Pre-writing history

There’s an old saying that history is written by the victors – or winners, or some other variant of this. This relates to Orwell’s ‘He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future’. Nietzsche also offers a nice alternative: ‘Memory says, “I did that.” Pride replies, “I could not have done that.” Eventually, memory yields’. After a very brief search I couldn’t find where this sentiment may have originated.

I find it interesting but I’d never really thought about it much until I heard a variation on this last year that went something like,

It’s not the winners that write history; it’s the authors.

(I can’t for the life of me remember where I heard this – possibly on a podcast – but hopefully it’s hidden somewhere in my complex note system. I’ll get back to you.)

I quite liked the idea behind this revision. There are individuals – authors and others – who hold the most power over collective memory so it’s a bit limited to suggest the entire group ‘the winners’ are the ones who ‘write history’. This got me thinking about these ideas in relation to my own work.

I had been looking at the representation of populations and reading about Organisation Intersex International Australia‘s campaign calling for a revision to the binary sex representation of individuals in the census. The problem is that as many as one one percent of individuals who may not easily fit within the binary understanding of sex are delegitimised by not being counted. (And are technically committing perjury if they follow the rules.) In addition to more immediate social effects, ABS’s decision means that intersex individuals, among others, are being written out of the official historical record of our country’s population.

Any categorical limitations introduced in order to simplify census fields can make large demographics suddenly invisible.

Do you know how many intersex individuals were in Australia according to the last census? None. Since it became national in 1911? None.

But this is only one source of historical documentation, you might say, you could probably find that kind of information elsewhere. You would be correct, but the same could be said about the other quotes above.

The point is that this is a more general phenomenon that can be seen in social media systems or any other digital spaces.  Developers predetermine the rules of identity performance and social engagement, implementing systems that can disproportionately block access from certain demographics and deactivate and remove accounts it doesn’t feel comply with its aims. Which individuals may have their content archived and the strict set of rules that govern the structure of data decide what is present in memory for later access.

With this in mind I offer the following as a further revision:

System designers and programmers write history – in advance.

This isn’t a problem in itself. And we’re kinda stuck with it actually. We just have to be vigilant, as a society, if we are to identify and prevent social problems that result from an over reliance on technologies that archive according to strict, limited categorisations.

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