Would Gandhi have been a Wikipedian?

In 1941, a young Argentinian librarian who would soon go completely blind published a story about the futility of the "total" library. His inspiration was Kurd Lasswitz, a 19th century German philosopher and science-fiction pioneer, whose own idea of a "universal" library was a mathematical nightmare of frighteningly large but finite proportions. The writer was Jorge Luis Borges, and his story, The Library of Babel, (taking off from the mythical Tower of Babel, a place of linguistic dysfunction) spawned a minor publishing industry of its own. Borges' library was not a happy place: its chronically overworked librarians were suicidal, thuggish cults periodically vandalised the books, people spent lifetimes searching for a catalogue without success, and wondrous as it all was no one expected to find anything useful there ever.

Eighty years after it was written, Borges' feverish fantasy is a cautionary tale for those who are tempted to take Internet-era fantasies at their word. When a Google executive was asked to describe the perfect search engine, he is reported to have said, "It would be like the mind of God." Preposterous, yes; but also exciting. And anyone excited enough to adopt this as a mission statement would do well to have a cold shower, and heed Borges' conclusion on the topic "The library is unlimited and cyclical".

Happily, there are more human, and altogether more humble manifestations of the desire to learn and share and prosper. In ancient history, the pre-biblical city of Babylon was a working counterpoint to the biblical Tower of Babel; a bustling site where diverse crowds made good together. In the present day, we are no closer to knowing everything, but we have Wikipedia: a bustling website where diverse people from everywhere in the world create miracles. Wikipedia's humility is the flip-side to its success, and it comes from wanting to be precisely the opposite of the total library: call it a perpetually partial library, if you will. No one who has spent even a minute contributing anything to it would dare assume that the job is done, the perspective complete, or the game won.

Eleven years ago to this day, Jimmy Wales typed out "Hello world!" and Wikipedia was born. In 1989, Richard Stallman pioneered a form of copyright licensing for software that allowed programmers and users to do virtually anything they liked with it. This formed the basis for free and open source software, or FOSS. In 1995, Ward Cunningham used FOSS to build the underlying software for a novel form of collaboration the "wiki". By this time, the benefits of a generous copyright licence to software were apparent, and it was extended to mainstream culture to words, sounds and images. Wikipedia was among the early exponents of this free culture experiment, quickly followed by sister projects of the Wikimedia Foundation: Wikimedia Commons, Wiktionary, Wikiquote, Wikibooks and more.

Wikipedia's collaborative system of knowledge has exceeded everyone's wildest expectations. Today, it is the world's fifth most visited website and the sole non-profit upstart in the oligarchical fiefdom that is our online landscape. There are thriving communities of volunteers in countries like India and South Africa, among several other places, who are helping us discover that learning does not have to be a passive act, and that the value of generosity can be productive and revolutionary at once.

Interestingly enough, it was about a hundred years ago that a young, idealistic lawyer set off on a similar journey. Affected by colonialism in his home, India, and faced with debilitating segregation laws in his adopted home, South Africa, he saw the productive and revolutionary potential in generous knowledge. Over a long sea journey from London to Cape Town, he wrote down his ideas on self-determination and independence. The young lawyer was, of course, Gandhi, and his book, Hind Swaraj, would go on to become the intellectual blueprint for the Indian freedom movement. The original was written in Gujarati in 1909. One year later, it was translated into English and published as Indian Home Rule. On the cover of the first edition of this English translation is a prominent, if unusual, copyright legend. It reads, "No Rights Reserved".

Now it can be told: Gandhi was a free knowledge activist. Consider what he was encouraging his readers to do. In short order, a person reading Indian Home Rule in 1910 would have been able to copy the book freely, distribute those copies widely, translate the book into other languages, and join the conversation as a participant and not merely as an observer. I know of Gandhi's radical copyright intentions because I've seen an image of the cover of this rare first edition, even though it is mostly unavailable in museums and archives. Uma Dhupelia-Mesthrie and Isabel Hofmeyr, two South African scholars, photographed the book and generously shared it with the world. And how did they do that? By putting it on Wikimedia Commons, where anyone can use it, in any form, for all time exactly as Gandhi intended. Indeed, the universe is cyclical. Gandhi would have been a Wikipedian.

Prabhala is a Bangalore-based researcher and writer, and serves on the advisory board of the Wikimedia Foundation

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