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February 20, 2005

On the currency of ideas

Scarce resources. It's one of those things that you know is really important for all sorts of other stuff, but most of the time feels like a distant problem for you, or maybe your kids, to deal with. Sure, everyone agrees that material stuff can be scarce. I mean, there's never enough time in the day, or parking spaces, or money. Those are scarcities that most people worry about, right? But who ever worries about a shortage of ideas?

As is often the case when I'm driving somewhere, I found myself musing tonight about the recent bruhaha over software patents in Europe in which certain industries are trying very hard to make ideas as ownable as shoes. As preposterous as this idea sounds (after all, if I lend you my pair of shoes, then you have them and I don't; whereas, if I tell you my latest brilliant idea, we both have it), that's what several very wealthy industries believe is the key to their continued profitability. Why do they believe this? For two reasons, basically. On the one hand, they believe that being able to own an idea will protect their investment in the development of said idea by suing the pants off of anyone else who tries to do something similar. On the other hand, if ideas are like shoes, then they can be bought and sold (read: for profit) just like any other commodity. Pharmaceutical companies patent chemical structures, online companies patent user interfaces, and everyone wants a piece of the intellectual property pie before the last piece gets eaten. If these people are successful at redefining what it means to own something, won't the future be full of people being arrested for saying the wrong things, or even thinking the wrong thoughts? Shades of Monsieur Orwell linger darkly these days.

This is all rather abstract, and the drama over software patents will probably play out without a care about little folks like me. But a cousin of this demon is lurking much closer to home. When there are more people than good ideas floating around, ideas become a scarce resource just like anything else. I've had the same conversation a half-dozen times with different people recently about how fast-paced my field is. Why is it this way? Well, sure, there's a lot really great stuff being done by a lot of great people. But then, the same is true in fields like quantum gravity and econophysics. I suspect that part of what really makes my field move is that people are scared of being scooped. And although it hasn't happened to me yet, I fear it just as much as everyone else. And so, everyone in the race spends a few more hours hunched over the computer, a few more days feverishly crafting an old idea into a finished project, and spends fewer moments admiring the sky, and fewer thoughts on the people they love.

In academia, ideas are already property. Ideas are owned when someone published them. But the competition doesn't stop there. Then comes the endless self-promotion of your work in an effort to convince other people that your idea is a good idea. In the end, an idea is yours only when other people will argue that it's not theirs. The entire system is founded on the premise that, if your idea is truly great, then in the end everyone will acknowledge that it's fabulous and that you're that much cooler for having come up with it. While not exactly a system that encourages healthy lifestyles, especially for women, it has enough merits to outweigh the failings, and its a lot better than any alternative resembling software patents. The danger comes from the combination of a lag-time between coming up with an idea and publishing it, and when there are more researchers than ideas. When these are true, you get the fever pitch mental race to see who gets to make the first splash, and who gets water up the nose. I've never liked the sting of a nasal enema of chlorine or salt, and I have at least two projects where this is a fairly serious concern.

When a group decides that an idea is owned by a person, it's an inherently social exchange and can never become a financial exchange without micro-policing that would put any totalitarian to shame. Hypothetically, if ideas were locked up by law, would I have to pay you when you tell me your idea? Not with money yet, but right now, I do still pay you. Instead of financial capital, I pay you with social capital: with respect, recognition, and reference. When I, in turn, tell my friend about your idea, I tell them that it's yours. If it's a good idea, then we both associate its goodness with you. This is the heart of the exchange, you give us your idea, and we give you back another idea. Normally, this is the best we can do, but modern technology has given us a new way to pay each other for ideas: hyperlinks. When I link to other articles and pages in my posts, I am tithing their owners and authors. After all, hyperlinks (roughly) are how Google decides who owns what. That is, topology becomes a proxy for wealth.

In the social world, reputation and gossip are the currency of exchange. But in the digital world, hyperlinks are the currency of information and ideas. So, who wants some free money?

p.s. Blogs are an intersection of the social world and the digital world. If bloggers and other sites exchange currency in the form of hyperlinks, what do readers and bloggers exchange? Comments. Comments are the currency that readers use to pay their authors for their posts.

posted February 20, 2005 05:09 AM in Thinking Aloud | permalink