A river by any other name: Ganga/Ganges and the postcolonial politics of knowledge on Wikipedia

A river by any other name: Ganga/Ganges and the postcolonial politics of knowledge on Wikipedia
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  Full Terms & Conditions of access and use can be found at Download by:  [] Date:  17 March 2017, At: 08:00 Information, Communication & Society ISSN: 1369-118X (Print) 1468-4462 (Online) Journal homepage: A river by any other name: Ganga/Ganges and thepostcolonial politics of knowledge on Wikipedia Sangeet Kumar To cite this article:  Sangeet Kumar (2017) A river by any other name: Ganga/Ganges and thepostcolonial politics of knowledge on Wikipedia, Information, Communication & Society, 20:6,809-824, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2017.1293709 To link to this article: Published online: 15 Mar 2017.Submit your article to this journal Article views: 2View related articles View Crossmark data  A river by any other name: Ganga/Ganges and thepostcolonial politics of knowledge on Wikipedia Sangeet Kumar Denison University, Granville, OH, USA ABSTRACT  The historically established relationship between knowledge andpower has enabled critical scholars across disciplines tointerrogate the ways in which knowledge has served as thehandmaiden of various forms of power. The ways in which thatrelationship operates in the digital realm however remains to befully understood. This essay ’ s analysis of an edit war that occurredover the naming of the Wikipedia page on the Indian river Ganga,seeks to understand the operation of that relationship in thenetworked digital realm. Through analyzing the conflict andevaluating the different arguments proffered by the opposingsides in the debate, this essay attempts to uncover thecontradictions within its desired goal of apolitical and neutralknowledge that Wikipedia is founded upon. The analysis showsthat debates on Wikipedia are invariably imbued with pre-existingentrenched ideologies thus ensuring that persistence andnumerical strength outweigh evidence and the merit of anargument as determining factors. This holds crucial lessons for theimaginations of a plural and globally representative web that wassupposed to challenge the inequities of the offline world. ARTICLE HISTORY Received 20 October 2016Accepted 7 February 2017 KEYWORDS Wikipedia; collaborativeknowledge; postcolonial;global web Introduction This essay critiques the production and consumption of knowledge on the Web by con-ducting a close analysis of a decade-long debate about the naming of Wikipedia ’ s page onthe Indian river Ganga/Ganges. The debate has taken the form of an edit war whereinopposing sides have sought to argue over the appropriate name for the Wikipedia pageciting procedural rules and evidence in support of their claims. By presenting evidenceto support their case as well as by citing rules, procedures and precedents in Wikipedia,each side in the debate has contributed to what remains one of the longest running editwars on the online encyclopedia. This essay analyzes the debate and the modes of argu-mentation within the long-running conflict to reveal the iteration of key hegemonic tropesdeployed to prevail over the opposing side within it. Specifically, it shows how Wikipedia ’ semphasis on published evidence, rational argumentation, editorial consensus and neu-trality functions to mask the domination of certain epistemologies and histories overothers. Edit wars such as the one analyzed here reveal the role played by the demographicdistribution of its editors and contributors in adjudicating over Wikipedia ’ s content © 2017 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group CONTACT  Sangeet Kumar INFORMATION, COMMUNICATION & SOCIETY, 2017VOL. 20, NO. 6, 809 – 824  during deliberations where opposing arguments may be equally valid. The essay  ’ s analysisseeks to show that despite its well-known discouragement of voting, deliberations on itscontentious issues function akin to voting where the numerical strength of editors morefamiliar with rules and procedures invariably prevails (Jemielniak, 2014), often disregard-ing the merits of arguments or counter evidence. The consequent intertwining of knowl-edge with politics, culture and location within this edit war instantiates in a digital avatarthe mutually reciprocal relationship between knowledge, truth and power that has histori-cally regulated the boundaries of epistemology. These conflicts on Wikipedia (such as theGanga/Ganges debate) hold a particular significance when placed within a broader history of epistemic wars and the historic privileging of certain perspectives over others that sym-bolize what postcolonial scholars have argued to be Eurocentric universalism.Critiquing knowledge production on Wikipedia is important given its predominant sta-tus as the global encyclopedia of record on the Web. Having launched in 2001, it has astaggering 41 million articles (October 2016) in over 280 language versions. It is theseventh most visited website in the world (according to Alexa ’ s global site rankings)and is the  ‘ biggest non market, peer produced platform in the ecosystem of connectivemedia ’  (Dijck, 2013, p. 133). Even though the active number of editors is far smallerthan the two million  ‘ Wikipedians ’  listed by the site, the sheer amount of unpaid laborthat has gone into creating and maintaining the global storehouse of knowledge is a testa-ment to the altruistic ethos of the early web and the free/open source movement thatspawned Wikipedia. While its English language version remains the largest with overfive million articles (in October 2016), its attempts to be globally representative areborne out by its 291 language versions. The growth and stabilization of Wikipedia hasdefied several predictions of its demise (Carr, 2006; Simonite, 2013) as well as legitimate questions about its quality and veracity over the years. The acknowledgement of Wikipe-dia ’ s importance for understanding the cultures of knowledge production on the Web isborne out by recent studies on Wikipedia (Dalby, 2009; Jemielniak, 2014; Leitch, 2014; Lovink & Tkacz, 2011; Reagle, 2010) from critical, humanistic and social science perspec- tives. Its emergence as a global reference tool that has increasingly become the first point of consultation (and often the only one) for knowledge about most things (including currentevents, historical facts/personalities and ideas) and whose content become part of   ‘ conven-tional wisdom ’  (Kildall & Stern, 2011, p. 167) necessitates a continuous critical engage-ment to interrogate its role within the broader dynamics of the global web.In acknowledging that necessity, this essay situates its analysis within the historically established relationship between knowledge and power that has showed the political, cul-tural and historical stakes involved in determining what counts as legitimate knowledge. If,as this essay  ’ s analysis seeks to show, Wikipedia ’ s cultural and procedural architecture pri- vileges certain epistemologies and forms of knowledge over others, then understanding thecultural and historical underpinnings of those dominant modes of knowledge productionallows us to make visible the seemingly invisible hegemonic foundations of the web itself.This exploration of the culture of knowledge production on Wikipedia must be seenalongside historical critiques of knowledge production (Foucault, 1982; Kuhn, 1970; Mignolo, 2011) that have shown it to be invariably intertwined with dominant social, pol-itical and cultural institutions. The institutional regulation of boundaries that form theinvisible edifice that determines legitimate knowledge have not merely policed the dividing line between knowledge and its Other, but also shaped the definition of sayable truths. 810 S. KUMAR  Foucault ’ s critique of the social effect produced by discursive structures is particularly prescient for understanding the distinctions between what is sayable and unsayable,between  ‘ reason ’  and  ‘ folly  ’ , truth and falsehood within an  ‘ economy of discourses of truth ’  (Foucault, 1980, p. 93). As shown below, resonances of this distinction emergewithin the debate over the naming of the Wikipedia page as contributors and editorsspar over what counts as logic, proof and evidence.Definitions of legitimate and true knowledge that the web universalizes and that areenshrined within Wikipedia ’ s rules can be arguably said to have eurocentric srcins thatwere born out of the Enlightenment ’ s (Mignolo, 2011; Spivak, 1999) disavowal of its ima- gined anti-thesis and Other. Critics have argued that this epistemic turn has historically served as the handmaiden of certain forms of power such as patriarchy, colonialismand Western universalism. Feminist theory, for instance, has critiqued the elevation of reason and rationality as the  ‘ indispensable faculty for acquiring knowledge ’  (Jaggar,1989, p. 151) and the simultaneous de-emphasis of experience and emotion. FeministPostcolonial Theory (Jacobs, 2003) has similarly called out the denigration of native/colo-nized/Absrcinal knowledge as undeserving of the same status as those that uphold thedesirable colonial attributes. These re-orderings driven by the valorization of dispassionateinvestigation, summarily equate emotions with irrationality, unreason, the natural and thefemale while privileging masculinist modes of cold, dispassionate rationality as the pre-ferred approaches toward knowledge. On Wikipedia, the active discouraging of   ‘ pointsof view  ’  (POV) by Wikipedia ’ s own rule called  ‘ Neutral Point of View  ’  (NPOV) 1 (thatforms one of the five pillars of Wikipedia) arguably feeds into this historical quest foran abstract universalism that knowledge was supposed to attain. Notably, the culturally unique and historically contingent claims to neutrality did not arise until the Enlighten-ment when prejudice and bias acquired negative connotations (Gadamer, 2004). Gada-mer ’ s pertinent reminder therefore that,  ‘ the fundamental prejudice of theEnlightenment is the prejudice against prejudice itself  ’  (Gadamer, 2004, p. 273) resonateswith multiple critiques of neutral and dispassionate knowledge from different vantagepoints. The concept of   ‘ situated knowing  ’  arising from feminist epistemology similarly argues that one ’ s social location both shapes and limits one ’ s knowing as opposed to neu-trality  ’ s ideal of the  ‘  view-from-nowhere ’  (Grasswick, 2011, p. xvi) that encapsulates amasculine bias. Similarly, in showing the collaborations between the colonial projectand key academic disciplines such as Anthropology (Obeyesekere, 1997), English (Viswa-nathan, 1997) and History (Chakrabarty, 2007; Guha, 2002) among others, Postcolonial theory (Guha, 2002; Mignolo, 2011; Said, 1979; Spivak, 1999) has sought to unmask the invisible ways in which the dominant disciplinary formations arising from the Enlighten-ment created the mandate for and colluded in the cultural and territorial expansion during colonialism. These reminders present correctives to the assumption that the production of knowledge can remain an acultural, neutral and value-free process that the rules of Wiki-pedia seek to ensure.In using the Ganga/Ganges debate to analyze those rules and procedures, this essay learns from as well as extends insights of these earlier debates about knowledge pro-duction to the digital domain. In advancing this critique, it is also crucial to acknowl-edge the dialectical consequences of the Web ’ s global spread wherein its enabling dimensions of creating global solidarity and fostering a culture of dissent are simul-taneously juxtaposed with its universalizing and hegemonic aspects. In emphasizing  INFORMATION, COMMUNICATION & SOCIETY 811  the latter, this essay joins similar studies that have sought to underscore how the Webreinforces and amplifies global power differentials (Jin, 2015; Kumar, 2010; Powers &  Jablonski, 2015). It extends the prior scholarship about asymmetries within globalmedia industries to the digital domain to question metaphors of a decentralized Weband focus instead on the newer ways in which power can operate within seemingly net-worked and horizontal power structures. The Ganga vs. Ganges debate Created as a stub in 2001, the Wikipedia page on Ganga/Ganges faced its first suggestionto change its name to Ganga in 2006. In the past decade, approximately twenty differentthreads of conversation (each running for several months and the total comprising morethan 50,000 words) have been initiated specifically on the name change, many of themending in a vote count  –  a process that Wikipedia discourages and considers as the lastresort to solve disputes (Jemielniak, 2014). Despite several attempts to change the namethrough voting (the last being as recent as February 2015) and by presenting evidence-based arguments for change, the name of the page continues to be  ‘ Ganges ’  for now.This is so because despite each side bringing forth strong arguments embellished withtheir version of   ‘ proof  ’ , the numbers during voting have continuously remained on theside of Ganges. The charged often-vitriolic debate over the issue reflects the culturaland religious salience of the river in India that is locally known as Ganga but was calledthe Ganges by the British. In exploring the conflict, this essay conducts a discourse analysisof the debate that remains archived in six different pages within the  ‘ Talk  ’  section of theWikipedia article, 2 to unearth the key thematics and to understand the modes of argu-ments used by each side. The analysis looks at the entire corpus of the text from the dec-ade-long debate to locate four broad themes that, I argue, are key to understanding how the arguments unfolded within the debate. They are i) the nature of evidence and whatcounts as a reliable proof, ii) the political status and role of English in our world, iii)the colonial legacy and the postcolonial politics of naming and lastly, v) the role of voting  vs. consensus on Wikipedia.The goal of this analysis is not to privilege some alternative form of   ‘ neutral ’  knowledgebut, in fact, to show how the impossible goal of neutrality masks the varied ways in whichculture, politics and location (Foucault, 1980; Kuhn, 1970) determine what counts as knowledge. While specific to the Ganga/Ganges debate, the insights of this analysis alsopoint to the broader intractable issues that emerge within online collaborative knowledgeproduction that brings together conflicting perspectives, cultural backgrounds, historiesand geographic locations on an issue or an idea. In doing so, this analysis is similar toRogers (2013) study of how linguistic points of view challenge the very nature of reality across different language Wikipedia versions of the Srebrenica Massacre and Jemielniak  ’ s(2014) exploration of the edit war over the name of the Wikipedia page for the Polish city of Gdansk/Danzig.Notably, the significance of the Ganga/Ganges conflict has been noticed by the powersthat be at Wikipedia (Valby, 2011) who have pointed to it to show the encyclopedia ’ sskewed demographics and disproportionately western representation. Sue Gardner,the former executive director of the Wikimedia foundation has argued that the Ganga/Ganges debate is 812 S. KUMAR
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