What happened to Free and Open Knowledge?

Recently in US History class we have been studying The Gilded AgeAndrew Carnegie, John Rockefeller, and other businessmen ruled the US with such power that it made the government useless.  When the government could do something about the problem with the cases that came through Supreme Court, it almost always sided with the corporations.  After many of the “successful” businessmen retired, they ran around doing philanthropy.  Are you starting to see a parallel to modern day society?

Yes, there are a bunch of parallels between the current monopolies of the software industry and the robber-barons of the Gilded Age, almost enough to make it scary.  They both made money by putting others through misery and hardships.  They did not care about their customers, as long as they continued to buy their products.  In the same way, many software companies today lock people into their platforms, making sure that once you use their product, you are never going back.  Back then, trusts were developed by the biggest railroad companies to ensure competition would not get in the way of money.  Now, this comes back as a deja vu in the form of software patents.  Huge companies allow other huge companies to use their patents, excluding the patent-less home user and small developer from the mix.  Both the businesses from the Gilded Age and those today managed to control the government as well.  Back then, they managed to get the government to go along with Laissez-faire economics, even though it was obvious that the common man was being trampled over as a result.  The government even issued huge land grants to the already gigantic railroad companies to build new lines.  In a similar way today, the DMCA “protects” “intellectual property” and DRM through law, software patents are given away like they are going out of style, and citizens are required to be subjected to these companies (in many cases) in order to interact with their own government.  Certain companies even have control of the ISO!

There is a major difference between these two time periods, though.  In the past, the most important thing in society was still free and open: information.  While monopolies back then could jack prices up, they couldn’t control the freedom of redistribution or modification.  If somebody wanted to resell the kerosene they bought from Standard Oil, nobody had any problem with that person doing so.  If that person wanted to try to use the kerosene in a new way, the companies would most likely encourage the practice, as new discoveries would increase the value and demand of the products created by Standard Oil.

Now, however, software companies “create knowledge”.  This practice is sort of like a restricted version of an encyclopedia.  Imagine what outrage the public would have been in years ago if some major encyclopedia company required that no information learned from their encyclopedia could be used or applied for any purpose without explicit written permission.  What would be the point in purchasing this encyclopedia set?  I can assure you the publisher would convince you of its importance anyway.  Notice how I said, “…the public would have been in years ago…” earlier though.  People have stopped appreciating the value of Free and Open Knowledge because companies today have convinced our consumer-based society that it isn’t important.  Ironically, the philanthropists from the Gilded Age gave huge amounts of money to spread Free and Open Knowledge by building libraries and founding universities, yet big business today relies on secrets and preventing the free flow of information.

What this does is create artificial barriers.  I am not saying that the tactics used by the captains of industry were necessarily moral, but they did not create artificial barriers.  The oil, steel, or whatever was only available through one company at high prices back then.  That is bad, but not horrible.  Once you got your hands on that product, you could do what you wanted with it.  Forget about that now.  The reason you can’t do what you want with that piece of computer software is because the corporation says you can’t.  There is nothing physically preventing you from spreading that knowledge.  Most computer users today are fully capable of sharing that knowledge with others, but the law gets in the way.

On a related note, I worked with another student on a music project recently.  We were discussing when we would be able to have a performance of a piece that we wrote.  I suggested, “If we are done in 2 weeks, we should be able to have it performed right after that.”  He said, “Well, you know, you can’t just print off a piece of music you made and put it in front of some people and say ‘Play this!’ [chuckle]  There is a copyright process you have to go through first.”  Even though this piece of music was 100% original, he believed that we still had to “get permission” to perform it.  This shows exactly how used to and accepting of this kind of thing my generation has become.  Before we do anything, we must “make sure it is okay” with a “higher power”.

People have been bullied through laws and propaganda into “helping” those corporations (and supposedly society as well) by treating abstract computer-readable files as physical objects.  This information could be shared freely and benefit all.  Advocates of this technique say that it is the only way to promote progress, but in reality, it does nothing but diminish its importance.  I suppose I can see how some could confuse “progress” and “private inside information”, as they look the same from the outside.  What is the purpose, however, of useful information if it cannot be built upon and actually used?  Think about if your grandma had a “secret recipe” for the greatest cookies in the world.  If she kept this recipe to herself, nobody but the people in your close family could enjoy these cookies.  Master chefs could, no doubt, fiddle with this recipe for years trying to find an improvement or inventing ways to adopt these cookies for other cultures.  If they were unable to improve perfection, they could still learn new techniques from your grandma and apply those to other recipes.  They are unable to do so, though, because your grandma has kept it a secret.  When she passes away, this recipe may or may not be saved, depending on whether she decided to share it with anyone.  The same thing may or may not happen with the “products” created by most “information” companies today.  It is really difficult to call something an “innovation” when the strides made by that something cannot be innovated upon.  Do we trust one company to do all of the innovation for it’s respective market?

I am not trying to insult your grandmother, but rather, get you to think about this from another angle.  In the whole scheme of the world, your grandma’s cookies are probably not the most important thing.  They do, however, represent a small model of a bigger problem.  Progress, especially in todays time, is one of the most important things in the world.  Small additions or changes to software unavailable for modification could mean significantly less carbon emissions to help the environment.  The company that “owns” these ideas may not think this environment-friendly change would increase sales, so they don’t bother to implement it.  Some piece of highly-urgent medical software could have a small bug in its core that stops doctors from accurately saving several lives.  Obviously these are extreme situations, but image what would happen if educational software was made open and freely modifiable!  Educators would be able to make the classrooms into what they should be, instead of training students through mouse clicks how to make a PowerPoint Presentation or an Excel Spreadsheet.  Educators could turn the classroom into that of a 21st century school, something most schools have yet to accomplish.

The main problem with the current approach is that the major companies today are guarding “knowledge” and “information”.  They are treating ideas as commodities, instead of as the ideas they really are.  If we both have apples, and exchange them, we each still have one apple.  If we both have ideas, and exchange them, we both now have two ideas.  Keeping ideas private will not help the world progress.  Did you appreciate the Wikipedia links I provided in this article?  It shows just how much Free and Open Knowledge is available now that we, as a consumer based society, tend to take for granted.  Wikipedia is not enough, though.  There is so much knowledge in the world that goes far beyond the scope of Wikipedia.  Our society could advance in ways we never thought possible if we could learn to collaborate.  So, whether you are J.P. Morgan, Richard Stallman, Joe the Plumber, or Steve Ballmer, please remember to keep in mind all of the ways Open and Free Information will benefit not only you, but society as a whole.

Published in: on December 20, 2008 at 11:21 pm  Comments (6)  
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