Cultural Commons Democracy and Digital Progress
by ThO�As �ORIT�
Arts and humanities institutions—and, specifically, the “memory institutions”1: libraries,
archives, and museums—exist in a larger cultural and political context. Those of us who
have spent most of our professional lives in such institutions may too easily lapse into a
narrowed, self-referential mindset, forgetting that we have both effects and obligations
in that larger world.
Although not always well appreciated, a strong and inex- a few days in Pakistan, I felt some shock looking at those images
tricable link exists between the fundamental mission of our and hearing those sounds, aware of the grating contrast with
cultural institutions and a common ethical imperative to nurture the culture outside the shop doors. A few days later I wandered
and secure tolerant, secular democracy. The mission of most the streets of Peshawar in the North West Frontier Province,
such institutions—whether explicitly or implicitly—focuses on then, as now, a center for Taliban activity. The fundamentalist
the creation and sharing of knowledge for the common good. In madrassahs were well stocked with religious texts, 5 while no
this regard, the mission of the J. Paul Getty Trust is both expansive media shops were apparent and the library shelves of the local
and exacting. The original Trust Indenture of 195 requires “the university were quite empty.
diffusion of artistic and general knowledge.” A more recent The resources that compose the fabric of our cultural
expression states: “The Getty focuses on the visual arts in all of lives—that we often take for granted in Los Angeles and at the
their dimensions and their capacity to strengthen and inspire Getty—were not available to most in Pakistan, whether in the
aesthetic and humanistic values . . . with the conviction that “traditional” form of books, journals, and newspapers; or galleries,
cultural enlightenment and community involvement in the arts lectures, concerts, cultural dialogues, films, videos; or the more
can help lead to a more civil society” (emphasis mine).
“contemporary” forms of Web-based digital media.
Without launching a complex epistemological digression, Today, even in the wilds of Topanga Canyon, I receive e-mail,
it seems useful to note that “diffusion of knowledge” implies phone service, newspapers (from Europe, North America, Asia),
more than the simple dissemination of conventional products journals and books, TV, FM radio, and much more directly over
or expressions of knowledge, as in books, articles, or exhibits. the Internet. In Pakistan today, and throughout most of the devel-
“Diffusion of knowledge” also implies nurturing, developing, oping world (“cyber-universe” notwithstanding), such resources
and sharing knowledge of the process and practices by which are available only to a small and privileged elite.
knowledge is developed and created. With respect to the Getty’s For more than twenty years I have been given opportunities
mission, this means close awareness, systematic documenting, to travel worldwide, primarily seeking better ways to share our
and open sharing of the methods of critical scholarly practice common knowledge of the natural world in support of environ-
and discourse by which we come to understand the intelligence mental conservation. I have become more and more sensitized
of art. Arguably, a primary defining feature of this historic era will to the ways that the United States is represented internationally
be the Internet and the World Wide Web, and the underlying and to the ways that we encourage others to understand us.
powerful technologies that have enabled them. Only the revo- Whether in passing gringada jokes and comments or in news-
lutions in genomics and nuclear physics seem capable of rivaling papers and media broadcasts, we are often, at best, parodied
them. If, as much of our recent history suggests, advocacy for as well-meaning but clumsily destructive caricatures in our own
secular, rational, tolerant democracy is a primary goal of this situation comedy. Again and again we seem to flaunt what is
historic era, I believe that cultural institutions must reconsider our least estimable in our society and culture.
mission in the context of the powerful, convergent technologies
that have created the Web, with its demonstrated potential for
building networks that are truly global both in reach and Toward a Global Digital Commons
comprehensiveness. In 107, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The field of knowledge is the
We must reconsider how our mission-consistent “content” common property of all mankind.”7
is now distributed and licensed for use—both conventionally Jefferson was not naively expressing a utopian vision. He
and on the Web. As a culture and as a society, we must make far clearly understood the practical implications of his proposition (in
more serious investments in developing and sharing globally the 1790s he noted the importance of preservation of knowledge
the very best elements of our artistic and humanistic culture.
by the provision and maintenance of multiple copies of texts).
The compromises concerning copyright and patent codified in
the U.S. Constitution reflect the wisdom of this Jeffersonian
Some Observations from the Field view. Many have attributed the notable successes of American
In October 199, I walked into a video shop in the upscale Clifton culture and economy to the wise balance the Founding Fathers
neighborhood of Karachi, Pakistan. The walls were filled with
Hollywood posters of Rambo, armed to the teeth, and with re- Facing page: Detail of a hand-colored engraving of a lead/tin wire’s reaction to
electricity in Martinus van Marum, Beschreibung einer ungemein grossen
vealing pictures of distressed actresses in distressed garments. Elektrisier-Maschine (Leipzig, 1786–1798), pl. 9. In this plate, Marum shows one
The bootleg tape shop down the street offered the predictable of many phases of the fine lines created though a wire’s contact with a large
amount of electricity generated by a machine of his own invention.
array of music, some Asian but mostly Western pop. After only 2675-394
upon conventional market models. If we as a society can agree
on the necessity of providing global access to knowledge, our
dilemma is then how to meet costs with the same urgency that
we have too often directed at less worthy goals.
In 00 Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan reflected
upon the economic experience of the 1990s and diagnosed an
“infectious greed” that afflicted the American business com-
munity. 1 He did not extend his diagnosis to the cultural realm;
but, arguably, the conspicuous failure of support for our cultural
institutions and the consequent forced adoption by those
institutions of revenue-producing barriers to access can be
understood as extended symptoms of that infection.
PublIC OR PeRIsh A Cultural Commons?
To date, the global science community has made remarkable
Brewster Kahle, head of the San Francisco-based progress toward free and open access to scientific-knowledge
Internet Archive, insists that it is decidedly within resources. Initiatives such as GenBank, the Global Biodiversity
our grasp to provide universal access to knowl- Information Facility (GBIF), PubMed, and many others demonstrate
edge. Kahle and his team archive an average of the effectiveness and utility of free and open access. But we have
thirteen terabytes of digitized information every not made comparable progress in the arts and humanities.
month, from online material such as expired Web I believe that it is the sum of our informed, rational discourse
pages to music, ﬁlm, books, and images. Success- in the arts, sciences, and humanities that makes the strongest and
fully securing funding for their project, they have most compelling argument for modeling an open secular society
established that to scan, make universally avail-
and for the continued progress of democratic innovation.
able, and permanently archive any book costs
An extremely narrow spectrum of religious and sectarian
around thirty dollars—a surprisingly economical
texts is easily and widely available worldwide—in Pakistan and
endeavor. Like Tom Moritz, Kahle warns that we
America—but the intelligence, insight, and wisdom of our secular
must not allow the thirty percent of the project
culture (perhaps most important, the dynamic and critical discourse
that’s troublesome to interfere with digitization
by which “knowledge” is democratically tested) are systematically
of the other seventy percent. Seeing no reason
restricted. I want to propose that we must strategically and
that every book ever published can’t very soon
systematically make our knowledge available for global access
be made available online, Kahle observes of the
and use. With focused public and private sector investments
vast numbers of books being written in the world,
in digitization, and with open and free diffusion, we have the
“At most it’s six billion people typing at sixty
words per minute, twenty-four hours a day. It’s potential to make enormous contributions to the establishment
not that much text!” A rare and refreshingly and securing of secular democracy. Cultural memory institutions
undaunted perspective. have a unique opportunity to lead such efforts.1
We must no longer permit the trailing edge of our culture—
the Web as Times Square—to be pervasively available while
Check it out: continuing to tolerate barriers to access for the best of our culture.
www.archive.org We must not continue to sustain models that contribute to market
failure by which the most deserving, the most deprived members
of our global society are denied access.
Above left: Brewster Kahle (right), director and cofounder We must reconsider legal restrictions based in extremely
of the Internet Archive, shows Peter Bruce, director general
and chief technology officer of Library and Archives Canada, narrow and overreaching interpretations of “intellectual property”
some features of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. and primarily driven by the special interests of the entertainment
It can be used to surf 85 billion Web pages, including
billions archived since 1996 and no longer searchable on industries. All stakeholders must be willing to be good corporate
citizens and to make modest concessions for the common good.
Above right: Each of the Internet Archive’s racks of data
storage holds up to one hundred terabytes of digitized In the United States, we make minimal investment of public
content. They measure six feet tall by two feet wide and
weigh about a ton.
funds in digital capture and provision of access to knowledge NOTES
resources. We must, in our common interest, build and secure a 1Lorcan Dempsey, et al., “Scientiﬁc, Industrial, and Cultural Heritage: A Shared Approach,”
global knowledge commons based on principles of fair access Ariadne 22 (1999), http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue22/dempsey/ (accessed March 18,
and responsible use.
In making these assertions, I assume that all contributors to In the current era, John Rawls’s concept of “Justice as Fairness” perhaps best captures
the force of this imperative. For a succinct summary, see: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/
our culture, particularly scholars, authors, editors, publishers, original-position/ (accessed March 18, 2007).
booksellers, and librarians, have always had common cause. 3 In 1953 the J. Paul Getty Trust was still known as the J. Paul Getty Museum. The
Recent divisive arguments—as, for example, between publishers original Indenture is posted at http://www.getty.edu/about/governance/indenture.html
(accessed July 11, 2007) and the Getty’s current mission statement is posted at http://
and librarians—may derive primarily from differences in our
www.getty.edu/about/governance/mission_statement.html (accessed July 11, 2007).
relative familiarity with and capacity to understand and adapt
4The decades-long history of U.S. Information Agency Libraries and Information Centers
to the challenges of the Internet environment. For all of us, there
worldwide suggests that this imperative has been strongly recognized in previous eras.
have been difficulties in disentangling ourselves from exclusive
5 P. W. Singer, Pakistan’s Madrassahs: Ensuring a System of Education Not Jihad,
dependence on market models; but this has been much easier
Brookings Analysis Paper 14, November 2001, http://www.brookings.edu/views/papers/
for librarians than for commercial publishers and sectors of the singer/20020103.pdf (accessed April 3, 2007).
film and recording industries. 6 I might add that recently when I gave a talk in Albany, New York, it was pointed out
There may be a “culture war” going on. But the struggle is to me that communities just one hundred miles north of us in the Adirondacks suffered
some of the same deprivations as those in Pakistan.
being waged not merely at a distance on the Op-Ed pages of the
New York Times. And it is not a reflexive red-blue disagreement 7Thomas Jefferson to Henry Dearborn (United States Secretary of War), June 22, 1807,
http://www.constitution.org/tj/jeff11.txt (accessed April 3, 2007).
between Republicans and Democrats—or, for that matter, be-
tween librarians, authors, and publishers. Rather, the struggle 8 “The substantive findings of science are a product of social collaboration and are
assigned to the community. They constitute a common heritage in which the equity of
exists between those who intend closed, privileged, authoritarian the individual producer is severely limited.” Robert K. Merton, “A Note on Science
societies and those who advocate for open, tolerant, academi- and Democracy,” Journal of Law and Political Sociology 1 (1942): 121. This notion is
obviously controversial and, particularly in the humanities, scholars seem inextricably
cally free, secular democracies. It is our challenge as a culture wedded to the value of individual distinction. In the arts, the individual creative act is
to analyze closely the “conflict of business models” 1 and to almost universally recognized as essential.
resolve the “clash” by developing fair compensation for those 9 As but one example, I am aware of a situation in which a national museum in a
with legitimate stakes, while eliminating barriers to access and Latin American country was told by a tax-exempt publisher of an electronic resource
that the annual licensing fee would amount to $85,000 (USD). The cost would have
use. Thomas Jefferson would have confirmed this mission. been prohibitive were it $850 and, moreover, with this type of digital resource, addi-
ethically, all but the most mercantile of cultural knowledge tional increments of use are nonrivalrous and impose virtually zero additional cost to
workers have a common mission: the widest possible
dissemination of knowledge for the continued benefit of 10 “Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. Information
wants to be free because it has become so cheap to distribute, copy, and recombine—
all. We must not fail to use every effective means at our too cheap to meter. It wants to be expensive because it can be immeasurably valuable
disposal to provide for all our common heritage of human to the recipient. That tension will not go away. It leads to endless wrenching debate about
price, copyright, ‘intellectual property,’ the moral rightness of casual distribution, because
knowledge. each round of new devices makes the tension worse, not better.” Stewart Brand, The
Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT (New York: Viking, 1987), 202.
11 “Figures released by the largest publisher of scientific journals—Amsterdam-based
Elsevier—help explain why many scientists and others are frustrated. Its 1,700 journals,
which produce $1.6 billion in revenue, garner a remarkable 30 percent profit margin.
‘I do realize that the 30 percent sticks out,’ Elsevier Vice President Pieter Bolman said.
‘But what we still do feel—and this is, I think, where the real measure is—we’re still
very much in the top of author satisfaction and reader satisfaction.’” Rick Weiss, “A Fight
for Free Access to Medical Research: Online Plan Challenges Publishers’ Dominance,”
Washington Post, August 5, 2003, A01.
12 Testimony of Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan before the Senate
Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, Federal Reserve Board’s Semiannual
Monetary Policy Report to the Congress, 107th Cong., 2nd. sess., July 16, 2002. See
http://www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/hh/2002/july/testimony.htm (accessed April 3, 2007).
13The American Museum of Natural History made its complete legacy of scientific
publications freely available on the Web in January 2005: http://digitallibrary.amnh.org/
dspace/statistics (accessed April 3, 2007). In the ﬁrst year of availability, nearly 500,000
successful downloads occurred.
14Kevin Kelly, “Scan This Book! What Will Happen to Books? Reader, Take Heart!
Thomas Moritz is associate director of administration
Publisher, Be Very, Very Afraid. Internet Search Engines Will Set Them Free. A Manifesto,”
and chief of knowledge management at the GRI. http://www.kk.org/writings/scan_this_book.php (accessed April 3, 2007).