This weekend I read and really enjoyed Lynn Meskell’s recent-ish book, A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace (2018). The book argues, in remarkable detail, that UNESCOs origins in a modern post-war view of the world instilled with an irrepressible faith in progress has created an organization that not only has failed to use culture, sincere, and heritage to bring peace, but also become a tool in political and economic conflicts. The rise of a bureaucratized technocracy within UNESCO reinforced its status as an institution committed to reinforcing the colonial relationship between European states and their former colonial possessions. In short, the book is a sophisticated indictment of the UNESCO project laced with the subtle suggestion that some of the issues associated with UNESCO in the late 20th and 21st century emerged from the marginalization of archaeology (and anthropology more broadly) from an increasingly politicized UNESCO mission.
Meskell’s work focused in particular on the rise of the World Heritage sites as a kind of brand that countries sought to acquire for a range of political and economic reasons. In many ways, the inclusion of a site on the World Heritage list was a kind of virtue signaling that marked the site, a particular kind of heritage, and the nation as part of an official past that could then be leveraged for outcomes ranging from tourism and development to border disputes.
Meskell’s book reminded me a good bit of Richard Poynder’s recent critique of the Open Access movement in publishing. Like UNESCO, the open access movement emerged from the the giddy triumphalism of the first decade of the internet. Budapest Open Access Initiative document offers the same utopian perspective that Meskell traced in the early years of UNESCO. For the Budapest group, the idea that the internet would provide the basis for the free and unfettered flow of scientific knowledge, offers eerie parallels with the optimism that shaped the potential for international collaboration in the early post-war years when UNESCO managed the massive archaeological and heritage projects associated with the Aswan Dam project on the Nile. In subsequent decades, both the open access movement and UNESCO became pawns of national and corporate interests who seek to manipulate the status of these increasingly powerful brands for their own goals.
For UNESCO, Meskell documents any number of projects saturated with political intrigue. The inscription of the Preah Vihear temple complex in northern Thailand, for example, revealed the close connection between U.S. interests, oil companies, and the disputed border between Cambodia and Thailand in the vicinity of UNESCO World Heritage Site. The refusal to designate the old town of Panama City, Panama as in danger despite the encroachment of development demonstrated the willingness of nations and developers to collaborate in the diplomacy of heritage and blatantly overlook the risks facing sites. In effect, the successes and failures of UNESCO trace the currents of diplomacy in the post colonial world with the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) often working together as a counterweight to the European powers in efforts to advance diplomatic goals.
It’s hard not to expect the battles over Open Access publishing to see similar political and corporate contours. Already, as Poynder has identified, China has seen the value in open science initiatives and used it to accelerate their technological development in certain fields. At the same time, there is real concern over whether China will be willing to reciprocate and provide open access to their own research and literature. Communities in the “Global South,” who often depend disproportionately on publishers located in the “Global North” who are rapidly working to align themselves with open access publishing initiatives. As a result, the strategies of these publishers (including the problematic Plan S) look poised to make it more difficult for authors and communities in the Global South to protect and monetize their labor and to create situations where North American and European publishers profit from their work. The power of major publishing houses (both non-profit and, more predictably, for profit) to aggregate open access content, manage its distribution, and to continue in a gatekeeper role makes it possible that the open access utopia envisioned by the Budapest Initiative could metastasize into a publishing world even more heavily shaped by corporate interests.
Of course, this isn’t the only scenario possible for open access publishing, just as there exists a potential for heritage that while never unpolitical is at least more diverse, more responsive to communities, and less technocratic and colonial. The incisive critiques of Meskell and Poynder serve as a useful reminder that politics of capital are constantly adapting to transform our world.