The Wikimedia Foundation has announced that it is moving hosting of their main technical operation, including Wikipedia, to a data center in Ashburn, Virginia from their current hosting provider in Florida. Wikimeda explains that “this is intended to improve the technical performance and reliability of all Wikimedia sites, including Wikipedia,” which is a pretty big compliment to the operation in Ashburn, given that Wikimedia could have chosen any data center in the world as their new hosting provider. Ashburn won this honor over the whole rest of the world, an award bestowed by the keepers of the collective wisdom of mankind. Wow.
The historical parallels of this announcement would suggest however that Ashburn is now in danger of being destroyed by foreign invaders.
Wikipedia is trying to create a system that is a repository for the whole of human knowledge, and has made pretty remarkable strides towards that goal, although it struggles with objectivity in this collection given the political slant of contributors has been an ongoing challenge. Still, the sheer scope and volume of this collective, crowd-sourced work is quite breathtaking. It’s a durable meme these days that if you want to know something you google it, and that search will likely lead you to Wikipedia. Spending a few hours surfing through links there almost always provides a lesson in remedial education for adults, reinforcing things we’ve long forgotten, or introducing discoveries to us that are at least amusing, if not surprisingly useful. For younger folks this is like having knowledge force-fed to you through a fire hose.
As often happens, this is not the first attempt to build a comprehensive repository of human knowledge. The first attempt at this we know about was in Alexandria, Egypt, where a student of Aristotle started a library and the equivalent of a research institute in about 300 BC. This turned into a vast collection of scrolls that gained a reputation for collecting every scrap of useful human wisdom and being the very center of the intellectual universe. For hundreds of years, Alexandria was where scholars flocked to since it not only contained every written word of consequence ever collected, but that collection was used to as the foundation for all future human advancement. Heady stuff this all was, and great things were expected, although advancement took a just little longer in those days when folks were recording their intellectual creations on papyrus with vegetable-based inks.
Being the center of the intellectual universe can be awfully threatening to those that aren’t within that universe, so between 48 BC and 642 AD Alexandria was conquered by Romans, and then by Muslim armies. Neither had a whole lot of use for a huge collection of scrolls written in Greek (Quo vadis?), so over time this Library of Alexandria was burned in fires that erupted during combat during the Roman conquests, or deliberately destroyed by the Caliph Omar during the Muslim conquest because it contained information that was contrary to Mohammed. The recorded history about this isn’t that clear, but regardless of the details, some new, hungry, power didn’t like the uppity know-it-all’s from Hellenistic Egypt and decided that their precious library had to be burned to the ground and all remnants of it destroyed for the greater good.
Over time, we’ve seen others decide that a priority target for the seizure of control of a large population was the intellectual and cultural underpinnings of that culture. Mao’s “cultural revolution” burned books that were “counter-revolutionary,” The Nazis destroyed knowledge that didn’t conform to their goals, and just about every other autocratic takeover to today has seen the same thing. Even the Arab Spring” in Egypt has been hallmarked by the burning of books — the erasure of knowledge by destructive means — in order to secure Shariah as the law of Egypt. You’d think that after thousands of years folks might try doing something different, because torching books hasn’t worked as a tactic to destroy ideas since Alexandria.
As a result, history would suggest that Ashburn, Virginia is now target number one in the next political/cultural conflict that might subsume North America, if history is any guide. Sometimes a great honor such as being chosen as the one repository for the collective sum of human knowledge isn’t as much to celebrate as one might think.
Just ask the Alexandrians.
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