Where People are Knowledge in Chimurenga Chronicle

Inserito da iopensa il Gio, 2011-10-06 14:48

Original version of the article Where People are Knowledge in Chimurenga Chronicle 18-24 May 2008, Another Section* Media & Technology/People are Knowledge, October 2011 (predated 18-24 May 2008), p. 11. Reading list.

Where People are Knowledge. After the Wikipedia Academy organized in Johannesburg in October 2007, intellectuals and authors are now questioning the relationship between Wikipedia and Africa.

What can an online collaborative encyclopedia offer Africa and what can Africa provide? In 2005 architect Mamadou Jean Charles Tall proposed a presentation at Wikimania in Frankfurt titled WIKI Africa and he wrote colleagues and friends “I believe [Wikipedia] is a good opportunity to create contents available to anyone and that we can edit by ourselves. I trust each of us is concerned with the creation of contents belonging to Africa” (C’est à mon sens une bonne opportunité de créer un contenu qui soit disponible et qui soit éditable par nous mêmes. Je crois que la création de contenus propres à l’Afrique est dans les préoccupations de tous). Last October the founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales preached in Johannesburg the African participation to the biggest no profit volunteer-based ever existing project on open knowledge and he was welcomed with great enthusiasm. Internet evangelists foresaw a glorious future with an online rainbow of encyclopedias written in all existing and extinct African languages and predicted millions of former copyright pirates transformed into committed panafrican editors fighting for open data and copyleft. Six months later problems got the upper hand.

Some say a fight started between the committed panafrican editor and the dominant thirty-year-old western white male with a scientific training editor. Articles on African knowledge were delated on Wikipedia because unnotable. Unsourced content was delated because unsourced; sourced content was delated because unnotably sourced. Everybody knew since the beginning that to access and contribute to Wikipedia either you need a computer with a stable Internet connection or some sort of cheap futuristic portable device, but very few foresaw that sources would emerge as the major battlefield.

On Wikipedia no original research can be used. To explain it very simply you can’t write on Wikipedia that in Senegal there are lots of baobab even if you are in Senegal and you see lots of baobabs; you need to find a book where it is written it (or you need to publish a book on it), and then you can write it on Wikipedia by carefully avoiding plagiarism and by adding a footnote with the proper bibliography and page number. Published paper books with an online digital version are the preferred source on the online encyclopedia, followed by articles published on major New York City and London based newspapers.

To go back to the baobab, this means that in Senegal with lots of baobabs, with a computer, a stable internet connection and the necessary skills to edit Wikipedia, you still need to find the fucking book. Until you write about baobabs, you can trust a book on the subject exists at least for touristic reasons, but things get more complicated when you approach other subjects. You need to find the written source, but you also need that it exists. Furthermore if the source you cite is not available online and if the publisher is not well known, the problem that may arise is that someone on Wikipedia can question the real existence of what you are citing.

Achal Prabhala – editor of the magazine Civil Lines, copyleft activist and member of the Wikimedia Foundation advisory board – is advocating the opportunity of accepting oral citations on Wikipedia. Books are based on interviews; by collecting, recording and uploading them – according to Achal Prabhala – those sources could greatly contribute to develop encyclopedic knowledge in the “Global South” (rumors say that this expression carried away Wikimedia Foundation, even though it divides the world and mankind into two and an article published on the magazine Nature states that in June 2005 its mentioning caused the death of 14 kittens in Bogota). A research and a video production on oral citation with the institutional and economic support of Wikimedia Foundation would be an essential step to lobby for a new definition of sources and notability on Wikipedia. Another important strategy to facilitate the relationship between Wikipedia and Africa could be the production of a critical mass of African contents produced with the commitment of cultural institutions. Unfortunately this is not the best timing, since Wikipedia Foundation is under one of the most turbulent period of its existence with the nomination of its first executive director and the current crisis of its board of trustees. The energy raised by the Johannesburg Wikimedia Academy will probably get lost and it will take time before an outreach program will be implemented but we are not so far from the day Wikipedia will take Nairobi, when 30.000 African contributions will be produced and people will be willing to donate millions of dollars to support an encyclopedia that anyone can modify to win a bet.