One of the most significant achievements of the computer age has been the rise of the free software commons — code that can be openly accessed, shared and modified by anyone. Such code lies at the heart of the Linux operating system and many software programs that run the Internet.
My secret shrine was a flimsy metal cabinet in the bathroom in the basement. There, on the bottom shelf, stuffed between old yearbooks and math texts, was an object beyond wonder: my father’s souvenir scorecard from the 1946 World Series. I don’t think Moses could have come down from Sinai with anything more precious.
Big Pharma is such a hard-driving, seemingly invincible player in global markets and policymaking that it often appears impossible to counter its influence. Now comes a fascinating new proposal that could radically change how the nations of the world could finance medical research for new drugs. Jamie Love, the brilliant strategist and director of the Consumer Project on Technology, working with dozens of influential scientists, public health officials and lawyers, has announced a new paradigm for trade policy on medical R&D.
Even though academic science is one of the most productive commons, its fruits have increasingly been treated as private property, thanks chiefly to the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 and other laws that allow universities to patent and license their research. The sums that universities as a whole reap from their patents are fairly insignificant — about $1.3 billion of revenues of $227 billion.
Physicists and complexity theorists have a term for the moment when a liquid suddenly transforms into a gaseous state. It’s called a “phase transition.” A phase transition is not a linear, predictable change, but a sudden shift from apparent chaos and randomness to a “sweet spot” of dynamic equilibrium. The idea of a phase transition comes to mind when I look at the declining credibility and reputation of conventional mass media, especially television and radio, and the fierce proliferation of make-your-own creative genres.
You know that the idea of the commons has come of age when free marketeers try to co-op it. That time has apparently arrived. Two champions of “free market environmentalism” (a beaut of an oxymoron!) host The Commons Blog, which is dedicated to “the principle of promoting environmental quality and human dignity and prosperity through markets and property rights.”
UNESCO hasn’t been on most people’s mental maps for many years, in part because the United States pulled out of the organization nineteen years ago. It was angry at developing countries for resisting the new world order of information flows that U.S. media companies wanted. Who hears about UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) anymore?
Anyone who gives others the nurturance they need without asking for dollar payback is feeding that big baby known as the market economy.
Parents tend to their children, who grow up to become wage-earners and taxpayers. If these services were withdrawn, it would cost a great deal to replace them. Friends and relatives tend to one another. Without that care, many individuals would be forced to spend money to purchase the assistance they need. Volunteers spend time and energy trying to help their communities. If that time and energy disappeared, many needs would go unmet.
Imagine if Microsoft dominated the study of molecular biology because it owned the foundational knowledge of genetics and agriculture. Nobody could do research or innovate without first getting a license from the company. The field could be designed to maximize profits and thwart competitors, just as Microsoft’s Office suite has stymied innovation in word-processing programs.
The greatest asset that professors have is their intellectual integrity and independence. Now we learn from the Wall Street Journal (December 10; subscribers only) that corporations and public-relations firms are quietly renting the reputations of academics to help in various lobbying campaigns. Strikes me as a classic case of market enclosure: a shared resource is being bought off for private gain.
The control of government data is never going to be a hot political issue. It’s too complex and technical. So let me put it another way: Should private companies be able to own the weather? The good news — the surprising news — is that the National Weather Service (NWS) last week took a big step toward making weather data an open, public resource.
In the 1950s, Americans were scandalized when Vance Packard revealed in his best-selling book, The Hidden Persuaders, that advertisers subtly manipulate our emotions. Imagine! Fifty years later marketers are working side-by-side with neuroscientists trying to discover how brand loyalty can be improved by understanding brain chemistry.
My wife’s village in the Philippines consists mostly of bamboo houses perched on hills that rise gently from the rice fields. The hills are lush, the fields neat and well-tended; one almost forgets how poor these people are, in Western terms at least. My wife’s father gets about $750 a year for his crop, which is a lot compared to the sharecroppers who have little besides the rice they eat and clothes they wear.
Economists have long cited “prisoner’s dilemma” experiments to argue that altruism, trust and cooperation are inconsequential in real-life markets. To be rational is to be selfish. Social reciprocity is for suckers. Such experiments were always rigged in their theoretical design because test subjects had little opportunity actually to communicate with each other and develop trust over time. But the fallacies of the prisoner’s dilemma paradigm — and therefore the economics they supposedly endorse — are now under siege as never before.
Whose woods they are you might not know. So can you hunt in them? The question has new significance in the wake of the recent shooting of six hunters in Wisconsin in a dispute over hunting turf. Encounters like that are likely to increase as sprawl continues and land available for hunting shrinks. Hunters, like the prey they stalk, face the threat of habitat decline.
Sidewalks are one of the greatest human inventions, and one of the most unappreciated as well. They provide a means of walking, meeting, transporting, vending, and disseminating information in the way that is probably is closest to what the framers of the First Amendment actually had in mind. Just about the entire life of a city takes place on or through sidewalks. At any given hour, people are using them to go to shop, gawk, play ball, mail a letter, meet the object of their affections. All this and more for a minimal amount of upkeep and expense.
In a world of electronic media and leisure-as-commodity, it is wonderful to see the popularity of another call for quiet reflection and human connection. A new book by Canadian journalist Carl Honore, In Praise of Slowness: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed (HarperSanFrancisco), seems to be gaining a following.
Economists like to say that property rights are needed to foster innovation. But the evidence is piling up in one field after another that property rights have gotten so extensive that they are choking new creativity. The latest example comes from the world of filmmaking.
A few years ago the local farmers in my area, western Massachusetts, started a great marketing campaign. “ Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown” urged consumers to buy local produce rather than food shipped from California or abroad. It was refreshing to see locally committed farmers taking their case to the public in an appealing way.
JUSTINIAN IS OFTEN CALLED ROME’S LAST GREAT EMPEROR. His 38-year rule in the sixth century restored some of the foundering empire’s cultural and political glory. A mark of his triumph, the stunning Hagia Sofia cathedral that he constructed, still soars in the Istanbul skyline.