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
What’s the problem?
Historical and current structures of power and privilege continue to deﬁne what is considered knowledge, who creates it, and how. Systemic forces like capitalism, colonization, patriarchy, racism and homophobia have actively undermined, destroyed, or appropriated the knowledges of much of the world’s populations. This has led to severe knowledge (or “epistemic”) injustices. The internet — as a primary digital infrastructure for knowledge — further exacerbates these inequities, even as it promises to be emancipatory and democratic.
There are two critical ways in which knowledge injustice manifests:
The design, architecture, and governance of the internet’s “global” platforms and tools rarely include women, people of color, and people from the Global South (Africa, Asia and the Paciﬁc Islands, Latin America and the Caribbean).
- Over 58% of the world’s population accesses the internet today.
- 75% of those online are from the Global South.
- 45% of all women are online.
Yet the perspectives of primarily white, straight, North American men dictates how our knowledge infrastructures are created and managed. This means that the internet’s platforms, policies, and protocols are created for and decided by the “local” context of the United States, making the “local” of the United States the (far too often unquestioned) “global” of the rest of the world. For example, even as Twitter tries to “fact check” how indigenous communities are appropriately addressed, its curation style guide only describes populations in the US, Canada, and Australia, without any mention of the range and diversity of the 370 million indigenous peoples across 70 countries worldwide. Similarly, so‐called “artiﬁcial intelligence” or machine learning platforms notoriously replicate systemic biases as they use datasets that are primarily based on white men. By not having the majority of the world included in the creation of our knowledge infrastructures, examples such as these will continue to exist.
Knowledge creation and curation
The majority of knowledge available online is textual, in English, and created or curated by a select few.
- Of the 7000+ languages of the world, only 480 of them are represented in the history of publishing and a few hundred are represented on the internet.
- English and Chinese dominate general online content.
- Most scholarly (including digitally accessed) publications are in English. Approximately 80% of all scientific journals and 90% of all social science journals indexed on Scopus and JSTOR are published in English.
- Only a thin slice of the collective body of human knowledge is textual: knowledge is primarily oral, visual, tactile or embodied. But while the internet has the potential to represent multiple forms of knowledge through multimedia, the hegemony of US and European institutions has led to text‐dominant digital platforms and knowledge spaces.
Public, online knowledge looks as it does because the majority of the internet’s users are not its producers. Take Wikipedia for example, the “world’s” encyclopedia: only 20% of the world (primarily white male editors from North America and Europe) edits 80% of Wikipedia currently, and only 1 in 10 of the editors is female. The result is that there are more articles written about Antarctica than about most countries in Africa. So just as everyone should have access to the internet, everyone should be able to consume and produce knowledge in the languages and forms that best express their human creativity, curiosity and experience.
How do we change the status quo?
To challenge these inequities, we need a dramatic transformation in the nature and forms of knowledge that are accepted and shared, and in the backgrounds and identities of knowledge creators and curators.
Whose Knowledge? works at the forefront of this transformation by supporting the leadership of marginalized communities to share their own stories and knowledges online, safely and securely. This ensures that a particular version of white, straight, male, North American and European history and knowledge does not become the overarching history and knowledge of the world.
As a feminist, anti‐colonial team, we partner with individuals, organizations, and movements working at the intersections of knowledge, culture, technology and social justice. We center marginalized voices when building campaigns or working with traditional academic/cultural institutions, in ways that are often nuanced and powerful in their impact. For instance, when we began work with scholars from the Kumeyaay Nation in 2016, the ﬁrst Wikipedia article we improved together was not on the Kumeyaay, but on the genocide of indigenous peoples that resulted from the California Gold Rush.
By working deeply with communities, we are able to not only amplify marginalized knowledges through our media work, but also create shared, openly licensed, remixable resources that can be used by other communities to begin their own knowledge justice journeys. In a COVID‐19 world, we have an already proven commitment and expertise in supporting and expanding online communities of practice.
We believe that Whose Knowledge? has the passion and power to drive further systemic transformation. In partnership with our communities and supporters, we can re‐imagine and re‐design an internet that truly reﬂects the rich and textured world we live in: full of the knowledges, histories and stories of 7.5 billion people, speaking over 7000 languages.