Smart and Stupid

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LemmingsThe crowd can be smart  and the crowd can be stupid. Part of the discussion on Brittanica deals with what the advantage is of social software and iCrowds. And when results are stupid or irrelevant. IS there for example a thing like a citizen scientist?

Open source seems to work great: Linux, Samba, Apache are all examples where the software has reached tremendous stability because it is open. Everybody in the world can test it, can comment on features and can look at the code to try to make it better. I think most will agree that in these cases no group of “professional specialists” would have done any better.

On the other hand we have Wikipedia that sort of combines the best and worst of information. And it can be hard to distinguish between good and bad. Parroting each other through blogs and fora’s creates information that looks like the truth because it is amplified a thousand times (you can Google it and a hundred links say the same “truth” but in reality it may be just one person who is the source and who might be wrong. A thousand consistent lies remains a lie. One of the reasons we think information that is found many-fold is true is because in the old days much of this information was from different sources. Due to the Internet and the free copy and distribution, information is replicated with the speed of lightning.  This speed of replication leads to a loss in diversity of sources since it is much more convenient to copy based on what Google delivers. This process is of course self propelling. 

One of the reasons for this difference is the ease how we can distinguish right or wrong. When using the Apache server I know when it crashes or is vulnerable for attacks. And I know when it is fixed (when it does not crash or does like advertised). also, each person looking at the application or code does this on it’s own. With information in Wikipedia this is not so easy to determine without thorough research based on “peer reviewed” sources.

As for the citizen scientist: there may certainly be a place in science for the pro-am model. A much mentioned example is the use of amateur astronomists that see a lot a things that the professionals missed because you can’t look at the whole sky. But collection of data is only a part of science. Building theories and designing experiments is something altogether different. On a photograph it is easy to see if it was a supernova. Building and proving a theorie is much less clear and needs the input and critical review of many experts.

Combining diversity is the key to iCrowds, not replication of the same.

Individual interests and Innovation

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If you have invented something very interesting, you want to get a share of the action. I would. But fact is that our copyright laws and patents create a monopoly. And in general monopolies are bad for us.

In this interesting article I read the case is made that Watt and the steam engine that he invented has been the greatest bottleneck for further innovation. Simply put, the steam engine and the industrial revolution only took of after the patent expired. Innovation builds upon the shoulders of previous innovators.

In the discussion on Brittanica Andrew Keen is making the case that the movement of free information will lead us to a “counter-revolution”:

As Gorman so ably argues, we now have a whole generation of digital idealists who believe that information should be free, that it’s liberating, and that computers are emancipating our intellects, unbottling our creativity.

If I look around the Internet I would say: free information is liberating and that I see a lot of creativity unlocked. If we look at the potential for social software you can see we are only beginning. But one of the key problems we have is the fact that copyright laws make innovative use of information impossible. It simply is not possible to advance our society without the (re)use of all kinds of information that is copyrighted. This is the classic example of the balance between Individual interest and the Common good.

Watt, due to good political relations of his partner, was able to extent his patents. The same is happening at the moment with information. Fact is, companies like Brittanica should realize that their old business model simply do not work anymore. In a society where information is able to flow completely free it is impossible to rely on business models of the past, where the publishing and distribution of information was expensive. This led to fairly small production sizes (per item used by many, e.g. in a library) and so high costs per sold item to produce the content.

Now the unit is measured in views, not in books. Publishing and distribution costs zilch. Of course it still costs a lot of money to produce the content of the Brittanica. And society would be worse of if the business of creating quality content would become impossible because others “reuse” your results of hard work. But fact is that the context has changed so much that a) the old business models simply do not work anymore and b) society is harmed by enforcement of these antiquated models. Maybe the future is in hybrid models where professionals and amateurs work side by side. I do not know.

If nature changes than farmers have to adapt to the new reality. There is no need to complain against mother nature. Just like the content producing industry must adapt to the fact that information will flow freely.

The free flow of information has become the fuel for the advancement of our society. It has become too important for the common good to be left to monopolies that have no interest but their own.

Free our culture

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Books by lawyers are usually very boring. I must admit, I am not objective because I am not a big fan of lawyers. It is not that I think they are not useful, but … well you got the point.

But to my surprise I am reading one that is very interesting and well written at the same time. The book is called Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity from Lawrence Lessig.Central theme of the book is the fact that, due to copyright laws, our culture is becoming more and more blocked. Advancement in many fields like science and arts is based upon the works of others. Quantum mechanics could not have been created without Einstein, even while he objected it (Gott würfelt nicht). People like van Gogh used many of the new techniques and settings that he saw popping up around him. This is the reason why, during periods of transition, people flock together. Te learn by sharing and by taking from each other.

Many of the, now large, organisations like Disney used the culture around them freely to make their art. Disney would have been nowhere without the works of the brothers Grimm. And yet organisations like Disney are the driving force behind laws that stretch Intellectual property rights to 70 years after the death of the author. Of course, every person creating works of art has the right to get paid when it is used by others. People invest time and money into the creation process and due payment is fair. The free in “Free culture” is free like in free speech, not like in free beer or free ride.

An interesting analogy is between this kind of property rights and patents. A patent is valid for 20 years. A pharmaceutical company, once it establishes a patent, is usually still developing and testing for 10 years before they enter the market. Their payback time is therefore 10 years. After that it is a free market and prices go towards the variable production costs. That is 10 years of payback for R&D investments instead of 100 years for copyrights on creative works. Works that sometimes have been created in an afternoon (sometimes with a stroke of genius …). Recently somebody gave me an example where an amateur choir had to pay license fee’s to sing popular songs. In the book an example is given about a TV show set in a radio station that can not be shown anymore because it is impossible to clear all the music rights.

The law should always balance the private and public interests. To me it feels logical that authors do not have an eternal right to their work. Maybe you can even see it as the “coming of age” of the work. Parents have no authority over children that have come of age (normally 18). Maybe the authors should not have any rights once their work has reached the age of 18. After all this time, part of the success of the work is not just the doing of the author but also of all kinds of accidental processes in society. Our processes in our society.

Intellectual property rights should be in the interest of the commons. For this the rights of the creator must be protected to make it worthwhile to create. Not to put a ban on the further development of culture.