Your Majesties, Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Since the industrial revolution, no scientific innovation has had such a profound impact on our lives as digital technology. The Internet has changed human relations and cultures. Zeroes and ones have become the underlying grid of our existence and have transformed our ways of thinking and getting things done. Networked communication – the exchange of information through nodes and switches – has become the essential characteristic of our times. It has turned economic and political landscapes upside-down, making the Whole Wide World one.
With global connectivity and interdependence being ‘the new normal’, we can now speak of a truly Digital Culture, which continues to evolve rapidly. But whom may we credit with creating it? It’s hard to put a finger on individuals since networked collaboration and exchange have been its essential elements over the last two decades.
The Board of the Erasmus Prize Foundation wanted to honor a visionary thinker or a pioneering institution that recognized the democratic and cultural potential of digital media at an early stage, and has used it effectively to contribute to the advancement of science and culture.
We have concluded that Wikipedia is such an organization. Born to the successful marriage of a creative vision shared by many and solid, collaborative implementation to make it real and lasting, Wikipedia offers an entirely new model for global knowledge production and dissemination – with openness, transparency, and non-commercially. Wikipedia is now the only not-for-profit among the top ten most-visited Internet domains in the world.
So, exceptionally, we have decided to award the Erasmus Prize not to one person, but to the community of Wikipedians, who – as a non-hierarchical global forum – embody the values and ideals of democratic knowledge production. Practically, they also function as a network of dedicated individuals, who keep the People’s Encyclopedia alive and further develop it through their infinite anonymous and unpaid contributions. It is only thanks to their idealism, perseverance, independent spirit and commitment to the common good that the body of knowledge embedded in Wikipedia keeps growing, improving and spreading throughout the world.
Without a doubt, Wikipedia has had a huge impact on society and has outgrown most people’s wildest fantasies. Today, most school children in the world cannot imagine learning without Wikipedia. And many of them may contribute to it when they grow up.
Wikipedia has shaken the world of knowledge by giving a new meaning to the idea of a comprehensive encyclopedia, accessible to all. Everywhere, but especially in countries where open access to reliable information is not a matter of course, Wikipedia plays an important role in public education.
Wikipedia works as a self-governing community with explicit principles. It has developed new critical instruments to ensure that sources can be traced – and that there is arbitration in the case of conflicts. With its open character, Wikipedia nurtures the awareness that sources of information are not neutral. They have to be weighed. By making visible who has contributed to the subjects and what changes have been made over the course of time, Wikipedia strives for optimal transparency.
The attention to text and original sources, and the separation between facts and interpretation, are cornerstones of the Wikipedia concept and key values in an open information society. Our name-giver Erasmus has always emphasized the importance of going back ad fontes: to the sources; and of enabling knowledge to flow. Erasmus probably would have loved Wikipedia.
Wikipedia is the world’s most popular reference work. But it is not just an encyclopedia; it is a phenomenon: it’s a forum for dialogue; a source of dispute around opinions and facts, accuracy and advocacy; it is a collaborative tool; a delicate instrument for truth-making that, rather than hide the complexity of knowledge-production, emphasizes it. So Wikipedia is not only a work of reference, but also a site of contestation, where meaning is always under construction.
Since 2001, tens of thousands of editors have contributed to Wikipedia. Distinctly global in its aspirations, Wikipedia operates in more than 250 languages. Sensitive subjects are treated differently in different cultural and linguistic areas. Wikipedia has opened up new avenues for active learning and teaching, unsettling old notions of authority and coming up with new concepts for dealing with claims to authority. It is a ‘gesammt kunstwerk’, an all-embracing information art work, continuously evolving and very much alive.
While formally a Foundation, Wikipedia should first be regarded as a Community, a joint enterprise shaped by tens of thousands of volunteers, working as editors, authors or project collaborators. These are the ‘Wikipedians’ and they form the heart and soul of the entire project. Whenever the Board of the Wikipedia Foundation make a decision, the Wikipedian Community is carefully watching them… Openness, independence and democratic decision-making are the core values. And although many have tried, a favorable lemma in Wikipedia cannot be bought.
Ladies and gentlemen, Jimmy Wales is co-founder of Wikipedia. He is the man who, some 15 years back, had a vision of a world-wide, freely accessible encyclopedia as a collaborative project. We owe him great respect and admiration for what he has achieved. He travels the world as an ambassador of Wikipedia and we are delighted that he is here with us today.
We have agreed with him that, today, we will honor not one person, but the entire Wikipedia community. So we have decided to entrust the token of the Prize to three representatives of the community. They each embody a specific project within Wikipedia. Together, they symbolize three key aspects of Wikipedia: its significance for the dissemination of knowledge; the global emancipatory character of Wikipedia; and the importance of Wikipedia for the arts, culture and cultural heritage.
Let me introduce them briefly.
Phoebe Ayers has been a member of the Board of Trustees of the Wikimedia Foundation. She is a science and engineering reference librarian at MIT. Since 2003, she has been editor and organizer of many projects in the field of libraries, education, dissemination of knowledge, open access and wikis.
The second person is Lodewijk Gelauff. Working in The Netherlands as a Wikipedia volunteer he has initiated the successful Wiki Loves Monuments project, by now the largest photography contest of the world, producing photos of monumental buildings across the world.
The third is Adele Vrana. Based at Wikimedia headquarters in San Francisco, Adele leads the mobile partnerships for the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikipedia Zero, a project through which mobile operators will waive data-fees for Wikipedia so, ultimately, all will be able to access knowledge on their cell phones, regardless of whether or not they can afford mobile-data charges.
The token of the prize this year consists of three colourful tubes, and was designed by Bruno Ninaber and Reynoud Homan. Each tube is a kind of baton that can be passed on, like in a relay-race, to those who come after us. Engraved on the batons is a quote from one of Erasmus’s letters: ‘All, according to their own style and ability, should try to make a useful contribution to the education of all’. Together they read Honos Praemium Virtutis: (Honour is Virtue’s Reward), which has been our Foundation’s motto since 1958. It seems to us that it applies perfectly to the spirit and ideals of the Wikipedia Community.
Phoebe, Adele and Lodewijk: we would like to present the prize to you three as representatives of the entire Wikipedia community.