There was a time when self-respecting Bengalis—and from what I read this was a pretty universally prevalent hobby—religiously collected stamps. My friends collected stamps in large leather bound black catalogues. But they were all inconsequential, stamps printed by the millions and sent by the thousands, knived off of letters from relatives abroad. I tried for a while myself, but forgot my catalogue in a taxi one evening and that was that.
There is direct correlation between the rarity of the object collected and the prestige of the collector. Aristocrats collected books for generations over centuries. What came of this hobby are the impressive hordes of printed marvel. Some of these have ended up in university and government libraries, some have been dismantled and dispelled with such carelessness that they have ended up with me. Such objects of desire are also circulated through theft, from robbing galleries off their Goyas to robbing school libraries off their John Updikes (like Charlie Mortdecai from Mortdecai or Dean Corso from Ninth Gate). I have bought a few books from roadside bookstalls—a hardbound biography of Yeats among them—that formerly belonged to the St Xavier’s library, and I have no intention of returning them.
Private collections had long been the milieu of the financially upward. For most, archiving is an elitist act, coupled with an academic rigor, imbued in personal or secondhand nostalgia. It is also in many ways ‘preservatist’, historicist, and ‘sanctuarist’. Sometimes the impersonal translates into the personal in the process of archiving, through the time and effort invested in the collection of objects (or thoughts, or words… Arcades Project, anyone?). Photographs, documents, letters, relics, curios, virtually anything. Tattoos are archival too, in that sense. They are our mobile archives of memories, our archives of vernacular history.
But as regimented, institutionalized disciplines fragment and break loose of their professional bondages, things start to become more interesting, heartening, deep (if risking vagueness, paradoxically), and beautifully diverse. Let’s draw a parallel between what I just said about collecting and the Internet today. Once, only institutions and the ultra-rich had video or audio libraries. Today, when all content is uncoupled from their makers and are floating freely, digitally reproduced and innumerable, waiting to be grabbed out of thin air and materialized in a very Djinn-Rushdie fashion, we are all collectors and archivists. We download terabytes of information from the Internet, sometimes legally, sometimes not so. They in turn circulate, and multiply. I do not have one friend who does not have all the ten seasons of F.R.I.E.N.D.S somewhere in their hard drive, or HIMYM, or Game of Thrones, or all the albums of Pink Floyd or Nirvana. A hoarding disorder coupled with external hard drives. Susan Sontag has said about her library that it is her “archive of longings”; for the verbally-apathetic, it is the download list and the hard drive. Also, digital content, infallible though they are not, aren’t generally given to alteration or variation. Like a print of cinema of the same cut is always the same across the globe, so is all other digital content, resting in a cyber reservoir or in a personal computer.
But pleasantries apart, things are getting more and more serious each day. There is not much to argue about the illegality of downloading video or audio material from pirated sources free of cost (although some things remain to be said about this), but the matter becomes grave when it comes to something as crucial as education. There is much hullabaloo about this, the democratic act of theft, and the Corporates and governments are doing all they can to crack down on this to preserve, safeguard their financial interests. But as they grow more and more strict, so does the public grow more and more skeptical about the ethics of it all. Recently, with the crackdown on online repositories of e-books like Library Genesis, academics have finally raised their voice in spite of their vested interests in the safeguarding of copyright laws and distribution of content (find the article here). Arguments have been made for the sanctity of knowledge, the democratic necessity of access to information, and against the greed of the few against the need of the many. We are forced to consider that, for once, maybe theft is the noble commitment. And after all, what is a criminal act – bombing innocents or downloading books? Are the corporates right to own knowledge? Is ownership their prerogative? Or does the true right to knowledge and information belong to the masses?
The judgment, hypocrite lecteur, must be yours.
– Souraj Dutta