Public knowledge and the Public

How we define ourselves as the public hinges on how much openness we practise in our knowledge-production

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 11th May 2019   12:10 am Updated: 10th May 2019   10:24 pm

That knowledge is power is a truism that requires no testing or validation any more. The control over the production and dissemination of knowledge determines the ranks of the social order, divided into the knowledge-haves and the knowledge-have-nots. The latter’s access to quality education, and, therefore, knowledge, is restricted through various formal and non-formal mechanisms: admissions into educational institutions, market-driven tuition fees, ‘coaching centres’, costs of educational materials, discrimination in institutions, among others.

The Public Knowledge Project ( or PKP, a massive collaborative project across the universities of British Columbia, Pittsburgh, Simon Fraser, Stanford, the Ontario Council of University Libraries and the California Digital Library, is an attempt to broaden access to scholarly published materials. It encourages and develops Open Source Software, Open Monograph Systems and Open Conference Software to improve the ‘quality and reach of scholarly publishing’.

Deregulating Control

This is a welcome move to deregulate the control over knowledge-economies that have been in place for ages in all cultures. European control over knowledge-production about other races and nations was instrumental in the making of colonial empires. India’s caste system relied on not just the division of labour and labourer (as Ambedkar pithily put it) but also on a firm, even tyrannical, grip on knowledge production: what counts as knowledge, who acquires access to knowledge. These are just two instances.

In the modern age, the control over publication, software and archives determines a power-differential across nations and cultures. The ‘Third World’ is ‘third’ precisely because of inequalities in access to knowledge about itself, until this knowledge is produced and/or validated by western scholarly publishing. That in many parts of the Global South we refuse assiduously to have quality control measures over publication and knowledge production goes without saying: witness the fact that Indian academics occupy the #1 position in terms of publishing in predatory – and dubious – journals. Needless to say, it is also incumbent upon us in the Global South to produce knowledge that can and must be open to scrutiny, subject to testing mechanisms that characterise any discipline (instead of claiming ‘you in the West can’t question native knowledge’)

Monopolistic Markets

PKP flies in the face of knowledge monopolies and is tied in with the culture of Open Source. It enables the making of a particular kind of public, which is interested in how it remains a public at all: by resisting the power of monopolistic markets and knowledge-production.

Christopher Kelty points out in his Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (2008) that Free Software has ‘democratic and political significance’, creating a ‘social imaginary’ that ‘defines a particular relationship between technology, organs of governance…and the Internet’. The important point here is: it is not the technology that drives the openness of knowledge production and sharing but a culture of openness that causes such technologies to be invented. In other words, we need to think of cultures where knowledge must be made available to all, so that technologies of sharing can be invented.

Such initiatives are a part of what may be called the ‘public turn’ in thinking, and includes Public Memory, Public History and other such disciplinary developments — all directed at shifting the focus away from controlled, elite and, therefore, restricted knowledge-practices towards unpacking the latter’s politics, crowd-sourcing and sharing. These may be read as not just counter-movements to the monopolies of software corporations but also as acts of resistance against efforts to retain control over knowledge produced about various people and lives.

Initiatives such as these are central to the very idea of democracy. Alvin Goldman argues: “a crucial part of a democratic framework, or system, that there be institutions, structures or mechanisms that assist citizens in acquiring and possessing politically relevant information, where by ‘information possession’ I mean true belief and by ‘politically relevant’ information I mean information that is relevant to their political choices.”

Informational Democracies

Such thinkers see not just the Wikipedia and Open Source but also Wikileaks as central to the making of informational democracies. We see moves towards these embodied in the Right to Information Act, the (forced) disclosure of incomes by politicians, emphasis on identifiable and documented sources of party-funding, although we in India clearly have a long way to go.

If, then, democracy relies on informational openness and access to knowledge, such initiatives are necessary. The very notion of ‘transparency’ rests on the assumption that anything visible cannot be bad and that visibility guarantees authenticity (as surveillance theorists tell us). Although much can be said about this myth of transparency – as anybody who has sought information from an organisation can testify! – it remains a cornerstone in the public knowledge-turn in thinking about democracy.

Educational Systems no Better

However, let us not assume that governing systems alone are jealous of sharing knowledge, because educational systems are no better, as the following real life example shows: At a public institution in the recent past, a ‘national conference’ was organised with public funding but was ‘closed’, with no invites or programme schedules released to the institution’s own public till protest letters were sent to the organisers – which solicited a threat mail from the Coordinator. Students – many eager to listen to and learn – kept out of the deliberations through a mix of threat and concealment, cited the UGC’s definition of ‘discrimination’ (‘denying or limiting access to any benefit arising from such enrolment provided by the higher educational institution’, page 123, The Gazette of India dated Jan 19-25, 2013) which fitted the entire event. The denial of knowledge to the public in a public institution is, one worryingly speculates, a reiteration of the horrific exclusionary practices promulgated by the caste-and-class hierarchy in India.

It is precisely this secrecy, control and exclusion around knowledge production and dissemination that hamper a democracy from becoming truly democratic. The Right to Information is, ideally, the right to know, and although information is not equal to knowledge, efforts such as the PKP are measures that go some way to reduce the gap between the knowledge-haves and have-nots.

More of these are essential if we are to have an effective democracy. How we define ourselves as the public hinges on how much openness we practise in terms of our knowledge-production. There is no ‘public’ where there is no knowledge of the public, by the public and for the public.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)