Recently I had the chance to facilitate two thematically related workshops given to two different audiences. The first was part of the Arab Digital Book Expression Program and was given to a group of young Egyptians who are interested in independent e-book publishing. The second workshop was given to a number of professionals and publishing house owners from the Egyptian Publishers’ Union. Both workshops broadly addressed how the Internet is affecting extant systems of publishing, copyright laws, as well as the how it is empowering content creators and changing the role of the publishers (the sessions were slightly tailored to be relevant to the interests of the two groups). The reactions of these two groups of participants highlighted the rift in expectations about the impact of emerging network technologies on creativity and the publishing world, and by consequence draw attention to the main obstacles against the emergence of alternative publishing models and a freer environment of knowledge and creativity in the Arab World.
In many ways, the difference between these two groups and how they responded to the themes tackled in the two sessions mirrors dynamics of change (and resistance to it) that have been triggered by the Arab uprisings, and underscore some of the key drivers behind these transformations. The questions from the publishers group were revealing of a prevailing sentiment in the publishing industry; that which regards the Internet mainly as a threat to their business models, and which still envisions the role of the publisher merely as a sort of logistical intermediary of culture. While this sentiment is not unique to Arab publishers, it is important to note how many still fail to grasp that new technologies offer as many, or perhaps more, opportunities as they do imperil paradigms of knowledge creation and distribution that predate the Internet.
The other group was comprised of young people with diverse interests, including art, film making, political activism, among others. This group did not appear to be, on average, more technologically-savvy than the publishers group, but all its members shared an interest in how they can independently create and distribute their creative literary work. Everyone in this session seemed very eager to explore the opportunities and tools presented in some of the topics discussed, even beyond what the time limit of the session allowed. The energy and enthusiasm in this group exemplifies an emerging ethos of a technologically-democratised creativity, more accessible co-creation of knowledge and a less restricted ecosystem of cultural production.
Across the Arab World, reactionary forces still cling to their authoritarian roots and place hurdle after another in the face of movements pushing for progress, the latter being largely driven by young people, who are a demographic majority in many Arab countries like Egypt. Given the great uncertainty in the political transitions the Arab World is experiencing, it is far from assured there will be any kind of genuine democratic transformations in the near future in some or all of these countries. One thing we can claim with some modicum of conviction, though, is that the disruptions created by the events of the Arab uprisings have created new contexts of political contention that makes it increasingly difficult for authoritarian regimes to play the ‘long game’ and preserve the status quo. Similarly, if Arab publishers – including those in the realms of music, film and digital content – continue to regard the Internet as merely disruptive and remain entrenched in business models that are rapidly falling out of relevance, they miss opportunities that they can capitalise upon sooner than later. The very notion of what a publisher is and does is changing. Internet skeptics miss the forest for the trees when they try to think of contemporary modes of creativity in terms of the pre hyper-connectivity world.
The big picture is this: The Internet is changing is not only the roles of cultural intermediaries in our communities, but also creating new ones. The incipient horizon is of a world where the cultural public sphere embodies the notion of ‘building upon’, and the role of publishers shifts from being ‘gate-keepers’ of knowledge and creativity to facilitators in and catalysts of an unrestricted cross-pollination of prospects for creative pursuits. Instead of focusing on how to continue policing the boundaries of access to creative resources, a task that is increasingly becoming technically impractical and rationally untenable, Arab publishers should switch their attention to how best to tailor their core functions to a world where preparation for printing and physical distribution are not the main value added by a publisher to the creative production process. If we are currently hoping for a sociopolitical renaissance in the Arab World, an unrestricted domain of cultural production and creativity will have an integral role to play in it.
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