Accepted for the 36th Annual Meeting of the Society for Utopian Studies
The Nittany Lion Inn on the Penn State Campus
State College, Pennsylvania
October 20-23, 2011
ABSTRACT: Suppose we imagine an archivist who has managed to collect all the individual pieces of knowledge ever available and preserve them in some common or useful form. Suppose further that our archivist wants to make this information as widely available as possible. Even setting aside real problems of literacy, disability, language, and the like, a key question will still remain: how to arrange this information to facilitate the public’s access to it? This paper surveys three different models for arranging the archive (expert/authoritative curation, crowdsourcing, and computational methods), noting the theoretical and practical implications of each. I argue that the authority model, still largely in use today, has some advantages but is also likely to reproduce biased and oppressive attitudes of the authorities or their historical situation, which reflects longstanding concerns about power and control present in utopian and dystopian thought. Following that, I examine the crowdsourcing model as an instance of digital utopia, which holds exciting possibilities for reimagining (and reorganizing) the archive. At the same time, I argue, there is real concern that crowds could agree on inaccurate or harmful beliefs, making this model potentially unsuitable for arranging the archive. I conclude by describing some advantages of computational methods, provided that those methods incorporate elements of the first two models. This hybrid position blends technology and individual participation in a way that surmounts some traditional concerns present in utopian imaginings.