But however much it may deserve designation, the truth is that Wikipedia doesn’t need the World Heritage List. The World Heritage List needs Wikipedia.
Unesco established the list in 1972 to help the UN foster “conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, based upon respect for commonly shared values.” (Sound like a certain online encyclopedia?) But rampant politicking has nudged a rapidly expanding assortment of water management systems and silver mines into the league of universally significant landmarks like Persepolis and the Taj Mahal.
However, Unesco is plagued by an even deeper problem. Since the World Heritage Convention was written in 1972, the delegates haven’t known quite how to handle “intangible cultural heritage” — the traditions and wisdom that are as significant to civilizations as their monuments. After spending 31 years sorting out the intellectual property rights of ethnic groups, the delegates decided to create a whole separate convention for abstract landmarks, a second, independent roster. You’ll find the historic center of Bruges, Belgium, on the World Heritage List, and Bruges’ annual Procession of the Holy Blood ceremony on the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
That’s ludicrous. Intangible cultural context is the essence of heritage, making wood and stone worthy of our interest. To merit the name, World Heritage sites need to encompass the intangibles, to be virtual at least as much as they’re physical.
That’s why Wikipedia is an ideal candidate to set the World Heritage List right. The Wikipedia World Heritage site would be more than a plaque on a server farm in Tampa. It would be data. But not a particular data set, since the data is always changing, and that mutability is what makes it a wiki. As more of the world goes digital and grows more networked, world heritage will increasingly have this characteristic. The World Heritage Committee will have to adapt to it or become obsolete.