Anasuya Sengupta: Decolonising the World's White Web

by Chris McGivern & SF Team, 1 April 2020

Anasuya Sengupta is co-founder and Co-Director of Whose Knowledge?, a global campaign seeking to diversify the Western-centric Internet and make it more inclusive of the knowledge, language and histories of marginalised communities. We caught up with her to reflect on her three-year fellowship idea between 2017-20 and learn more about her experiences as a Shuttleworth Fellow.

The problem

The Internet promises an infinite space for limitless knowledge, but we have a long way to go before it resembles the real world around us. Many understand the digital divide as an access issue, and we are slowly winning that battle: billions more people will be online over the coming years. But what will they find when they get there, and whose knowledge will be available to them?

Just as the victors write history, the majority of online information is produced in the Global North by a few with power, privilege and opportunity. Marginalised voices making up most of the world’s population lack the chance to tell their own stories. Even if they curb that trend, it is rarely in their own language.

75% of Internet users are from the Global South, while 45% of all women are on the web. But the design, architecture and content of the Internet are primarily created by white, Western men, who either own Silicon Valley zip codes or are in reverence to those that do. At best, online knowledge lacks both the context and nuance we need to forge a real understanding of our world. At worst, it can deepen inequality and provoke conflict.

Even Wikipedia - one of the open Internet’s greatest, collaborative achievements - provides an inherently neocolonial perspective. It may be unintentional, but male editors from Europe and North America are a dominant presence. If you live in the Global South, a Wikipedia piece about your country is likely written by someone sitting in a well-appointed office in Paris, New York or San Francisco, with a fast Internet connection and free time to spare.

The fellow

Anasuya Sengupta developed an immediate understanding of this systemic flaw when she joined the Wikimedia Foundation as a grantmaker in 2013. Her remit was to support and grow the platform’s global communities and encourage inclusion and contributions from a more diverse field.

It seemed the perfect next step. As a feminist leader, organiser and researcher, collective social justice has been the central thrust of her entire career so far. But it soon became frustratingly clear she could only tinker around the edges of a glaring problem.

“I saw all the data,” she explains. “It showed how skewed public knowledge from the world’s default encyclopedia actually is, and I saw how few people were questioning it. I love Wikipedia. I love the Internet. But we should recognise it is not the truly global infrastructure it should be. You can’t have a small minority of people being the producers while the rest of us have no feedback.

“So I felt myself needing to go on a different path,” she says. “It’s hard for large institutions to be politically radical because they need to be all things to all people. That’s just the reality. The cutting edge changes always happen in the scrappy indices and margins. And that’s where I started asking all these tough, nuanced questions. It created a space for an idea, which eventually became Whose Knowledge?.”

The project

Anasuya co-founded Whose Knowledge? in 2016 with Adele Vrana and Siko Bourtese. “It happened over the course of a morning,” she recalls. “The Knight Foundation had put out a library challenge, and I remember us saying ‘shall we do this?’ We hacked the system a little in pitching the Internet as the world’s biggest library, but we saw it as an opportunity to hammer a tiny stake in the world. So I just put together a proposal and initial concept. We put it online, and although we didn’t win, it generated a lot of excitement, especially from the Global South and others who are marginalised in different ways.”

Encouraged by the wave of interest, Anasuya and the team scraped together a little funding to attend AWID - the world’s largest gathering of feminist activists, practitioners, researchers and academics - to launch the idea properly. Its attractive location in Bahia, Brazil, was a pleasant bonus.

“We did a little art installation with a map of the world,” she explains. “We asked people to point out where they were getting their knowledge from online, and began to have conversations exploring where it exists, where it is produced and what we experience from it. It started to feel significant, but we were doing this on love, fresh air, and no money.

“One of those people was Achal Prabhala, who was a Shuttleworth Fellow. We got talking and he said I should apply for a fellowship. I thought it was too soon, but he told me that although the idea may be new, my inspiration for doing this, and my background and experience of the world was not. So I put in an application.”

Why we funded

Achal was not wrong in his assessment and Anasuya’s background story is one of intriguing contrasts. Growing up in rural India, her family was constrained by limited finances but privileged by caste. Her parents were born in a country shedding its colonised past, before she left to study at the historical epicentre of Imperialism in Oxford, supported by - of all things - a Rhodes Scholarship. She is a poet with an education in economics, and a FLOSS evangelist while also a proud feminist, conflicted by the problematic gender bias inherent within the technology movement. In short, she has a learned understanding of the multi-directional dynamics of power and privilege.

Her professional career is also a rich tapestry of experience. Her previous work has taken in hardcore organising, protesting against the massacre of thousands of Muslim Indians in Gujarat. She has been faced with her own privileges while working in desperately poor villages in India, before becoming an anti-caste activist. And she headed up a project at UNICEF with the police on violence against women and children, an eye-opening experience where she learned to separate the individual from the institution.

“The institution is oppressive to them as much as it is oppressive to us,” Anasuya explains. “You have to make that distinction so you can challenge individuals with both compassion and integrity, but also strength. It was a fascinating lesson for me about being less binary and more nuanced about my activism. I try to recognise where people come from and create a path for us both to travel along.

“Yet my own path is very weird,” she laughs. “I know friends who have a very good design for their life. I do not. I’ve tried my hand at various things in various sectors, and people are often astonished. But in many ways, those different adventures brought me to Whose Knowledge? and this collective. And now I’ve found myself doing something in the world that I’ve subconsciously been preparing for my whole life.”

On receiving her application, it was clear Anasuya was the ideal champion for this cause. She also had a credible plan of action. We had previously funded work to recognise traditional knowledge and make it accessible to the modern world with Kabir Bavikatte and Natural Justice, albeit through the lens of environmental law. It was a successful project, but our experience made us keen to see practical solutions to the profound - yet largely philosophical - questions around marginalised knowledge.

“I think of ourselves as pragmatic revolutionaries or revolutionary pragmatists,” she explains. “It makes no sense to me to theorise or frame something without showing what it could look like in practice. Those two things are inextricably linked. So we wanted it to be a research-action-advocacy feedback loop. Think when we do, learn when we think, do when we learn. And hopefully, take others along on our journey with us.

“Getting the fellowship was so important,” she says. “I remember looking at each other thinking ‘oh my God, we have money to do this for a year, at least.’ And the money was great. But the most amazing part was the affirmation of an idea the rest of the world thinks is too crazy.”

The fellowship

Anasuya and the team quickly identified several key areas where they could make progress. To begin highlighting the bias in online public knowledge, they developed a set of openly licensed, remixable, reusable resources for marginalised communities and allies to bring their histories and cultures online. Using Wikipedia as a proxy for the Internet, they enabled collaboration between Wikimedians and archivists, technologists and social movements to create and curate marginalised cultural content.

One successful outcome was the launch of the first-ever #VisibleWikiWomen initiative, where Whose Knowledge? ensures images and contributions of notable women missing from Wikipedia have the presence they deserve. It has enabled work with a range of high-profile partners, including institutions like the Smithsonian, and inspired hundreds of people to contribute globally. Today, #VisibleWikiWomen is looking forward to its third iteration, later in 2020.

This part of the campaign also involved establishing relationships with several marginalised communities. Initial meetings held in the first few months of Anasuya’s fellowship stimulated a productive environment that is still ongoing today: Whose Knowledge? helps groups map their traditional knowledge and create content about issues they want to bring online; not only in their own words but also their own language. Communities such as the Dalits from India and the diaspora; Okvir, a queer activist group in Bosnia, and the Kumeyaay Native American community from California and Baja, Mexico have benefitted.

The second thread involved dissecting the back and front ends of the Internet itself. Anasuya’s strategy was to determine and define gaps between the designers and governors of the Internet’s architecture and content, and those who experience it as a user. The end goal was to encourage a broad range of knowledge initiatives to be more acceptant of contributions from marginalised people.

“Through that, we started to push the open community as well,” she explains. “Open as an end to itself doesn’t make sense without context. So we started asking open for what, open for whom, and open by whom? Because without being safe and welcoming, open can actually reify the problem, not mitigate it.”

As Whose Knowledge? has found its voice, it has attracted the attention of major media and academic publications including, and Anasuya and her collective receive regular invitations to keynote at high-profile conferences. This growing public presence has been a springboard to begin shifting frames of reference and practice around openness and knowledge justice in Creative Commons and Mozilla and sparked further interest from the private tech companies, social justice movements and institutions such as MIT.

It also led to the birth of the Decolonising the Internet initiative. A conference event bringing unusual and unlikely allies together, it is a critical space to discuss and think about online knowledge, and also to explore and plan ideas to make it representative of the world.

The word - and the language - is slowly getting out. The core idea of decolonising the web is becoming an active discussion point between many more people, who were previously unaware it was even an issue.

“This notion of knowledge we have now is very limited,” says Anasuya. “And it is a form of epistemic injustice. One person’s knowledge is valued and treated very differently from another’s, based on context and privilege. Once you get this, you see colonisation on the web clearly and powerfully, wherever you come from in the world.

“I think the Internet and digital technologies are a cause, but also our chance to make a difference. They are tools and architectures without any real substance in and of themselves, but they also give us what we know and how we know each other.

“And I think, right now, we are experiencing a significant foundational crisis of unknowing. We simply don’t know each other as well as we should. If we knew each other in fullness, we would not have the crises of violence and injustice we do today.”

At the beginning of her fellowship, some saw Anasuya’s vision as ‘nice to have’, not an urgent necessity. Fewer do now. Her argument of a colonial Internet causing a crisis of unknowing is a lightbulb moment for many. Given it exposes how we are socialised to think about each other, it’s a difficult one to ignore.

Over the last three years, Anasuya helped turn Whose Knowledge? from a small feminist collective to a global campaign. Beginning with three individuals with a common interest and an inkling of an idea, it is now a five-person team with a network of over 50 volunteers and partners throughout the world. Together, they developed solid methodological foundations, practical tools and a compelling message to provoke new conversations. She has been notably successful in shifting thinking around the very nature of the web. And not only amongst the public, but also amongst ourselves.

“The nature of philanthropy has a very close, unfortunate relationship with colonisation, imperialism and neo-colonisation,” she explains. “It is a tough question that all of us have to consider and deal with.

“I’ve seen the Shuttleworth team trying to figure out and work their way through it, too. And there is a real appreciation they are also on their own journey. The conversations I have with them now are so different from when I started, so it is all evolving. It’s lovely to be on that shared journey and recognise we have people in this community who are open, curious and willing to evolve, shift and change.

Moving forward

Whose Knowledge? moves into its next phase in good shape for the short-term future. A few consulting gigs are coming in along with a couple of grants, and the coming months will see the team mobilise their resources to find substantial funding partners to extend the runway even further. But as with all nonprofits, coming to the end of significant funding periods is the cause of much anxiety. Anasuya has not escaped her share.

“I won’t call it a shock, more of a significant milestone,” she smiles. “And I admit there have been some sleepless nights over the past few months. But while I have my internal anxiety I am also amazed we have seeded this idea and put it into practice. When you look at the impact and outcomes we’ve had in the world, I’m astonished at the journey my companions and I have taken.

“I feel resilient, and we are a resilient tribe. We have our consultancy arm that will help us diversify our funding sources, while staying within our core mission focus. I’ve been a funder, so I know this world very well.”

Seeking long-term sustainability makes up a small part of the immediate future for Whose Knowledge?. There is much work to get through, too. Future plans include launching a programme called Exploring Our Origins, a space for ‘intimate, honest, and compassionate conversations between ordinary folks about racism, colonisation, and neo imperialism so that the Internet we imagine can be based on dealing with our pasts and presents, not eliding them’.

And later this year the team will publish the first-ever State of the Internet’s Language report, in partnership with the Oxford Internet Institute and the Centre for Internet and Society in India.

“We have thousands of languages in the world,” explains Anasuya. “Even while we are destroying languages at an alarming pace, we still have over 7000. Yet only about 500 are technologically accessible online in any way, shape, size or form.

“And of course, that doesn’t mean there’s any meaningful content written in those languages - the lack of multilinguality is huge. So we’re hoping this report will be a baseline for us to explore different issues, but also get the tech companies thinking about it, too.”

Anasuya has been an exceptional fellow, generous with her thoughts and wisdom. Her work continues to shift thinking about the nature of knowledge and privilege throughout the wider world. There have been many ‘lightbulb moments’ so far.

We look forward to many more in the coming years, as she contributes new experiences to the Shuttleworth community.

Personal reflections

Anasuya Sengupta: “What we do is deeply political. It’s setting power and privilege upside down both in terms of structures, but also the way people think. So we were nervous about it, and the Shuttleworth team was worried about it. But they understood it. And nothing beats the feeling of affirmation, and that someone believes in what you are trying to do - it’s priceless.

“I’ve felt myself coming together over the last three years - what I do, how I do it and, most importantly, why I do it - and it’s been a fascinating personal journey to get to that stage.

“It’s also been hard. When I walk into a room, people make assumptions and have perceptions, and I often spend my first twenty minutes unpacking those assumptions. I call it the shadows that walk in front of us - in front of you are your perceptions of yourself but also other people’s perceptions of you. There is a surprise at how I speak English, or that I have a good education, and people find it hard to hear the things I have to say because I’m shaking things up.

“This is the piece that needs the most support, and it needs co-conspirators and allies. It’s why the Shuttleworth is so particularly important for people like me or Esra’a al Shafei, or Karla Córdoba-Brenes. As women from the Global South, it’s not easy to get into rooms, and the Foundation helps us open the doors. The name helps us get in those rooms because it has power.

“The community has also been so important and inspiring and helpful. We are all doing transformative things in our sector but none of us is close enough so we are competing. But we know enough of each other’s angst, everyday concerns and challenges to support each other. And to celebrate, too, on the days when there is a success. There is real power in a community like this.

“We don’t always agree, and we are not all politically aligned, but the power lies in the unusual circles of solidarity. I’ve had close solidarity circles with people like me - my feminist groups, for example - but never had such a close network of unusual allies that I can come back to, and that anchors me. I’ve made friends that I never expected in deep and meaningful ways. There’s something beautiful about it, and knowing it exists inspires me. And it allows me to do my work with Whose Knowledge? because it is the same vision of the world that we are trying to build.

“People come to this group with such integrity, honesty and generosity. It allows us to take problems apart, with people I may not have met in my normal life. To me, the Shuttleworth community and processes unpack the vulnerability of doing this work in this space, and how we can practice vulnerability; not as a weakness, but as a strength.

“It’s been an honour and a privilege to witness the lives, evolution and transformation of all these amazing people. Just being part of it, and being a witness - it’s extraordinary. It’s not just about me. To be a ‘fellow’ in this fellowship is to be able to experience through others.”

Connect with Anasuya

Decolonise the Internet with Whose Knowledge?

Posted in alumni