When you bounce around the web as much as I do, following as randomly as possible, all sorts of minimally, as well as primarily, connected things (via tech sites, artistic sites, political commentary sites, as well as YouTube, Digg, and ordinary News sites), you bump into the damnedest linkage threads. What often happens, as a result of this, are connections, and/or juxtapositions, of common, as well as disparate, themes and ideas.
A case in point is the TedxMidwest talk (published on Aug, 30, 2012, on YouTube) given by Pablos Holman on utilizing the hacker mind set to solve perplexing new problems. It is a good presentation and I recommend you give it a view.
As most of you already know, similar talk of turning what has mostly been a private, and all too often, a self serving, mode of occupation, into something positive, has spread far and wide on the Net. Which, in and of itself, is most probably a good thing. My concern here, however, is to illustrate what might be one area of concern for such well intended social thrusts.
I should hasten to point out that this concern didn't surface in my mind right away, after listening to Mr. Holman. My first impression was that, on the whole, it seemed like a good mesh. After all, who wouldn't be attracted to the idea of getting people who see beyond ordinary limits and boundaries; who relish taking the things we take for granted, pulling them apart and seeing what better ways to do things might become apparent. And whether one believes zapping mosquitoes with lasers is truly practical or not, the notion that the hacker mind set, as the ultimate boundary breaker, can be used for positive social change is an attractive idea.
Weeks later, however, I happened to bump into another Ted Talk and, surprisingly enough, it too was on a laser based, mosquitoe zapping system; only this talk took place on Feb 2010, and was presented by Nathan Myhrvold, former Microsoft technology officer and now CEO of Intellectual Ventures. And in case you haven't been keeping up on the controversial role of “Patent Trolls” in the last few years, I.V. is the current poster child for heavy handed tactics in the world of patent control, and enforcement. You need only read the first few pages of the Stanford Technical Law Review article “The Giants Among us” to see just how prominent I.V. has become as a source of worry in the patents world.
I point all of this out because I want to re-emphasize just how insidious, and pervasive, is the process of how Big Money works to co-opt everything that starts out as a means to thwart their over-arching interests of control. Even though this is certainly a complex issue, and that those who create ought to get something in return for what they create, we need to be very careful on how far we take the ownership, and control of ideas, and processes, not to mention the myriad flow of metrics that all of our endeavors propagate. As the S.T.L review article points out, the secrecy that Intellectual Ventures employs (using over a thousand shell companies to acquire patents, and never divulging, or allowing others to divulge, who has invested what) is astonishing. And despite the few high profile patent fights that have taken place so far, we are only beginning to understand the balance of positive to negative effects of so few controlling so many patents.
The bottom line for me here is that you have to wonder just how benevolent a company like Intellectual Ventures is, touting loudly as they do their creative fertilization of the ground for needful social development, and yet being so unwilling to actually document the precise numbers of what their investment income nets; both for the few investors, the inventors, as well as for the rest of us. After all, it's been nearly six years since the first Ted Talk on the mosquito zapper. Have they seen to the low cost introduction of this innovation yet? Has much more than reasonably priced mosquito netting been provided? I do seem to recall mention of a possible malaria vaccine, but how much is, or will be, spent on providing it? At what profit margin? And who will actually end up paying for it?
Just a few more things to think about in the new world of absolute absurdity.