November 16, 2006

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Paul Jones is the Director of ibiblio, one of the largest and earliest internet collections. Founded as SunSITE UNC in 1992, ibiblio maintains an active repository of hundreds of projects, catalogues, and multimedia files on a nearly infinite number of topics. Ibiblio is of particular interest to Linux fans, as it is the host of the Linux Documentation Project and has served up thousands of files from its public FTP archives.

Jones himself is a bit of a web guru. In addition to his ground-breaking work at ibiblio, he is a popular professor, speaker, and author-- and we most recently caught up with him in Delhi, India at the "Owning the future" Symposium. We had Jones on video talking with Eben Moglen, but heard there was much more to the story than that. We figured we'd get the tale straight from the source.

The road to Tibet

article and photos by Paul Jones

A statue of Buddha in McLeod Ganj.

What do basmati rice and open source software have in common? This was one of the questions that went through my mind as I listened to Dr. Vandana Shiva talk about traditional knowledge and intellectual property at the "Owning the Future" Symposium in Delhi this past August. Being in the same room with practitioners of atavistic medicine and Eben Moglen of the Software Freedom Law Center gave me a pretty good idea of the breadth of the problems posed by intellectual property policies. Later in McLeod Ganj--the home of the Dalai Lama--I would see even more interesting and intriguing juxtapositions of traditional knowledge and cooperative construction of intellectual wealth.

Dr. Shiva organized the traditional farmers and breeders of basmati rice to help them seek protection for their cooperatively developed and extremely tasty rice. A Texas company using a proprietary hybrid embraced and extended the original basmati product. The Texans were, according the Dr. Shiva, creating market confusion by labeling their new product basmati rice. The Texans claimed that they had extended the product, made it more reliable, and allowed it to grow without the special climate of India's prime rice belt. But you could only grow the improved rice with their license.

Prayer flags overlooking the compound of the Dalai Lama.

The true basmati rice depends instead on cooperative work done by a network of contributors, networked not just across the region but across generations and available from many sources; for free from the previous season, from the village storehouse, from various sellers and breeders--all in a kind of cooperative competition.

This was all on my mind during the twelve-hour drive from Delhi into the Himalayas. After the conference, I would be meeting with some of the various Tibetan groups that have been working with over the past decade. Although we had worked closely at times, we had never met. We too had been involved in cooperative creation and distribution of knowledge. Often in the case of the Tibetans, the knowledge included the tough tales of life in exile, of creating a new virtual Tibet to connect the members of their culture even as that culture was being replaced in the land they had known as theirs.

A computer lab at the LHA, one of the Tibetan organizations connected to ibiblio.

Until Xeni Jardin had visited McLeod Ganj a few weeks earlier, I had no idea what many of the Tibetans even looked like. But now I had mental pictures of Lobsang Wangyal and Phuntsok Dorje, and of the Dalai Lama's temple. I even knew a little about the wireless mesh that Phuntsok and Yahel Ben-David had been developing to connect the various NGOs in the area to each other and to the Internet.

But arriving in the Himalayan foothills put it all in a different light. The first thing I saw on my door at the Pema Thang Hotel was a sign warning me about the monkeys. Xeni had warned me that the biggest enemies of the mesh network are the big Rhesus Macaca (and Gray Langurs) that like to run up to the top of the antennas and break the poles with their weight as they swing on the flexible stems. I didn't quite believe that the same monkeys would be trying to get into my room. As I looked out into the new dark, I could see them in the trees near my little balcony. Their mischievous eyes were catching what light was left of the waning day.

Cheeky monkey.

I locked up as instructed and the monkeys moved on to other less wary roomers' windows.

Later in my visit, Phuntsok took me to the Tibetan Children's Village where he, Yahel, Laird Brown, and a red-haired dreadlocked Frenchman named Aurelien Personnez were taking apart Linksys wireless routers and rebuilding them in weather resistant boxes. They would later become part of the wireless mesh. Phuntsok and Yahel had come up with some smart innovations: using power over Ethernet to reduce the amount wiring necessary to run up the antenna, reflashing the memory of the Linksys for their special purposes, and reinforcing the antenna so as to support a big fat monkey.

Tibetan prayer flags outside the temple of the Dalai Lama.

All of their innovations and additional brainstorming on rural cooperative wireless would be discussed at November's AirJaldi conference in McLeod Ganj. Among those attending would be Richard Stallman. Without a doubt--we are in a global free software world.

The Tibetans, keepers of much traditional cooperatively developed knowledge, are involved in the creation of new knowledge and innovation through their wireless contributions and more. Although their Tibet is now virtual, or perhaps because of that sad turn of fortune, they represent an intersection of shared knowledges both technical and open source as well as traditional and specialized. Whether studying Tibetan medicine or creating a new way of implementing a wireless mesh, their information is out there.

Feeling cooperative? The Tibetans still need an open Tibetan language font set that could and would be included in Firefox. Maybe you can help make it happen.

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