Wednesday, March 21, 2012

When politics meets the future

Rajesh Sharma

Politics is a game of calculated risks. It is at its best when the risks involve putting everything at stake. This is possible only when the future is grasped in a flash, and the way opens for the paradoxical unity of calculation and risk to be realised.
            Something of the kind seems to have happened in the political theatre of Punjab. Thanks to this the year 2012 may go down in history as a watershed year when the complexion of politics in the state underwent an extremely significant change. If the change is consolidated – let's hope it will be – Punjab might lead the country to a new politics to which the future belongs.
            In a sense, Punjab has proclaimed the triumph of politics over economics. Whatever the sophisticated and well-meaning advocates of the preponderance of economics over politics might have argued over the last two decades, it remains true that democracy is endangered when the politics of all is subordinated to the economics of a few. Democracy is undermined when you denigrate the wisdom of the people to promote the so-called expertise of a handful of specialists and technocrats (whose arguments often end up cancelling each other out). In the prevailing situation in the country, it required courage to see beyond the seductive picture conjured by the potent neoliberal 'reformist' discourse. That seeing was made possible, I believe, by listening to the people's heartbeat. And trusting the sight and acting on its lessons involved the risk of inviting ridicule of the well-informed 'intelligentsia'. The Shiromani Akali Dal took that risk; perhaps they alone could have taken it.
            One important result is that the social agenda, underwritten by the Constitution but thrown into oblivion for long, is back in politics. The new government, for instance, reportedly proposes to make education up to post-graduation free for girls – a truly radical measure in a society in which most people are still reluctant to spend on their daughter's education. One only hopes that the free education will include professional degrees also, at least for the economically disadvantaged girls.
            Surely, the prospects of free or subsidised education have to be viewed against the actual state of public institutions of education in the state. These institutions will require special nurture, considering how important these are for an equitable distribution of opportunities and socially relevant education and research. The handful of colleges opened recently in educationally backward areas of Punjab have kindled new dreams in young eyes. Surely, these few colleges have proved to be beacons of hope and trust in a sea of apathy and despair. The rural Punjab has immense untapped intellectual wealth. We must not delay bringing it to light, for who will not be made richer by it?
            The previous government had prepared a draft bill for opening libraries in all villages and towns of Punjab. Among the first things one wishes this government would do is to enact that bill into an act and unleash an intellectual renaissance in Punjab. Let those who say no government in Punjab will promote a culture of reading be proved wrong. I am sure this government can prove them wrong.
            What would matter now is how strongly and to what extent the government can build upon the foundations that the SAD as the leading alliance partner has laid for the future of the state. The signs and hints so far are quite encouraging. The electoral victory has been received with grace and without loudness or vulgarity. One reason is that the victorious alliance as much as the losing parties acknowledge that it is a victory of democracy and its institutions. No one has any grudges against the Election Commission, and the latter has said good things about the political leadership. This is a very important sign of the future of democratic politics in Punjab, a sign that deserves to be read with joy and satisfaction.
            But then why are so many people shocked by the electoral results? Probably the sense of shock has to be understood in the light of the expectations people have become accustomed to. It is not that the expectations have been shattered but that the habits that governed those expectations have been dealt a blow. People are coming to terms to with the fact that electoral results cannot be taken for granted and, secondly, that elections are not like gambling. So there is a positive sense in which electoral management has to be understood, a sense in which it is intrinsic to the functioning of democracy. It points beyond fatalism and chance to active human agency as the lynchpin of democracy.
            What, however, most qualifies the emerging politics in Punjab as the politics of the future is the decisive break it has made with sectarianism of all kinds. Even the rivals of SAD would concede, I am sure, that the party's leadership took eminently salutary risks in consigning to the past a politics of identities and embracing a politics of solidarity and universal humanity. And the best thing is that the people responded with an equal measure of magnanimity. Hopefully, we are 'returning' to a future guided by the wisdom of sarbat da bhala.
            And it seems that those at the top in power fully appreciate that secularism and development mean much more in a democracy when the people are suitably empowered to seek justice. A lot requires to be done - and the return of the Punjab Governance Reforms Commission suggests that this is also the feeling in the corridors of power - but what has been done was itself unthinkable a year or so ago. Official accountability is extremely difficult to ensure for various reasons. The Right to Service will be enlarged, it should be hoped, and not only the listed public services but all official activity will be progressively made transparent and accountable. Indeed this is the shortest route for a government or a political party to take to reach the people’s hearts. In their routine interface with the government, people should experience convenience. And they should feel they are heard and respected. Only then they will feel this is their own government. It appears, fortunately, that the distance between the people and the government is set to reduce as governance is improved through further measures and democracy becomes actually more participatory.

Published in Daily Post on 21 March 2012

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The disappearing virtual library

The shutdown of is creating a virtual showdown between would-be learners and the publishing industry.

The shutdown of doesn't bode well for those who wish to learn, but can't afford to pay for textbooks [GALLO/GETTY] 

Los Angeles, CA - Last week a website called "" disappeared. A coalition of international scholarly publishers accused the site of piracy and convinced a judge in Munich to shut it down. (formerly Gigapedia) had offered, if the reports are to be believed, between 400,000 and a million digital books for free.

And not just any books - not romance novels or the latest best-sellers - but scholarly books: textbooks, secondary treatises, obscure monographs, biographical analyses, technical manuals, collections of cutting-edge research in engineering, mathematics, biology, social science and humanities.
The texts ranged from so-called "orphan works" (out-of-print, but still copyrighted) to recent issues; from poorly scanned to expertly ripped; from English to German to French to Spanish to Russian, with the occasional Japanese or Chinese text. It was a remarkable effort of collective connoisseurship. Even the pornography was scholarly: guidebooks and scholarly books about the pornography industry. For a criminal underground site to be mercifully free of pornography must alone count as a triumph of civilisation.

To the publishing industry, this event was a victory in the campaign to bring the unruly internet under some much-needed discipline. To many other people - namely the users of the site - it was met with anger, sadness and fatalism. But who were these sad criminals, these barbarians at the gates ready to bring our information economy to its knees?

They are students and scholars, from every corner of the planet.

Pirating to learn
"The world, it should not come as a surprise, is filled with people who want desperately to learn."
The world, it should not come as a surprise, is filled with people who want desperately to learn. This is what our world should be filled with. This is what scholars work hard to create: a world of reading, learning, thinking and scholarship. The users of were would-be scholars: those in the outer atmosphere of learning who wanted to know, argue, dispute, experiment and write just as those in the universities do.

Maybe they were students once, but went on to find jobs and found families. We made them in some cases - we gave them a four-year taste of the life of the mind before sending them on their way with unsupportable loans. In other cases, they made themselves, by hook or by crook.

So what does the shutdown of mean? The publishers think it is a great success in the war on piracy; that it will lead to more revenue and more control over who buys what, if not who reads what. The pirates - the people who create and run such sites - think that shutting down will only lead to a thousand more sites, stronger and better than before.

But both are missing the point: the global demand for learning and scholarship is not being met by the contemporary publishing industry. It cannot be, not with the current business models and the prices. The users of - these barbarians at the gate of the publishing industry and the university - are legion.

They live all over the world, but especially in Latin and South America, in China, in Eastern Europe, in Africa and in India. It's hard to get accurate numbers, but any perusal of the tweets mentioning or the comments on blog posts about it reveal that the main users of the site are the global middle class. They are not the truly poor, they are not slum-denizens or rural poor - but nonetheless they do not have much money. They are the real 99 per cent (as compared to the Euro-American 1 per cent).

They may be scientists or scholars themselves: some work in schools, universities or corporations, others are doubly outside of the elite learned class - jobholders whose desire to learn is and will only ever be an avocation. They are a global market engaged in what we in the elite institutions of the world are otherwise telling them to do all the time: educate yourself; become scholars and thinkers; read and think for yourselves; bring civilisation, development and modernity to your people.

Sharing is caring was making that learning possible where publishers have not. It made a good show of being a "book review" site - it was called after all, and not "". It was not cluttered with advertisements, nor did it "suggest" other books constantly. It gave straight answers to straightforward searches, and provided user reviews of the 400,000 or more books in the database.

It was only the fact that included a link to another site ("sharehosting" sites like,, or containing the complete version of a digital text that brought into the realm of what passes for crime these days.

But the legality of is also not the issue: trading in scanned, leaked or even properly purchased versions of digital books is thoroughly illegal. This is so much the case that it can't be long before reading a book - making an unauthorised copy in your brain - is also made illegal.

But shared books; it did not sell them. If it made any money, it was not from the texts themselves, but from advertising revenue. As with Napster in 1999, was facilitating discovery: the ability to search deeper and deeper into the musical or scholarly tastes fellow humans and to discover their connections that no recommendation algorithm will ever be able to make. In their effort to control this market, publishers alongside the movie and music industry have been effectively criminalising sharing, learning and creating - not stealing.

Users of did not have to upload texts to the site in order to use it, but they were rewarded if they did. There were formal rules (and informal ones, to be sure), concerning how one might "level up" in the community. The site developed as websites do, adding features here and there, and obviously expanding its infrastructure as necessary. The administrators of the site maintained absolute control over who could participate and who could not - no doubt in order to protect the site from skulking FBI agents and enthusiastic newbies alike.

Even a casual observer could have seen that the frequent changes to the site were the effects of the cat-and-mouse game underway as law authorities and publishers sought to understand and eventually seek legal action against this community. In the end, it was only by donating to the site that law authorities discovered the real people behind the site - pirates too have PayPal accounts.

Shutting down learning
The winter of 2012 has seen a series of assaults on file-sharing sites in the wake of the failed SOPA and PIPA legislation. (the brainchild of eccentric master pirate Kim Dotcom - he legally changed his name in 2005) was seized by the US Department of Justice; torrent site voluntarily closed down for fear of litigation.

In the last few days before they closed for good, winked in and out of existence, finally (and ironically), displayed a page saying "this domain has been revoked by .nu domain" (the island nation of Niue). It prominently displays a link to a book (on Amazon!) called Blue Latitudes, about the voyage of Captain Cook. A story about that other kind of pirate branches off here.

So what does the shutdown of mean? One thing it means is that these barbarians - these pirates who are also scholars - are angry. We scholars have long been singing the praises of education, learning, mutual aid and the virtues of getting a good degree. We scholars have been telling the world of desperate learners to do just what they are doing, if not in so many terms.

So there are a lot of angry young middle-class learners in the world this month. Some are existentially angry about the injustice of this system, some are pragmatically angry they must now spend $100 - if they even have that much - on a textbook instead of on themselves or their friends.

All of them are angry that what looked to everyone like the new horizon of learning - and the promise of the vaunted new digital economy - has just disappeared behind the dark eclipse of a Munich judge's cease and desist order.

Writers and scholars in Europe and the US are complicit in the shutdown. The publishing companies are protecting themselves and their profits, but they do so with the assent, if not the active support, of those who still depend on them. They are protecting us - we scholars - or so they say. These barbarians - these desperate learners - are stealing our property and should be made to pay for it.

In reality, however, the scholarly publishing industry has entered a phase like the one the pharmaceutical industry entered in the 1990s, when life-saving AIDS medicines were deliberately restricted to protect the interests of pharmaceutical companies' patents and profits.

The comparison is perhaps inflammatory; after all, scholarly monographs are life-saving in only the most distant and abstract sense, but the situation is - legally speaking - nearly identical. is not unlike those clever - and also illegal - local corporations in India and Africa who created generic versions of AIDS medicines.

Why doesn't the publishing industry want these consumers? For one thing, the US and European book-buying libraries have been willing pay the prices necessary to keep the industry happy - and not just happy, in many cases obscenely profitable.

Rather than provide our work at cheap enough prices that anyone in the world might purchase, they have taken the opposite route - making the prices higher and higher until only very rich institutions can afford them. Scholarly publishers have made the trade-off between offering a very low price to a very large market or a very high price to a very small market.

But here is the rub: books and their scholars are the losers in this trade-off - especially cutting edge research from the best institutions in the world. The publishing industry we have today cannot - or will not - deliver our books to this enormous global market of people who desperately want to read them.

Instead, they print a handful of copies - less than 100, often - and sell them to libraries for hundreds of dollars each. When they do offer digital versions, they are so wrapped up in restrictions and encumbrances and licencing terms as to make using them supremely frustrating.

To make matters worse, our university libraries can no longer afford to buy these books and journals; and our few bookstores are no longer willing to carry them. So the result is that most of our best scholarship is being shot into some publisher's black hole where it will never escape. That is, until and its successors make it available.

What these sites represent most clearly is a viable route towards education and learning for vast numbers of people around the world. The question it raises is: on which side of this battle do European and American scholars want to be?

Christopher M Kelty is an Associate Professor of Information Studies and Anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.