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Put the Internet for World Heritage List (instead)!

Published on 11 August 2013
Updated on 05 April 2024

I perused the UNESCO World Heritage list, recently. As I scrolled the “properties” that made it, I asked myself: would my life change in any way, were these cultural sites to disappear, one and all? The honest answer is: I’d feel sad, but my life would go on as before. The criteria for inclusion[1] sound impressive… good for hiding the fact that these “properties” are just baubles. What I’m saying is counterintuitive. Facts on the ground underscore my point. It was the “irrelevance” of Dubrovnik to the participants in the civil war that made its buildings such easy symbols for wanton destruction.

The “true” heritage is what has made a difference for humanity. Using this criterion, I’d start the list with language, agriculture, animal domestication, writing (and the successor tools like printing), and scientific method. Take any of these major enablers and imagine being without one of them. Life would change drastically; civilization as we know it may no longer be possible.

I’ll pause here for one of my pet prejudices: double entry book-keeping. Even before people had figured out the circulation of blood in the body, merchants had developed a way to follow the circulation of money and goods within a firm. At the end of the XIVth century traders were able to judge the health of a firm better than doctors judged human health. Imagine “bleeding” a firm to make it healthy…Without double entry book-keeping capitalism would have been impossible. Here again: blank out accounting, and the world as we know it collapses.

The amazing and amusing thing is all these world-changing events did not make the UNESCO list, possibly because they failed to meet the first criterion: “masterpiece of human creative genius.” One sees here implicit if blatant bias underlying the list: exceptionality and uniqueness. Humanity is sought in the exception, in the outlier, rather than its core achievements. In this view the common is vulgar and trivial – it is unworthy of mention. As if exceptionality and uniqueness made a difference in humanity’s march through time. This is typical of Western culture of personal autonomy to be disdainful of the collective and social effort. Note also the subtle judgment: exception, not diversity, is what is distinguishing – and worth celebrating. Winning the race, in this view, is what counts. Participating is worth nothing.

An enabler akin to those I listed earlier has just been created: the internet, together with its underlying telecommunication networks. Stop to think for a moment. Imagine the world without the internet. Take a piece of paper and list all those things likely to fail as a result. One would soon realize that it would be easier to list what remains untouched, should internet disappear: the list would be awfully short. 35 years after its emergence, the internet dominates the global society to a point where, should it vanish tonight, everything would crash.

Of course, we lived for thousands of years without the internet. That’s not the point. Now that internet is in place, however, the way back to “before the internet” is no longer open. Internet has achieved systemic character.

So let’s be lucid about it: the internet as a global feature is of “vital” interest to any and all of us. Take away the internet, and our society collapses. Internet should be on the UNESCO World Heritage list.

[1] To be included on the World Heritage List, sites must be of outstanding universal value and meet at least one out of ten selection criteria:

  1. to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;
  2. to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;
  3. to bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared;
  4. to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;
  5. to be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land-use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change;
  6. to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. (The Committee considers that this criterion should preferably be used in conjunction with other criteria);
  7. to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;
  8. to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;
  9. to be outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;

x. to contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation.

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