stored knowledge. It is we in the open world—we who study the world lodged in our libraries, from aardvarks to zymurgy, we who are living in a modest information booth facing outwards, our unseeing backs to a vast and classified empire we barely know."
Establishing this empire, Galison notes, was no trivial task. There was a method to the muzzling. He traces the long and (perhaps ironically) well-documented history to how classification schemes developed: carefully, thoughtfully, with almost academic rigor. Indeed, the intellectual character of classifying information inspires Galison to compare it directly to the philosophy of information. He writes: "Epistemology asks how knowledge can be uncovered and secured. Antiepistemology asks how knowledge can be covered and obscured. Classification, the antiepistemology par excellence, is the art of nontransmission."
Classification, as antiepistemology, orbits the objects it classifies. We might, at the risk of compounding jargon, even call it an object-oriented antiepistemology. Depending on its status, the thing to be classified - a covert intervention, a nuclear equation - then becomes regulated in ways prescribed by the rubric which classified it.
This is a powerful antiepistemology. But are there other antiepistemologies? Other modes of intervention which might make texts unavailable to readers?
Suppose, instead of removing or destroying the object, one attempted to erase avenues through which the object is available. This view imagines object sitting, not "out there" in the open world, but rather entangled at the intersection of the routes which lead to and away from it. As Latour said at a GSD lecture in 2009, "…we always tend to exaggerate the extent to which we access this global sphere…There is no access to the global for the simple reason that you always move from one place to the next through narrow corridors without ever being outside."
How might this work in practice?
Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark concludes with the Ark, enclosed in an anonymous box, being wheeled into an enormous archive. The scene implies the box will here be kept, secret among secrets, until "top men" begin their work.
Suppose you're Indiana Jones. Having witnessed the awesome and terrible power of the Ark, you want to prevent even these "top men" from accessing it. What do you do?
You could focus on the object and try to remove the Ark from the archives. But stealing the Ark seems like a difficult task, even someone as resourceful as Indy. His efforts might evenbackfire by alerting the government to his efforts, which, its attention raised, would double-down on securing and preserving the Ark. And even if he did manage to sneak it out, what would he do with such the very dangerous object suddenly in his sole possession?
But Indy could also do something else. If he is worried about "top men" finding the Ark, rather than removing it he could render it unfindable. He might, for example, find the index of boxes and simply edit or erase the Ark's entry. In an archive of sufficient size and complexity, it seems likely no "top man" would know where or how to find it. In fact, most people wouldn't even know it had gone missing. The Ark could be hidden in plain sight, simultaneously accessible and unavailable. The routes of passage leading to and from it would not be closed or blocked. Instead, by virtue of the altered indices, they would simply be made to seem boring or unusable to potential travellers.
If classification is object-oriented antiepistemology, then we might call this link-oriented antiepistemology. Link-oriented antiepistemology functions, not by removing or conspicuously blocking access to objects, but by erasing or making uninteresting the avenues which lead to them.
Object-oriented antiepistemology is common to the Internet. Every time a country or company erects a filter or a block, or every time Anonymous fires the LOIC at an underequipped server, they practice censorship by attacking objects. I would argue, however, that instances of link-oriented antiepistemology are emerging on the Internet.
In summer 2011, as the heat and the hardship both beat down on Britain, anti-austerity activists proposed a general strike. They began organizing and promoting the event, relying, as so many groups have, upon digital platforms to spread the word. They set up a website at J30Strike.org and shared links to it on Facebook, trusting that referral traffic would amplify their message across their networks.
Their trust was betrayed when, ten days before the strike, Facebook began blocking all links to J30Strike.org. Attempts were met with a message which said the post “contains blocked content that has previously been flagged as abusive or spammy.” (Emphasis mine). Then, with relentless, recursive efficiency, Facebook blocked links to sites which linked to J30Strike, including blog posts informing other activists of the original embargo. The site was suppressed, and then its suppression was suppressed further.
J30Strike.org underwent a Rumsfeldian transformation, becoming an unknown unknown within the world of Facebook. It’s tempting to say that J30Strike disappeared down the memory hole, but in fact almost precisely the opposite occurred. The original object - the website - remained intact. What vanished were important avenues through which it could be found.
The story of J30Strike could be an instance of link-oriented antiepistemology. Social media appear to connect users directly to their friends such that they may share stories. But in fact, these apparently direct connections have a highly contingent character. What one can see, and what others are allowed to see, depend upon a complex and invisible confluence of forces, many of which were beyond any individual's control.
If classification regimes are instances of object-oriented antiepistemology, than we might think of J30Strike - or the Digg Patriots - as instances of link-oriented antiepistemology. The objects (J30Strike.org; a DailyKos post about climate change) remain "visitable". But few visit, because certain tactics have made the indices or routes which lead to them disappear or become utterly uninteresting.
One of the most fascinating and dangerous characteristics of this form of suppression is its silence. This mode of suppression suppresses its own operation. When an object is (often loudly) removed, the knowledge that something is forbidden engenders intense, taboo-driven interest in revealing it. But the erasure of avenues operates invisibly. It rarely betrays its own existence. It requires no clearances, vaults, or bonfires. And it is all the more effective and insidious for it.