If knowledge is the accumulation of material from the universal commons, privatising it as invention – the cornerstone of capitalist wealth – is the starting point of any struggle to re-appropriate it.
More than one African nation tells the fable of a man (in some versions it is a tortoise) who decided to hoard all the world’s knowledge. He travelled the length and breadth of the land, storing all items of knowledge he found in a calabash. When he was done, he climbed a big tree in
search of a place to stash it. A passer- by noticed him struggling with the calabash among the branches and began offering advice on the best way to go about it. The hoarder realised that that was also knowledge, and in his haste to climb down from the tree in order to confiscate even that item, he knocked the calabash to the ground, where it shattered, and the contents were once again scattered all over the earth.
There are many African sayings to emphasise this lesson. “He who does not know one thing, knows another”, the Luo have it. “Knowledge is not of one person”, say the Baganda.
A legacy of the colonial project has been the cultural idea that knowledge comes from a certain part of the world, and the rest of the world must therefore cede on its validity and application. This is why we continue with the practice of the foreign “expert” who accompanies and lives off the foreign aid packages we receive. It may be true that a lot of human knowledge is now concentrated in the northern countries of the world, however, there are two problems with that. The first is, how did all that knowledge end up in one part of the globe: was it all created there? Secondly, what happened to it after it got there?
Nevertheless, the great unfolding of the Industrial Revolution unleashed an intense demand for knowledge so the learning centres of the north went on a global process of appropriation, data rape and plunder.
“Invention” is a very dubious word, since most of what we humans know, or have known at any point in time, is really a result of cumulative
observations, interactions and the lessons of those who went before. Perhaps “derivation”, or even the “contriving” of something new from existing knowledge, would be a better way to put it.
Nevertheless, the great unfolding of the Industrial Revolution unleashed an intense demand for knowledge about all things: energy; human behaviour; material quality; biology and nature. The learning centres of the north went on a global process of appropriation, data rape and plunder. As David Livingstone, that quintessential “missionary” secretly explained in a letter to a Cambridge professor called Sedgwick in 1858: “That you may have a clear idea of my objects I may state that they have something more in them than meets the eye. They are not merely exploratory, for I go with [the] intention of benefitting both the African and my own countrymen. I take a practical mining geologist from the school of mines to tell us the mineral resources of the country. Then an economic botanist to give a full report of the vegetable productions, the fibrous, gummy and medicinal substances together with the dyestuffs – everything which may be useful in commerce… With this short statement you may perceive our ulterior objects. I want you to have an idea of them.”
When it was all over, all “knowledge” had headed north and was then locked behind white assumptions, intellectual property laws and exorbitant university fees.
Most importantly, the knowledge was distorted and re-assigned to other sources, often from within Ancient Greece. “So what?” one may ask. Knowledge remains knowledge wherever it is found.
In his book, Nudges from Grandfather: Honouring Indigenous Spiritual Technologies, one Chris Kavelin tells tales of a spiritual journey he found himself on while doing doctoral research in law. His thesis was “The Protection of Indigenous Medical Knowledge: Transforming Law to Engage Indigenous Spiritual Concerns”. Described as a man committed to “supporting the sovereignty of networks of traditional healers around the world”, he was able to trace the origins of a number of major pharmaceutical drugs to Aboriginal communities. He then made it his duty to travel to those communities, inform them of the theft and offer an apology for it.
The background to this was the explosion in the development of organic chemistry that enables the synthetic reproduction of any naturally occurring medicinal compound that indigenous people had discovered, beginning in the late 1880s. True to David Livingstone’s secret vision, corporations in the industrial countries – particularly Germany – then became wealthy through the patenting and mass-producing of the artificial version. This is what we call “modern medicine”.
The foundation of most socially vital human activities, as with health care and education, begins with the principle of free access for both those in need of it and its apprentices. This implies a free input of the knowledge to be used, based on common ownership.
This is not old history. Many innovators of the computer era, such as Apple’s pioneering Steve Jobs, and the software genius Bill Gates’ Microsoft, have knowledge foundations that can be traced back to work originally developed by the US Defense Department. And Google Earth software used to be called EarthViewer 3D, developed by a company called Keyhole, part-funded by the CIA. In other words, “private” knowledge derived from public resources.
The “traditional healers” of the digital era are those activists, like the programmer Richard Stallman, a founder of the Open Source movement, whose activism was sparked when the computer labs of major American universities suddenly declared previously communally developed knowledge the private property of whichever of their laboratories happened to hold it.
Even where we do “invent” something, we usually depend on tools crafted earlier, by others, to do this. “Intellectual property” in this context is therefore the dubious love-child of the notion of “invention” and the capitalist need for profit.
The crisis in many an African- based university, as well as in applied knowledge, can perhaps be traced back to when one set of cultures basically monopolised the definition of “knowledge”, and then proceeded to make it so inaccessible that it may as well be located on the moon. Decades have been wasted trying to break down those barriers.
It is a question of selective application of new rights. Supposing someone managed to trace their ancestry to whoever it was that “invented” the plus symbol in mathematics, would they be entitled to demand royalties for each time it was used? You know the answer, and so you also just know that we need a new conversation.