Centre for Internet & Society

A fortnightly column on ‘Digital Natives’ authored by Nishant Shah is featured in the Sunday Eye, the national edition of Indian Express, Delhi, from September 2010 onwards. This article was published in the Indian Express on January 23, 2011. In this Nishant Shah explains how Wiki changes the world by making the ordinary person the expert and knowledge free.

If you have a question, where do you go? To books? To encyclopaedias? To knowledgeable friends? To experts in that field? The quest for knowledge is not easy. Often, we encounter false leads and reach dead ends. We often find ourselves dependent on vanguards and bearers of knowledge. The knowledge industry, which includes academia, schools, universities, libraries, archives, etc. have created labels that define consumers, producers and mediators of knowledge.

What do you do with the answer of a question? You generally store it in your memory. If it is an answer that you are searching for collaboratively, you share it with the concerned people. If you are meticulous and like to archive information, you probably write it down in a big brown book. But for many of us, we see our relationship with knowledge as one of consumption. Books, and indeed columns like this one, are written by “experts”.

If you have an answer, but nobody is asking you the question, what do you do with it? This was the question that Jimmy Wales, asked a decade ago. He then thought of starting a web-based, collaborative platform for knowledge production — now known as Wikipedia. Working on an open structure, Wikipedia invites anybody with internet access to start contributing and consolidating their knowledge through a process of discussion, consensus-building and collaboration. Unlike a regular encyclopaedia with its army of knowledge warriors, Wikipedia depends on everyday users who harness the power of information to bring together the “sum total of human knowledge”. In 10 years, Wikipedia has become the de facto global reference point for dynamic knowledge and boasts of more than 17 million articles with more than 365 million readers in 263 language editions.

For digital natives, the growth of Wikipedia illustrates the changing ways in which digital natives are learning and engaging with knowledge, both inside and outside of formal education.

Knowledge is a process

Digital natives, who contribute to Wikipedia and learn from it, know that there is more to knowledge than what is on the surface. While the entries on Wikipedia serve as a fount of information, it is layered by discussions, edit-wars, and processes of mediation that produce objective content. For young users of Wikipedia, the ability to question the content, the protocols of producing neutral evidence, and the often intense discussions, establish an intimate relationship with knowledge.

They look at knowledge as fluid, as open to contention and produced through multiple perspectives. In the world of user-generated content, knowledge is seen as a process of engagement rather than as an object to be mechanically consumed. Hence, it is not uncommon to see digital natives encountering information online — on platforms like Wikipedia, but also on blogs and discussion forums — expressing opinions and challenging the content when it does not fit their experience of that information.

Your experiences are also knowledge

One of the most important lessons that Wikipedia teaches a digital native, is that knowledge is not authored only by people with the backing of institutions. While there are some systems of knowledge which require formal training, there is a huge value in everyday and lived experiences. Encyclopaedias discriminate between different kinds of knowledge — Shakespeare’s work might find an entry in almost all of these, but the 16-year-old writer who has a larger readership than Shakespeare might easily be excluded. However, on Wikipedia, any realm of the cultural, political or social that is relevant and significantly affects our everyday life finds space and detailed research. This translation of lived experience into knowledge is new and opens up ways of producing alternative and plural knowledge systems around objects, people, events and ideas that shape the world.

It is open to all

Digital natives who have grown up in the Wikified world have also experienced information as something that belongs to a larger community. They don’t even espouse it as an ideology, but often think of knowledge as open and residing within digital public commons. In their multiple roles as bearers, producers, and consumers of knowledge, they are used to remixing, sharing and disseminating knowledge into a wider ecology. The analogue regimes of intellectual property and copyright do not make sense to them in a medium that is intuitively made for copying, sharing and owning knowledge collaboratively.

In the largely Wikifying world that we live in, the notions of what constitutes knowledge, how one accesses knowledge and how people interact with it is undergoing radical change. And the digital natives are silently but significantly shaping new ways of imagining knowledge processes, proving to us that the pen might be mightier than the sword, but the click trumps them both.

Original article was published by the Indian Express

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