September 4, 2012
"You may feel some pain." Who likes to hear these words coming from one's physician? At least one can count on her professional expertise and her personal commitment to do no harm. The pain is going to be temporary, her act will be beneficial or else she would have warned you differently.
"Tell me if it hurts" for instance promises no immediate relief for the ailment which brought you to the examination room. Your physician is still looking for a diagnostic. At least she is likely to soon find out and discuss with you the best treatment and its probable outcome, good or bad.
In the worst case scenario, one can still focus one's energies, assured expert help is fighting for one's sake. When the issue is known to be benign, the whole experience may become a source of discovery about oneself. Enjoy the journey before routine returns, those who have arrived like to tell.
For society though, periods of transition come with no reliable outcome, no helpful guide, no obvious focus. They bring disorder and confusion.
I am wont to call our times the Information Age. No doubt future historians will use this term. They will also vigorously argue about its starting date.
When I was born, the Middle Ages began in 476, as Western Roman Emperor Romulus Augustulus was made redundant. When I left high school, they began in the VIIth century, when the Eastern Roman emperor outsourced Syria and sundry provinces to Arabs' low cost armies, or even one hundred years later, when Charles Martel put a frank stop to such outsourcing and the Western Empire brand was revived to his grandson's benefit.
In truth we too live in an unwanted period of transition, to the Information Age what the Dark Ages are to the medieval glories which were to come.
Signs of disorder are everywhere. "Mideast energy companies come under attack from computer virus", Camilla Hall and Javier Blas report (*). "Software meant to fight crime is used to spy on dissidents", echoes Nicole Perlroth (**). "Arrest follows thefts of client data at Julius Baer", chimes in James Shotter (***). "The theft is the third to hit the Swiss bank in the past ten years".
By the way what prevents data theft at Google? Not a lack of opportunity. Despite Google's promises that only machines have access to the personal, confidential data stored on its computers, some of its employees must have access to these computers. Nor a lack of feasibility, nor the greater honesty of its employees. It is solely a matter of demand. The German authorities are known to pay well for data from foreign banks. So far no one has openly bought or sold more than ID data. But surely neither Mulcaire nor Pellicano advertised their dark deeds. Neither would spies.
Cyberwar and virtual theft are one thing. When society is in transition, even more telling is intellectual confusion.
Facebook shares have lately taken a tumble. Ask almost everyone, you will hear the issue is that Facebook has failed so far to properly monetize the billion personal profiles it holds. This reaction is quite justified. It is also myopic. Rather the real challenge for society is to enable each citizen to monetize the economic value he or she can generate within a social network like Facebook. Some critics claim information has no monetary value, as if personal data was not an asset. Others will object individual users cannot hope to live on the money which will ever be made from it.
Turn to the Agricultural Revolution, the transition period which introduced the Food Age. When every one else is hunting and gathering, picture yourself trying to convince the elders one can sow, harvest and store cereals year after year. Even if there were enough to feed you and your family, you would be a sitting duck, for every plunderer to come and pluck. Besides shouldn't the earth stay free for every nomad to roam and reap its fruit.
It would have been hard indeed for these elders to imagine how agriculture would progressively transform the very structures of society and so doing answer their objections. We know as little as they did what the future will be. But at least we should distinguish babies from their bath waters.
Read Sebastian Mallaby's brief against the American patent system (****). According to him, one should not "conflat[e] "rival" goods like home and hamburgers, which cannot be shared costlessly, which "non-rival" intellectual products that can be enjoyed simultaneously by all". His distinction is as learned as it is misleading.
1940 Moscow, 1960 Shanghai, 1980 Paris, 2000 Tokyo are proof enough that homes are shareable to an extent we may find difficult to fathom, whether through the reenginering of homes into sleeping boxes, the exploitation of immigrants by "les marchands de sommeil" (1) or the enforcement of communal living by the state. And where is the cost of dividing ground beef into as many parts as there are guests at the table?
Sharing non-rival goods, Sebastion Mallaby will reply, brings an actual loss to their original owner. He has less space to live in, less meat to eat. If he shares information, where is his loss? If economics is a science however, it cannot refer to cost without defining its unit. Rival goods are such to the extent they are measured in a tangible unit which cannot be shared. If it is held to be one such unit, one cannot have one's cake and eat it too.
As Sebastian Mallaby fails to realize though, the unit in which to deal with any type of goods is a construct of society. Land, this most tangible of property, is easily made non-rival by declaring it part of the common, whose unit is the right of access. Enforce vegetarianism and you do not even need a hamburger unit. Mirrorwise this most intangible of property, information, is easily made rival by monetizing it in some freely traded currency.
Patent law tries to do that. Are "Apple's newly validated patents around tap-to-zoom, bounceback and pinching to enlarge images and web pages", to use Tim Bradshaw and Simon Mundy's words (*****), proof "the US has a long way to go before attaining sanity"? Not in the least, though Sebastian Mallaby is right to imply a state of insanity. He has simply confused the principle of granting patents over novel, original and useful ideas with the need to organize their trading on liquid markets. Monopolies must be regulated, especially when their size make them a danger to society.
In the wake of the Vandals and other trespassers passing through transition periods, might makes right. Individual inventors' ideas are under threat but Mitt Romney's heirs may be rejoicing. "People in Massachusetts [...] will be able to treat their identities as pieces of property [...] for 70 years after [their] death", if the State Senate has its way there (******). Leon Neyfakh's analysis makes clear both how much society can structure the economy and how far it can let iself fall at the beck and call of stars and lobbies. I do not mind whether the so-called Bill Cosby's bill becomes law.
But, while the law concerns itself with protecting the profile of stars after death, would justice be hurt if it looked after ours while we are still alive?
- (*) ........... Mideast energy companies come under attack from computer virus, by Camilla Hall and Javier Blas (Financial Times) - August 31, 2012
- (**) ......... Software meant to fight crime is used to spy on dissidents, by Nicole Perlroth (New York Times) - August 31, 2012
- (***) ....... Arrest follows thefts of client data at Julius Baer, by James Shotter (Financial Times) - August 28, 2012
- (****) ..... American law is patent nonsense, by Sebastian Mallaby (Financial Times) - August 29, 2012
- (*****) ... Samsung says Apple abused US patent laws, by Tim Bradshaw and Simon Mundy (Financial Times) - August 28, 2012
- (******) . Life, the aftermarket, by Leon Neyfakh (Boston Globe) - August 19, 2012
- (1) I found no English equivalent to name those who practice overtenanting rental property, rather than undermaintaining it, as American slumlords like to do.