Indigenous Knowledge and Wikipedia’s Enlightenment Problem

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Welcome back to Wiki Wednesday. In the coming weeks, the Digital Rhetoric Collaborative will be focusing on digital activism  and ways of engaging activist and advocate discourse in online spaces. To usher in that focus, we’ll be dedicating a series of Wiki Wednesday posts to interrogating Wikipedia as a site for making, sharing, and circulating meaning. In last week’s Wiki Wednesday post, Heather Lang shared her experience working on a Wikipedia writing assignment in a graduate seminar and some of the ways it helped her to begin to think about what it is we are asking our students to do when we ask them to write in Wikipedia. What are some of the implications for this type of pedagogy and how do we/should we theorize these spaces? If you haven’t read her post, get to it; it’s rich and wonderful and comes to some fascinating conclusions about the emancipatory politics of Wikipedia. Lang’s reflection on  this assignment describes an experience that wasn’t always as readily accessible as we might expect, given Wikipedia open access ethos:

For an organization that promotes itself as a “free,” in many senses of the term, encyclopedia, there sure was a lot of hassle to get involved. Wikipedia wanted my grammar skills when I wanted to give it ideas. In a lot of ways, Wikipedia  is still very tied to print-centric culture, relying heavily on printed materials as sources and borrowing its epistemology and genre conventions from the print encyclopedia. There are real issues of erasure and exclusion on Wikipedia–there are real risks associated with Wikipedia’s proclaimed “freedom.”

I’m fascinated by this realization of the encyclopedia’s  adherence to print culture. As much as Wikipedia pushes the boundaries of the  encyclopedic genre in terms of collaboration, technology, and even scope of coverage- it remains an encyclopedia, a genre that carries with it the ideological traces of Enlightenment print culture. This print culture manifests most visibly in Wikipedia’s policy of verifiability.

In Wikipedia, verifiability means that people reading and editing the encyclopedia can check that the information comes from a reliable source. Wikipedia does not publish original research. Its content is determined by previously published information rather than the beliefs or experiences of its editors. Even if you’re sure something is true, it must be verifiable before you can add it.[1] When reliable sources disagree, present what the various sources say, give each side its due weight, and maintain a neutral point of view.

This is an important policy. It keeps the encyclopedia in check by ensuring that editors support their claims about a subject with a reliable source. A problem emerges, however, when we recognize that verifiability and reliability are typically only granted to written (and published) sources. Such sources can be in print or digital form, but such sources are almost always in some form of print.  Why is this particular epistemology troublesome? Precisely because it leaves out tremendous amounts of knowledge that isn’t written, especially from cultures where there is not a long history of print culture (or little resources for print culture). Cultures and regions representing the global south, indigenous cultures and peoples, and other types of knowledge where an oral culture plays a large part in the transmission and curation of knowledge are not being accounted for in Wikipedia. Wikipedia’s Enlightenment agenda to gather the  “sum of all human knowledge” is, somewhat paradoxically, hindered by its adherence to Enlightenment epistemologies that continue to define the encyclopedic genre. It cannot accomplish its goals until it is able to re-imagine itself and become more open to alternative epistemologies.

This is a problem that is already being taken up by a number of individuals, and perhaps most notable among them is Achal Prabhala. His project (funded by the Wikimedia Foundation) “People are Knowledge” investigates the problems of representing India’s body of oral knowledge in the encyclopedia. What he comes up with is also pretty revolutionary, a system for using oral citations in the encyclopedia to help represent more of this knowledge. Check out the film, below, produced by Prabhala, which describes this work and its importance:

People are Knowledge (without subtitles) from Achal Prabhala on Vimeo.

If and when you teach about Wikipedia–whether it be how to use the source in appropriate ways, or  something more engaged such as the project Lang discussed last week– it’s important to keep in mind that although the encyclopedia has definitely raised the bar on access and representation it still has a long way to go. Discussing how projects that appear to be emancipatory and open access are not always what they seem is an important task to take on in our writing, rhetoric, and research classes. Doing so will not only help our students understand the ways in which technologies are always rhetorical and ideological, it will also help them understand how Western epistemologies often leave little room for alternative knowledge making practices.

About Author(s)

VIsiting Assistant Professor of English at Ohio University Zanesville, Matthew Vetter earned his PhD from Ohio University in 2015, where he previously served as Assistant Director of Composition. His research and professional interests include digital rhetoric and humanities, writing program administration, and composition pedagogy. Vetter is a former Digital Rhetoric Collaborative Graduate Fellow and current editor of PraxisWiki, a section of Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy. Check out his portfolio at mattvetter.net

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