Notes from the freed.in conclave

freed.in had the tagline “Knowledge shall set you free” and keeping this in mind the organizers had arranged for conclaves to discuss around this topic. The conclaves were held behind closed doors but the attendance was by no means invite-only.

As revealed so precisely in this quote (from The Future of Ideas by Lawrence Lessig):    This, however, is a new century; our questions will be different. The issue for us will not be which system of exclusive control—the government or the market—should govern a given resource. The question for us comes before:not whether the market or the state but, for any given resource, whether that resource should be controlled or free.

The Government of India says that anyone who can sign or count the numbers is literate, the Knowledge Commission talks about knowledge and infrastructure around it. Hence one of the objectives was to arrive at some sort of definition of knowledge. Since knowledge hegemonies impede and affect dissemination, the idea was also to talk about the “text” based knowledge which has become accepted per se across various segments of the Internet. Thus, the internet as a carrier medium is very much different from internet as a knowledge repository which requires interactive participation.

The focus was more on knowledge dissemination techniques. Instead of talking about and around the seductive appeal of technology, the mutually agreed point was to discuss around usage of technology as a means to an end objective of knowledge dissemination for the largest possible segment of the society. The Indian economy is at a stage where it needs to be powered by knowledge as much by infrastructure projects. Institutional and non conventional structures have the agenda and perhaps a mandate to participate in creation, tagging and dissemination of knowledge. An important aspect of dissemination would of course be to identify and understand the target audience and arrange for the focal point of the knowledge circle to be located near them. This of course implies that the state provided infrastructure could be used, but the state would not be directly participating in the management of knowledge.

For most societies, the existence of an academic “open” system encourages and provides incentives for knowledge sharing and information transaction. The sharing is both within education framework and outside it, rather than being a homogenous monoculture. An interesting point that emerged during the discussion was that the relevance of traditional education has changed due to the nature of social and labour expectations. And thus traditional education is the primary place for dissemination of knowledge. India is perhaps the only country which has a dedicated satellite for education content production (at the uplinking studios) and distribution. Thus, the EduSat community needs to be strengthened and re-focussed into achieving its mandate.

While the agenda this time was deliberately kept vague to encourage the churn of ideas, the intent was to look as how to see digital societies can go beyond localized educational institutes and change the mode of education. Discussions around the Commonwealth Education Project, the Open Education Project and also the by now increasing awareness that research conducted at universities need to be put under Open Access Licenses.

The first day of the conclave ended with a discussion along User Technology Interaction Models, Community Radio, Community Infrastructure, Content Courseware Development, GIS and Geolocation. At a very high level knowledge was identified into implicit and explicit knowledge, academic and non academic knowledge and short-term+long-term information.

On the second day the conclave did a deeper dive into the aspects of encoding of the knowledge content and how information technology can be applied at verticals like health, education, governance etc. A significant number of instances were discussed where the content would not be useful or relevant without re-processing and re-writing to make it relevant to the context.

The discussion also touched upon the area of tacit knowledge and how to address the capture and storing of such a corpus and encoding such that everybody is allowed to access, use and share that information. In this case technology would be the enabler and not the driver.

More discussions on the mailing list

Day 3: /etc/init.d/freed.in2008 restart

Gora introduces Niyam Bhushan who looks incredibly healthy, fit and unlike his normal drunk-on-knowledge self. Lo it is Dr Nagarjuna who is replacing Niyam (who is sick and not feeling up to a talk) to talk about SELF project. His talk touches upon the by now familiar domains of knowledge, openness and enconding of content so as to make it available to the widest possible segment. In between he also shares his experience with design elements that go into the making of a successful knowledge portal by taking us through the notes Niyam has put up during his involvement with the SELF Project.

Quote of the morning belongs to Raj Mathur – Andrew, I love you. Can I bum a cigarette off you ?

Venky (Venkatesh Hariharan) is up next talking about the topic of Open Standards and how they are important for us. Taking the real situation of OOXML, Venky takes us through the lessons learned and how future standards war, especially the ones where proprietary standards are thrust upon us could turn out to be. For those who are not familiar with the why and how of “Open Standards” he provides a quick primer into the much more interesting aspects of the Great Game.

Aanjhan brings up the most eagerly awaited talk of the day – Software for Hardware. Aanjhan has been doing some heavy lifting by packaging a significant number of software packages related to Electronic Labs / simulators etc for Debian – way to go tuxmaniac. He also had a number of good things to say about the Fedora Electronics Lab spin – so, Chitlesh you’ve got a supporter here. After the interesting talk and even more eye catching demos, Aanjhan ended with a call to help in propagating the existence of these packages. The current curricula in various academic institutions prohibit (both explicitly and implicitly) the usage and adoption of these fine examples of free software. With growing awareness one hopes that a larger segment of students would be contributing to them besides using them for their coursework.

Gora: We regret to inform you that lunch has been delayed by close to an hour. We are pushing the next speaker up on stage to do what he is supposed to do. Speak.

Shreyas Srinivasan of Radio VeRVe goes up to talk about Independent Music and why it ought to form an important part of our daily life. Leading the audience through the definition of independent music (“where the rights of the content rest with the musician / creator”) he explores the reasons as to why the mass music culture is nearly a mono culture. The well entrenched chain of distribution and promotion hassles are good enough reasons to inhibit any musician to attempt to break into the market. Since significant real estate is in the hands of “labels” – they end up defining what the populace would listen to. In this context, internet based independent music stations like Radio VeRVe provide more than a fair chance to creativity. Building an ecosystem that is not only limited to music, Radio VeRVe operates in the same space as Magnatune and Jamendo does. He has a few T-shirts for the important questions – I ask one, but don’t get a T-shirt of my size 🙁 Sadness. It is a good interactive session probing into areas we generally don’t end up looking into, but more importantly engaging the participants to “think about it”. For those who attended Sajan’s talk on Community Radio it does help to put things in perspective.

Amazingly delicious lunch. Jokes abound as to how freed.in is actually food.in with talks and conclaves wrapped around it to provide the patina of an event.

Unfortunately, we (Runa and me) take leave in order to catch the flight just as Friji begins her talk. Andrew says “Oh! I don’t actually do anything, the event just happens”. Sure it does Andrew – sure it does. It happens because there is a large collective of folks who want to push the boundaries of existing pedagogy to investigate the currency of knowledge and how that currency is important in creating a sustainable economy and a strong nation. It happens because of the team of volunteers who run around all over the place to make it happen.

If you have never attended a freed.in ever – make sure to mark it on your calendar the dates for the next edition. You will never stop being surprised by the enthusiasm, the depth of view points and the passionate arguments. You will never ever think of not coming to this event.