Responding to the Hidden Crisis of “Unknowing”

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Mar 20, 2019
by Lucy Browett
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Responding to the Hidden Crisis of “Unknowing”

Anasuya Sengupta, co-director and co-founder of Whose Knowledge?, discusses culture, knowledge, and what inspires her work Anasuya Sengupta at Salzburg Global Seminar

“Here’s the internet. It has the potential to be democratic and emancipatory. It has the potential to be all the things people are claiming it already is. It is not.”

Anasuya Sengupta is co-founder and co-director of Whose Knowledge?, a global campaign which aims to center the knowledge of marginalized communities on the internet. She formerly held the position of the chief grant-making officer at the Wikimedia Foundation.

While 75% of the world’s online population is from the global South, much of the content online stems from Europe and North America. Whose Knowledge? believes there is a “hidden crisis of ‘unknowing’” which is responsible for crisis of violence and injustice in the world.

Reflecting on her work, Sengupta said, “What we try and do is to work with communities who consider themselves marginalized in different ways to create with them, to curate with them, to map with them, and to bring online their different forms of knowledge, whether that is textual… visual, oral or experiential and embodied in some ways.”

Sengupta attended the Salzburg Global Seminar program, What Future for Cultural Heritage? Perceptions, Problematics, and Potential, which took place from March 16 to March 21 at Schloss Leopoldskron, in Salzburg.

She considers “culture” and “knowledge” as interchangeable terms and believes the culture of marginalized communities is often sidelined from the internet under the hierarchical structure of what constitutes “knowledge.”

Sengupta said, “As a political anthropologist by training and as a community organizer by practice, I think of culture very much as knowledge. There are different ways of knowing and we express those ways of knowing in different forms that are different forms of cultural artifact.

“I think centering it very much in ways of knowing, allows us to talk about the fact that there are multiple ways of knowing, and we have constructed through history a hierarchy around those ways of knowing.”

During her stay in Salzburg, Sengupta worked alongside various practitioners from the cultural heritage sector and representatives of cultural ministries and heritage associations. What can these people do to help to assist with the decolonization of the internet?

Sengupta said, “Decolonizing the internet for us is to recognize the challenges that are in the real world, see that they are reified and amplified in the virtual world.”

“We need to look at the way we understand knowledge and culture. All of these incredible people in the room [at the program] and what they're doing, we would love to see them thinking very much about this continuum between the work they do in the physical world and how to more freely and openly share that knowledge online, so that the rest of the world can also understand and know together.”

However, Sengupta recognizes not all knowledge is destined to be online.

She said, “Many indigenous communities have sacred knowledge, but the choice of sharing should be borne by the communities, not by those of us who might be seen as gate-keepers.”

One of Whose Knowledge?’s initiatives is the #VisibleWikiWomen campaign, which aims to increase the visibility of women online. Sengupta said, “Of all the biographies on Wikipedia, only about 20 percent of them are of women in any given language.

“What we've been trying to do to support those who are bringing the bios of women online is to say there's a further invisiblization literally through image. A fraction of those that exist of women's bios have images.

“The invisibility is both real and, in this case, symbolic. What we've been trying to do is to get people from across the world to upload the images of the notable women, important and influential women in their communities.”

Sengupta is inspired by stories, and the work of Whose Knowledge? will ensure that more stories will be unearthed and shared online for all to see.

Discussing what inspires her to do the work she does, she said, “Recognizing that human life, human history, her story, and our stories are such rich, plural multiple, forms of knowledge that we have, I think, only just begun even to get a slight taste of in the 21st century.

“That is the promise of the 21st century. That if we could get beyond all the ridiculousness of war, violence, conflict, and ego, so at the broadest macro level and at the most minute, intimate level, we could begin to see each other much more fully and through that, in some ways, find an extraordinary balance.”


What Future for Cultural Heritage? Perceptions, Problematics, and Potential is the latest program in Salzburg Global’s Culture, Arts and Society series. The program is being held in partnership with the Edward T. Cone Foundation and the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research. For more information on the program, please click here.