Wednesday, January 18, 2012

information as property


Hal Pepinsky,,

January 18, 2012

I was born 67 years ago this morning, on the 25th anniversary of the signing of the (rather tragic) Treaty of Paris. Kevin Costner, who now like me celebrates playing his acoustical guitar to sing along with, was born on my 10th birthday. By further coincidence, Wikipedia in English makes today memorable by shutting down for the day to protest legislation pending in Congress designed to enforce intellectual property rights.

My late mentor Les Wilkins taught me among other things that once information is shared, it cannot be taken back. Time and again this law of information has come back home to me. When I got involved with victims and survivors of child abuse 20 years ago, Les’s insight led me to define the abuse as an adult’s requirement that a child keep secret what happened between them. I concede no adult a right to extract such a concession from any child. By analogy, I conclude once anyone uses information with others, the information becomes public. Although I regret things I have said and written, I accept that anything I say on the phone or write on email is fair game for public distribution. I also try to respect confidences of people who share vulnerability with me, but not because I ask them to keep my secrets. I distinguish respect for privacy of peers and subordinates from ownership of what I myself say and do. So for instance, I have always asked editors to share my reviews of manuscripts with others and to identify me, and have made a practice of giving copies to subjects of all my letters of reference.

My livelihood has never depended on ownership of anything I have said, written or sung. I have had the privilege of making my last two books freely available because I don’t depend on royalties. From my own position, I regard the private proprietorship of land (as by fencing), let alone proprietorship of information, as a historical mistake I hope we humans learn to get past. I want art and invention to be supported but no longer owned.

By further extension, I don’t believe that governments and military establishments deserve to keep secrets from any of the rest of us. In the heat of the Cold War, I recall my mother’s saying that if all national secrets were suddenly revealed, the world would become no less dangerous and probably safer. Then in a microsociology class in grad school on gaming theory, I remember taking to heart the proposition that in negotiations, bargainers who opened by revealing their strategies fared better thaN those who tried to keep secrets. My little top secret stint as a US State Dept intern on East Asian Legal Affairs in 1967 reinforced my mother’s conviction. Today, in addition to celebrating Wikipedia’s strike, I celebrate the spirit of Wikileaks, and of all relaxation of restraints on sharing public and private intellectual property. The spirit of freedom of information lives. Love and peace--hal

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