Wikimedia Deutschland/innovationengine/unlock research
Mission: Research project 2020
How can we use free knowledge to promote an open and informed society? We at Wikimedia Deutschland want to offer you, makers, mavericks and change-makers, a space to explore and research the issue. As part of our strategy Innovation Engine that promotes change through innovation, we founded the UNLOCK Accelerator. We believe in the positive power of change inherent in free knowledge and we want to use the Accelerator to support the development of social innovations and solutions that improve free access to knowledge across the globe with a view to creating knowledge networks and making it more easily available.
Together with Hybrid City Lab , a Berlin-based design studio for social innovation, we set off to identify the current and future issues of free knowledge in a three-month research project. Defined as individual subject areas, they form the basis of our UNLOCK Accelerator, which is designed to support and promote key innovations. To this end, we interviewed twelve international experts and identified five main fields of action.
Approach and method
As a starting point for our research, we chose a qualitative and open approach. Our two-pronged approach meant that we explored fields of action based on specific talks and assumptions on the one hand. In other words, we focused on issues that are both exciting for and pertinent to the Accelerator instead of mere statistical data. On the other hand, we worked in a co-creative manner, which in practice meant that we continuously questioned and critically assessed and adapted our own assumptions and ideas as a result of the many talks with our various and changing counterparts. In so doing, we tried to identify our own blind spots and include as many different standpoints as possible. In addition, we worked in an iterative manner, which meant that we did not start with a big masterplan and instead continuously analysed and compiled our findings to redirect and adapt our research accordingly. “Free knowledge” is a highly complex and wide-ranging field of action. As a result, our best efforts notwithstanding, the findings of this report are in their very nature selective and represent but one point of view of a very broad range of issues. In other words: Read it, think along, think ahead and enjoy its findings with a pinch of salt.
We started our project by asking ourselves the following questions: What is the future of free knowledge? What are our own assumptions? What kind of knowledge is currently available on the subject? By identifying our own assumptions, we were able to identify the bias of our own research at an early stage, which in turn made it possible to repeatedly question it throughout the entire process. Based on the thus developed hypotheses, we entered into a dialogue with experts from within and without the Wikimedia universe.
The debates concentrated on three core issues: 1) Make our existing assumptions visible and open them up for debate; 2) Define the vision of our counterparts and partners; 3) Address existing barriers and identify new opportunities. To this end, we adjusted our initial assumptions and put them up for debate in the interviews. As a result, we were able to overturn, amend or confirm our hypotheses in a continuous process.
What’s this about?
In view of our preliminary findings, we defined a working definition for our research project that allowed us the broadest possible access to the field of free knowledge. Free in this context refers to the idea that information, licences and conditions that guarantee free usability are freely available and, in principle, can be disseminated as well as altered. In this context, transparency with regards to history, production and authors of individual pieces of information is key. It is also very important to take into account the different ways in which information can be found and used by a broad range of target groups and to identify potential barriers. This definition is based on the principles identified in the pamphlet “ABC der Offenheit” (lit.: “A to Z of Creative Commons”).
We developed a working definition for ‘knowledge’ and defined it as a verb, i.e. an active practice that goes far beyond the idea of a data base and functions as an ongoing process of remembering, forgetting, understanding and assuming. As such, knowledge becomes a practice that, depending on context, application, situation and user(s) can change dramatically – even if it is applied to identical information in the form of text, film, music or data. It follows that knowledge is always a social activity . Or, to sum up, the term ‘free knowledge’ in this context refers to the public activity of dealing openly with freely available and accessible information.
Our work and research build on many initiatives, projects and success stories of organisations that came before us. The creation of an open and free internet and the promotion of creative commons is at the core of internet activism and digital human rights. One such organisation is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) who has for many years been working on open access projects. Another organisation working in the field is the P2P Foundation, who for many years has been offering an open data base of open and free resources, platforms and networks both online and offline: https://wiki.p2pfoundation.net/Main_Page. And last but not least, with our own activities at the Wikimedia Foundation we have been promoting free knowledge in the internet for over fifteen years. To this end, we created initiatives to promote volunteer work, developed new technologies, collected and published open data, supported global activism, all the while being supported ourselves by the contributions and commitment of thousands of members. We also included the reports and published material of Mozilla’s periodical Internet Health Report in our research. Nesta’s publication focussing on the knowledge economy has also identified a number of salient points including regulation, education and the balance of power or the lack thereof on digital platforms.
We are very pleased to contribute to this existing body of work and add yet another facet with our report. And we are delighted to be able to actively support specific projects as part of the Accelerator programme. In the following, we will describe the challenges, fields of action and approaches that we found most exciting in this context.
Our interview partners
We would like to express our sincere gratitude to our interview partners  for their willingness to discuss and reason with us. Without their considerable contributions this report would not have been possible. Between December 2019 and February 2020, we spoke to the following people:
- Audace Niyonkuru & Ally Nyiringabo, Digital Umuganda Ruanda: Digital Umuganda is a young start-up from Kigali, Rwanda. Its founders Audace and Ally made it their mission to collect data on language to develop digital language assistants for the local language. They want to create a creative commons of local data on language that is available to all. To this end, they collaborate with Mozilla and enjoy the support of the German development agency ‘Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit’.
- Cathleen Berger, Mozilla: Cathleen Berger is a political scientist and Head of Sustainability at Mozilla. As such, she oversees the development and collaborative implementation of strategies and policies regarding sustainability at Mozilla. Prior to this appointment, Berger was Head of Global Governance, developed strategies for the executive board and identified trends in the field of technology and their influence on social developments. She tweets under the handle @_cberger_ and talks about her work on cathleenberger.com.
- David Li, Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab: David Li is CEO of Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab. In his work, he concentrates on researching and teaching open innovation systems in Shenzhen and the rest of China. He also mentors and supports entrepreneurs from around the world to help them develop new ideas and products together with their partners in Shenzhen. Currently, his main focus lies on mobile commerce.
- Karsten Windler, Bucerius Law School Hamburg: Since 2015, Karsten Windler has been Executive Director at the ‘Center for Transnational Intellectual Property (IP), Media and Technology Law and Policy’ at Bucerius Law School, Hamburg, Germany. The institute’s activities focus on research projects in the overlapping areas of law, technology, data and digitalisation. Before being named head of the IP centre, Windler held various positions at Bucerius Law School including spokesman. He studied law and economics in Hamburg, Singapore, Kansas and Vallendar.
- Margret Rasfeld, Schule Im Aufbruch: Margret Rasfeld is the former headmistress of the elementary school ‘Evangelische Schule Berlin Zentrum’. She is co-founder of the initiative ‘Schule im Aufbruch’ (lit.: ‘Reinventing Schools’), author and innovator in the field of education. Her mission is a respectful culture of learning that inspires and enables people to be civic-minded, responsible, creative and entrepreneurial. Since 2007, Berlin-based Rasfeld has been developing a sophisticated curriculum to international acclaim. In addition, she works as a consultant for individual schools, municipal organisations, projects on education and foundations. Margret Rasfeld was one of the six experts invited to partake in the dialogue ‘Wie wir lernen wollen’ (lit.: ‘How we want to learn’) regarding future developments held by the German chancellor and she is the winner of the 2012 ‘Vision Award’.
- Martin Rulsch, Wikimedia Deutschland: Martin Rulsch has been volunteering as both editor and administrator at Wikipedia for about fifteen years. Currently, he dedicates his time mostly to sports photography and classical antiquity. On an international level, he supports foreign-language projects and works against diffamation and the infringement of personality rights. Rulsch is currently working as project manager of the volunteer support team at Wikimedia Deutschland.
- Prof. Muki Haklay, University College London: Muki Haklay is professor for Geographic Information Science at University College London (UCL). He is founder and co-director of UCL Extreme Citizen Science Group as well as an international expert in the field of participatory cartography and research. As such, he is also an expert in the field of interaction of humans and computers with regard to the use of geospatial data and technologies and the public access to information about the environment.
- Nicole Ebber, Wikimedia Deutschland: Nicole Ebber is Head of International Relations at Wikimedia Deutschland, Berlin. She oversees the building of a strategic collaboration with the existing networks to develop the global, participatory strategy “Wikimedia 2030” to address the question of how free knowledge is meant to be developed over the next fifteen years.
- Pen-Yuan Hsing, Durham University: Pen-Yuan Hsing's passion is the interaction of science and civic engagement. He founded a public science project to examine and monitor organic developments. He advocates free culture and open science movements and for over fifteen years, he has been promoting free and accessible science by offering workshops, seminars, publications and research projects. Pen-Yuan Hsing hopes to creatively expand the field of open and free knowledge and innovation together with many others (you!) in the future.
- Viktor Bedö, IXDM FHNW Basel: Viktor Bedö works at the intersection of design theory, critical design, urbanism and design for street games. In his research, he focuses on issues such as creative commons and commons in communities, the production and use of geo data and playful approaches to agent-based modelling. He has worked with a range of institutions including Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Institut für Raumexperimente’ (lit.: ‘Institute for Spatial Experiments’), Berlin, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the HPI D-School in Potsdam. He is the founder of ‘Tacit Dimension’, an independent research lab for street games and co-founder of the street game collective ‘Invisible Playground’.
- Ulrike Thalheim, OK Lab Berlin, Code for Germany: Ulrike Thalheim works as a research assistant at the parliamentary office of Saskia Esken, member of the German Bundestag. As a volunteer at Code for Berlin, Thalheim has been promoting open data and civic tech for over six years. Previously, she worked mainly on digital help for refugees and election data.
The future of free knowledge
Looking at the general concept of free knowledge, we made two fundamental observations. First, we looked at the status quo of the field. It quickly became obvious that there is a lot of room for improvement with regards to platforms and solutions, as many of the existing networks of digital knowledge showed that discrimination and social exclusion are widespread. The underlying reasons include sub-standard or non-existing technology, unfair access, biased standards or quite simply network effects, which unjustly favour prominent knowledge and discriminate against new or unconventional knowledge. As a result, non-academics maybe scared off by academic contributions and become hesitant to share their own ideas and thoughts, which in turn will lead to prominent accounts and articles being “moved up”. This is aggravated by the fact that people who already have no incentives to contribute to the resources of free knowledge as it is today will also be excluded when it comes to developing ideas of how to create more attractive conditions for working on and with free knowledge. As a result, the knowledge shared currently, is often presented in an oversimplified, shortened or irrelevant manner, which makes it almost impossible to communicate it to many people. In turn, this leads to people being resigned and frustrated and it therefore becomes almost impossible to exploit the full potential of shared global knowledge projects.
At the same time, and this is important to keep in mind, existing approaches offer a certain predictability to users, which in turn translates into familiarity, high efficiency and easy navigation. Projects such as Wikipedia are a great example of the amazing potential inherent in the collaborative collection of encyclopaedic knowledge. Other platforms such as Wikidata or open science projects, YouTube and Wechat, to name but a few, show just how multifaceted knowledge is, how helpful small niches are and how many small communities contribute to its production.
Our bold vision
On our quest of how we want the future of free knowledge to unfold, we very quickly found that the development and use of the global ressource free knowledge show great potential. Any work at the Accelerator will build on existing Movement Strategy and will focus on two main pillars: “Knowledge as a Services”, which refers to the provision of tools, infrastructure, platforms and information for users around the world, and “Knowledge Equity”, which refers to the focus on groups and communities that previously all too often have been excluded of existing networks and offers.
Based on these principles, we identified and designed a desirable outlook for the Accelerator programme. Our bold vision is to live in a representative, open-minded and hopeful global knowledge community that includes each and everyone, while it continues to be useful and effective for its different users and contributors. In addition to overcoming technological challenges such as interoperability, namely the interaction of different data bases and data systems across different systems, accessibility and availability, our goals include fair governance (transparent and participatory ways of decision making and organising structures) and a respectful culture of debate at the core of the knowledge community.
The realisation of these great ideas, however, is far from easy. Countless contingencies and details need to be taken into account keeping in mind that no situation, community or issue is like any other. Which is why such “visionary ideas” of a global knowledge community will inevitably leave many details unclear and at times unresolved. Every now and then, this makes defining a clear path that we all want to follow difficult and identifying the necessary actions and useful mechanisms tricky. In the face of all these challenges (or maybe because of them), we came up with a list of areas in which we believe we can make a difference by tackling the issues, thinking ahead and working on improvements as well as developing new ideas.
What exactly can we do?
We identified five areas of which we believe that they have great potential to help promote a digital, fair and inclusive knowledge society and that can also be addressed as part of the Accelerator programme. The five areas are:
- Knowledge networks
- Knowledge competencies
- Knowledge horizon
- Knowledge production
- Knowledge society
Field of action 1: Knowledge networks
What’s this about?
Using digital platforms and networks, we can share, compare, change and use information and data all over the world. Over the last twenty years, we have seen first hand the enormous potential stemming from building major digital knowledge projects such as Wikipedia together. Today, other platforms such as GitHub, Reddit and YouTube that are also offering valuable common knowledge resources for an interconnected world. All the above networks have one thing in common – they maintain knowledge as some kind of creative commons.
In addition to all the other challenges, big and small, that we meet along the way, one of the core issues is the infrastructure behind the field of action ‘knowledge networks’, i.e. the way we categorise, sort and evaluate data. What counts as an important addition to an existing entry? How do we deal with technological and content-related differences? Who decides what is prominent and what is not? What are the underlying mechanisms that make these decisions, or, in other words, what kind of governance is in place? Each platform and often each community offers different answers to these questions and that is due to differing contexts, histories, ressources and demands.
Common to all the above-described examples, however, is that it is the underlying infrastructure (and the resulting governance) that ensures efficient organisation and coordination of existing knowledge in each of these communities. It is also the infrastructure that allows for knowledge to be developed further via new entries, ideas, data and new perspectives. Infrastructure is at the heart of every interconnected knowledge community. It creates trust and clear structures, sets expectations and makes it possible to compare content. As such, today’s knowledge platforms have taken on the role of traditional publishing houses: as gate keepers they are responsible for the organisation itself as well as for the coordination of knowledge, both of which demands the trust of its users.
Looking at the status quo, we found that there was often room for improvement with regards to responsibility and trust in existing models of infrastructure and governance and we identified two main issues in the field. For one, the choice of technological conditions, data formats, links and decision-making criterions invariably affects how inclusive or exclusive knowledge is. In turn, this means that a lot potentially interesting data will be filtered out because it does not correspond to set standards, speaks a different, more informal language, is presented in a different format, contains unusual data or is stored in incompatible data bases. As a result, a tremendous amount of today’s knowledge exists “under the radar”. Due to the lack of clear rules for the handling of various knowledge formats, knowledge is often – if it is at all digitalized – hidden in niches, small individual networks and communities or data bases.
This leads directly to the second issue, namely the lack of clear structure offering an overview. It is difficult to find, compare and represent global knowledge. As a result, various data from different sources can be found in an increasing number of small online knowledge networks and, unfortunately, they are often not connected to each other. To address this issue, we need universal standards and new ideas of how previously unsorted, new and possibly unconventional formats of knowledge can be integrated into existing networks to make them useful. Otherwise, we will run the risk that communities and practices that differ from the mainstream (i.e. Western academic standards, legitimate sources, informal formats such as films and sketches) will be marginalized systematically.
What do we need?
We are looking for new approaches to interfaces, models of governance and technologies that help link various sources of knowledge while upholding clear means of orientation and categorisation. We believe that Wiki, Reddit and Git are key to the first steps of organising knowledge and data digitally – and that there are many other promising alternatives that we have not yet exploited. We hope to discover many small knowledge networks in a diverse and open internet that communicate with each other, share content and formats and create networks on a much larger scale than today. In short: we want to create an infrastructure for the global knowledge community that is open enough for various formats and forms of logical knowledge while being robust enough to promote reliable, transparent and trustworthy information.
As of today, a range of approaches and ideas addressing these issues already exist. One such approach is the development of Digital Object Identifiers (DOI), used for example in the research and linking of scientific papers – a giant first step regarding the interlinking of various kinds of information on a large scale. Elsewhere, the P2P Foundation has been working on concepts of knowledge architecture for many years with P2P Wikis as local clouds. Working with blockchains and decentralised data bases, people came up with the idea of a bottom-up Wiki. These are all very interesting approaches but we would like to think further ahead. What other forms of knowledge (apart from encyclopaedic information as seen in Wikipedia) can be organised and linked in a decentralised manner? How can a universal knowledge network make use of DOIs? What are the technical and organisational challenges that we need to address to extract and combine information from YouTube, Reddit, Wikipedia and others to create a much more diversified and comprehensive range of knowledge compared to what we have today? And how can we tackle the old governance issue, i.e. how do we decide who decides? There is a lot to be done!
Field of action 2: Knowledge competencies
What’s this about?
Knowledge is a skill! Handling data, understanding, comparing, reflecting and complementing knowledge demands a high level of pre-existing knowledge: How do I evaluate what I am reading? Where can I find the information I am looking for? How do I read and understand a long article? How do I read and understand how-to videos or blueprints? Where does it make sense for me to add to or amend existing entries of knowledge – and where does it make more sense to just listen and adopt existing approaches? Being able to deal with all these questions in a competent manner demands that the user can distinguish between two fundamental aspects of knowledge. On the one hand, knowledge is made up of clear data and information, articles, videos, stories and other media. In these instances, knowledge is explicit. It is clearly visible and can be shared and communicated and as such it can also be criticised. On the other hand, knowledge also includes knowledge competencies. This term refers to the user’s ability to evaluate information and transfer it to the relevant context of their everday life. This part is equally important when it comes to successfully producing free knowledge in a collaborative manner. Unlike the first category of explicit knowledge, however, this kind of knowledge is implicit, which means it can only be conveyed indirectly via imitating, testing, learning and individual reflection. For the production of shared knowledge to be successful, both kinds of knowledge need to be in a continuous dialogue.
So much for theory! Now what does all of this mean for the future of free knowledge? It means that we need to keep a lot more in mind than just data, information, digital networks or platforms when talking about global commons and knowledge networks. It is about knowledge competencies and how we can learn together to constructively deal with global knowledge resources. In the field of action ‘knowledge resources’, we identified two kinds of knowledge, explicit and implicit, and the difficulties lie primarily in the teaching of the latter. Implicit knowledge skills are much harder to convey than mere factual knowledge. How can we explain to another person the skills needed to evaluate an entry on Wikipedia if that person has very limited academic experience and is used to a more informal way of learning such as learning by doing? How can we teach “scientific objectivity” to a community that includes very few academically trained members? How can we teach practical, every-day knowledge, traditional crafts, cultural or sociological perspectives on our world, when the other side asks for legitimate sources that can be quoted, preferably linked to a DOI or ISBN? And how can we teach people to become proficient users of digital media, platforms, technologies and interfaces when they are accustomed to the speed of Snapchat and Tiktok, the appearance of familiar faces or the simplified list of search results on Google or timelines on Facebook? Each and every one of these challenges are vital for the success of a global project of free knowledge, but they are beyond what can be defined as substantial content or technical issues. We want to promote, strengthen and develop a broad range of knowledge competencies including access to digital media, participation in knowledge, shared learning and teaching of a fair debate culture and “digital literacy” that refer not only to technology but to the understanding, teaching and evaluation of knowledge.
What do we need?
We believe that we need a way of sharing local knowledge and individual experiences with a global community on a much broader scale than is the case today. In a way that goes far beyond the personal (Insta)story and that allows for exciting, new and authentic experiences in a global knowledge community. Moreover, we want to ensure that many more people with very different skill sets and “digital skills” will get involved in the building of a global free knowledge project. We need interfaces that can adapt the same content to the varying needs of individual users and teaching tools that actively help users handle contradictory or differing information. We need “knowledge translators” that can transfer explicit content and media into knowledge that can be theoretically understood as well as experienced. By the same token, we need these “knowledge translators” to support users in documenting their own knowledge, encourage them to contribute to digital knowledge platforms and help them understand (and question) technologies and rules that are often demanding.
Already today, there is a broad range of initiatives, blogs and projects that focus on teaching knowledge competencies. Many of them, however, are operating in small niches or come with specific demands that a lot of people cannot meet. We love the idea of developing a service best described as a “knowledge simplifyer”, a tool that can provide the same content in different ways and that can help its users evaluate how specific or general the information they found actually is - for example here. We also love the idea of an “educational trail” for knowledge that teaches people to handle knowledge better and more competently in the future – maybe this can best be described as a Duolingo for knowledge activities. Or even a “Snapchat for Wikipedia content” that caters to different habits and expectations of users to make implicit and practical knowledge accessible to a global community. In so doing, the functions could help transfer the various aspects of knowledge into the individual context of each user. This could be done via a chatbot or based on the use of language, to name but a few.
Ultimately, however, we need to keep in mind that people also still live in the non-digital world (at least for now), which is why we believe that work on knowledge also has to take place offline. Without its offline community and its meetings in real life Wikipedia would never have developed into the large-scale, diverse operation it is today. So how about a knowledge/translation café where we all can learn how to bridge the gap between digital knowledge and our analogue everyday lives? We believe that each of these approaches – plus the many others that are most certainly out there – will help exploit the full potential of free knowledge in a global society. Let’s get started!
Field of action 3: Knowledge horizon
What’s this about?
In the world of today, knowledge projects are faced with a multifaceted world full of differences and perspectives, opinions and often contradictory facts and developments. A quick look at current events is enough to identify the desperate fights about identity and truth, interpretation and “facts”. With this in mind, it becomes clear that knowledge as a shared activity demands that our starting assumption is that there is never (or hardly ever) such a thing as the last word, an objective or neutral way of seeing the world. However, this insight does not signify the end of free knowledge projects. On the contrary, it marks their beginning, as it is key for any community involved in creative commons to be able to reflect on their own decisions and reasons regarding what they deem important and right versus unimportant and wrong in the field of action ‘Knowledge fields’. The process is not primarily focussed on the collection or verification of facts and sources (while often helpful they can also create unfair barriers), but on the dealings with contradictions, irritations, other ideas, approaches and experiences. We are looking for new strategies of how to deal with each other both as individuals and as societies at large. Empathy, understanding, respect and tolerance are not only political values but core principles in the dealings with knowledge in order to ensure open and multi-layered activities in the field. For this process to succeed, it is vital that we are able to have frank discussions, remain open-minded towards others and tolerate our differences.
However admirable the ideal may be, its realisation will vary hard indeed, as contradictions will make people feel insecure and question everything. Which, of course is the exact opposite of what we set out to do with our quest for shared knowledge, namely to find answers that help reduce insecurities. We are constantly being asked to ignore any number of things in order to understand other things better. In order to find any starting point at all, each form of knowledge is based on the assumption that certain contradictions and open questions do not exist. Consequently, we build small filter bubbles or silos which in turn filter out everything that does not fit in with the same methodology, standpoint or data. The danger inherent in such an approach is obvious. Due to the many filtering processes, the results will inevitably be biased, exclusive and potentially radical and extreme in idea and stance. Algorithms and networks further compound the problem, particularly with regards to digital networks and platforms. Aided by technology and filters, ideas and histories are created that are almost impossible to change or criticise. Their proponents tend to use discriminating or exclusive practices. A culture of debate that aims at learning and collective change demands a lot of hard work. Anything less, however, weakens the trust in collaborative projects and creates even more knowledge silos with no means of communication.
What do we need?
Our aim is to create an open network for other networks. We believe in a free knowledge community that defines its own operative framework, its own rules and standards of how to share, test, debate and evaluate knowledge and information. In turn, such a system creates security, reliability and it ensures that users can trust that existing knowledge and information are verified.
At the same time, we still need to have an exchange with and respect for what was excluded along the way and we need to be curious about it. Or, to be more precise, we need to actively look for our own blind spots. Which data was excluded and why? Which positions, rules or criteria were not accepted and what did we miss out on as a result? Which of our own truths do we no longer question and how does that make us miss the chance of an open dialogue with the ideas and stances of others? And what are the guidelines, ways of behaving and values that we impose on ourselves to respectfully deal with us and others?
We believe that the common quest for free knowledge is a process of debate. It is a project based on talking to each other rather than merely collecting “facts”. Keeping that in mind, we need new (and possibly old) ideas of how we can learn to bear the issues of the world together. We hope to see projects that will foster a healthy culture of debate, ideas that show us why and how our own choice is different from that of others, people who take the big picture into account and show empathy and understanding for the reasons and inherent logic of those with dissenting opinions. We are hoping for projects that help us playfully define much-needed rules for how to behave towards one another; projects that are not intended to appear “neutral” but that offer transparency, openness and tolerance towards other points of view.
To date, there are many exciting projects that promote exactly this kind of approach, such as the Subreddit Change My View which demonstrates – despite all online evidence to the contrary – that it is possible to conduct an online debate about controversial topics in an objective, open and constructive manner. In Germany, the project Deutschland spricht (lit.: ‘Germany talks’) shows that there is always a person behind any opinion and it demonstrates how a respectful, matter-of-fact exchange is possible – also on an international level. Smaller initiatives such as browser plug-ins by FlipFeed or Escape your Bubble operate by integrating the news of other filter bubbles into their own social media feed. The civic media team of MIT experiments with platforms that allow users to control the algorithm of their news feed and make visible the underlying reasons why certain contents made it into the feed. Each of these approaches show that alternatives are possible. We believe that adopting, adapting and developing such approaches in the free knowledge community is a great opportunity! Which is why we want to actively promote them.
Field of action 4: Knowledge production
What’s this about?
Knowledge is a process of co-creation, i.e. a give and take of the various agents in the knowledge community including scientists, volunteers, experts, curious souls, critical readers and meticulous fact checkers. Once digitalised, the cost of disseminating and duplicating information is negligible; the production of knowledge, however, still requires a range of resources including time. Categorising data, checking sources, writing articles, producing films, documenting local or informal knowledge – each activity requires resources and everyone who works on knowledge projects contributes to maintain and develop knowledge as creative commons.
As with all commons, this raises the question of fair conditions regarding the distribution of costs and benefits. We want free knowledge to be produced and maintained under fair and sustainable conditions. We believe that fairness means that each participant gets a say in the future allocation of resources: each participant should have a say in the allocation of costs, time, financial means, collection of data and documentation. This also means that all potential gains – especially monetary gains – resulting from collaborative projects should be allocated in a transparent, inclusive and fair manner.
As in many other networks, knowledge networks are often dominated by the unequal distribution of power, which means that some agents have a greater say than others in who bears the above-mentioned costs and who reaps in the rewards. The underlying reasons for such structures are manyfold and often linked to the reality that resources including money and knowledge regarding rules, processes and decision making are distributed unequally.
Due to networking effects inequality grows even further until it eventually grows of its own accord. Digital platforms have shown how this can lead to lock-in effects with serious consequences for all users. Finally, people also tend to assign very different values to costs and benefits, especially where volunteer projects and creative commons are concerned. The very things some people enjoy are perceived as heavy burdens by others. The very things that take some people a long time to do come easily to others or are quite simply a by-product of other work. In addition, many people – in marked contrast to data platforms – can only indirectly transfer the value of immaterial goods such as data and information into a concrete added value for their everyday life.
As a result, standards often remain undefined and are not being upheld by everyone. By the same token, added value created by information and data is often distributed unfairly. On a political level, rules and regulations regarding the dealings with digital and creative commons are often inadequate and rarely enforced. In addition, there are many people for whom participating in any knowledge project is a form of luxury hobby. For many of those whose primary concern is to earn a day-to-day living, digital knowledge projects might seem too far removed from their reality and feel entirely abstract. So the very people that ought to be more included in the collaborative design of free knowledge already find themselves excluded from the process when it comes to negotiating its rules.
What do we need?
We want to establish free knowledge in a way it can sustain itself and become a sustainable and multifaceted resource. For this to happen, we must fundamentally change existing conditions and create more opportunities for everyone to participate in knowledge projects (and not just those that have the means today). Currently, free knowledge is a luxury hobby or passion for the select few, its effects, however, offer the basis on a global scale for a digital society that can help, connect, support and develop itself. Fair access to information and, most importantly, fair participation in gains and benefits generated by free knowledge are key. Knowledge work is actual work – which in turn means we have to think about fair compensation. To that end, we might choose to actively support people who have important knowledge to share but whose economic situation does now allow them to do so.
We need to develop real alternatives to existing digital business models for creative commons and open-source projects. We need clear political and economic conditions that are set up to protect and promote commons and safeguard them against exploitation. We want to discover new business models that use the potential of open and free resources while ensuring their long-term economic viability. We are convinced that this is the only way to show that free knowledge is a true alternative to existing closed-source models, short-term individual interests and proprietary structures of knowledge and access. We want to design the transition to a free alternative in as practical and easy a manner as possible – for all people and all organisations.
Today, there are a number of different approaches addressing the idea of fair models of participation and immaterial goods. Among them are Patreon that is offering creative minds a way to generate income on platforms free from advertising content as well as traditional open-source business models such as Open Desk, where production of and access to information is separated and, last but not least, GitHub, where a closed-source site co-finances the open-source site. More recent approaches include Streamr, where data and information are treated as goods and users are given the choice of how they want their collected and shared data treated and who they want to charge for the service. We believe that similar models could be used in the field of free knowledge provided that knowledge remains free and fair for all who participate in it.
Field of action 5: Knowledge society
What’s this about?
Let’s think big. Over the course of the past years, we have seen that digital networks are offering completely new opportunities, risks and possibilities for humans to collaborate. Exchanging knowledge, sharing data and information and the collaborative work on new projects, ideas and services led to a myriad of innovations. At the same time, however, we have seen that the idea of free (knowledge) networks is in danger of undermining itself. Surveillance capitalism, toxic net culture, an increasingly fraied range of various open-source projects that were meant to serve a common purpose and a high degree of disillusionment in the field of action ‘knowledge society’ are as much part of the young history of the internet as are Wikipedia, open-source software and online communities. In many ways, we have reached the trough of disillusionment: gig economy, black box algorithms, super oligopolies, digital infringements of human rights. And looking at free knowledge and software, we can only conclude that there is a lot of room for improvement: lack of trust regarding information and “facts” online, lack of diversity among those that document and share knowledge, decreasing numbers of new members at Wikipedia. Many of us have experienced a diffuse feeling of “things could be better”, both online and offline. Only rarely, however, do we have any idea of how that could be achieved. We believe that we need a bold vision and equally bold courses of action now to advance the future project of a global free knowledge society. In other words, we need a clear idea of what exactly defines a digital commons society with regards to free knowledge and how we can shape and realise it. We also need to define how to address the many questions that remain unanswered including issues such as regulation, sustainability, participation and efficiency.
We believe that there are many projects, big and small, that work in passionate, incredibly complex and often innovative ways towards such a vision. The future of free knowledge is decentralised! In turn, this means that cohesion in the bigger picture will be an issue. We need a common denominator for everyone to focus on and to help us pool activities to bring about real change. Another issue is the lack of awareness regarding the issues surrounding free knowledge in precisely those agents that could have an enormous influence on making knowledge free and accessible, namely politicians, institutions and organisations. In addition, it is often unclear how we can, in a concrete manner, spark change to achieve more openness and freedom in the fields of knowledge and information. We need accessible courses of action and concrete, realistic options in our everyday life. As a society, we need impulses that make us want to exploit the potential inherent in an open and free internet for the good of a fair society, if only because it is always easier to criticise and reject than to define a positive common goal.
What do we need?
A (small) revolution. We are working towards our bold vision of an open and free knowledge society, a digital commons society as a worthy alternative to the digital surveillance capitalism of today. For this to succeed, we need an understanding and awareness of both the big and the small picture. How do the economies of platforms relate to the accessibility of knowledge? How does digital literacy relate to political regulation? What role do machine learning and algorithms play in the accessibility of knowledge pertinent to our everyday lives? Or to radical political opinions? And what exactly is our starting point for a joint process to develop and implement specific alternatives, approaches that are bottom-up, collaborative and inclusive?
Fridays for Future showed us the way: A global phenomenon concerning a systemic problem is a genuine option. We need ‘Fridays for Free Knowledge’, a global movement of free knowledge and open data, information and networks for our everyday lives. A movement that offers clear alternatives and has an impact on our platforms, processes, organisations and knowledge practices. It can happen locally, online and in real life, it can relate to data, applied knowledge or theory – we are looking for platforms, formats and forms of access that can connect and combine the various initiatives to create a common narrative.
Fortunately, we do not need to build the entire project from scratch. The veterans of the movement for a free and open internet including EFF, P2P Foundation and Wikimedia have been working towards this vision for years. And other new stakeholders and platforms have joined the movement since. Ethical.net compiles services and products that are focussing on opportunities beyond the existing surveillance capitalism. Other offline initiatives such as the German project Schule im Aufbruch (lit.: ‘Reinventing Schools’) fight for a more open and inclusive education system in Germany and developed innovative and highly successful local events to this end. In addition, there are the Fridays for Future movements of this world that, operating from decentralised organisations and various vantage points, define and communicate a common goal. And there are numerous initiatives in Germany and beyond that work with open science and that share and link data and knowledge. We want more of the kind; we want to be louder and we want to tell our common story. For a free knowledge society online and beyond!
We identified five fields of action that we believe have great potential to advance the cause of a digital, fair and inclusive knowledge society and that can be addressed as part of the UNLOCK Accelerator programme. They include: 1) The development of infrastructure for free knowledge; 2) The promotion of various knowledge competencies; 3) The opening up of knowledge silos; 4) The promotion of fair conditions and 5) The future of an inclusive knowledge society. We believe that a desirable future of knowledge is made up of old and new ideas. It needs passion in its realisation and it needs us to continuously look back to make sure we are still on the right path. We think of the above-described fields of action as a map of opportunities and challenges. They are meant to help us navigate the wide and largely unknown territory. We will regularly take action ourselves to hone, redefine or even discard the fields of action based on what we learn from the Accelerator programme. We know that we can only progress together and we are looking forward to sharing this experience with you!
Bibliography and references
-  “Is the internet a global city – and Wikimedia a neighbourhood?” Hybrid City Lab focusses on questions such as this. As an interdisciplinary design studio its mission is to contribute to social innovations as well as designing inclusive, livable public spaces for this digital era. Hybrid City Lab is responsible for the public design department at zero360, a consultancy for innovation.
-  Our definition of knowledge is derived from a systematic and constructivist understanding of knowledge as used in academic fields such as social cognitive theory. See Niklas Luhmann (2002), for example. Die Wissenschaft der Gesellschaft. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.; Stichweh, Rudolf. (2000). Die Weltgesellschaft. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.; by Foerster, Heinz. (1972). “Perception of the Future and the Future of Perception.” Instructional Science 1 (1): 31–43. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00053969.
-  We interviewed a total of twelve partners, eleven of which allowed us to use their full name and picture in this report.
-  As used by David Bohm. See also this more recent publication: Pörksen, B., & Schulz, T. F. (2020). Die Kunst des Miteinander-Redens: Über den Dialog in Gesellschaft und Politik.
The research was conducted in 2020 and serves as the basis for the design of the UNLOCK Accelerator. UNLOCK is an accelerator of Wikimedia Deutschland. For any further questions please reach out to the Programm Lead Kannika Thaimai.