Blog Post

Planned Obsolescence and the Third World -part 1

After reading Lisa Klarr's interview with Kathlee Fitzpatrick, I could not help thinking that some of the suggestions in her book, clarified further through the interview, could probably spell greater democracy and possibility in academic progress not only in 'more' resource-rich countries such as the US but also open up for access to scholars working in poorer countries whose libraries may not be able to afford to subscribe to the increasingly expensive e-journal databases and journals produced mainly in the first world. On top of that, many of the Third World countries would be able to participate more fully in the academic discourse of their field, keep abreast of what goes on around the world, while also publicizing the journals they are producing that were hitherto limited to domestic circulation.  But even then, it is necessary to work in conjunction with and in support of open source tools as we do not want access to the content to be completely bound by licensing requirements that may also mean high fees.

At the same time, inspite of growing internet access globally, many countries are still laboring under poor connectivity/minimal connectivity, not to mention less than up-to-date PCs. The growing inclination towards memory intensive digital texts may mean that scholars and students attempting to access these sites may face a frustratingly frequent downtime and timeouts. Of course, many journal databases offer different formats to suit the different needs of the users, and this has to be born in mind when we develop open access platforms. For quite some years, I have been contemplating the possibility of creating a sort of network of informational and e-publication databases that would collate together both open-access and pay-per-view/subscription digital journals and ebooks and making them accessible to poorer countries. This would mean working through the intricacies of various copyright and IP issues, especially at a global scale. I am thinking of how one can extend the sort of boom-time USAID/international print textbook publications for sale only at third world countries to digital databases, by allowing users from poor countries to subscribe to an account (I am thinking of the equivalent of an Athens account in UK institutions) that will allow them access to all sorts of e-materials at a subsidized rate, or allowing them to buy single articles at reasonable rates (not like the rates we are seeing right now).

Since it is completely untenable for most Third World countries to aspire to the sort of libraries that many First World libraries have spent centuries in stocking up (not to mention raiding of texts and manuscripts from their former colonies or protectorates), I believe that Third World country libraries can be sites by which the digital library technology can be revolutionized. This is particularly pertinent as many of these libraries store many of their most precious rare books and manuscripts in less-than-optimal condition, leading to the quick degradation of the materials. But, to quote Fitzpatrick, how can we "work with our libraries to ensure that those repositories are as powerful as they can be--that they arent just the jumbled attic into which we stuff things once theyre done, but that they become powerful publishing and distribution mechanisms in their own right, helping users find the material they need when they need it?" In the past, we have seen the outsourcing of printing to cheaper countries which led to the creation of a secondary industry of so-called 'pirated' books. How do we help our Third World brethren preserve and conserve their precious texts while also not locking them out of the conversation by the way publishers are still charging for digital texts? The gift economy is a possible way forward, but, as Fitzpatrick points out, nobody can really work for free.

Many discussions of new ways of reading, writing and publishing tend to leave out the opinions of those laboring with less than equitable resources. I think it is a good time to bring them into the conversation and work together to make the obsolescence of a highly capitalistic model that had led to knowledge gaps not be replaced by another model that just pushes in the same undemocratic direction.



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