When ideas become powerful

Why are we surprised that governments and organizations are lining up to control ideas and the way they spread?

When power resided in property, governments and corporations became focused on the ownership, regulation and control of property.

When power shifted to machines and interstate commerce, no surprise, the attention shifted as well.

Now, we see that the predictions have come true, and it's ideas and connections and permission and data that truly matter.

So gifted inventors shift gears and become patent trolls, suing instead of merely creating. So government agencies rush to turn off cell phone towers. So corporations work to extend and reinvent the very notion of copyright protection.

Here's what we ought to demand:

Are copyright rules being played with as a way to encourage creation of art (which was the original intent) or are they now a tool for maximizing corporate profit?

Are patents (particularly software patents) being used to encourage new inventions, or have they turned into a tax that all of us have to pay whenever we use a computer or a phone? (Hint: if you can draw your patent on an index card, it's an idea, not a patentable process worthy of protection).

Is disconnecting a cell phone or a social network any different from trashing a printing press?

When organizations seek to control widgets and hammers and land, it seems right–that property is clearly private, and sharing it doesn't scale. When two people both try to eat a marshmallow, there's less for both.

Controlling ideas and connections and data… that's a fundamentally different deal, partly because it's so personal (that idea in your head might or might not have been inspired by the idea I wrote down, but it feels wrong for me to tell you that you can't have your idea) and partly because in fact, shared ideas do scale, they don't usually diminish.

Ideas are going to continue to become more valuable, which means that the urge to control and patrol them is going to get greater.

  • Ideas that spread, win
  • Networks in which ideas flow are worth more than networks without
  • Great ideas are amplified when others build on them
  • Just because an idea spreads doesn't mean it's good for us
  • Locking down ideas makes them worth less
  • Those in power will try to keep outsiders from bringing new ideas forward

[Update: Rick asked for my distinction between an idea and an invention. Here goes:

I think an idea is something you can write about in a science fiction book.

An invention is when you build something that people who read about it in the science fiction book said was impossible.]