My Information Folder
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My Information Folder

Back during the Cold War, which was a part of the world I was born into in 1956 and remained a part of my world for the first thirty years, there was much made of the problem of National Security concerns being a bar to the free flow of information between the scientists of the world. Often, in thriller novels of the time, some threat to the entire world was fought off by the global scientific community through some arcane and intricate communications network that allowed the scientists to work together in spite of their respective governments’ paranoia and suspicion.

This was the mind-set of my early life: science had become important enough (radar, bomb-sights, and of course Fat Man and Little Boy) that it was respected by armies, governments, and especially academia. The lesson (or one of them) of post-WWII culture was that Scientists had created a weapon stronger than any Army—a push-button city-killer. Scientists were important now—their habitual, pencil-necked geek-itude still applied, but we at least recognized the possibility that by penning a science team into a ‘secure’ project one could realize magical results.

But even before the War ended, the problem of scientific, communal brainstorming versus tight, compartmentalized security became a thorny one for both Oppenheimer and General Groves, respectively. And with that inertia, the issue became a philosophical football for the remainder of the Cold War. But electronics—one of the main ingredients in the struggle’s demise—kept the post-Cold War era from being the flowering of free exchange we had imagined the end of those hostilities would produce.

I cannot reel off the history of early transistors—I know that much of the hardware was developed by Bells Labs (which, in a strange rebuke to capitalism, accomplished more scientific advancement as a monopoly than any company has ever managed with a competitive industry!) and then IBM got involved and NASA needed computing power for the space race and the technology evolved and the software built itself up from low-level to high-level to user-friendly… Well, comes the PC, the Internet, and the I-Phone—six decades in, we have no sense of scientific community at all. In fact, that old-timey, 20th century attitude seems ludicrous to us now.

The Information Age is a curious malapropism—it is the age of returning to our primitive roots—when knowledge was a magical power, not to be shared but hoarded, and to even offer up one’s true name was seen as incautious at best. The result of Information Ownership is the legal protection of Secrecy and the freezing of Group scientific inquiry.

One of the ways in which Big Tobacco defended itself for so long against their own research was to make that research proprietary and, therefore, unavailable as evidence in cases concerning that self-same research. All industries use similar legal strategies at present, especially Big Pharma. They control the information available to the court or the jury, thus controlling the outcome of any judgment at law.

The most visible aspect of Knowledge Ownership is the copyrighting of entertainment material: writings, music, images, logos, catch-phrases—they are all under the protection of creative-ownership rules. But in the end these issues, while financially impressive, are the least important aspect of the problem.

Scientific Research without Publication was once seen as an Oxymoron—why seek knowledge and then demure from sharing it with the global scientific community? Science majors in higher education were once required to learn Latin, Greek, French and German based on the assumption that some scientific research would be written by scientists in other countries. Today, I believe the list has lost Latin and Greek—and added Russian, Japanese, and Mandarin.

But in today’s culture, one is more likely to go without input from other scientists that live in one’s own town or county—and will see a cold day in the nether regions before getting feedback from a kindred mind in mainland China. Things were so simple once—sometimes I think progress is just a process of adding new dangers and being blind to the little comforts we unmindfully trade in on the new-fangled. When I was a kid, if you were outside, you couldn’t talk on the phone—now that I can, one of the great pleasures of being outdoors is gone.

The 1980s are remembered by many as the ‘Me’ decade—but the Twenty-Oughts, in my opinion, are the My-I- decade. All our folders start with My—my pictures, my music, my documents… and the gadgets are all called ‘I-Things’ (Hey, good brand-name—I call firsties!) and all the handheld or portable gear is customizable with different colors, sleeves, icons, ring-tones, and wallpaper—but since we alone spend time with our I-Things, we alone see the ‘customizations’—they are more internal than ‘custom’—perhaps we should call them ‘neuroti-zations’, since they are personal quirks that others rarely see.

Once, information-ownership was winked at by the guy/gal on the street—the librarian could cluck disapprovingly at you while you Xeroxed pages from a book, but we knew in our hearts that our copies were not infringing on any commercial aspect of the book. Yes, I would have to buy the book to get my own copy of the page but the truth is that would have simply meant that I didn’t use the page at all—or I would waste my valuable time copying the page by hand—a problem for me, but still having zero effect on the publisher’s bottom-line.

But then Napster came along, the Audio-CD Pop-Music industry collapsed—O, it’s still there but it no longer makes or breaks a star—that privilege has been transferred to TV, in the form of talent-shows like “American Idol”, “The Voice”, etc. And Youtube now flags my videos, if I happen to perform any song that was written less than a century ago. For a while there, they were flagging my classical videos too, but I complained to Youtube that Bach & Co. were well outside of anyone’s copyright. Since that has stopped now, I’m assuming the over-eager rights-claiming firm has been, at least in part, muzzled.

I am tempted here to ramble on about the real effects one can observe on modern college campuses’ science majors, the cost of education as another example of data AND credential ownership. I also had intended a long harangue regarding the cultural inertia that must surely follow Microsoft’s practice of naming everything ‘My Thing’. But, next time.

So we’ve given up freedom of technical information exchange—now scientists have to rely on their ‘team’ alone, since consulting anyone else would be a felony(!) I wonder how this has changed the college classroom?—Surely they don’t encourage group-think anymore. Yes, it was and still could be the most powerful form of scientific researching ever known, but if the profs are preparing their charges for the modern day laboratory they should be teaching them how to keep their studies from being seen by their classmates.


Street Talk

Christopher, Yes. It's sad, too, because we're losing the ability to connect within specialty fields. Good job on well chosen topic. blessings, Cynthia

Reply
  about 1 decade ago
C. Hughes  

Sad but true. I recently heard about a collaborative success where a bunch of gamers got together to solve a problem that had been plaguing scientists for ages. Never did figure out who now owns the solution since it had over 100 participants.

Reply
  about 1 decade ago

My-I-Shoosh. Classical Christopher.

Reply
  about 1 decade ago
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