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Accessing the Commons
alli.fish · Tucson/Irvine/Bangalore (India) (United States) · 24/11/2007 00:02 · 28 votes
Despite its ubiquity and apparent familiarity, particularly to my anticipated audience, the commons is a multi-faceted concept that is difficult to define. In part, this difficulty stems from a mismatch between theory and practice. On the one hand, from an activist perspective, the idealised commons is a romanticised space accessible to interested parties who also manage this resource through either democratic or consensus driven decision-making processes. On the other hand, everyday experiences document the struggles required to implement this ideal. In many on-the-ground cases the management strategies that are put into practice are not inclusive and intended users have difficulty in obtaining access. Thus, in these situations an individual’s ability to negotiate participation within the commons community often requires a specialised skill set. With reference to the information commons such a skill set necessarily involves two modes of literacy; (1) conventional literacy in at least one scholarly language, preferably English and (2) the opportunity and ability to use modern information and communication technologies such as the Internet.

The survey already accomplished in the Local Context Global Commons project demonstrates the incredible variety that exists between different information-as-common-resource management systems. This variety, that in many senses deserves to be celebrated, also comes with complications that must be addressed. For example, differences between information commons users can serve to exclude certain members of society from participation in and adequate access to the commons. Compounding this problem is the fact that it is often the already disenfranchised who are the excluded. The conventionally illiterate is an example of one such community. One function of this article series, from my perspective, is to unpack the relationship between commons theory and reality through a contextualisation of specific instances of the commons. In doing this, the hope is to enlarge upon the future promise of this sharing technique. As a caveat – this contribution intends to prompt a preliminary discussion of, not resolution to, the complexity of the information commons through an analysis of the local Indian context.

Though the term “local context” implies some degree of uniformity - across space, through time, or amongst community members - I would argue that the Indian situation, specifically with respect to theorising the emergent information commons, offers a significant problematic. Simply put, despite being one of the “local contexts” for this node and acknowledging the development of an Indian national identity since late colonial times, it is important to note that the country contains great cultural diversity and social complexity. India’s population presently numbers 1.12 billion, of which seventy percent live in rural areas and thirty percent live in urban areas. While there are two national languages, Hindi and English, there are sixteen other official languages of state communication many of which are associated with a unique system of writing. While literacy rates hover around 60% nationally, this figure varies considerably by the individual’s state of residence (e.g., in Kerala, a state in the southern India, literacy is ~90%, whereas, in Bihar the rate is ~45%) and gender (in Bihar male literacy is ~61% and female literacy is ~35%). Additionally, literacy rates tend to be higher in urban areas. I argue that the significance that these statistics have for both the local, but especially the global information commons is in terms of the participation and direct access of certain members of Indian society. For example, the typical rural middle-aged women who has had limited access to education, will tend to be illiterate, and though she may speak multiple languages fluently it might be in dialects that are not widely understood outside of the local district. Thus, this typical individual is without the skill set necessary for participation in the information commons. Additionally, the building of the skill set necessary for such a population to access the information commons proposes enormous difficulties. Moreover, many might argue that this segment of society might not be interested in participation in the information commons, given the precedence of other concerns. However, I would argue that opting out of access simply from lack of familiarity and exposure does not constitute an adequate excuse for dismissing the participation of a significant portion of society. Thus, means must be taken to encourage participation at every level. However, and here is the rub, while improving access is (slowly) increasing for most excluded populations, it appears that there is a generation for whom such efforts will be too late. There will be a generation of a significant segment of society such as the average, middle-aged, rural Indian woman upon whom the door to the information commons will close.

In his forthcoming book, Red Tape: Corruption, Inscription, and Governmentality in India (Duke University Press, 2008), Akhil Gupta focuses on the economic development within Indian society in the sixty years since the state won its independence from British colonialism. Gupta grapples with the question of why, in six decades, the Indian nation, which operates as a development state, has been unable to eradicate extreme poverty. He notes that though poverty rates have fallen in the past three decades approximately one quarter of the Indian population still lives in conditions that can be described as inhumane and in violation of basic human rights to food, medicine, shelter, and other necessary resources. In analysing the development projects sponsored by the state, Gupta notes that most resources are directed towards enhancing possibilities for coming generations, while abandoning older generations. As he discusses this phenomenon Gupta grapples with the question of what it means for the state, particularly a development state, to abandon an entire class of its citizens, equal members of Indian society, and how such a decision comes about.

Taking for granted the idea that the information commons is a diffuse social movement that promotes general social justice and development, which implies that it welcomes broad participation both at the global and the local level. The question this article means to ask is very similar to the one that Gupta asks in Red Tape. In India, and throughout the rest of the world, are we leaving a generation or a social class outside of not only the movement, but also its benefits? And if so, how do we make our peace with this fact and acknowledge those who are left behind?

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