Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Like A Flower - Innovation and the Knowledge Commons

Some states in the U.S. have beautiful wildflowers along the roadside not just in one season, but oftentimes several, and Arkansas is a place where one enjoys several seasons. However, stopping by the roadside to pick such wildflowers is not as simple as it once was. Aggravating though that may be, there are actually good reasons for the laws which exist in part so that the more unusual flowers don't simply disappear: something which happens frequently just the same. Hence the more unusual flowers, if they are seen, tend to be in the places where people - or mowing equipment for that matter - don't normally go. (who cites a mower for destroying a flower?)

In other words, the more beautiful flowers that we hold in common are there - in part - because they're not always easy to reach on the roadside! But the important aspect here is that they are on the same roadside, where we are in fact an actual traveler. We are in awe of them because they are part of a"wild" memory, and yet they are still somehow there. A nature preserve would protect our fragile flower as well, but that element is further away from us and what we do every day. Sometimes we make a special trip or go out of our way to observe what is preserved elsewhere, but the awe doesn't feel as immediate, as the "random" encounter or interaction in our daily existence. So we may still appreciate what is "protected" for us at a more distant length, but it tends to be somewhat forgotten and perhaps even marginalized in an aggregate sense. Whereas, steep cliffs bearing blooms around tight mountain curves are - in a sense - the best "mini preserve" of all, in part because they exist along roadways that we all share.

Many innovators of old provided humankind with life changing innovations.  One might say that their incentives (curiosity, challenge) were different: what did they gain for what they gave the world? And so now, innovation mostly happens in institutions where supposedly there is a "balanced reciprocity" - moneywise, anyway, for the exchange. Except that's not exactly how it felt when I observed a friend invent procedures for a lab process, which were simply handed over to the company afterwards, without further ado. (gee, thanks!) Even the solitary inventor of old didn't always gain more acclaim than my friend, but at least there are times when we capture the name and a little history of those earlier inventors, which makes the memory a little like the awe inspiring mini preserve along the main roadside. Whereas, the innovator inside the institution is more like that big nature preserve off the beaten path: the gains mostly "preserved" for posterity...profit or pleasure producing, perhaps, but not so much earth shattering gains for humankind on the paths we daily travel together.

Once, countless points of thought existed and comingled with other thought processes on our main highways and byways: many of which inspired feelings of awe - not unlike like those mini preserves of special flowers on a hillside. For centuries, we took these flowers of knowledge for granted, for they actually grew among us. Thus, we knew much about their character and form - we knew where the ones that seemed particularly unique might actually be found, in their naturally protected crevices and ridges.

What of knowledge use has survived the once abundant grounds of the commons, to flourish in the present? Unfortunately, some of the once spontaneous mix, is now separated like so many zoo cages, with the appropriate illustrations and captions. The few who win the right to represent knowledge also discourage the former rights of others to comingle and hybridize for new growth. The few may also gain the right to punish the many, who would directly work with and fashion workable solutions, from what seemingly remains of an open knowledge commons. For instance, to fashion workable, affordable and competitive solutions is to potentially run afoul of the protected rents of the special few, who are already given the "knighthood" of fashioning such innovations. Because of their special protections, today's innovations are often out of reach of the greater public, simple though the innovation may actually be. For anyone interested in such hidden monopolies, the book "Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and The Economics Of Destruction" by Barry C. Lynn (2010), is indispensable.

In the twentieth century, people took most of the beautiful flowers of knowledge into the protected environments of their institutions for - after all - that just seemed like the "reasonable" thing to do. How else were we to "protect" them and to encourage their survival? After all, one just can't trust the "random traveler" going the road...right?  However, our brains seem to be hardwired to crave the spontaneous elements of those long ago fields, meadows and mountainsides where the flowers of knowledge grew freely. Yes, we knew a flower could bloom in our own yard where no one else would see it or take it...but then it turned out to be somewhat disappointing to have gardens of flowers that no one else would really be able to enjoy. We didn't realize how lonely it could come to feel, that no one else was there to walk through our garden of flowers and knowledge, and enjoy it just as we had.

Perhaps some would just say, all such commons must come to an end. Just enjoy your own personal property and make the best of it. Well yes, perhaps...however there is an encouraging sign in some cities where people now want to recreate the spontaneous nature of wildflowers in their midst, even if only in small places between other spaces.  But is there really a way to recreate such "greenbelts" for knowledge use, given the present circumstances where innovation is strangled by a million castles on the river and paths that we share? For the knowledge we want to remain real and yet awe inspiring, it needs to be on the roadways we actually utilize and travel. It could be that once again allowing knowledge use directly in our midst is the best preservation of all. Perhaps there are ways to return it in more spontaneous forms - even if that means a bit of careful planning - which would look like those wildflower meadows people want to see again, in the daily paths they encounter.

Update: Felix Salmon has a good post today on patent trolls, an important issue regarding intellectual property which was also covered on This American Life.

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