How Africa’s Perspective to DH Could Help Question Authorship Attribution

by Emmanuel Ngué Um

Authorship is claim of property over a piece of intellectual or artful work; it is spelt out, in the case of written work, by the name of the legal entity which purports such claim. Authorship is a widely shared standard in scientific and literary publications, journalism, blogging, inventions, arts, movies, drama, and many more domains. Authoring a piece of intellectual or artful work may open up to recognition, credentials, financial income, fame, celebrity and other rewards that celebrate individual or group achievements. Obviously, these rewards exert an appeal for even more and better publications, and it may be hard to imagine how growth in mainstream knowledge production could be reached at without due compensation for the investement made.

There are, however, a number of setbacks in authorship reclamation which, if closely examined, could prove to bear some harmful effect in the delivery of pure knowledge. I define “pure knowledge” as knowledge devoid of any stake of power attribution whether intended or not.

Africa has often been recriminated by Africans and non Africans alike, for its allegedly little contribution in the global society of knowledge. A glaring illustration of such despise if former French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s speech in Dakar on the 26th of July 2007. This speech is usually cited for this sentence : “The tragedy of Africa is that the Africans have not made themselves enough into history”. Even though this sentence has been widely commented, it bears saying that President Sarkozy does not so much deny ownership of knowledge by Africans than he blames them for not engineering their knowledge into products of civilisational conquest. Not only does the stance of President Sarkosy assumes that the humanity is on the right path for having embraced Western ideals of progress, but also, it urges Africa to follow the dominant trend.

Whether humanity is on the right path of the history or not is a topic of discussion far beyond the scope of this article. It may suffice to argue at this juncture that, it is debatable whether the global society of knowledge has made a better humanity, or has ensured a sustainable environment for future generations of humans.

Ownership system of Africa’s indigenous knowledge stands in sharp constrast with Western system of knowledge attribution in that, the former is not geared towards incurring recognition for specific entities. As a principled rule, medecine and culinary recipies, technologies, architectural techniques, “indigenous” science, tales, songs, proverbs, riddles, …, are neither attributed to, nor proprieatary of individuated entities. Knowledge is a common good which is open for anyone to benefit from, to share, to enrich and to preserve. Knowledge is not, at least in many regards, instrumental to power and to power relationships. Perhaps one the main reasons why Africa’s indigenous knowledge is not competitive in the global society of knowledge is that, it lacks authorship attribution and hence stakes of power; ironically this is also its main asset in ensuring equal accessibility, freedom of use and re-use and most importantly, persistence and perenity.

Overt competition in knowledge production by individuals bears the promise of growth in the amount of knowledge but also increases its obsolescence and risks of instrumentation for power.

In the era of the internet, exponential growth in information has reached a climax, and it is challening to discriminate, within the flood of digital information available in the web, which one aims at the sedimentation of knowledge.

Without knowledge producers explicitely waiving out authorship attribution for their work, there is a growing trend in favoring community sourcing of knowledge, which has been made possible by the digital. As it is turning out, open sourcing has become an establihed standard in software development and maintenance and wiki literature. There is also increased offer in digital technologies that provide for group and team editing, which goes along the lines of community sourcing.

The use of Digital Humanities in expanding and capitalizing on Africa’s indigenous knowledge could help rethink the relevance of individual authorship, which is at the origin of the privitisation of knowledge. It is an exciting even though idealistic prospect, to think about how un-privitized knowledge could impact ths distribution of power among the human societies.