(Photo: Originally uploaded to Flickr by BobChao.)
For me, the two most thought-provoking sessions at the Workshop on Asia and Commons last weekend were a panel on Saturday afternoon called "Commons: Cultural Perspectives from Asia" and Sunday's final brainstorm discussion. The Creative Commons blog has a good summary of the entire conference, and somebody thankfully wikified the notes from the final brainstorm.
Here's the thing. Creative Commons has become a global movement, with the licenses localized all over the world. But as an organization founded in the U.S., with its international arm based in Europe, the language and approach of "Commons" tends to be heavily legalistic and discussed mainly from the standpoint of Western legal and philosophical frameworks. Many people attending the meeting in Taipei wondered whether Creative Commons in Asia is likely to be more successful as a social movement than as a set of copyright licenses (as Peter Yu has pointed out in the past). There was also a feeling that in order to be truly relevant to the globe, the CC movement's central message needs to undergo a shift that would incorporate more non-Western approaches to the idea of "commons," content creation, and sharing.
Historian Jo-shui Chen was invited to comment on the idea of "commons" in the Chinse cultural context. How should we frame our discussion of "commons" in a predominantly Chinese society in order to increase the chances that Creative Commons will be accepted? Prof. Chen has researched the Chinese concept of "gong" which he describes as "the Chinese notion closest to the Western idea of 'public'." In his abstract he writes:
“Gong” is not a single idea; it is rather a complex of ideas with a history of almost three thousand years. Two fundamental meanings of “Gong” are “government” and “general” or “universal” with the implication of equality. A less prominent meaning of “gong,” which is quite late in origins, is “common” or “shared”.
Chen believes that both "gong" and "si" (meaning "private") are "more about state of mind than separation of spheres," which makes it easier for a person to be both at once in ways that would be confusing or contradictory to Westerners. Also, culturally, he said that "it is difficult for most Chinese to associate themselves with public affairs because they are considered the business of government." He argues that the idea of "public domain" as Westerners would view it is not consistent with traditional Chinese ways of thinking - and that it would be viewed more as a "wilderness" with no inherent order, while at the same time people have a "strong sense of entitlement to resources in this wilderness." He finds that in traditional Chinese social-political consciousness, people perceive public order is as the domain of government. Social activities are organized by gentry, but there is no general idea of public order which is not directly under the control of government.
Given this cultural context, Chen argues that the best way to articulate Creative Commons in Chinese communities is as a kind of public order: "a kinder gentler public order that is good for all...not based upon absolute individual rights, but rather a system that seeks to promote public order and public interest." He concludes that unless CC is framed in this way, "many people with resort to traditional thinking and view the internet as free for all." He also points out that "Individual rights may have been enshrined in law under Western influence, but this idea is very far away from people's real life."
Lawrence Liang, a lawyer of Chinese descent from Bangalore, gave a brilliant talk (I'm told all his talks are brilliant - this was the first time I've heard him speak) titled "How Does An Asian Commons Mean." No, that's not a typo. He points out that "the metaphor of the commons as it is used in debates on information emerges from a specific history of the enclosures movement in Europe." The task of articulating an Asian Commons requires more than merely translating existing initiatives such as Creative Commons, but rather "to answer larger questions of what it means to provide an epistemological account of the commons in Asia." This is especially challenging because the idea that one can consider oneself "Asian" and that such a label has real cultural or social meaning "is a "diplomatic fiction... neither Asia nor commons has any substantive content."
Liang rightly points out that if the "Asian Commons" is merely viewed as a geographical extension of the existing Creative Commons movement, then it has no meaningful role to play because it is pretty much content-free: it merely describes a diverse range of people who happen to be labeled "Asian." The idea of "Asian Commons" only has meaning if it has a substantive global impact on the "idea of the commons." He believes that in discussing Asian perspectives on the commons, we have valuable "opportunities to remove beyond romantic ideals of the commons...move beyond the binary of the debate."
The idea of Asia, Liang also points out, "has often been described in terms or a lack, or a derivative, or of a copy, mimicry... the idea that Asian countries are pirate nations... recycled modern." It's time to move away from this framing.
Furthermore, just as maps don't represent human realities, he argues, nor do legal licenses. "There is a problem with fetishization of licenses" in the Creative Commons movement, he believes. He points to the traditional Indian concept of generosity, which does not involve contracts and precise definitions of property ownership and challenges us to go beyond Western legalistic approaches to consider how the Creative Commons movement can best serve its ultimate goals: maximizing social creativity and learning for the sake of the greater good.
During Sunday's discussion, Isaac Mao raised his idea of "sharism" as a framework for promoting the goals of Creative Commons that is more likely to gain widespread acceptance in Asia, in contrast to Lessig-esque terrms like "free culture." The problem, as Liang pointed out, is that the words "free" and "freedom" have been irreparably polluted by American geopolitics and tainted by perceived agendas of regime change, making anything labeled with those words a hard sell in the developing world. Riffing off the expression "free as in beer," he remarked: "free as in America is unhelpful." There was a widespread sense among people in the room that an emphasis on "public good" and "sharing" will enable the movement to have a much deeper impact, ultimately.
Another thread that came out of the final discussion was that Creative Commons - especially when one emphasizes the movement - provides an opportunity for people in this region to develop and assert alternatives to the copyright regime that the U.S. seeks to jam down everybody's throats. Rather than apologize for being "pirates," and accept the U.S. trade negotiator's premise of "Asia as lacking," why not work to build a model that promotes innovation and shared learning in new, forward-looking ways that will help Asian societies come out ahead in the global knowledge economy?