The Violence of Knowledge Cartels
We are all struck with a sense of loss, grief and shock since we heard of the death of Aaron Swartz, by suicide. People who have been his friends have written heart-felt obituaries, saluting his dreams and visions and unwavering commitment to a larger social good. Colleagues who have worked with him and have been inspired by his achievements have documented the quirky intelligence and the whimsical genius that Swartz was. His fellow crusaders, who have stood by him in his impassioned battle against the piracy centred witch-hunt have helped spell out the legal and political conditions, which might not have directly led to this sorry end, but definitely have to be factored in his own negotiations with depression. All these voices have enshrined Aaron Swartz, the 26 year old boy-wonder who was just trying to make the world a better place where information is free and everybody has unobstructed access to knowledge. They have shown us that there is an ‘Aaron sized hole’ in the world, which is going to be difficult to fill. These are voices that need to be heard, remembered, and revisited beyond the urgency of the current tragedy and it is good to know that this archive of grief and outpouring of emotional support will stay as a living memory to the legend that Swartz had already become in his life-time.
However, I want to take this opportunity to not talk about Aaron Swartz. I am afraid that if I do, I will end up either factualising him – converting him into a string of data sets, adding to the already burgeoning details about his life, his achievements, and of course the gory court case that has already been the centre of so much rage and debate. I am also afraid that if I do talk about Aaron Swartz, I will end up making him into a creature of fictions – talking about his dreams and his visions and his outlook and making him a martyr for a cause, forgetting to make the distinction that Aaron died, not for a cause, but believing in it. I, like many people who were affected, in many degrees of separation and distance, am taking the moment to mourn the death of somebody who should have lived longer. But I want to take the moment of Aaron’s death to talk about heroisms and sacrifices and everyday politics of what he believed in.
Let me talk about Shyam Singh, who is as far removed from Swartz as possible. Shyam Singh is a 74 year-old-man in India, who runs a corner photocopying shop on the Delhi School of Economics campus in New Delhi. Singh is not your young, charismatic, educated, tech-savvy oracle. He spent a large part of his life – 3 decades – working at the University’s Central Research Library and the Ratan Tata Library, operating unwieldy machines that were panting to keep up with new innovations in technologies of digital reproduction. It took him thirty years of work to muster enough savings so that he could buy a couple of photocopying machines and start a small photocopying shop at Ramjas College in New Delhi. After his retirement, the Delhi School of Economics actually invited him to come and set up the Rameshwari Photocopying shop on the campus, for the students at the school. He had an official license from the University, for which he paid a sum of 10,000 Indian Rupees, to work on a profit model that depended on high volume and low costs. The shop was more or less a landmark for students and professors alike, who would come to get their course material photocopied out of books that they could almost never afford to buy and were not easily available in public lending libraries. The shop keeper also compiled course-packs, which allowed students to buy all the texts prescribed for their curricula (but not necessarily available in multiple or digital copies in the library), at affordable rates.
It came as quite a shock to Singh, when one day, he was told that a consortium of publishers – Oxford University Press, Cambridge University Press, and Taylor and Francis Group – had filed a case in the high court of New Delhi against him, claiming damages of 6 million Indian Rupees for wilful copyright infringement for commercial gains. Singh did not have the ideological apparatus that was available to Swartz, nor the competence to talk about the unfairness of the legal claim. He did, in several interviews, talk about India’s avowed policy on universal education and how he had always thought of himself as helping in that process of equal access to students who would otherwise have been unable to afford the education. The case against Singh is already in the courts, and the High Court has issued an injunction restraining him from providing copies of chapters from textbooks published by the three international publishers who have moved the court. And while he has found support from the academic, legal and student community from around the country, there is no denying that he is going to be fighting an expensive battle against a large Intellectual Property protection conglomeration of publishers who are all ready to make a ‘scapegoat’ and an ‘example’ of this small photocopy shop, in their efforts at enforcing paid access to scholarly and academic material in the country.
I desperately hope that Singh shall not find himself as persecuted as Swartz did, by the publishers, by the public prosecutors, and by an indifferent citizenry who is quite happy to benefit from the fruits that might fall out of this case about loosened Intellectual Property and symbolically support the idea that knowledge should be free, but do not think that this is a problem that affects them in particular. True, in both these instances, we have seen people oscillating between rue and rage, expressing their dissatisfaction with these market driven information cartels which refuse to unleash the information and knowledge that we all believe should be made free. But in those expressions of anger and shock, is also a denial of the fact that we have all been complicit in building, supporting and sustaining these worlds because doing otherwise would inconvenience our schedules, lives and careers. Swartz and Singh, in their own way, had to become the poster-children, the martyrs, for us to take notice about a battle that affects us uniformly but doesn’t feature in our everyday practices and conviction.
Intellectual Property and Openness are seen as legal battles for somebody else to fight. Even with academia and research, which is the most complicit in building these exploitative knowledge industries, there is very little discussion or even recognition of the untenable behemoths that we have been feeding in our quest for tenures, publications and popularity. For an everyday person, as you can imagine, this is even more removed from their quotidian life practices. The distancing and alienation gets even more acerbated by the fact that these battles are often fought silently. We have legal stalwarts fighting it out in court rooms. Academic scholars and researchers are drawing their pens and swords in academic journals. Political activists are championing their causes in conferences and summits. And in all of this, we have produced a gated activism, where the threshold of engagement and investment is so high that unless there are these dying and the wounded to hold out for public scrutiny, the world moves on, grumbling slightly at the restriction on torrent downloads or the unavailability of its favourite book in the local markets, but thinking that it has nothing to do with them. They are not even an audience to these battles. And if indeed, they are audiences, they are the kinds that go to a play, eat loudly out of crinkly wrappers, talk on their cellphones in the middle of the denouement and leave before the play ends, because they don’t want to miss their favourite TV show about dancing animals back at home.
I do not want to hyperbolise and so I will not endorse the often suggested idea that knowledge should be as free as air and water – for a lot of us who have been looking at the private-public nexus in developing globalised countries already know that free air and water are a myth and that there are heavy prices to be paid for them. But I do want to suggest that it is time to think of the knowledge wars as human wars, as deeply implicated in our understanding of who we are, what kind of societies we want to live in, and what worlds we want to build for the future generations to inherit. These are fights that are not only about getting things for free – they are about understanding what is sacred and central to our civilization impulse and disallowing a small clutch of private bodies to make their profits by selling it to us.
It is time to maybe look around and see how manipulations of power and the algebra of survival has made us support corrupt and corrupting systems that restrict free information and knowledge. It is time to learn about the issues at stake – from providing cheap drugs to those in underprivileged areas to offering conditions of affordable education for the masses – when we talk about intellectual property regimes. It is time to organize, question, re-evaluate our own everyday practices, and realise that the fights against intellectual property are not battles that are fought once-every-heroic-death. That these are things that we need to strive for on a daily basis, without the need of an external catalyst or a dramatic death of somebody who died believing in a cause that was supposed to make the world a better place for those in the audience.
The next time, let us not wait for shame, guilt, horror, or surprise to catalyse us in taking note of the growing restrictions on information and knowledge in our world. Let us not wait for the emergence of another Swartz or Singh, persecuted by exploitative knowledge cartels that do untold harm to our sense of being human and being free in information societies. And let us keep our fingers crossed, that wherever he is, Swartz has found peace, solace, and the freedom that he was fighting for, and that Singh does not suffer a fate that might denude him of his livelihood and life’s savings.
Nishant Shah (@latelyontime / email@example.com )is an International Tandem Partner at the Centre for Digital Cultures, Leuphana University, Lueneburg, and Director-Research at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore.