Collective Memory, Archives, and the Connexions project:
Michael Riordon interviews Ulli Diemer
Michael Riordon interviewed Ulli Diemer on September 26, 2012. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
MR: How about you tell me something about how, when, and why you created Connexions?
UD: I didn’t create it; it was around before me. The project started in 1975; I started with Connexions in 1982. Connexions came out of a network, a loose network of social justice activists, primarily affiliated with Christian Churches, with people who were involved in issues like homelessness, skid row, aboriginal justice, poverty, housing, primarily those kinds of issues.
They would see each other at meetings and conferences and different places across the country and at some point decided it would be a good idea to be able to network together in some way and let each other know what our projects are up to, what we have learned, what our successes have been, what failures we've had, what we’ve been reading, what written materials we ourselves have produced, or other materials such as slide-tape shows which were popular in those days, if we shared that.
So they agreed to start up this project and coordinate it from Toronto. People would send their stuff, whether it was documents they had produced or reports of a conference they had been at, reflections on issues, resources and ideas they found valuable. They would send them to the collective in Toronto, who would then collate those materials and write abstracts, and compile the result into a newsletter or booklet format, run off in a church basement on a Gestetner, which was the standard technology at the time, stapled, and then sent out to the people who were participating.
A couple things happened. One of them was that the people receiving it began quickly to include people who weren’t actually contributing materials, which had been the original idea – people sharing their stuff amongst each other. It turned out there were a lot of people who were interested in the resource without necessarily themselves sending stuff in, so they became subscribers who would pay 10 dollars a year or something, to be getting the newsletter.
And the other thing which was also not planned was that as materials started coming in, they started accumulating and eventually there was an ever-growing collection, and at some point we realized that we have an archive here. Then the question of what to do with the archive became an issue that we needed to think about.
From 1975 until the early 1990s there was a printed publication, first Gestetnered, then a bit more attractively produced, more of a magazine format. Then in the early to mid 1990s we went online. The last printed publication we did was in 1995. That was a copy of our directory, which was over-optimistically called The Connexions Annual (laughs). There were actually three in total over an eight-year period.
And then we went online. Going online made it possible to cover more materials than we were able to cover in a printed publication, because there weren’t the limitations of space, and the expense of printing. Therefore the online library catalogue started growing at a faster rate, but at the same time the physical archive continued to grow as well and has continued to grow. And at some point we realized that this is a treasure in its own right which is different from the website and has different problems and different issues than the website does.
Technically speaking, the website Connexions.org and the Connexions archive are actually separate legal entities. The archive was incorporated separately as a non-profit partly because it is different but also to protect it because there are controversial things on the website that people may take offence to and sue us – if you’re a leftie project you can get into trouble. It seemed prudent to protect the archive by having it be legally separate.
MR: Sounds like the original impulse wasn’t archival, that’s something that grew out of the volume.
UD: The archive was an accident, yes.
MR: So your involvement begins when?
MR: And why? What about it drew you?
UD: They hired me (laughs). I was looking for a job and they had a job opening. I applied and they hired me. That’s what brought me into it, although I was actually subscribing to Connexions for a number of years previously because I found it valuable. So that’s what drew me in. And then eventually Connexions became unable to pay anyone, so I stopped being a staff-person but continued to be a member of the collective and de-facto coordinator of the project.
I’ve always been interested in information, and in sharing information and making it accessible to people. Especially information about social change, and questions about how people try to change their world. What are they thinking when they are doing it? Why do they do it? What do they do? How has it worked? What have they learned? What can we learn or have we learned from them? Plus information generally, in the sense of cataloguing and archiving, and those kinds of more technical information issues have always fascinated me, distinct from the fact that the information is about social justice, so this really brings those two passions together, the passion for social justice and the history of social justice, and a strong interest in how one organizes information and makes it accessible to people.
MR: So it’s easy for me to understand the desire to know what other people are doing who are sort of working in parallel but you may not have any contact with them, but let’s explore a bit more the notion of why it matters to keep these materials. Once they are no longer active in a way, in other words there isn’t a demo coming up, why is it important to keep them?
UD: First of all, I think they are still active. I think we are a product of what has come before. That’s true generally, and also specifically true in the context of working for alternatives and social change. The project we are involved in, trying to change the world, trying to get rid of an oppressive capitalist system and replace it with something based on the view of the Earth as a common treasury for everyone, that we need to take care of and not use as a commodity or property, and the view that we need to see each other as part of a common human family.
That’s a very long project. Capitalism has been around for 500 years and people have been struggling against capitalism for the same period of time. And before that people were struggling against injustice in the world, for as long as there has been injustice.
In many ways we’re part of a continuum. We are greatly influenced by things people have done before we were even born. The fact that somebody may have stood up in 1880 and said, “we need a union here”, which may have sparked a struggle to create a union in a particular workplace, will have had repercussions through the years for other people who followed those people, who have worked in that kind of industry, who have been part of the struggle to maintain and create unions.
That is one small example – that’s part of a continuum of history which we're part of. Our history is part of us, even if we aren’t aware of the history. We are part of it and it is part of us.
And I think it is valuable to be aware. Of course it is not possible to be aware of everything. What actually survives in memory or documentary record are bits and pieces and fragments. That’s inevitable, whatever happens to survive the storms of time are just little bits of it. Those bits are valuable and knowing about them is valuable.
Especially in the context of our society, modern capitalism, which is so much focused on the instant. The present moment is what our society is about. It’s not really interested in history, and it can’t be interested in the future because it has to deny the future we are obviously heading for.
Everything is for the instant. i-Phone5 is the instant; i-Phone 4 is distant memory we don’t need to talk about anymore. That’s the kind of society we have. And everything that doesn’t fit into that instantaneous commodity-oriented, profit-oriented drive is brushed off. Things that are historical are ignored or neglected, and if not totally ignored, trivialized or distorted.
It used to be more the case that when there were ‘bad’ ideas we would burn the books to get rid of them. We don’t do that as much anymore. Now it’s more the onrush of the instant that shoves history away, because it’s not useful for marketing products.
I think it’s important to fight against that, and especially to keep alive alternative traditions that say the world is doesn’t have to be the way it is, that it has been different, and could be different, and in fact it is different. The world is not just the way it is being portrayed. There are people who are acting collectively and sharing, whose lives aren’t driven by values of profit and making money. The fact that those alternatives exist is something that needs to be kept alive, but those ideas are always being pushed to the background.
For me, as somebody who is committed to working for social justice, preserving those particular pieces of history is of special importance. I wouldn’t say a passion for preserving the history of trains, or a history of gardens, isn’t also a valid pursuit and valid passion, people are into all sorts of things. But my particular passion is for the history of social justice and I think there’s a particular social importance to that in the context of creating a different world.
MR: We were talking earlier about the destruction or impoverishing of national archives, and seeing it as kind of a destruction of public memory, and it strikes me at the same time, as you were saying, the push is always toward forgetting what is not of the instant. At the same time, nostalgia, which is packaged memory, processed memory, like processed cheese, is being pushed all the time. So memory of things that probably never existed is being marketed. So you’re talking about memory as an active and inseparable part of the present.
UD: Moving away a bit from specifically archives and the history of social justice: I was reading something recently in Scientific American on memory, talking about recent studies on memory which show that memory is really essential to functioning. These studies are on the level of individuals, rather than social memory, showing that if you don’t have memory of the past, you can’t plan for the future. Because we humans, when we visualize alternatives and decide what to do, we are consciously or unconsciously drawing on memories of what we already have done and what has happened. And we need those or we can’t really live or think beyond the present, if we don’t have the past. That seems to be quite clear on the level of individuals. I think Oliver Sacks in one of his case-histories talks about a man who has lost all his memory. Sacks regularly goes to visit him and it’s always a new meeting because he never remembers Sacks from one time to the next. They have friendly conversations because the guy is outgoing, and the only thing that upsets him is when you ask “what are you doing tomorrow? What are you doing later?” and he can’t answer the question, he can’t respond to it, so he becomes agitated. It’s another illustration of what this Scientific American study is showing: if your memory goes your future goes.
That can be extrapolated to society as well. Because one of the meta-messages we get from the dominant media and political system is “this is the only possible world” – what we have is the only way to organize society and it can’t possibly be any different. No acknowledgement of the fact it has been different. Apparently the future is constant change but we can’t change the future. It’s a perverse message. You’re on a runaway train and you have no choice except to go but where the train takes you: the one option you don’t have is to get off the train.
That’s the kind of meta-message we get about alternatives. I think one of the key things, if we want to work for alternatives and create alternatives, we have to have the idea, not only individually but also collectively, that alternatives are possible.
One important way of knowing that is to know it hasn’t always been this way.
This moment in history is an instant and this instant will not last, it will go away. We don’t have to be passive spectators watching to see how it’s going to change; we can be active participants in changing it. Knowing that people have expressed similar kinds of ideas in different circumstances, and worked in the direction of similar goals and ideals for a long time, helps empower us to do the same now and in the future.
Certainly there are lessons to be learned in the narrow sense, for example, maybe somebody organized a demonstration 50 years ago in a particularly creative way, and maybe we can learn from that. That can be helpful, but the more profound lesson is learning we are part of a continuum and that these struggles were going on before we were born and will continue after we die. We’re part of a continuum and we’ll share the credit when capitalism does go: we get to say “we were part of that!” It’s good for us all to know that.
In recognizing that, we’re going against the grain, because so much of our society disparages history, disparages elders and parents: if you look at advertising, parents and adults are almost always portrayed as ridiculous. The kind of advertising that makes you want to buy stuff: that’s mostly aimed at young people. If an adult appears they are typically portrayed as ridiculous and out of touch. That’s also part of the meta-message: “whatever anyone says to you from before ignore it because they don’t know anything: what matters is today's products.”
MR: You referred to social memory, tell me more about that. What is that and why does it matter as compared to individual memory?
UD: I’m not sure I have a precise definition. I think itvs first of all a memory of what we have done collectively, as distinct from genealogy (“my grandfather did this, my grandmother did this”). It’s more about what collectivities of people have done who we don’t necessarily have a direct connection to, but who are part of previous generations, part of the continuum we are also part of.
It’s what we remember as a society, what we choose to remember, and what we choose to forget. There are things each of us remembers as individuals, but what we, in the sense of most people, what we know about the past of our societies or where we came from is very limited and very distorted. And of course anything that is challenging to the status quo is particularly minimized and forgotten.
Social memory is less than it used to be, certainly in North America. In other societies where there is more of a tradition, there is more of a social memory. For example, you get the sense from talking to people from Spain who are involved in demonstrations today, that they are very well aware of what happened under Franco and what had happened in the Spanish Civil War, in the anarchist movement, in Catalonia. Things that happened in the 1930s are still very much in the awareness of the people who are active today. I’m not just talking about activists but people more broadly. Catalonia just had a million, a million-and-a-half people in the streets in a demonstration recently, and it’s a good bet that most of them know what happened in Catalonia in the 1930s, because it’s a part of their social memory. Here (being Canada) I suspect most of us don’t have much of a social memory of what happened in the 1930s in Canadian society.
MR: Tell me something about what the Connexions archive looks like both online and physically?
UD: Well, physically what it consists of is maybe about 3000 books, mostly leftist books. Plus maybe 20 or so filing cabinets that are full of things like leaflets, flyers, newsletters, magazines, posters, brochures, and documents, primarily paper documents. And a bunch of shelves, a dozen or so, 5 feet high 3 feet wide, which primarily have periodicals on them, magazines and newsletters. And what all these materials have in common is their subject matter, broadly speaking. They are documents relating to social change, in whatever ways we have more less or less arbitrarily defined it. We include, we exclude. That’s what it looks like physically. It could include a lot more because various people would like to donate collections of materials to it as well.
MR: Have you had to tell people they have had to wait?
UD: Yeah, when I started talking to people about the fact that Connexions Archives needs a secure home, one of the fairly common reactions was “this is a great project, I’m actually paying for a storage locker for materials that I’ve collected, my partner is bugging me because our basement is full of stuff I have collected, could I donate?” At least 7 or 8 people have said that to me and I’ve had to say “No, because unfortunately there is no space, no place to put this stuff at the moment.”
It often seems to be the case in groups which come and go that there’s one person who appoints himself or herself as the archivist, who says it would be a shame to throw out all this stuff, and then it ends up collected in their homes. These are valuable collections, treasures, and a lot of them are in danger of disappearing. There is a need to provide a more secure existence for those materials. One of my slogans is “archive locally, share globally”. I think we need progressive grassroots archives in several cities across Canada.
MR: When I interviewed people at the National Archives and the Newfoundland Archives about their work, it seemed to me that two things kept recurring, one is the difficulty you’re describing of making people aware they should not be chucking or letting moulder away their materials, and the other was about usage. So you’ve dealt a little with the first problem, how about the second?
UD: Right, you were also asking about the digital aspect of it. Part of our mission as we see it, is to digitize materials. Not as a substitute for the original document, because the original needs to be kept, but digitizing is a way of making it more easily available. And also a bit of added insurance against destruction. Even though digital records can be destroyed and physical paper records can be destroyed, if you have both you’ve increased the chance for one or the other to survive. We don’t have the resources to digitize everything; we have more than 100,000 items in our collection. It will take a very long time using volunteer labour to digitize it all. We’ve tried to digitize some of it progressively. And these days we include materials on our website that are already digital.
The advantage of digital, in addition to the added protection of preservation, is you can make it easily available to people. If a document is a physical document sitting in an archive somewhere, it’s sitting in a box. They may be lovely climate-controlled boxes, but those boxes rarely get opened. You have a box full of materials and maybe once or twice a researcher will ask to open a box to look at something in the box, whereas on the Connexions website we’re getting about 60,000 - 70,000 people a month, accounting for 300,000 page views a month. They're looking at a lot of stuff. We’re making it more accessible to far more people than it would be if it were only sitting in physical archives.
There are some issues of copyright. There are some things we’ve digitized which we haven’t put online because there is some copyright issue with putting it online, so you have to come to our office to look at it. That’s a drawback, but it doesn’t actually affect that much at this point, because we prioritize digitizing things that don’t seem to have any copyright issues. And a lot of the materials we have, if there’s a copyright, it’s so nebulous as to be undefinable. If you’re got a flyer handed to you at a demonstration, does somebody down the copyright to that flyer? I doubt it. Or if we have an anarchist newsletter that was put out in the 1970s, does somebody own the copyright? So with those kinds of materials, our attitude is: if somebody complains, we’ll apologize. But in the meantime, we’ll just make it available. But there would increasingly be a copyright issue the closer you get to the present and the bigger and more professional the publications were that you scanned, and that kind of thing.
So by and large when we digitize materials we put them online. Something we’ve done with the website is to stress a logical way of organizing the information and searching the information. We have a thought-out information structure. There is standard bibliographic information such as title, subtitle, author, year of publication, date of publication, other bibliographic data, and a description or abstract.
We also assign subject headings from a controlled-vocabulary database of subject headings to each resource so they can be found under consistent principles of retrieval. Part of the goal is to create associations and create connections. When you’re interested in a topic or issue you may not initially be aware of its connections to other issues. As we get deeper into a subject we become more aware of the associations. One of the goals of the website is to help people to make connections, and the way we organize information is designed to help that happen, of course in light of our biases.
We do that in ways Google doesn’t do. A typical way for a person to arrive at the Connexions website at first is through a Google search, and we have in fact optimized the website for Google and other search engines. Once they arrive at the website, however, they then get to take advantage of our information structure, which is designed to lead them deeper into the subject matter, and we use subject headings, classifications, and cross-references to suggest where people can go.
On a fairly simple level, if you search, for example, for ‘capital punishment’ we have embedded ‘execution’, ‘death penalty’, ‘hanging’, and ‘electric chair’, in the term capital punishment. So if you search for ‘capital punishment’ you will also find resources that use the term ‘death penalty’ instead of ‘capital punishment&‘squo;. That’s a simple example.
We also try to encourage people make certain kinds of connections which might not be part of mainstream thinking. If we have an article about oil spills it will be indexed under obvious headings like ‘oil spills’ and ‘environmental damage’, but it may also be indexed under a term such as ‘corporate crime’. It suggests to the person doing the search that one way of looking at this kind of event is as an example of corporate crime. We try to plant that seed. If you click on the ‘corporate crime’ heading associated with that record, it will then take you to other resources dealing with other kinds of corporate crime. So the Connexions website tries to suggest ways of going beyond the user’s original search or the question they originally had in mind.
MR: One question that occurred to me: is the material in the archives framed or bounded geographically?
UD: Yes and no. Primarily what we have are Canadian English-language materials, materials from the 1960s to the present. Not that we deliberately exclude other materials, we do have international materials, ones which tend to reflect the interests of Canadian groups. For example in the 1980s Central America solidarity was something quite a few groups in Canada were heavily involved in. So as a result of that we have some materials that have originated in Nicaragua or Guatemala; at the time that Canadians were going to those places and were involved in those struggles. We don’t exclude materials that come outside of English-speaking Canada but the weight is easily 85 percent or more English-language materials from the 1960s onwards.
MR: So now you’ve been speaking about the need for a secure home for Connexions, so what does that look like? How would you describe that need?
UD: I was just reading Alberto Manguel’s book, The Library at Night; one of the things it strongly served to remind me was that there’s no such thing as a secure home, and that all libraries eventually perish. We’re talking about a time frame; we’re not talking about forever. But a secure home in the sense of physical security, the roof doesn’t leak, it’s heated, and that kind of thing, and it’s more or less secured for the next 10 years anyway.
Connexions is a project that basically has no income, and not much prospect of doing ongoing fundraising; there is not going to be a lot of corporate money for this project. It’s hard to think it could pay rent indefinitely. It’s not a sexy project, it’s not a project governments or corporations want to support. It’s hard to fundraise the amount of money needed for rent on a long-term basis. Aside from somebody donating a building – which is always an option if somebody is listening! – it would seem that the most likely solution would be a partnership with a sympathetic institution.
So one model, for example, would be an academic institution, such as a university or college, like the discussions we had recently with one institution: the suggested partnership was that they would provide us with space, free of charge, in exchange their scholars and graduate students would have access to this archive right in their own building. We approached the chair of sociology and equity studies, certainly the kind of thing that would fit in with equity studies, and he was keen on the idea, but the Dean said they have to do a new 5-year plan, so no commitments now, so it was put on indefinite backburner.
Or possibly a church: it would have to be a higher level of church body because individual churches are so hard pressed these days. There are not many churches around that can afford to donate space, and many churches themselves don’t have a secure future looking past another 5 years. We’re mainly talking religious or academic institutions. I had a talk with the head of the Social Planning Council; he shared this dream he has of a new building for the Social Planning Council that will have room for this archive, it’s a lovely dream but would be hard to bank on.
Essentially that’s the goal: to have a partnership with an institution, or to raise enough money to say, ‘okay we’re good for rent for the next ten years’. From my point of view what I would like to be doing is spending my time on the sharing of information, trying to make sure it gets used for social justice purposes. I don’t want to be fundraising and wondering if it’s going to survive another 9 months.
MR: I assume that despite the push to digitize, still you would want the materials to be accessible? That’s part of the nature of the home, not to be closed.
UD: Absolutely. And another nature of the home is that we’re a working collective. We have volunteers and interns who come in and digitize and index, and write descriptions. They need to have places; they need desks, computers, and scanners, to be able to do that.
People have suggested, well maybe the Ontario Archives would let you donate the archive. But that obviously would stop the digitizing. I think that’s quite unlikely in any case. They might accept a donation of the archive but they’re certainly not going to say, “Here’s 10 desks for your volunteers.” And that’s part of our need.
MR: I would assume also that there's a considerable risk if it’s put in what you might call a mainstream archive, at least of being marginalized in some way, put in the basement or something.
UD: That’s almost guaranteed. I’ve spoken to people who've tried to donate to Toronto Archives, for example. And what they want is an exact list of everything you hold, which, even for individuals can take weeks to compile. And then they say, “we want 12 items.” If you’ve listed 5,000 items, they want 12 of them. That’s all they’re willing to take. Literally, this has happened, to people I know.
MR: (laughs) The hottest items, the most intriguing...
UD: What they think is interesting...
MR: Marginalized and or worse, destroyed conceivably... “Oh, we need the space...”
UD: I think one of the most appalling things that has been happening in archives and libraries over the last 20 years is the destruction of collections. The enormous amounts of original materials that have been destroyed by the very memory institutions that are supposed to be preserving them.
First microfilming, and then digitizing, has been the excuse to do that. Nicholson Baker wrote a book,
Double Fold, about it. He’s a journalist who started writing about the issue of the destruction of newspaper collections, and became so intrigued he wound up writing a book about it. And then buying a warehouse... another archiving solution! (laughs)
The issue was that libraries in the US have had collections of newspapers, typically bound volumes of daily newspapers going back to the origins of the country, incredible historical records. Obviously that takes a lot of room. So when they started microfilming them, they started throwing them out.
What Nicholson Baker also shows, and what I’m sure a lot of other scholars also know, is that microfilming doesn’t reliably reproduce what you microfilmed. You’ve hired a clerk to microfilm thousands of pages, and of course there are mistakes and omissions. Typically, part of the text is cut off here and there, entire pages are skipped, entire issues are skipped. So microfilming is often not a reliable record. Even if it were a record, it’s not the same as the thing being microfilmed. A two-dimensional representation, a digital representation or microfilmed representation of a printed newspaper or a book is not the same as the newspaper or the book. A picture of a thing is not the same as the thing. There are certain things you can only get from actually holding the thing in your hands. Even on that level, there’s such a strong argument for preserving things.
The other thing which has repeatedly become clear is that digital preservation is isn’t reliable. The argument has been made that digital media make printed media like books obsolete, but really it’s digital media that become obsolete. How long have we actually had digital records? Twenty-five years, or something like that. Think of digital formats we've gone through in those years: 8-inch disks: gone; 5.25-inch disks: gone; 3.5 inch disks: gone. Those cassette backup tapes: gone. Jazz disks: gone. Zip-disks: gone. All those formats are completely obsolete. But there’s this naive faith that our current digital formats will live forever. Well, they're not going to live forever. Ten years from now they going to be obsolete as well.
MR: That, of course, in the corporate mind, is forever because that’s as long as the product is selling.
UD: Yes, and it’s not only the physical format but also the file format. On physical media that have survived, you have file formats that are obsolete, that no current computer can read. We have some old CDs of issues of Connexions publications from the 1980s, with database files in the “Knowledgeman” format, totally obsolete, running on the Windows 3.1 operating system, totally obsolete.
One of my favourite TV programs when I used to watch TV was Star Trek:the Next Generation. There’s this one episode where they find this derelict spaceship that’s been floating in space for a couple of hundred years and they board it and download the information in their information system. I’m thinking “Oh yeah” Like you can immediately download and read what’s in their information circuits two hundred years later? I don’t think so!
Alberto Manguel relates a story in the same vein about the Domesday Book. Back in 1086 in Britain they decided to count everything. How many cows and barns and whatever there were on the island of Great Britain. So coming up to 1986, 900 years later, the BBC had this grandiose idea to do a Domesday book for the year 1986. It cost enormous amount of money, something like 2.5 million pounds. They had hundreds of people working on it. They had video and maps and people’s stories and all that kind of thing. This modern Domesday book, they preserved it on 12 inch optical disks. Then, in 2002, which is 14, 16, years later, they tried to play the disks and they couldn’t. First of all, all the computers used to run it were gone. They had perhaps two or three left which weren’t working properly. Nobody knew how to use them. They brought in experts from the States, from AT&T, computer whizzes to read this thing, and the best they could do was get some of it back. A big chunk of it was lost, they couldn’t recover it. Whereas the original Doomsday book, 900 plus years old, you can read it perfectly well. The technology has totally held up.
And yet we have this crazy faith that digitizing has taken care of the problem of preservation so we can throw out the original. It drives me crazy.
MR: So you, by contrast, think of it, as you said, in two ways, one is as backup, and the other for access, because people can’t get to the boxes and file cabinets. Is there any risk do you think of nostalgia for the progressive past in the way there is in the larger context if you know what I mean?
UD: I can’t say I’ve detected a lot of nostalgia for the ‘progressive past’, good old days of the Communist Party, and so on. (laughter).
One thing I want to talk about in the context of digital is the view that digitizing replaces all previous media, which I think is quite false. There’s also the idea that everything that is important, or everything, period, is on the Internet, so we don’t need anything except the Internet. I think that’s another one of those meta-messages which are very current. I think that ties into what we were saying earlier about how much in the present day we live and how narrow our horizons are. I think part of what that vision does, and in many ways what the Internet or the predominant parts of the Internet such as Google for example, do, is to narrow our horizons. I think they exist to narrow our horizons.
MR: While giving the illusion of doing the opposite.
UD: Exactly. To take Google as an example, it’s a very large corporation. It exists to make money. That’s why it exists. Its business model is to make money. Obviously it has to provide some kind of service in order to make money, but essentially what it is doing is delivering us, who are users, our eyeballs, to advertisers. To do that it needs to target as specifically as possible and collect as much information about us as possible, so they can have a demographic profile – a marketing profile – of what our interests are, so it can feed us the most appropriate kinds of ads and sell us stuff. They talk about having proprietary algorithms in their search technology. And what is a proprietary algorithm? It’s basically some math to figure out what we’re likely to buy, and then deliver us to the people who are selling what we’re most likely to buy. That’s what the essence of their proprietary algorithm is.
Yesterday I was doing a bit of research on what happens with different search results. I needed to look up an article about Wedad Demardash, an Egyptian woman who back in 2006 led a local action which became one of the events that sparked the Egyptian revolt. She was working, and still does work, in a cotton factory. And being Egypt they have one wing of the factory where women work, and a building where men work, because they’re not supposed to work in the same spot. They had issues there about terribly low pay, not enough to live on, poor working conditions, and that sort of thing. She thought they should go on strike, but they didn’t have a union, so she started talking to women, she talked them into walking out. But the men wouldn’t walk out because they were scared, so the women went out into the common courtyard and started marching around saying, “The women are here, where at the men?” ’The women are here, where at the men?” and they shamed the men into coming out.
This strike ended up being the spark of a whole wave of strikes, which culminated in a nation-wide strike on April 6, 2008. And then the student groups in Cairo, when they founded their movement; they called it April 6th movement because of that strike. So this is the kind of event where people take some local action, and often you never hear about it or it has no further repercussions. But in this case it had a lot of repercussions, and someone tracked this woman down and wrote an article about it.
There’s a wonderful quote from her husband, who was quite supportive of her action, he is quoted as saying to her, “God gave you a gift for confrontation, you should use it!” Which I gather meant he had some personal experience with this gift of hers.
Anyway, I knew the woman’s name and the journalist’s name, so I Googled the article and found it on the Boston Globe website. I want to show you what comes up: I’ve searched for a strike-related story, “workers strike,” so of course you're fed ads to go with the story. They give you two three paragraphs of the story, then an ad, then the rest of the story. I had searched about workers so naturally I was fed context-sensitive ads. The algorithm assumes that “Oh you’re searching about workers, so you probably want to lay some of your workers off. Here’s an ad about how to lay workers off.” And “your search is related to the Middle East so you might want to stay at an expensive resort: here’s an ad for an expensive resort in Abu Dhabi.”
MR: So their algorithm is telling you, telling them?
UD: It’s very much pushing you in a certain direction. It’s not offering you information about how to organize a union. The algorithm doesn’t suggest more information about how to win a strike. It doesn’t assume, “oh, you might want to overthrow your government, here’s more information about doing that.” That’s not where it’s going to lead you.
MR: This is very interesting, especially about how to get rid of your employees. So that’s an example, as you said, how Google narrows our horizons.
UD: It narrows them, and it funnels you in directions which are likely going to be profitable for itself and its advertisers. And it does that in many kinds of ways. Despite that I use Google, although I don’t use it much anymore, I use other search tools. But it has its uses.
But the suggestion that everything is on the Internet now, you don’t need the other stuff, is even more absurd in a context of knowing that it’s only a few large corporations that primarily control what most people see on the Internet. They don’t control it completely, in the sense that if you really work at it you can find other stuff, but they dominate it, and most people are being pushed in the direction they want to push you in.
And if you take a project like Google Books: Google is scanning all these books for the Google Books project, largely ignoring copyright, not paying the authors or the publishers. They claim they are going to scan all the books in the world. Which is one of those famous bait and switch claims that digital media seem to specialize in. “We’re going to scan every book in the world.” Then any book which they don’t scan doesn’t “exist” as far as Google is concerned, so by definition they’ve scanned “every” book because all the books they didn’t scan are deemed not to exist.
I’ve searched for some left-wing titles in my own collection, and many are not found in Google Books. They are books which don’t “exist” according to Google.
The claim itself, to be scanning every book, is ridiculous. For example the Library of Congress in the US gets 500,000 books deposited with it every year of which they keep 400,000. These are mostly English-language books in the US being deposited with the Library of Congress. That’s not counting books in 191 other countries being published. Google certainly isn’t scanning them all.
But even if we were to hypothetically say, “suppose Google did scan them all.” First of all, you can’t actually read them, Google only gives you a couple of pages of each book it has scanned. And if Google decides it no longer wants to offer access to the books it has scanned they’re gone. The moment the corporation goes out of business, or decides it is no longer make money making this information available, the information disappears.
Those who argue we can throw out our books because Google has digitized them; they have been complicit in destroying our cultural heritage. That’s generally true. My concern is more specifically with the books and documents about social change, which is a smaller subset but one which is very important to me, and one that is particularly at risk. I’ve had people way, “why do you need an archive when everything is on the Internet?” Well most of it is not on the Internet, and what’s there is likely to disappear at some point.
MR: This seems to me parallel to the dangers of destroying the sites of diversity, plant diversity, by saying, “well there are seeds around so who needs all these other ones.” They’re talking about the source material as being irrelevant. Next thing they’ll be saying Google’s going to digitize that too.
UD: Well, we’ve got a scan of the DNA, you don’t need the seed anymore. “
UD: I guess that’s my passion around archives, keeping it alive. Keeping it alive both in the sense of physical existence but also keeping it alive in making it part of our ongoing history, our future history, not just our past history. That’s what I care about. I think that’s important in creating a future: to be connected with what came before us.
MR: I think that one of the dangers is that people with these ads for example, are inclined to think, “I don't pay attention to ads, I’m too independent thinking for that.” So there’s this kind of imagined contest between their algorithms and my filters. “If that’s the way I have to get my news so be it.” But you are talking about a more insidious process, which is actually tricking us into having less agency in the matter than we think we do. But at the same time keeping our illusions alive that we are fully agents.
UD: About people saying don’t pay attention to ads: Google didn’t get to be a multi-billion dollar corporation because its advertising-based model doesn’t work. Actually its model does work. It’s working to make them rich.
But what is important isn’t only about what’s present; it’s about what’s absent. Even if you ignore the ad for the resort in Abu Dhabi, what’s not there is relevant context to this story and ways of following up on this story and ways of learning about the story. That’s what’s absent: further context, further connections, further associations, they’re not there. The absence is just as important as the presence.
MR: So that’s the funnelling you’re talking about?
UD: Yes. Of course it’s true in a sense for any archive or any library as well. Whatever is there, there is a whole shadow archive, one that is much bigger, of what’s absent. No matter how hard people have tried to preserve things that they think is important, there is so much more that hasn’t been preserved. That’s inevitable. It’s still so much better to preserve some of the fragments than to preserve none or almost none.
Basically I see memory, collective memory, as a form of resistance, and therefore preservation of collective memory as a form of subversion. I guess that’s my guiding impulse in wanting to do this.
MR: An argument about memory that I’ve encountered a lot is that it’s unreliable. The corollary being that documents are reliable, which always seemed to me to be a joke, since who created the documents is a consideration. But also if somebody were to ask me about that, what I thought about memory being unreliable, I would say, “Of course it is, that’s why we need as much of it as we can in order to compare your memory with mine.” So that presumably also, with Connexions, it’s valuable because you have different perspectives.
UD: Of course, and that’s part of our mandate too: within our definition of social justice we have a diversity of view points with people who disagree with each other, who see things in different ways, who have quite different interpretations of what happened and why. That’s valuable. That’s important.
MR: So this definition of social justice is that a formal definition or is it improvised?
UD: In terms of Connexions? We have a definition that includes words such as human rights, civil liberties, freedom of speech, opposition to censorship, collective economy, common ownership. Of course, each one of these opens a whole set of questions, but it’s an attempt to define a bit what we mean by social justice.
MR: Has it broadened since the beginning?
UD: At the beginning it was probably put in more religious terms, but I think the spirit of it would be very much the same. Probably what has been added has been an emphasis on civil liberties and secularism and opposition to censorship, which perhaps weren’t as present in the original definition. With the exception of the word secularism I would think that everybody who was involved in the project at the beginning would be comfortable with the definition we are using now. And we still use some of the original materials on the website. For example, in the 1980s they did a document called A Theology of Connexions, which was a theological reflection on what the Connexions project meant and what it is about. And I still find that a valuable document. For me the references to God and Jesus are not really relevant, but most of it is quite a good statement that, even though it’s not in my language, I feel comfortable with and is well put.
MR: It strikes me that over a long period of time a huge amount of work has gone into this, I mean all the people involved and all the interns that have come and gone. Huge. It’s a real labour of love.
UD: For sure.
One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is that we have translated quite a bit of stuff too. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to how much there is, but we have several hundred documents that have been translated into various languages, one or more languages.
MR: From English?
UD: from English into Spanish, French, German, Arabic....
MR: And that depended on who the interns were?
UD: Translators have been often been volunteers who are not actually present; they’re around the world and in different places. For example Miriam Garfinkle and Reem abdul Qadir did an article in 2007 about the children in Gaza and the health crisis in Gaza. That’s been translated into about six languages and has appeared various websites in other countries.
Part of the archive and part of what we’re doing is also archiving stuff being currently produced, and we’re also doing some archiving purely on the digital side, material from other websites. Because we’re potentially ephemeral, and other websites are ephemeral. In some instances we’ve downloaded the contents of other websites just to have a backup copy of it
MR: I was thinking as you were saying, the gigantic memory space you need for that. Then I stared thinking I’ll ask you about that, physical space, now you’re talking about that. You need a home. I think I heard recently the Gay and Lesbian archives in Toronto is actually, which went from a cubbyhole to a whole house in the village and now they are out of space. Now how do you describe physically what exists? Let’s say hypothetically there is a physical space for Connexions, how big would it have to be?
UD: We’re looking for something in the range of 1200-1500 square feet. That’s to accommodate what we currently have plus some desks for people. One can be efficient with shelves. It’s not like a living room with shelves on the walls: you can have a row of shelves, and three feet away you can have another row of shelves. You can cram in quite a bit of stuff into an archival kind of set up. But then it’s a question of expansion. If there are people who want to donate there will have to be additional space. That’s the problem; there will always be more stuff. In an ideal world, public institutions would be helping with that. Public institutions like Ontario Archives or the National Archives or Toronto Archives would say, ‘let’s set up a section devoted to this. Lets buy a 20-storey building, of which we’ll use two floors to start with’. In an ideal world we would do that. We’d have that kind of public infrastructure.
MR: Whereas we know they are going in the opposite direction.
UD: Right. So I think part of what we hope for, is that eventually that will change too. Because this is the kind of work which in the long run needs to be publicly supported. It can’t be just a few people who care enough about it to donate space and money. It’s the kind of thing that we as a community, we need to see preserving the past as important. Not only the social change documents. There are lots of other historical heritage archival collections that are slowly mouldering away and being destroyed, and future generations will curse us for it, if they even get to know they used to exist, in the same way as we look at some of the things that were destroyed in the past and say “oh my god, how could you allow this go to ruin?” It’s the same thing. For the sake of short-sided economic calculations we are letting it go to ruin too.
MR: It strikes me that in the longer run that there’s actually a very good thematic frame for this whole process you are talking about. I remember in all the research I did for the Palestine book, one of the things that stuck with me most strongly was an Israeli Marxist grass-root activist who said something about, “we understand that we have to move with the pace of history,” – I can’t exactly quote her – something about “we have to understand we may not even be alive to see the product of what we've done.” The idea being that things don’t continue going in one direction, which we’re conditioned a lot to think. I mean, the ‘death of socialism’, supposedly dead, finished – it’s been designated as dead. Who says? Who knows? So you’re essentially saying that because you believe history doesn’t move that way, in a logical line, which could be preordained, that we then have to be open to possibilities it could go a different way. People should know it has gone, at different times, in different ways, and otherwise if they don’t have the memory, then they can’t.
UD: I would go further and pretty much guarantee that history is not going to keep going the way it has been going. I would pretty much guarantee capitalism will not survive.
UD: Promise. (laughs) You can bank on that. I think it can be guaranteed that capitalism will not survive because its inherent nature is so contradictory and so destructive of the planet we live on that you can’t keep doing what we’re doing, or what they’re doing. The question is: is it going to end in a bad way or good way? That’s the question. It’s going to end. Capitalism is going to end. But it could end in a really bad way. It could end in something even worse. We hope it will end in something better rather than something worse, but end it will. And then eventually one day the sun will go out. There goes the archive. (laughs)
MR: Well not if it’s properly housed...
UD: Floating in some derelicts spaceship... maybe somebody will download it....
MR: Well, let’s stop there...
Ulli Diemer is the co-ordinator of the Connexions Archive & Library and the Connexions website www.connexions.org. His personal website, Radical Digressions, is at diemer.ca
Michael Riordon is a Canadian writer. He is the author of
Bold Scientists: Dispatches from the Battle for Honest Science,
Eating Fire: Family Life, on the Queer Side,
The First Stone: Homosexuality and the United Church,
Our Way to Fight: Peace-work under siege in Israel-Palestine,
Out Our Way: Gay & Lesbian Life in Rural Canada,
An Unauthorized Biography of the World: Oral History on the Front Lines.
His website is at michaelriordon.com/.
The Case for Grassroots Archives
Connexions’ People’s History, Memory, & Archives Gateway
Selected Archive Projects
Memory as Resistance: Grassroots Archives and the Battle of Memory
Is that an archive in your basement... or are you just hoarding?
Canadian History –
Collective Memory –
Destruction of Libraries and Archives –
Digital Archiving –
Historical Records –
Left History –
Online Archives –
Oral History and Memoirs –
People's History –
Radical History –
Women's History –