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Nishant Shah: “We will develop new textual and visual practices to facilitate the transfer of knowledge worldwide”

by Prasad Krishna last modified Mar 06, 2014 12:05 PM
Today we are starting with a new format for the blog of the Hybrid Publishing Lab. There will be an interview series with our International Tandem Partners giving an insight on their current work, interest and cooperation with HP.

Read Dr. Shah's interview by Julia Rehfeldt published on the website of Hybrid Publishing Lab

First up is our Tandem Partner Dr. Nishant Shah, Research Associate at Common Media Lab and Hybrid Publishing Lab. He is the co-founder and Director-Research at the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India.

Julia Rehfeldt: Dr. Shah, can you introduce yourself briefly und tell us what you are currently concerned with in your research?

Dr. Nishant Shah: This is a question that has always flummoxed me. I have spent all of the last decade trying to figure out how to explain what I do and what my research concerns are and I never have one straightforward answer to give.

The easiest way to answer this would be to say that I wear many hats. I am deeply interested in looking at how the digital shift is changing the way in which we see the world around us. And so my work spans several sectors, disciplines and intersections, trying to look at the mechanics and logics, logistics and structures of the world that we live in.

At the Hybrid Publishing Lab, as an International Tandem Partner, I look at the knowledge infrastructures of the digital times. I learn from the research and practice of my colleagues to explore the future of academic publishing, and I try to critically think through questions of Intellectual Property, Open Access movements, and concerns of Digital Humanities in the global knowledge circuits. Apart from that, I like to translate my research and knowledge for different stakeholders, to work with practitioners, policy makers, artists, technologists, hackers, legal scholars and development actors at the intersection of Internet and Society. As the Director – Research at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, I have been trying to develop South-based global networks that examine the conditions of being human, being social, and being political in emerging network societies. I also enjoy exploring new forms and content of pedagogy for students in and out of the classrooms, to develop new conditions of learning through and with digital media and cultures.

What was the most significant change, talk or lecture you experienced in 2013 that had an impact on the rights of open access or on your personal insights on that matter?

Dr. Shah: I think, on a very personal and a professional level, the death of Aaron Swartz and the horrific face of Intellectual Property tyrannies that surround the academic publishing which ironically focuses on questions of human liberty, values, equity and access, has had the most dramatic impact on me. Aaron Swartz committed suicide just over a year ago, and the conditions of his persecution, on the behalf of the American legal system, the intellectual property conglomerates and a globally reputed university that claims to build better futures for our digital worlds, has shocked most of us.

While playing the blame-game is redundant now – it is not going to bring back a young man who only believed in dreams of utopic sharing and commons – it is important to remind us that these battles of information and intellectual property are not for niche circles. We are increasingly living in worlds where more and more of our everyday life is being mediated, mitigated and measured in big data and quantified services.

We don’t only live in information age, but we also live through information, constantly producing data. And the technologies we use, the applications we live with, the platforms we live on, the social networks that we belong to, all take our information and data and copyright it so that we have almost no rights over it. This problem becomes only more amplified in the traditional academic knowledge industries where publicly funded research and practice gets hidden behind paywalls so that it remains in niche circles of access to those with privilege. We are reaching a stage where not only our formal knowledge but even our thoughts, desires and memories are quickly being contained in forms and formats that are no longer accessible to us.

2013 has shown that the more we lose control of our data, the more we lose battles of access to our collective knowledge, the more we concede our rights to information, which is the de facto currency of our times, the more we are going to be at the service of private and governmental conglomerates that shall control and contain the possibilities of radical transformation and change in our future.

You are currently involved in setting up a ‘Making Change’ project based on your paper ‘Whose change is it, anyway?’ published April 2013. Can you tell us what prompted your reflections in that paper, and what you seek to achieve with the project?

Dr. Shah: The ‘Making Change‘ project is an example of the multi-stakeholder, multi-disciplinary, knowledge methods and production that I am interested in. It is shaped by the framework proposed in the ‘Whose Change is it anyway?’ concept paper that proposes that in order to look at the change processes around us, we need to change the ways in which forms, formats, conditions, structures, processes, and life-cycles of knowledge practices need to be re-examined. The project aims to build conceptual frameworks by engaging different change actors in digital storytelling to understand how we analyse and examine the radical processes of change in the times to come.

Making Change is a knowledge exploration through which we seek to unpack the form, function, and practice of social and political change in emerging network societies. With this project, we will map existing traditional and innovative change practices through new knowledge methods and propose hybrid ways of building a knowledge commons that helps consolidate, curate and disseminate these new insights for change actors.

Hence, we will create a Knowledge Commons. The Knowledge Commons is a mash-up of resources, which we will set in motion through four distinct processes of getting insight into the mechanics, logistics, and catalysts of social and political change:

1.  In this project, we will use new methods of collaborative knowledge production methods that bring in different knowledge stakeholders and actors to reflect upon and consolidate their existing projects.

2.  We will develop new textual and visual practices to facilitate the transfer of knowledge worldwide.

3.  We will work with existing knowledge communities – academia, policy, and practice – to build pedagogic resources for training knowledge visionaries about the future of change.

4.  We will produce, curate and disseminate knowledge prototypes through storytelling to debate, question and re-energize discussions on important keywords and concepts in the change narratives.

The core of the Knowledge Commons will consist of new narratives and prototypes of how these narratives might help other approaches for social and political change. We shall further organize these narratives to train and help social change actors to develop better strategies of working within digital and network societies. The Knowledge Commons seeks to generate cross-fertilization between different networks of knowledge actors to generate critical insights to gain access, exchange and contribute to knowledge dialogues.

The Knowledge Commons is not just an online platform, but is built up through a combination of knowledge generating workshops (production sprints) as well as reflections, which are curated through online dialogues and critique. The production sprints invite the key change actors from our networks to incite conversations inspired by the thought piece ‘Whose Change is it Anyway?’. The conversations will be further annotated by the ‘Making Change’ white paper which offers more complex and nuanced ways of looking at the contexts, catalyst and processes of change embedded in particular movements.

Rehfeldt: There has been a lot of talk about ‘Twitter revolutions’ and ‘Blackberry riots’ – what would you say do digital technologies contribute to contemporary social movements and political action in the public sphere more generally?

Dr. Shah: I have spent some time trying to do away with the binaries and polarised responses that phrases like ‘Twitter Revolutions’ and ‘Blackberry Riots’ produce. They seem to bring pre-defined responses – they either suggest that the emergence of new digital technologies and applications, by their very presence, are producing radical change practices. They deny the historical conditions, the political contexts, the social and cultural practices of the region, and the structures of inequity and injustice that are often characteristic to particularly geographies and cultures. They refuse to understand that the digital does not merely produce things new – instead, it helps extend the existing movements of social and political change and are a part of a much larger paradigm shift. They alienate existing human endeavours of change and create false dichotomies like the old and new activisms, or traditional and digital movements.

I think it is better to understand that the digital produces ruptures and interruptions in the narrative of change; but the digital also has historical continuities which need to be better embedded in the geographical and political contexts of change. At the end of the day, we need to debunk the idea that digital activism around the globe is the same. Just because everybody uses Twitter to orchestrate people’s movements in different countries, it doesn’t mean that they are doing the same thing or in the same way. We need to do away with the homogenizing rhetoric of the digital that presumes that digital cultures are universal, and learn to look at the intersections of life that inform and are shaped by the emergence of the digital technologies.

Rehfeldt: To finish up, is there an interesting online article, or video you have read or seen lately which you could suggest to our readers?

Dr. Shah: I think one of the most interesting collections around digital and new activism last year was the anthology edited by Kees Biekart: Development and Change – Special Issue: FORUM 2013

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ASPI-CIS Partnership


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