The Digitization of Knowledge

I recently rediscovered the joy of the public library system. Back when I was a kid, I used to devour books by the shelf, reading over 100 books a year. I would tear through everything from cheap Star Wars novels to non-fiction books on political theory. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before my parents stopped buying me new books (which I would really read only once anyway) and turned me over to the public library system, where a local branch was only a few blocks away. These were the times when I could take out up to 10 books at a time for zero cost to me (except for late fees of course). Knowledge was accessible to anyone, and you could take just about any book home with you if you had a library card.

Today, America’s libraries are much the same as when I was a kid, and they provide even more access to knowledge, thanks to the power of computers and the internet. Yet somehow, the same unbridled access to any information or knowledge at no cost seems to have become a thing of the past. The American Library Association seems to strongly advocate “Intellectual Freedom” which they define as “the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.” However, something seems to be getting lost in the transition from the dusty stacks in the physical library to today’s digital revolution. This premise of access to information as a basic human right seems to be forgotten in today’s lawbooks.

The thought of Intellectual Property is definitely a tough problem to solve as we move into an era where the American economy is more service/knowledge-based as opposed to a traditional manufacturing society. Intellectual Property, at its base, is really no more than an idea or thought or performance, that has been transcribed onto some sort of digital medium. No one will oppose that the creators of these thoughts, ideas and methods deserve some sort of recognition and ability to recoup the effort that went into that creation. However, two major factors have changed since our original laws around patents and intellectual property were drafted.

First, when computers first debuted back after World War II, a new medium of software was created. I remember my dad used to tell a story of working at Rockwell when they were designing the space shuttle, and the rocket scientists needed to know how much the software physically “weighed” since they had to account for every weight in their launch calculations. Of course, software has no literal weight, which had to be explained over and over, but the principle is an important one to notice. If something can be copied with almost no effort at all, with no physical loss to another, all that has been transferred is simply an idea. Isn’t an idea merely information?

Second, the rise of the internet now allows access to information that isn’t just locally based, but can literally be anywhere in the world and is mere milliseconds away. Hundreds of individuals, groups, and businesses publish information on internet for free, all sharing that information. I’d say the vast majority of pages are free, and the for-pay sites are in the relative minority. Of course, we have numerous corporations trying to monetize large amounts of information right now, let’s take Rupert Murdoch and Google as an example. Are they selling the information, the service of accessing it, or both? The opportunity cost of this information should be next to nothing. Data warehousing is cheap, especially when hard drives allow costs of <$0.10/GB.

I’m all for free markets, so let’s keep it free and we’ll see how it plays out. Giving access or information to be in the hands of any single party (such as the Google Book Settlement) is dangerous, and the best method to work against this is to distribute the load across many players. I don’t think that we should simply give all the rights to one clearinghouse for all the information and rights, providing a free market for the information (including “orphan works”) is the only way to secure competition and free access to the information. When other players (Amazon, or some other non-profit) scans the text, let’s let them regulate how much they want to charge and who gets paid for it.

One comment on “The Digitization of Knowledge

  1. Koyie says:

    Suprirsngily well-written and informative for a free online article.

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