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Systems of Governance

The Power of Wikipedia: Legitimacy and Control

The most astonishing global source of knowledge has the power to act like a brand new nation. Then why does it behave like an old one? In this hard-hitting account of Wikipedia from the ‘South’, Iolanda Pensa pulls no punches.


1. This is Wikipedia

© Maha Maamoun, Going Places: A Project for Public Busses, Le Caire, 2003-2004.

Do you know Wikipedia? It is almost impossible not to. With almost 500 million readers in over 280 languages, Wikipedia is our universal textbook. Millions of people read it, and few know how it works. Wikipedia is produced by volunteers – a collaborative encyclopedia that anyone can edit. It is a remarkable product of our age, and a very interesting subject for research. Unfortunately, the research so far has focused on exploring Wikipedia history, content and structure, and very little has been said about its geopolitical power.


2. The knowledge game

© Mounir Fatmi, Sortir de l’histoire, 2005-2006, cassettes VHS, photos, cons et video.

For at least half a century, intellectuals have been working hard to turn the knowledge system on its head – for being been unable to represent the world we live in. Thanks to them, we now have words and phrases that we cannot ignore: connections, borders, contact zones, perspectives, identities, otherness, Eurocentrism, multiculturalism, networks, porosity, post-colonialism, globalisation and power. Some of the intellectuals who have helped this effort include Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, V.Y Mudimbe, Homi K. Bhabha, Arjun Appadurai, Achille Mbembe, Jean-Loup Amselle, Bruno Latour, Marc Augé, Saskia Sassen and James Clifford.

There are also several artists whose work has contributed to theory.

We need to rewrite history. This is probably the most violent summary of the needs of our time, regularly invoked by the artist Rasheed Araeen, who asks a simple question: how can we rewrite history? We are not talking about revisionism here, but about the very real necessity of a collaborative effort to represent the world we live in, to contextualize information, to analyse it through historiography and to document different and major points of view.


3. Wikipedia: the system

© Mounir Fatmi, G8 Les balais, 2004, installation.

Even if the very concept of an encyclopedia can be dismissed as an 18th century European relic, the idea of free encyclopedia that anyone can edit is exciting, inclusive and dynamic. Wikipedia’s five pillars – its fundamental principals – emphasize its role as a reference base, reiterate a respect for sources and for the community, and acknowledge that mistakes are part of the process of learning. Wikipedia’s keywords – free culture, open collaboration, networked social production, open source, peer production, crowdsourcing, wikinomics – emphasize that it is an active, open and inclusive space.


4. All knowledge for all people. Really?

© Yinka Shonibare, Scramble for Africa, 2000, 14 chairs, 14 figures, table in Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora, 2003. Commissioned by and courtesy Museum for African Art NY.

Wikipedia is a complex puzzle, but what is striking about it is that the most innovative encyclopedia in the world is, in reality, incredibly traditional.

Mark Graham of the Oxford Institute, and authors such as Heather Ford, Maja van der Velden and Achal Prabhala have already highlighted the limits of its scope. The way Wikipedia portrays the world reproduces the manner in which the world believes it know itself. On Wikipedia, Africa is empty and dark. We are far away from imagining “a world in which every single person on the planet is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.”


5. Wikipedia loves nations

© Jane Alexander, Courtesy Africa Screams, Vienna, 2004.

On the one hand, Wikipedia bolsters conventional nationalism, and on the other hand, it is transforming into a nation itself. Languages, the documentation of monuments, education and territorial control are long-standing tools for nation-building: looking at them from a Wikipedia perspective reveals the macro dynamics of this knowledge enterprise. Languages can reinforce mandated borders, identities and divisions; recognising monuments sometimes offer a way of instituting the new and doing away with the old; territorial control and representation, especially along current geopolitical lines, can reify current geopolitical inequities.


6. Wikipedia: promises and pitfalls

© Samuel Fosso, La Femme américaine libérée des années 70, Série Tati, autoportrait I-V, 1997, coloured photography. In Africa Remix, p. 124.

Wikipedia offers new and important ways to build and negotiate our collective knowledge and history. Thanks to its core principles, it could be a space to contextualize knowledge, to provide background, to create links, to add multiple categories, to follow a historiographic approach, to acknowledge different critical discourses and to correct mistakes. Considering its power, it is not possible to ignore or avoid Wikipedia any more. But to truly realise its stated goal of an active, open and inclusive utopia, we have to first become aware of its production (and reproduction) of nationalisms and geopolitical power.


First published in Chimurenga’s PowerMoneySex Reader.

Iolanda is an art critic, researcher and cultural producer, she is scientific director of WikiAfrica forlettera27 Foundation. Founding and board member of iStrike Foundation, she worked as a freelance consultant for Doual’art and the Africa Centre; she collaborated with EHESS, Multiplicity and several Italian and international magazines.

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