I remember the first time I made an edit on Wikipedia — it was almost 10 years ago, and it was a heady feeling, to realise that here is a global encyclopaedia being written, and that I could be a part of it. It felt strange, because I was brought up to believe that authors are special people with specialised knowledge, which can only be validated from special institutions, and that authorship required years of practice and perseverance.
However, a historic experiment by Nature magazine showed, that despite the average age of the then Wikipedia editor as somewhere in the late teens, articles in Wikipedia were not any more prone to error than in other established, institutionalised fountains of knowledge like the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In fact, not only were the non-specialised editors of Wikipedia spot on with their knowledge outputs, but that because of its iterative nature, errors, once spotted on Wikipedia could be immediately corrected, thus leading to a more robust source of knowledge.
Two key principles helped Wikipedia establish this process of reliable and resilient knowledge systems — neutrality of viewpoint, and evidence-based knowledge. In the largely free and open space of Wikipedia editing, the one thing that remained constant is neutrality. Editors, despite their own biases, locations, contexts, experiences or embodied knowledges, could not introduce their opinions or original research into the Wikipedia articles. This necessarily meant that every truth and knowledge claim made in a Wikipedia article needs to be verified through a source. This source could come from different spaces and different formats, but it serves as objective evidence for the information being provided there. In instances — and there are thousands of them, if not more — where two editors disagreed on how to interpret an event, or how to describe a person or a thing, the edit-war was fuelled not by the I-said-You-said never-ending rhetoric, but by relying on the soundness of research conducted by external sources.
For some years now, Wikipedia has become the de facto global reference system, which still relies on volunteers and non-specialised editors to contribute to complex, complicated and very specialised domains of human knowledge production. Even when the editors are experts or scholars, their contribution has value and merit, only when it is supported by externally verifiable source that supports their view points.
Wikipedia has become one of the foundational models of the information web, that makes it clear that knowledge can be freely produced, consumed and circulated, and more importantly, it can be negotiated and contested, thereby making our scientific research practices relevant and pertinent beyond the hallowed and often closed halls of the university. Wikipedia became a prime example of how information can be revised, changed, mutated, updated, upcycled, and subjected to deep scrutiny as long as it is informed by an alignment towards neutrality and supported by evidence produced through research.
I invoke these principles that have fostered one of the most magnificent pieces of collaborative human effort because it directly puts into contrast the revisionist, biased, authoritative and closed practices by which the Indian educational councils seem to be editing textbooks. The removal of the names of historical figures, the rewriting of history to reflect a biased, narrow and unsubstantiated narrative, the erasure of alternative histories and voices of protest and dissent, and the false planting of information which is grounded in the school of “People say” and the university of “I have heard” is an alarming development. Many people unfortunately think of this political revisionism as mimicking the wisdom of the crowds recounting and contestation of information on spaces like Wikipedia.
It is important to note that these attempts at revising known facts and of producing religious histories of exclusion and violence are not the digital mode of information upcycling. These revisions are firmly rooted in a political agenda that seeks to sanctify the discriminatory violences of our neo-authoritarian governments. They remain challenged by the scholars in the field who have enough evidence — of archives, of tracts, of data, and of information — that show that this information is false. They are entrenched in the politics of power that insist that this is the only true account of things, excluding public discourse, and performing acts of censorship that discourage all access to scientific learning.
The proponents who want to Make in India, cannot limit their rhetoric only to economic production, but have to extend collaborative and connected making to knowledge and information production. And this entails the unmaking of these authoritarian and fascist attempts at justifying rumours as information, hate speech as free speech, and revisions as conversations.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.