When World Heritage Gets Forkable

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When culinary traditions can be formally recognised as significant cultural heritage, it was only a matter of time before U.N.E.S.C.O. found itself having to consider the possibility of digital world heritage. Assuming that a website occupies a suitable level of individuation to begin with, I’d have favoured Archive.org, but in fact it’s Wikipedia that’s being proposed (by its own backers) as the first candidate.

One of the more philosophical questions to arise from this involves the identity conditions under which any given instantiation of Wikipedia, which can be copied, remixed and forked under a Creative Commons licence (and formerly under the G.D.F.L.), would qualify as Wikipedia the official heritage object. Unless digital heritage is to be individuated by domain name (in accordance with no obvious principle), any snapshot copy of Wikipedia would seem to satisfy the identity conditions for counting as the same item of heritage. It would be, after all, a perfect copy of something which never existed as a single prototypical object of which all backups and other copies might be considered mere replicas. What then about a fork of Wikipedia, such as Citizendium was planned to be when first announced? What about Deletionpedia, a resource more dedicated to preserving what Wikipedia offers to humanity than Wikipedia itself? Should they qualify as manifestations of the same item of heritage? As semi-manifestations? If not, then whyever not?

There is no doubt some scope for defining the heritage item ‘Wikipedia’ in terms of where the editing action generally happens, but I expect that precision would be tricky, and there is always the possibility that a fork could become popular enough to rival its parent. Whether or not this particular proposal is accepted, digital world heritage looks set to involve at least as many headaches in applied metaphysics as French gastronomy did (the latter being forkable in another sense, endlessly forked into mouths and vanishing there). The Pyramids were never this troublesome...

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