The Public Domain


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A Sarai is an enclosed space in a city, or, beside a highway, where travellers and caravans can find shelter, sustenance and companionship; a tavern, a public house, a meeting place; a destination and a point of departure; a place to rest in the middle of a journey. Sarai: the New Media Initiative, Delhi, works with these readings of the word Sarai to create a space where old and new forms of media, their practitioners, and those who reflect on, or critically examine these practices, can find a convivial atmosphere, and enter into shared pursuits that will create a renewal of public cultures within and across city spaces. The Sarai Reader (which is the first of what we hope will be more such collections) can be seen both as a navigation log of actual voyages and a map for possible journeys into a real and imagined territory that we have provisionally called the “Public Domain”. This republic without territory is a sovereign entity that comes into being whenever people gather and begin to communicate, using whatever means that they have at hand, beyond the range of the telescope of the merchant, and outside the viewing platform of the microscope of the censor.Our Public Domain has no borders and issues no visas; it has no legislators or chambers of commerce and elects no presidents. Our Public Domain has dispensed with a standing army but it does maintain a guerrilla air force that protects and safeguards the freedom of the both analogue and digital airwaves as public property! The offices, ministries and embassies of the Public Domain are located throughout the world in cafes and public libraries, in the lobbies of cinemas, in theatres, in obstinately independent radio stations, in websites, between the pages of free zines. The source code of its constitution, written in free software, is open to all to amend. This collection of texts can be read as one amongst many attempts to design Public Domains. Today’s electronic street cultures, active in ‘invisible’ yet terribly real cities, are crying to be shaped. Their chaotic and often contradictory forms do not have to be scaled down or tamed. Instead, they can be taken further, into eccentric orbits of freedom and solidarity, even if the possibility of spiralling into dystopias of violence never seems far away. The architecture of existing hybrid environments demands to be questioned and overruled by a wave of creative and borderless imagination. The Reader is an invitation, and a haphazard tourist guide to the real, existing, contemporary Public Domain. It contains travellers’ tales, information about routes that are free of watchful eyes and other dangers, fragments of itineraries, and notes on modes of transport, as well as a gazetteer of rest stops and sarais on the way. Within it you will find, articles, photographs, essays, manifestos, fragments from e-mail discussions, downloads from websites and pieces both found and especially commissioned for this publication. Many of the authors are known to us only as entities in cyberspace, and we have happily pillaged websites as well as earlier collections that have inspired us. (Readme! ASCII Culture & The Revenge of Knowledge — The Nettime Reader, Published by Autonomedia, 1999 is an inspiration that we would like to especially acknowledge). Occasionally, we have hectored and harassed friends and comrades into writing or revising pieces we felt we could not do without. Our heart felt thanks to all those (friends as well as strangers) whose thoughts, ideas, images and rants have made their way into this collection. The contributions themselves cover a wide variety of themes, ranging from the nature of public culture to conflicts over urban resources, issues of access, control and censorship of cultural material, to the publics and practices that constitute the media dense spaces of our cities. You will find film theory adjacent to new media practice, photo essays on city streets, nostalgia for small towns, ambivalent glances at the skyline of globalisation, short detours into cyberspace, testimonies of online and offline labour, reflections on image making and interpretation, engagements with cyberfeminism and the hacker’s ethic sharing the same space as histories of radio, examinations of media law and the tactical uses of old and new media technologies. What makes this long, unruly and eclectic list hang together? Why should the historian who looks at forms of community solidarity in early twentieth century urban spaces enter the same space of dialogue as the teenage hacker of the twenty first century? One provisional answer: because the city space that surrounds us, and its mesh of ways of being, which we at Sarai and at the Waag have reason to regard as the canvas of our curiosities, engagements, affections and disaffections, is a site that exists in more than one temporal location. We live in a mess made of times and spaces where pre-modern, modern and hyper-modern scripts play out their own stories in grand and little theatres in streets and cyber cafes. In the interval between several performances that tell stories about the city, the hacker improvises with the historian. The future and the past play new games in old cities. Sarai is only the meeting place where some of this is beginning to happen. There is ample room here for disagreement, for collaboration, for criticism and for partnership. While we have tried to divide the contents into thematically arranged sections, very often themes and interests have ended up running into each other. This variety, and the intentional fuzziness of boundaries between forms, practices and themes, is signatory to the inter-disciplinary character of the Sarai Initiative and the range of issues and questions that interest us at Sarai. They also offer a glimpse into the things we are thinking about at present and want to work on in the future. Notwithstanding the variety, an underlying commitment to the renewal of urban public culture and the democratisation of media practices and communication technologies is a common thread that runs through the Reader.We have discovered in the process of editing this reader that the thematic focus on the ‘public domain’ has led us naturally to highlight the Free Software Movement, which seeks to free information and software production from proprietary control and situate it squarely within the public domain. We feel that this has significant implications in India and in all other information hungry societies which have low degrees of access to computers and to digital resources. There is an emergent interest in free software in India, but not much by the way of easily accessible materials and information that can help frame a debate around issues of control of information. Further, the current media hype around the messianic role of Information Technology obscures the political economy of the digital divide. We hope that the first Sarai reader can address some of these issues, and participate in the initiation of a long overdue debate on the culture and political economy of the new media and information technologies in societies and contexts outside Western Europe and North America. We aim to bring to an audience around Sarai, in Delhi, snatches from conversations around us in the wider world, and we want to transmit what all of us are thinking, reading, looking at and arguing about in our space, to the world outside. We have made a special effort to locate contributions from and about places as far apart as Nepal, Australia, Pakistan and Yugoslavia, besides, India, Western Europe and North America in the hope that this marks for us the beginning of a sustained engagement with a truly intercultural new media space. The patchwork that this collection represents is the result of an e-mail correspondence that has sometimes been more sporadic than it should have been. But both of us (Shuddha@Sarai, CSDS, Delhi and Geert@DeWaag — Society for Old and New Media, Amsterdam) believe that it heralds a sound foundation for the collaborations that SONM and Sarai have entered into and which mark the very inception of Sarai. Now we are an open space, eager for travellers. Welcome.

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