Tales of the Commons Culture

By Monica Narula, Awadhendra Sharan and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, 10 July 2001

Imagine the digital commons: public and accessible to all... But, is it anything like a city, a library – or more like a fertile groove in the landscape? In an online conversation, Monica Narula, Awadhendra Sharan and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, three co-founders of Sarai, Delhi’s innovative new media initiative, discuss.

Monica Narula <monica AT> wrote:The ripple-causing proposal by Grossman and Minow to the American Congress to disburse $18 billion in a trust fund (The Digital Opportunity Investment Trust) to generate knowledge that would remain “open source data” and in the public domain, data that would counter “the trend toward copyrighted, privatised ‘pay-per-view’ scholarship that threatens the university system” has been announced but not yet become fact. []

But this fact evokes another time...

Our desire to know more about the world takes us to places in which we can find narratives concerning ourselves and our communities. The public library is one good example – but how easy is it to define what constitutes other such spaces? There are various kinds of libraries that exist in the city of Delhi, some established and run by the national and city government bodies, and some that are the offerings of other nations’ cultural largesse. In all these, only one offers relatively unfettered access – the American Centre Library. Many university students in Delhi are members of only this library, and for a lot of them the idea of ‘freedom’ and ‘free America’ have become synonymous with its existence and operation.

Yet the libraries that you do not enter are as formative as the ones you do. The problem lies not in the fact of you being given access to only one universe, but of being barred from many others. This arises not from a lack of resources but because these emerge from public policies which premise themselves on the continuation of gated knowledge communities.

This conclusion evokes a memory...I was told by a friend of the ramblers in England – who go on long walks for the wonderful pleasure of taking in “mountain, moor, heath and down” – that when they walk, they do so partly to keep public paths public. Many of these walking routes have emerged from being trod by countless people over countless years. By law, if they are not used by the public to walk on them, they will revert to private ownership.

These paths evoke other ones...In most rural parts of India one can find ‘sacred groves’. These are now usually small, very small, groves where vegetation has been allowed to grow unhampered by any fear of slash and burn. These dense growths are looked after by the village, may contain flora not found in the vicinity for 500 years, and are the source for medicinal herbs and potages used for traditional, often quite effective, healing. Communities maintain these, in some form or the other, because their survival is linked to the groves.

If we are to imagine a digital commons, then we must first admit that a commons does not emerge on its own. It does not exist sui generis. It has to be invented, created, maintained and protected. In cyberspace there are no embedded communities, with their ecologies of survival. Here the proximity is not one of space but of affinity. Here if we want our commons, dispersed affinities will have to tend, and wend, their paths together. But even as we do so, we must remember that no matter where the library comes from, it cannot constitute its public by exclusion. And that these dispersed affinities will have to engage with power, memory and practice – the historical processes and contemporary conditions of their formation – so that new gates are opened, not old ones locked again....

Awadhendra Sharan <sharan AT> wrote:Commons are a finite set of resources shared by an embedded community. Historically, the process of closure is linked to the establishment of market relationships and notions of private property. In that sense, the digital commons are both similar and dissimilar to the idea of ‘commons’. First, the differences:

Unlike traditional commons, the digital commons are not a resource that belongs to an embedded community. Hence the notion of reciprocal responsibilities that is so central to the management of the traditional commons is difficult to imagine here.

And, unlike the traditional commons, it is not a limited set of resources that is at stake. Theoretically, and linked to the question of scale, one can posit an almost infinite sense of resource.

On the familiar side, what remains is the attempt at gating, underwritten by the acceptance of the primacy of private property. This process of gating may be carried out both by industry and by governments. The digital reference, however, is not only to free software and commercial software. For gating is also being realised in the name of ‘public interest’. Here it may be pertinent to consider that even with respect to traditional commons, governments have instituted regulatory practices in order to attain sustainability. There can be two kinds of critiques of this latter move:

(i) The process of tight regulation of commons in the name of ‘higher goals’, ‘public interest’ etc. has to be considered on a case-by-case basis. It is quite possible that this process saw the further dispossession of the most marginal sections of the society (e.g. through nationalisation and management of forests by the State). On the other hand, it could enable the dispossessed/marginal to gain a greater voice in the management of affairs (e.g. the management of village forests by the panchayat – an elected local government body – rather than the traditional community, which were often dominated by the high caste).

In this context one may consider for instance whether ‘gating’ in the form of determining child-appropriate content is enabling or disabling.

(ii) One can make a more radical critique that does away with the idea of any regulation. But what would be the ground on which to make this radical critique: the Internet as a completely different medium, requiring different sets of ethical behaviour? In the case of the traditional commons, however, the reason that so many traditional commons have survived is the well-accepted principle of management through community norms. Could such a system prevail online?

My general point about commons/sharing etc. is not concerned with equity or material access. To the extent that we live in regimes of property, I accept that there will be exclusions. To me, what is important is the possibility of contesting the grounds of such exclusion. In that regard, I think the free software movement stands on a very different footing to the anti-censorship strategies of net activists. In both cases, they are contesting very different principles of exclusion. And again, both these are quite different from the politics of lessening the digital divide, either in terms of access to computers/bandwidth, or in terms of computer literacy and expressive abilities.

The digital commons can still be imagined and precisely because it is not anchored in an embedded community, it offers the distinct possibility of extending the boundaries of the ‘community’ in question. In other words, it is not the case that unless everyone has access to computers, or unless everyone is computer literate or unless free software becomes the norm, there is no commons. There is – if we bear with Marx’s insight that the seeds of the new are already contained in the old.

Shuddhabrata Sengupta <shuddha AT> wrote:I don’t think the digital divide is something that operates between those that have access to computers and those that don’t. As a corollary, one might say that a ‘digital commons’ is not necessarily that which exists between all people who have some form of access to computers.

Access (or the lack of it) to a digital space is a function of cultural distance as well as social class and economic capacity. While a young working class kid may not have access to computers in a city like Delhi on a frequent or regular basis, a powerful and elite intellectual in the same city, (say, a director in a publishing firm) may choose not to work with computers, because he can afford to, (let us say that his secretaries take a lot of dictation). Does this mean that these two people are on the same side of the Digital Divide, or that they share an ‘Analogue Commons’?

Clearly, a data entry operator who gets repetitive strain injury and the spoilt rich kid who gets a new computer every time Apple brings out its latest model are not equally placed within a ‘digital commons’. Perhaps there is nothing common (digitally or otherwise) between them. What then, is a common digital space in culture, and how might it be entered, and how might we pitch our tents on it?

It is no doubt true to say that a notion of a ‘Commons’ in societies such as ours is quite fragile. The commonplace and somewhat bleak (bleak in my opinion, that is) understanding of ‘a common cultural space’ seems to be that which people can ‘hold’ together out of having a shared sense of being mutually beholden to a given ‘identity’ formation, or to a given construct of destiny and culture, or subculture, devolving from this ‘identity’ formation. This is the tricky terrain of the ‘authenticity of feeling’ or subjectivity of togetherness that a given identity formation bestows upon its people. But the problem with this tyranny of authentic feeling is that it doesn’t allow you to take things away from this ‘identity’ or to bring new things into this field of ‘identity’ which would either subtract or complicate matters for its formation. This identity formation could be language, nationality, religious adherence or ethnic affiliation.

In other words, I cannot simply edit that constituent of my particular cultural commons (that which is shared by me and others who I think are exactly like me) without simultaneously challenging one of the key features in the landscape of my commons. This threatens to dislocate me, both emotionally and culturally. But can I afford not to conduct this operation? Especially, if I want to find new things to share with other people.

One problem that has been bothering all of us at Sarai has been the question of appropriate scripts and fonts for writing in Hindi and other Indian languages in a digital domain. This is crucial to any project that seeks to intervene in the fashioning of a ‘digital commons’ in Non-Romanolect languages. (Romanolect languages are those whose character set is the Roman alphabet, like English, Turkish, Yiddish, Tulu and Bahasa Indonesia, while Non-Romanolect languages would include Arabic, Russian, Japanese, Hindi, Bengali and Hebrew.) In South Asia and in India, (where Romanolect and Non Romanolect languages cohabit) this would be of paramount importance. And the shape of an emerging ‘digital commons’ would bear the mark of this cohabitation.

The dilemna that is before us is something like this: am I committing cultural violence to the language that we share (Hindi) by arguing that it be written in the Roman alphabet on computers, so as to make Hindi in some ways more accessible (shareable) as a digital language for first time computer users? [Notice here, the crucial difference between that which we ‘share’ (the Hindi language) and that which is ‘shareable’ (the Roman alphabet).]

Or am I, by insisting that Hindi be written only in Devanagari characters, also ensuring that it never takes its place as a workable language in any ‘digital commons’, at least for the time being, and so necessarily endorsing a linguistic monoculture in which English, with all its class and cultural baggage in a South Asian context, reigns supreme?

Now this is a very vexing question because, by writing Hindi in Roman characters (as opposed to Devanagari characters), I am simultaneously taking something away from the present form of the language (its script) and adding something (other characters) to the act of writing in that language. In other words I am at the same time subtracting from and complicating the sense of the ‘Hindi-ness’ of this new Hindi in cyberspace. This imperils me with its inauthenticity, cleaves me from the history and tradition of the language (its existing commons) and at the same time allows for new forms of solidarity by discovering a possibility of expression that would otherwise be denied to me, (because of the difficulty and the cost of writing Hindi digitally) that I can share with others, in Hindi (as opposed to in English), in the digital domain.

The question to ask would be which of these things contributes to the Commons that we are building in the present for an appropriate digital form of the Hindi language. Should we abandon the task of building a ‘digital commons’ in Hindi because it may not be possible to do so with the existing script in an accessible fashion, thus ensuring that the majority of those who have Indian languages as their first languages are always left looking into a digital domain from outside, never looking out from within it.

While on the one hand, the loss of Devanagari characters, does involve a sense of loss of the shared and even tactile familiar, a refusal to countenance that loss (at least until such time that a standardised key map and accessible digital tools for Devanagari are available) also means ensuring that Hindi remains a fringe language in the digital public domain, and that only those who have access to difficult and expensive Hindi software and proprietary fonts are able to deploy Hindi as a language of digital expression.

In other words, by insisting on the latter option, I help maintain the grip of an existing cultural and social elite over a popular, living language. I do this in order to continue sharing an authentic sense of the Hindi Language with its established forms of practice.

It seems to me that the need to build a ‘digital commons’ might in some cases imply that we have to find new tools that are alien, though not unfamiliar, to our older commons and to established forms of authenticity and togetherness. If we were all equally inept and inauthentic in our deployment of these new tools, then this would imply an equality of ineptitude. And the fumbling, the necessarily faulty and crude steps that we could take, with new (though not necessarily unfamiliar) tools, would still be worthwhile in that they could at all be taken together and in common.

This does not require us to jettison older tools inasmuch as we continue to operate in older forms of common cultural space (say in print), but it does ask of us a certain equivocal stance, of being non-committal to older as well as to newer forms of shared cultural spaces. Of realising a necessary ‘outsiderness’ at all times, in all common spaces. And realising that our deployment of a particular tool of expression is contingent on the ‘commons’ that we are in, at any given moment.

While the sense of inauthenticity accompanying this stance may produce some discomfort, it at least brings with it a means of entering the digital commons on reasonably fair terms. Once there, we are free to forage for new meanings and new identities.

All photographs: Monica Narula

Monica Narula <monica AT> and Shuddhabrata Sengupta <shuddha AT> are filmmakers and media practitioners with the Raqs Media Collective, and co-initiators of Sarai.Awadhendra Sharan <sharan AT> is a historian of urban spaces working at Sarai