By Kelvin Smith
Noam Cohen’s August 8th New York Times article When Knowledge Isn’t Written, Does It Still Count? talks about a Wikipedia project in India and Africa that is concerned with “an entirely new debate about what constitutes knowledge in different parts of the world and how Western institutions like Wikipedia can capitalize on it.”
If people at Wikipedia are thinking like this, then how far behind (or ahead) are other major companies like Google, that now have a kind of digital ownership of much of the world’s printed texts and images? Will they now go after oral “property,” traditional culture and the deep scientific knowledge that may not be written, but which may have commercial possibilities? Just as the pharmaceutical companies trawl the world for natural products that can be patented and exploited commercially on a global basis, might we be seeing the beginnings of something similar: a search for non-tangible cultural and scientific knowledge that can be packaged and sold to anyone who can afford it? If so, what ground rules are they playing by, and who is watching to see that this isn’t like any of the other expropriations of land, minerals or other commodities that have contributed to the wealth of a few, while increasing the impoverishment of many, many others?
Raghunath Anant Mashelkar, one of the first to maintain that traditional knowledge should be effectively covered by IP laws (he supported successful challenges to US patents taken out on turmeric and basmati rice) warned of the threat over a decade ago:
“One of the concerns of the developing world is that the process of globalization is threatening the appropriation of this collective knowledge of societies into proprietary knowledge for the commercial profit of a few”
One might expect WIPO or UNESCO to be concerned, and they have proposed some ways of protecting bearers of traditional knowledge from the predators that may soon be hunting down and securing exploitation “rights.” But WIPO’s attention is understandably drawn to the big ticket areas of tangible IP (pharmaceuticals, plant varieties, and other genetically identifiable “goods”), and UNESCO’s efforts are mostly focused on safeguarding “Intangible Cultural Heritage” in the same way it does for tangible sites like the Taj Mahal, Persepolis, the Statue of Liberty and the Great Barrier Reef.
How will the communal nature of sacred texts and myths, songs and sagas, traditional medical and agricultural practices, knowledge systems that might explain the natural environment, and human psychology be changed when they are digitized and distributed through global channels?
Digital publishing distributors and device makers have a voracious appetite for content, and the easy pickings — texts, images and sounds of North America and Europe –- are being exhausted. Chinese content is increasingly ring-fenced for exploitation by Chinese enterprises. This may be one reason why all of us are encouraged to self-publish; why so many unread publications are uploaded or scanned into archival vaults that will never be opened; and why many older publications of very questionable worth are now available in e-book formats. In these circumstances, what could be more natural for US and European media and communications conglomerates than to look to “traditional” sources of raw materials and commodities in Latin America, Asia and Africa?
Andrew Lih from the University of Southern California has a vision of “the Wikipedia project suddenly becoming energized by the process of documenting cultural practices around the world, or down the street;” Google consolidates its colonization of the book and expands into other cultural areas with Google Art and other projects; the Kindle (and Kindle content) expands into other countries and new languages. Much of our cultural life is already in the hands of a few digital giants.
If this process is to extend into non-tangible areas of knowledge and culture in America and Europe, the battle may not, as with Google Street View, be fought and lost in our own back yards. It may be waged by proxy in other parts of the world where the protection of communal property rights, entitlement to self-determination by peoples and nations, and respect for human dignity at all levels have been so evidently lacking on many occasions in the past. Cobbling together some solution on Creative Commons lines will not do, and WIPO’s suggestion of an adaptation of copyright to protect community rights will not address the “concern that documentation of traditional knowledge may make it more susceptible to misappropriation or misuse.”
Authors, publishers and curators on both sides of the Atlantic have discovered, perhaps too late, that their interests are not always best served by giving up control of the supply chain to the masters of the digital universe. Now publishers and policy makers in Asia, Latin America and Africa may still have time to look further than the development of e-books when trying to anticipate the wider possible effects of digital publication.
On the BBC early in August, Andrew Wylie urged publishers to take a tougher stance towards “digital device holders” like Amazon and Apple, and warned: “I think if they allow the digital distributors to set the music then the dance will become fatal.” Something similar could be said about the temptation to treat knowledge that has traditionally been shared for the benefit of all as a commodity to be pumped out through digital channels to a paying or otherwise privileged audience. Isn’t it time to go back to some of the ideas that were around at the start of the Internet, to try again to understand what it might mean to have a knowledge system that recognizes the immense value in shared knowledge? Otherwise we might as well all wait meekly for the music to start and take our partners for the digital dance of death.
Kelvin Smith writes and talks on publishing and cultural policy in Europe and Africa. He runs the website www.europublishing.info (includes SABDET archive).