I just had a date. A very modern one. Not on Tinder, but with Alexa.
Alexa is rather entertaining, and she knows just about everything. Thinking about what we are gonna do, I decided to ask her to tell me an African folk story.
In a friendly voice, my new digital companion offered me a long list of African folktales.
Now, all of you will be better acquainted with Alexa than I am, and you know that it’s a speech recognition device giving users access to information on the internet.
The name is, incidentally, a smart choice. It derives from the ancient library in Alexandria – antiquity’s great temple of knowledge. If you ask Alexa about her name, she will quickly give you this answer.
Alexandria was a scientific and cultural Mecca of antiquity. It was the first global library ever.
The scholars of the Mouseion, the great education and research institution and home of the Alexandrian school, still searched for information on the stone shelves of that library, where they had at their fingertips a wealth of literature from many countries and fields of knowledge.
A little over 1700 years later, you Wikimedians, ladies and gentlemen, are something like the new Mouseions. You are the collectors of knowledge of our day.
But, unlike your ancient predecessors, you’ve opened wide the gates to that knowledge – and you’ve given everyone access, not just members of the elite.
You have succeeded in building a new global library, a new digital temple of knowledge, and you have done this by literally mining the knowledge of the world’s population.
That’s democratic. In fact, it’s a grassroots approach.
However, I must mention that there are certainly parallels to the history of social democracy. The forefathers and foremothers of my party held gatherings in factories, at which the workers would read to one another. They formed what were known as workers’ educational councils. Because not only in antiquity, but up to as recently as 150 years ago, knowledge often was a preserve of the powerful and the wealthy. It was an instrument of political power.
“Knowledge is power” – one of the most important sayings of the English philosopher Sir Francis Bacon was seized on by Karl Marx and Wilhelm Liebknecht. They demanded that the working class be given access to knowledge, whereby it would gain political power. Knowledge is the foundation of democracy.
As modern curators of a new global library, you have not only knowledge, but also power. And, as we all know, “With great power comes great responsibility”.
For, this means collecting facts, which you then organise and give a critical check. More than that, you need to make knowledge available, share it and, if and when necessary, update and correct it.
Wikipedia is the fifth most frequently consulted site on the internet. For those researching a topic – whether on school or government bennch – Wikipedia is absolutely indispensable.
We saw what it’s like when your site is not available last Thursday in Germany – or, more accurately, we saw nothing at all, because, instead of displaying the usual articles, our screens were black.
It was a spectacular and intentional “black out”, voicing your opposition to the new EU Copyright Directive. I myself noticed this at 9.20 in the morning, during my second attempt on that day to call up a Wikipedia page.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I’m glad you’re back online!
The idea that free access to knowledge and information makes a society more equitable has for many years been part of the social consensus in our democracy. That said, in today’s society, getting ahead through education has once again become more difficult.
When I earned my Abitur in the year 2000, Wikipedia was not held in nearly as high regard as it is today. It was even strongly criticised for being prone to error. So we were forced to go to sources that claimed to be more reliable. But I did visit the local library on a regular basis.
The problem was that my library’s only resource was the Brockhaus encyclopaedia, which had been there for quite some time, and according to it Germany was still divided by a wall.
Updating and curating knowledge – this has truly changed with the internet, with the rapid cycle and unbelievable diversity of information. The overall amount of knowledge has increased. The available information is like a huge forest which doesn’t stop growing. Navigating in it has become more and more difficult. We should be careful not to get lost in it. We have to remain capable of distinguishing information from disinformation. For, if we lose our bearings, we can also lose our power.
So it’s worthwhile time and again to take a new and critical look at how information on the internet is generated. This includes looking at how a knowledge base that is created through participation and dialogue actually works, and what functions it must perform.
What gets into Wikipedia, what doesn’t – and why? How open, transparent and verifiable can, and should, knowledge be?
The question of fact checking also concerns Wikimedia: How is the information checked and by whom? Is swarm intelligence reliable? Where are the weaknesses?
In countries such as China, we see that the digital space is being massively restricted. This is happening in other countries, too.
Even right in our own neighbourhood – for example in Turkey. Access to Wikipedia there has been blocked since 2017 on the grounds that it, like so much else in the country, is said to constitute “terrorist propaganda”.
In addition to bans and restrictions, trolls are spewing a flood of hatred and insults, thereby attacking the democratic management of knowledge in our open societies. Wikipedia is a counterweight to all that.
I firmly believe that freedom of information and of the press are the best insurance policies free societies can have. We must proffer facts, not “fake news”.
This is why we are working worldwide to promote the freedom of information, for example through journalist workshops and by supporting high-quality media outlets.
We are also helping protect those who collect knowledge and contribute to open societies. Through the Philipp Schwartz and Martin Roth Initiatives, for example, we are helping to protect artists and academics around the world who, face repression and often risk their lives in their home countries.
At the same time, we must take a critical look at ourselves when it comes to how knowledge is conveyed – namely, through language.
In Alexandria – the global library of antiquity – the intellectuals of the day collected the knowledge of the world that they knew. One of the sentences they may have read originated in Rome: ex Africa Semper Aliquid Novi.
“Out of Africa, always something new.” The Senegalese scholar Felwine Sarr quotes this saying – which is taken from the Roman author Pliny the Elder – at the beginning of his recent book, which is titled Afrotopia.
Pliny was mostly referring to exotic animals. In fact, though, this quote is an early example of something that dates back to antiquity, namely the propensity to project one’s own fantastical ideas onto the African continent.
Such descriptions from abroad shaped views on Africa for centuries – and persist to this very day.
Against this background, I think it is crucial to understand the importance of diversity in a knowledge-based society and, vice versa, the consequences that may ensue when diversity is lacking.
For, like knowledge, language is an instrument of political power and often used for the purpose of cultural oppression. In history, rifles were often succeeded by ideology, and unfortunately chalk writing on blackboards was used not only to spread knowledge – but also ideology. My husband, who is somewhat older than I am, told me about how, when he entered public school after the war, some pages had been torn out of his history book.
We have recently and for the first time ever included the need to address colonialism in the German Government’s coalition agreement. This shows that we must always keep the historical dimension in mind. More than that, we must transpose it to the present day.
Today, blackboards are becoming screens, and chalk is giving way to keyboards. We no longer look things up only in books, but rather on the internet.
Wikipedia exists in some 303 language editions.
But only 36 of these are indigenous African languages. None of these Wikis has more than 90,000 entries.
So someone in Ethiopia who wants to research the topic of “colonialism” in the Oromo language will not find any articles in his or her language. He or she will be forced to read English or French Wikipedia entries on that subject. It is no wonder that these might reflect a different perspective and prescribe a different narrative.
It is this fact that makes Wikipedia so important – as the new, democratic global library. It also means that you, the people behind the knowledge base, bear tremendous responsibility. After all, language constitutes reality.
The use of certain terms and narratives can reinforce, as well as break, patterns of thought. This happens day by day, including in Germany, in our society. Take, for example, traditional male and female role models. Black or white, man or woman, Christian or Muslim: we have to ensure that the great advantages of our world, the human rights, do not just remain an entry in the encyclopaedia.
Ladies and gentlemen,
For so many people all over the world, you have opened the gates to a new global library.
I want to encourage you: let everyone in – and make sure that this modern temple of knowledge is a place of diversity and equality.
Speaking of temples, in 2011, there was a campaign to have Wikipedia inscribed on the list of intangible cultural heritage. I think, given Wikipedia’s significance in our day and age, we should revisit this proposal.
Wikimedians, through your collective efforts, you have certainly already earned your place in the history book of knowledge.
And the best thing about knowledge:
If we just want to, it will never stop growing. So please remember that “with great power comes great responsibility.”
And thanks to Wikipedia, we now know where most of us recognize this quote from: the greatest philosopher of our day – Stan Lee in his amazing Spiderman.
I hope that you will have a good and substantial conference that sets its sights on the future.
By the way – I dumped Alexa, because she really doesn’t know how to keep a secret.
Thank you very much.