Of information, knowledge, copyright, piracy, and privacy

The young man looked at the RipStik sadly. His older brother had sent the stik as a birthday present. Try though he did, his attempts to stay upright and on the board had all met with instant failure. With no further thought I walked over.

"What hand do you write with?" I asked. He looked puzzled, but held up his right hand. I moved him over to the left side of the board. I told him to use his left foot on the front platform to bring the board up to level while keeping his right foot at the torsion bar. He looked ahead, ready to go. I corrected him.

"Do not look ahead. Stare only at the back platform, stare only at the word RipStik. Lift your right foot with a gentle push back and in a single motion plant that foot directly on the word RipStik. Once your foot is planted, then and only then turn your attention to what is in front of you."

He was up instantly and stayed on for a good three meters. He went off the board, but he landed on his feet with  his face lit up by his smile.

Visiting an old friend this evening he noted that his son had given him an iPad, but that he lacked much of the basic knowledge of the interface. He was flicking the surface too quickly. I showed him to use slower, more deliberate finger motions to enlarge and reduce the screen.

I share knowledge, information, almost reflexively and without thought of compensation or ownership. I wrote my own course text books and posted them on line under a Creative Commons 3.0 -by license. I am hardly alone in this, sites such as Flatworld Knowledge and FlexBooks provide access to open text books. I share knowledge on an almost continuous basis, and engender learning.
Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates

The advent of the winter break provided an opportunity for me to finish reading a book I first picked up from the library in late October, Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. The book has had me thinking about copyright, intellectual property, and the ownership of knowledge for the past two months.

I now see the open source movement in the light of a much richer and longer history than I ever appreciated. That book has given me a vastly deeper understanding of the importance of the decisions of the Internet Policy Task Force in regards copyright and the Internet. I share the view of Creative Commons on this issue. I am not enamored of copyright, intellectual property, nor patents.

I gather that the possibility exists that some of my wife's genes, or at least the proteins for which they code, have been patented as the result of a study of the genetics of the people of her island. I am fairly certain that having a company effectively own portions of her DNA is against her culture. In any case, I certainly object to her DNA being someone else's intellectual property. She could not comprehend the consent form that a trusted elder told her to sign, so she followed her tradition and did as she was told.

As a user of Ubuntu, Mozilla FireFox, Oracle OpenOffice.org, GIMP, and other open source packages, I am a user of open source software. I do run beta versions and when I see a bug, check to ensure that the bug has been filed, filing if the bug is unreported - which is exceedingly rare.

Maybe not unlike Norbert Wiener and Stewart Brand, I see information as a flow, a process, a collection of ideas that once let loose from the brain are no longer able to be owned. Information is inherently free - even before electronic media made the cost of reproduction virtually zero. Telling the young boy where to put his foot on the RipStik, the words from my mouth, did not require the purchase of raw materials, created no cost to me.

If information is free, why am I being paid? I rather suppose that I am paid to engender learning. I am a learning consultant. The information is free, but some need assistance in obtaining that information. I did not build the edifice that is modern education, but I suppose - lacking any other particular skills - that were I to have lived 3000 years ago I would have hung out in the marketplace dispensing knowledge in exchange for food or patronage. I am fortunate that education is now a social construct replete with remuneration and fringe benefits.

This being the Fall of WikiLeaks, the idea that all information should be freely and transparently available is being philosophically challenged. Coupled with the changes in FaceBook's privacy policy which impacted some 500 million denizens of the planet earth and Mark Zuckerberg's apparent philosophy that nothing should be private, this is a challenging season for advocates of complete transparency, unfettered freedom of information, and the unimpeded flow of ideas.

Sure, I can sit comfortably on my island rock and expound on the virtues of a world  where open and transparent communication are benefits to society. Where having a democratic nation say one thing in private and another in public is some form of betrayal of the foundation of a participative democracy where citizens are supposed to have all the information necessary to making informed decisions. Where a lack of transparency about the reliability of intelligence sources may have helped lead the United States into one of the wars in the middle east, is one possible example.

On the other hand, Michael LaBossiere argues the necessity of national secrets if a greater good is being served. Obviously there is a short term benefit from secrecy, but what would happen if a nation said the exact same things publicly and privately? Would the nation necessarily collapse?

For an information freeist, how far does transparency extend? To be an information freedom fighter do I need to put live feed Internet cameras in my bedroom? No culture of which I am aware publicly condones the public display of the act of procreation. Every where I have lived, doing the wild thing in the middle of the road is cause for disapprobation at the very least, if not arrest. Even the one year old in the house crawls into a corner to hide when he feels the need to fill his pamper - and he is clearly not versed in privacy theory.

I am left unsure of exactly where the line exists between freedom of information and privacy. That a line exists, of that I am certain. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart, I know when something is a true invasion of my privacy when I see it. I just see that line as being a fairly small circle, with the bulk of everything else outside that circle. Hence I blog my life and FaceBook with my "friends". All the world's a stage, and I am indeed an idiot strutting and fretting upon that stage.

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