Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Parable: Some Words Concerning the Future of Communication

This is the way the future happened. Development of the Internet unfolded as many people saw, with it becoming progressively more integrated with everything and everybody in every way. Access to the Internet through brain-chips implanted in people’s heads really happened and this was good, at least in some ways for me because it made it so much easier for my guide to explain the new way that things were. The brain-chips made a lot of things possible that were never possible before.

I was given free access to the Internet, a six month free trial. Everyone got one free trial but I was the first adult, the first person of my age that anyone could remember who had not yet had his free trial, who had never once been hooked up to the Internet with a brain-chip at all. I was given a six month free trial of everything available and able to sample every nook and cranny of the Internet at will without paying. That was not true about my guide: My guide had to pay.

My guide chose her words judiciously as she explained how things were different from the world I had known. She had to make her word selections carefully for she had to pay for the words she communicated to me. Oh, not all of the words she used, only some, and words were not all the same price. In fact, she liked to search her mind rigorously for the new words available, the recently minted words, for which, if she used them, the word companies would pay her, rather than vice versa. But the new words being introduced were harder for her to remember because they were so new.

You see, some years before, the Supreme Court had ruled that word companies, if they created new words, would be allowed to own their copyrights. That being the case, the word companies created as many new words as they could. At first, to make the words popular, the word companies would pay the public to use their new words. And the words then did become popular. But when they did, the companies would gradually reduce what they would pay until through such reductions the price would eventually cross a line and be reversed. Then the public would be paying to use those same words, now “old words” they had previously been paid to use. Meanwhile, perhaps to appease those most irked, the word companies would have arrived on the scene with new “new words” which the word companies would now pay people to use if people could think if them. (Advertising was often of assistance in this regard.)

Besides the “new words” that the word companies paid people to use and the much greater number of familiar and more comfortable “old words” that people had to pay the word companies to use, there were also the “ancient words,” the words that you and I know and use (potentially also including the ancestral words that preceded them that you and I have already probably mostly forgotten). The “ancient words” could be used without anyone having to pay anyone at all. . . but that was only if anyone could remember them. The nature of the future being what it was (and the way things were often buried on the Internet), nobody could remember those words, at least not very well. . .

. . . BUT, there was also incipient talk about whether the word companies could by “rediscovering” and reintroducing these “ancient words” acquire the rights to them if those ancient words were already deemed sufficiently forgotten by the public. Here was a possible job they discussed for me: It was noted that I did not have a job in this new world and it was thought that because of my unusual association with the past I could, in advertising terms, give these ancient words a sort of retro-cachet.

I spoke to my guide, not worrying about my choice of words. I was curious. It seemed to me that the monopoly of the word companies was rather tyrannical and I asked her whether the people of her culture had not gotten together to discuss bringing about a change. She looked at me with deep open eyes in which I could map no thoughts for the longest moment. . . . “No,” she said, “that hasn’t happened. Among other things I think we would have difficulty finding the words for . . . it.”

"For a `revolt' or `revolution'?" I asked.

“And,” she added, “right now we are only charged for the words we communicate, not those we think. Perhaps it is best not to upset the apple cart.”

* * * *

To Our Readers: If you think you can search through this parable to make a point-by-point analogy that matches up against a specific event, historical, current or pending, I don’t think you will be able. It didn’t have that in mind when I let the fable write itself. On the other hand, I am quite conscious that its themes are resonant of things that have really happened or are now actually happening in the communications industries and which I am busy thinking about by virtue of reading two excellent books that both came out in 2010. I commend them to you and think you find that each informs the other:
The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires” by Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu: In chronicling episodes going back to the telegraph and forward to the arrival of the Internet the book examines the patterned cycle of information and communication empires with the repetitive advent and frequent ultimate triumph of monopoly industries that seek to control the industry and culture, often aided and abetted by government when it should be doing the opposite.

Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership” by Kenyon College and Harvard University Professor Lewis Hyde. Going back as far as ancient Rome, spending a lot time in merry old England (pre- and post- William the Conqueror) and visiting very importantly with the American Founding Fathers, Hyde’s book examines how rather recent and increasingly aggressive modern notions about intellectual property rights (copyright and patent) are, with the complicity of government, encroaching on the commonwealth of knowledge and intellectual exchange, the “cultural commons” we once assumed belonged freely to everyone.

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