We keep falling into the same ditches, you know? I mean, we learn more and more about the physical universe, more about our own bodies, more technology, but somehow, down through history, we go on building empires of one kind or another, then destroying them in one way or another. We go on having stupid wars that we justify and get passionate about, but in the end, all they do is kill huge numbers of people, maim others, impoverish still more, spread disease and hunger, and set the stage for the next war. And when we look at all of that in history, we just shrug our shoulders and say, well, that’s the way things are. That’s the way things always have been.”
– Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents
We’re asking questions like: How does the internet deepen global inequalities? Whose knowledge is, and is not, represented on the internet? Who produces this knowledge and how? Whose internet, and whose freedoms, are we really defending?
Why it matters
Power and Representation
Only a tiny fraction of the world’s knowledge systems are captured in books or other forms of visual and oral material, and the internet – for all its democratic, emancipatory potential – further skews what we use as knowledge every day.
Google estimated in 2010 that there are about 130 million books in at least about 480 languages. Of these, only about 20% are freely accessible in the public domain and 10-15% are in print. In a world of 7 billion people speaking nearly 7000 languages and dialects, we estimate that only about 7% of those languages are captured in published material; a smaller fraction of the world’s knowledge is converted into digital knowledge; and a still smaller fraction of that is available on the internet.
Oral histories and citations, as a foundation of much of the world’s knowledge, are largely invisible and un-used, both online and in the publishing world. Online knowledge tends to be even more of a global North, white, straight, male production than knowledge-at-large. At the same time, the internet has become the default option for accessing information – particularly for young people and the world’s elite decision-makers – even as knowledge from women, people of colour, the global South, and other marginalised communities remains significantly underrepresented.
Using Wikipedia as a proxy indicator of freely available online knowledge, we know that only 20% of the world (primarily white male editors from North America and Europe) edits 80% of Wikipedia currently, and estimate that 1 in 10 of the editors is self-identified female. Studies by Mark Graham and colleagues at the Oxford Internet Institute have found that 84% of Wikipedia articles focus on Europe and North America, and most articles written about the global South are still written by those in the global North, so that even where content is present, skewed representations remain.
Freedom and Security
At the same time, there is a critical global debate on internet freedom and security happening right now. Edward Snowden revealed in 2014 that security agencies around the world, including the US’ NSA and the UK’s GCHQ, are undertaking mass surveillance of human rights activists. Research in 2010 by the Tactical Technology Collective found that states had often compromised the online safety and privacy of human rights defenders both in daily forms of harassment, and in extraordinary forms of intervention.
Beyond the specific safety and privacy issues of human rights activists, women and people of colour are often at significant risk to online harassment and bullying. The United Nations Report on Cyber Violence against Women and Girls found that 73% of women have been exposed to, or experienced, forms of online violence. The Guardian, looking at online harassment and ‘the web we want’, analysed 70M comments on its site from 2006, and found that of the 10 most abused writers, eight are women and the two men are black. Corporates like Facebook have problematic privacy policies, including the recently enforced ‘Real Names’ policy that adversely affected LGBTQI and Native American communities.
We believe it is critical and urgent to approach internet freedom and dignity through the lens of representations of knowledge on the internet. Our efforts, therefore, aim to be both a response to the status quo, and a vision for the future.
At its core, Whose Knowledge? is a radical re-imagining and reconstruction of the internet, so that the internet we defend is ultimately an internet of, for and by all.
“The function of art is to do more than tell it like it is—it’s to imagine what is possible.”
— bell hooks