Knowledge Justice in the Digital Archive (Talk + Resources)

The digital revolution has arguably made more information – otherwise locked away in the exclusionary spaces of libraries, archives, personal collections, and memory – more accessible to more people, who can now both contribute to and draw from remarkable digitized repositories of free content, like Wikipedia. The open data, software, and access movements have been influential in this ‘democratization’ of knowledge online. The sheer quantity (scale) of digital content and the participatory architecture of digital spaces can lend themselves to an underlying assumption that digital is more equitable, representative, and accessible than the analog processes that mediated knowledge in the past. But as we rely ever more heavily on online knowledge repositories today, it is especially crucial to ask who and what is included in these new, virtual collections. And what is missing? Today, nearly half the world remains offline, so we know that access to and creation of digital content is not equal. This talk addresses digital inequality in terms of ‘knowledge justice’ – the equal participation, representation, and visibility of different forms of knowledge online. It starts at the level of marginalized communities and asks: when is ‘open’ exclusionary? And when does ‘closed’ offer opportunities for self-determination and empowerment?

This was an invited talk for the Open and Engaged Conference 2020 – Inequities in Scholarly Communications hosted by the British Library.

You can watch the whole talk here >> Knowledge Justice in the Digital Archive: The Exclusions of ‘Open’ / The Inclusions of ‘Closed’


Nico Pace ( talks about asking the right questions when communities start building their own networks and archives. (Personal interview, recorded November 2018.)
Nico Pace ( talks about the process of working with an unconnected community to imagine what the community will be like with the internet. (Personal interview, recorded November 2018).

Our Stories, Our Knowledges (2018)
A resource series from Whose Knowledge? that presents some important insights into the structures of power marginalized communities are dismantling and the struggles they face in centering their knowledges online.  It is co-authored by members of Native American communities of the Kumeyaay and Shoshone, Dalit feminist communities from India and the diaspora, LGBTIQA communities from Bosnia Herzegovina, the Whose Knowledge? team and its allies.

Open Access, the Global South and the Politics of Knowledge Production and Circulation: An Open Insights interview with Leslie Chan
In this interview, Leslie Chan, Associate Professor in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media and the Centre for Critical Development Studies at the University of Toronto Scarborough, talks about the inequalities inherent in open access publishing, with a particular focus on the Global South.

Latin America’s longstanding open access ecosystem could be undermined by proposals from the Global North (2019)
A post on the LSE blog by Eduardo Aguado López and Arianna Becerril García discussing the implications of Plan S for Latin America’s open access platforms.

The Geographically Uneven Coverage of Wikipedia (2014)
Research by  Mark Graham, Bernie Hogan, Ralph Straumann and Ahmed Medhat analyzing the uneven patterns of representation in Wikipedia and their contributing factors. 

The Digital Language Divide
Citing research from Mark Graham and team, Holly Young writers in the Guardian about how the language we speak influences the internet we experience.

Women’s Rights Online: closing the digital gender gap for a more equal world (2020)
This report provides a global snapshot of the state of digital gender inequality and finds that even where women are closing the gap on basic internet access, they face a multitude of additional barriers to using the internet and fully participating online.

Mapping Wikipedia (The Atlantic) (2020)

The Lopsided Geography of Wikipedia (The Atlantic) (2016)

Engagement in the Knowledge Economy: Regional Patterns of Content Creation with a Focus on Sub-Saharan Africa (2017)
Increasing digital connectivity has sparked many hopes for the democratization of information and knowledge pro- duction in sub-Saharan Africa. To investigate the patterns of knowledge creation in the region compared to other world regions, we examine three key metrics: spatial distributions of academic articles (traditional knowledge pro- duction), collaborative software development, and Internet domain registrations (digitally mediated knowledge production). We and that, contrary to the expectation that digital content is more evenly geographically distributed than academic articles, the global and regional patterns of collaborative coding and domain registrations are more uneven than those of academic articles. Despite hopes for democratization afforded by the information revolution, sub-Saharan Africa produces a smaller share of digital content than academic articles. Our results suggest the factors often framed as catalysts in the transformation into a knowledge economy do not relate to the three metrics uni- formly. While connectivity is an important enabler of digital content creation, it seems to be only a necessary, not a sufacient, condition; wealth, innovation capacity, and public spending on education are also important factors.

Gender differences and bias in open source: pull request acceptance of women versus men (2017)
Biases against women in the workplace have been documented in a variety of studies. This paper presents a large scale study on gender bias, where we compare acceptance rates of contributions from men versus women in an open source software community. Surprisingly, our results show that women’s contributions tend to be accepted more often than men’s. However, for contributors who are outsiders to a project and their gender is identifiable, men’s acceptance rates are higher. Our results suggest that although women on GitHub may be more competent overall, bias against them exists nonetheless.

Data Sources:

The Higher Education Statistics Agency

UKRI Diversity Data

The Broken Pipeline – Barriers to Black PhD Students Accessing Research Council Funding

The internet’s tangible properties

A recent article in The Atlantic reminded me of a central issue that I address regularly in my own research — the materiality of the Internet, and I felt like bringing this topic to the blog. In “What the Internet Actually Looks Like,” Megan Garber discusses the geographic mapping of fiberoptic cables provided to Fortune Magazine by GeoTel Communications. I’ve included one of the images below, which also appeared in a piece in Mashable about the importance and ubiquity of fiberoptic cables.

(Graphics data courtesy of GeoTel, designed by Nicolas Rapp for Fortune) The data show how the physical infrastructure of the Internet is distributed worldwide and also within metropolitan areas. So how is this attractive visual depiction of how the Internet works different from the other pictorial constellations that seek to explain how information travels in the blogosphere or who edits Wikipedia? Why does this matter?  These images are not showing how content on the Internet flows among users, or how information is produced; instead, it shows how the Internet is grounded in real, tangible hardware that makes the information flow we take for granted online possible.

It’s easy to fall into the pit of undefined abstractions when talking about the Internet and its global reach, and this is partly the result of the “network metaphor,” which describes the Internet’s connectivity as a web of connections or “nodes” that communicate with one another. We have become so accustomed to information flow (popularized by Manuel Castells) and to talking about the Internet and, actually, all of our other offline experiences, as part of a social network, that the Internet becomes a black box, as enigmatic and invisible as the ephemeral, ad hoc, horizontal networks it theoretically enables.  But if we take this network view of the Internet as an ethereal and elusive cloud of traveling information, we lose sight of its physicality, or to borrow the idea from Mimi Sheller and John Urry among others, its immobilities

The physicality of the World Wide Web is deeply embedded in the geopolitical position of countries in the global order and the operation of global capitalist markets. Even at a glance, it is clear that the fiberoptic lines threading between continents in the image above are densely entangled around the global hubs — the United States and Western Europe. Comparatively, sub-Saharan Africa has only sparse spindles weaving across the world. This is a point that the piece in Mashable and in The Atlantic fail to tease out of the GeoTel conclusions. Indeed, the authors note that the financial centers of New York and London are more thickly criss-crossed by the physical cables that make the Internet possible. But it’s not enough to say it’s cool to look at elegant graphics about global telecommunications.

We have to go to the next step and ask: so what does this distribution mean? Part of that question depends on another element of the physicality of the Internet — its ownership. The fiberoptic cables, ISPs, and global servers are not public goods, independent of corporate or capital interests. When we see a graph of Internet cables, we should also ask who owns the infrastructure? In the U.S., we can predictably look to the telecom giants, AT&T, Verizon, etc. In the developing world, European companies like Vodafone dominate, and the actual infrastructure is often part of a broader development agenda materially and financially paid for by international aid and monetary bodies. At the same time that these private interests often wrest power from autocratic regimes and their submissive telecommunications authorities, we should not be deceived into believing that a lack of government involvement means a free and open telecom environment.  Now as ever, in the age of the Internet and globalization, it is important to identify and interrogate where information originates, how information economy infrastructure is distributed, and who owns the physical “immobilities” of the digital age.