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As a couple from Thailand became a depiction of humanity in the English “Wikipedia”

A man and a woman in northern Thailand. Photo by Manuel Joby, Wikimedia Commons

If you go to the English version of “Wikipedia” and go to the page “Human”, then you can see only one image – a pair from Thailand. The decision to put this photo was preceded by long-standing disputes. About how the choice fell on a man and a woman from Asia, tells Wired.

In 1972, NASA turned to the famous astronomer and popularizer of science Carl Sagan to draw a picture of people for the mission of the “Pioneer” in case interplanetary stations notice extraterrestrial civilizations. The scientist asked for help from his wife and friend, along with whom he depicted two naked people: a woman with Asian features and an African man. This figure was included in the tablet, which was installed on the apparatus “Pioneer-10” and “Pioneer-11”.

NASA photo

While working on the image, Sagan and his assistants faced an old problem: they had to imagine humanity in one single form – a typical representative, as biologists would put it. As later recalled Sagan, in the end, both drawn figures looked like Europeans with hairstyles from the 1970s.

With the advent of “Wikipedia” with a similar problem faced the editors of the site, who wrote in 2003 the article “Humanity”. In theory, the encyclopedia should solve such difficulties: the site has a collective regulation and any changes can be challenged. At the same time, editors had to choose just one picture, which in any case would ignore the greater part of the cultural diversity of mankind.

The first five years of the cover of the article was the image of people that Sagan painted. However, many Wikipedia editors were unhappy: they created hundreds of topics in which they discussed the choice of a picture.

In February 2004, the editor of “Wikipedia” under the nickname Mishac noticedthat the picture depicts Caucasians. In his opinion, the authors of the drawing definitely did not take into account the features of Australian Aborigines or Oriental Asians. No one answered Mishac’s message, but he raised an important topic: Asians make up more than half of humanity, while Europeans – less than a billion. It turned out that the cover of the article about humanity portrayed a minority.

In the fall of 2004, disputes about the objectivity of the image flared up with renewed vigor, and the editors of Wikipedia decided to find some sort of average image of people. This gave rise to a discussion about what parameters should be taken into account in this case. Some editors argued that it is necessary to show a person in clothes, because it is an important part of human evolution, which distinguishes people from other species. Other editors, on the contrary, stated that most of the history of mankind lived as “tribal hunters” and therefore people need to be portrayed naked. The community was considering different options, someone even suggested, as an example, the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, because he usually wears public clothes.

Among other options were John Lennon with his wife Yoka Ono, Albert Einstein and other celebrities. These disputes led to the fact that in 2004 a group of editors made the cover of the article a snapshot of two girls in the United States. After that, the community began to argue that this photo is too “American-centric”, does not take into account the racial reality in the states, and because it is black and white, the picture does not show skin color.

Photos of Gordon Park. Library of Congress

From 2004 to 2008, various editors of Wikipedia constantly dragged the rope to each other. Some of them arranged a variant with Sagan’s plate, and others – a picture of two girls. Because of the policy of the encyclopedia, the cover of the article was constantly changing: the main picture then became one picture, then another, in some cases they appeared on the page together.

Disputes did not stop and at some point one of the editors turned personally to Wales. He replied that he briefly acquainted himself with the question, but did not see the problem and could not help in this discussion. In Wired’s comment, Wales said that he does not see anything interesting or controversial in this situation.

They [in all images] are people. You want a variety of photos, and in the article it is. One of the photos should be the first on the page, this one was this. So what?

Jimi Wales
founder of Wikipedia

A few years later the editors still came to a common solution. In 2008, they replaced Sagan’s plate with another picture. From that moment, humanity portrays a couple from Thailand standing in the background of the hills: a sullen man in a red hat and a woman with a light hoop on her head and an inconspicuous smile.

This photo with the representatives of the people of Akha in 2007 was found by the user with the nickname Silence. The author of the photo uploaded it to Wikipedia on a free-to-use basis.

When a community has the Thais on the cover, to argue no one did not . One of the editors with the nickname Cedders told Wired that in this way “they eventually chose a random image.”

The people of Aqha have been engaged in rice for a long time, but in recent years, residents have adapted and grow more profitable plants like coffee, tea and rubber. Most young people go to compulsory national schools and move to cities and towns. As Wired noted, such a combination of traditions and openness to change can be an excellent example of humanity as a whole.

Given the opportunity to make edits to “Wikipedia”, in the near future the situation may change again. Many local segments of the encyclopedia, including the Russian-language one, were left with the cover of the article by Sagan’s drawing from the table of “Pioneers”.

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