Maja van der Velden: An appeal for cognitive justice in the Wikipedia

On the occasion of the Wikipedia CPOV conference in Amsterdam last week, Juliana Brunello interviewed one of the best presenters, Maja van der Velden:

“You have written about cognitive justice, meaning that all kinds of knowledge should be equally valid. In this sense, do you believe that Wikipedia is biased?

Wikipedia is as biased as the people and technology who make it. Wikipedia is a materialisation of knowledge, as any other database or archive – I hope to say more about that in my presentation. The question of bias is really a question about any claim – including Wikipedia’s – to a neutral perspective. Do I think that there is such a thing as a ‘Neutral Point of View’ or that we can speak of neutral technology? No. In that sense all technology designs are biased. Recognizing that there is bias, and working with it, is the first step towards cognitive justice.

We can work on designs that allow us to keep differences visible. Wikipedia does that in a way, but often one needs to go into the history of a page to see if there were other understandings. In that sense we can describe Wikipedia as a palimpsest (put simply, a place or artifact with a variety of layers). In an Wikipedia article we only see the top layer, a kind of consensus layer, in which all the underlying layers are implied. The challenge is to make the underlying layers more visible.

In the case of Wikipedia and our diversity of knowledges, I am more inspired by the concept of contact zone. I have described contact zones as third spaces in which we translate, meet, clash, connect, co-constitute, and intra-act, establishing relationships based on responsibility and (agonistic) respect. In this way a contact zone is a space in which we question any order coming from above. What I hope CPOV will do, is to question the ordering and othering by Wikipedia.

Cognitive justice is for me about different ways of knowing the world and treating these knowledges equally. Establishing the validity of knowledge, in particular what methods, rules, processes or apparatuses we use to say something about what is valid or not, is an ethical and political project. We should not leave that to a Science that pretends to stand outside the world we seek to understand. Cognitive justice is about located, accountable positions from which we know. Cognitive justice is thus not about being tolerant towards other ways of knowing the world, but about engaging with the ontologies underlying these different ways of knowing the world. The lack of cognitive justice results in violence: violence in the form of being indifferent to difference and in the denial of the ethical.

Can Wikipedia be improved in terms of equality? If yes: How?

Yes. Let’s start by understanding Wikipedia as an online encyclopedia of a particular form of (local) knowledge which has gained global dominance. The design of Wikipedia itself is producing a new iteration of this local knowledge for global use in the manner in which it organises knowledge. We can look at projects related to Wikipedia. We need to look in particular to Wikipedia practices and the wider Wikipedia ecologies. I think we should understand the CPOV as a kind of mapping of these practices and ecologies, in which alternatives become visible and interventions possible. Can we re-design Wikipedia to become a contact zone? In my presentation I will present an example of what I call a contact zone design. In such a design the knowers decide how their knowledge will be organised and presented. I don’t know if Wikipedia is open for the radical change such a design implies.”

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