*NewYork Times : "When Knowledge Isn’t Written, Does It Still Count?"*

*“MAKING fun of Wikipedia is so 2007,” a French journalist said recently to Sue
Gardner, the executive director of the foundation that runs the Wikipedia
*And so Ms. Gardner, in turn, told an auditorium full of Wikipedia
contributors and supporters on Thursday in Haifa, Israel, the host city for
the seventh annual Wikimania conference, where meetings and presentations
focus on the world’s most used, and perhaps least understood, online
reference work.*
*Once routinely questioned about its reliability — what do you mean, anyone
can edit it? — the site is now used every month by upwards of 400 million
people worldwide. But with influence and respect come responsibility, and
lately Wikipedia has been criticized from without and within for reflecting
a Western, male-dominated mindset similar to the perspective behind the
encyclopedias it has replaced.*
*Seeing Wikipedia as The Man, in so many words, is so 2011.*
*And that’s a problem for an encyclopedia that wants to grow. Some critics
of Wikipedia believe that the whole Western tradition of footnotes and
sourced articles needs to be rethought if Wikipedia is going to continue to
gather converts beyond its current borders. And that, in turn, invites an
entirely new debate about what constitutes knowledge in different parts of
the world and how a Western institution like Wikipedia can capitalize on it.
*Achal Prabhala, an adviser to Ms. Gardner’s Wikimedia Foundation who lives
and writes in Bangalore, India, has made perhaps the most trenchant
criticism in a video project, “People are Knowledge,” that he presented in
Haifa (along with its clunky subtitle, “Exploring alternative methods of
citation for Wikipedia”).*
*The film, which was made largely with a $20,000 grant from the Wikimedia
Foundation, spends time showing what has been lost to Wikipedia because of
stickling rules of citation and verification. If Wikipedia purports to
collect the “sum of all human knowledge,” in the words of one of its
founders, Jimmy Wales, that, by definition, means more than printed
knowledge, Mr. Prabhala said.*
*In the case of dabba kali, a children’s game played in the Kerala state of
India, there was a Wikipedia article in the local language, Malayalam, that
included photos, a drawing and a detailed description of the rules, but no
sources to back up what was written. Other than, of course, the 40 million
people who played it as children.*
*There is no doubt, he said, that the article would have been deleted from
English Wikipedia if it didn’t have any sources to cite. Those are the rules
of the game, and those are the rules he would like to change, or at least
bend, or, if all else fails, work around.*
*“There is this desire to grow Wikipedia in parts of the world,” he said,
adding that “if we don’t have a more generous and expansive citation policy,
the current one will prove to be a massive roadblock that you literally
can’t get past. There is a very finite amount of citable material, which
means a very finite number of articles, and there will be no more.”*
*Mr. Prabhala, 38, who grew up in India and then attended American
universities, has been an activist on issues of intellectual property,
starting with the efforts in South Africa to free up drugs that treat H.I.V.
In the film, he gives other examples of subjects — an alcohol produced in a
village, Ga-Sabotlane, in Limpopo, South Africa, and a popular
hopscotch-type children’s game, tshere-tshere — beyond print documentation
and therefore beyond Wikipedia’s true-and-tried method.*
*There are whole cultures, he said, that have little to no printed material
to cite as proof about the way life is lived.*
*“Publishing is a system of power and I mean that in a completely pleasant,
accepting sense,” he said mischievously. “But it leaves out people.”*
*But Mr. Prabhala offers a solution: he and the video’s directors, Priya Sen
and Zen Marie, spoke with people in African and Indian villages either in
person or over the phone and had them describe basic activities. These
recordings were then uploaded and linked to the article as sources, and
suddenly an article that seems like it could be a personal riff looks a bit
more academic.*
*For example, in his interview with a South African villager who explained
how to make the alcoholic drink, morula, she repeatedly says that it is best
if she demonstrates the process. When the fruit is ready, said the villager,
Philipine Moremi, according to the project’s transcript of her phone
conversation, “we pry them open. We are going to show you how it is done.
Once they are peeled, we seal them to ferment and then we drink.” The idea
of treating personal testimony as a source for Wikipedia is still
controversial, and reflects the concerns that dominated the encyclopedia
project six years ago, when arguably its very existence was threatened.*
*After a series of hoaxes, culminating in a Wikipedia article in 2005 that
maligned the newspaper editor John Seigenthaler for no discernible reason
other than because a Wikipedia contributor could, the site tried to ensure
that every statement could be traced to a source.*
*Then there is the rule “no original research,” which was meant to say that
Wikipedia doesn’t care if you are writing about the subway station you visit
every day, find someone who has written reliably on the color of the walls
*“The natural thing is getting more and more accurate, locking down
articles, raising the bar on sources,” said Andrew Lih, an associate
professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, who was an
early contributor to Wikipedia and has written a history of its rise. “Isn’t
it great we have so many texts online?”*
*But what works for the most developed societies, he said, won’t necessarily
work for others. “Lots of knowledge is not Googleable,” he said, “and is not
in a digital form.”*
*Mr. Lih said that he could see the Wikipedia project suddenly becoming
energized by the process of documenting cultural practices around the world,
or down the street.*
*Perhaps Mr. Prabhala’s most challenging argument is that by being
text-focused, and being locked into the Encyclopedia Britannica model,
Wikipedia risks being behind the times.*
*An 18-year-old is comfortable using “objects of trust that have been
created on the Internet,” he said, and “Wikipedia isn’t taking advantage of
that.” And, he added, “it is quite possible that for the 18-year-old of
today that Wikipedia looks like his father’s project. Or the kind of thing
his father might be interested in.”*

Tinu Cherian
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