The increasing price of progress (and how to get a discount)

January 2, 2011

Was reading this fascinating article here:

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/12/13/101213fa_fact_lehrer

And it occurred to me that science and math are typically viewed as
having the same goals — to prove theories about the world around us.
But perhaps they should be viewed as opposites? After all, there's no
real way to prove *anything* using the scientific method. But you *can*
disprove something. Why isn't that the focus? Perhaps math should be
about proof, and science should be about *disproof*?

Due to the fact that proof (rather than disproof) is the focus of most
scientific research today, we end up with a ton of research that rides
the thin and ambiguous line between statistical relevance and
irrelevance. Indeed, the above article suggests that most scientific
"conclusions" are irreproducible nonsense. Literal nonsense. That was
created at enormous cost to society.

Now you might say "well that's just the price of progress". And that's
probably true. But we should be focused on driving that price *down*,
when in fact it seems to me that we're driving the price of progress up
through irresponsible public policy.

There are a lot of reasons why this could be the case. Probably the
most direct contributor is the largely well-intentioned but ineffectual
policy of promoting amazingly expensive formal education to people who
don't want or need it. This fills our research labs and journals with
nonsense (nonscience?) studies done in the pointless pursuit of
meaningless, debt-inducing degrees. But I think a more damaging and
insidious reason is, yes, intellectual property.

I think the reason I'm so opposed to copyright and patent** is that
those policies actually damage the world. Meaning, they irresponsibly
encourage "quantity" over "quality", creating more options of lower
quality when fewer high-quality options would have been
faster/cheaper/better.

** Trademark has a completely different aim: helping consumers correctly
differentiate between similar alternatives. Trademark is primarily
aimed at increasing "quality".

Here you might say "but who will innovate without IP protections?" And
I guess I'd say "those who need to". They say "necessity is the mother
of invention", not patent protection. In fact, I wonder if IP has done
anything *at all* to improve the quality of innovation (or, rather, the
quantity of high-quality innovation) on a "per-capita" basis.

Sure, we have more innovation today than any any point in human history.
But we also have more *people*. Furthermore, the rate of new people
coming into the world is higher than most points in in history. Even if
innovation-per-person is constant, today will be more innovative than in
the past, in aggregate. So even if IP is a total failure and does
absolutely nothing of value, today will still seem very innovative (and
those policies still seem a success).

But if there were no patents, does anybody honestly think anything we
have around us wouldn't exist? Would we have not bothered with steam
power, railroads, electricity, phones, cars, rockets, satellites, or any
of that? Would we have never noticed any of the major medical
breakthroughs? I doubt it. I think we'd have pretty much everything we
do now. We'd have them because we *need* them to compete between
nations — in an arena where IP protections don't really exist.

Accordingly, I see no evidence whatseover that IP works. I don't know
of any major series of breakthroughs that simply wouldn't have happened
in roughly the same order at any slower pace without IP. At best it seems
just a big nuisance. But my real fear is it's more than just a
nuisance. Rather, it's an active damping function on human innovation.

I fear the primary effect of patent today is to introduce arbitrary
"waiting periods" before old inventions can be compounded into new ones.
It introduces enormous fear, uncertainty, and doubt into the
inventor's mind — a sense of "why should I even bother doing this thing
that would be awesome when I'll probably just be sued into personal
bankruptcy out of the blue by some nameless corporation?" It's not
focused on quality *or* quantity, but creating an unnecessary tollbooth
on innovation and then charging society by the mile, with the proceeds
not even going to the innovators responsible.

Similarly, I fear the whole design of copyright is maliciously misguided
on creating "the next big thing" rather than maximizing the
accessibility and influence of the untold millions of "past big things".
It holds the output of all past artists hostage — most of who are
dead or who are lucky to make a single thing of widespread appeal in
their entire lives — disingenuously invoking the plight of nameless
future artists to justify another unnecessary tollboth, the vast
majority of whose proceeds don't go to artists.

This isn't a call for communism — IP shouldn't be shared out of some
moral responsibility. And it's not a call for socialism; the government
needn't seize private invention for the public gain. It's saying IP is
a *detriment* to competition, the most important foundation of
capitalism. It's saying private inventors (and the businesses who
employ them, and the investors who fund them) would all be better off
without IP.

The world doesn't need IP. Innovators and artists don't need IP. It
was created by those who don't innovate, to control, contain, and profit
from those who do. It's just a raw deal for the world. And it needs to
be stopped.

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One Response to “The increasing price of progress (and how to get a discount)”


  1. I got this comment privately:"However, it is massively erroneous to suggest that as a result science has no worth, or cannot approach truth!"I assumed this was obvious, but to clarify, yes, science (in aggregate) has worth.However, I am also saying "most science has no worth", which I don't think is a very controversial statement — along the lines of "most ore mined in the search of gold has no worth". But mining is still worthwhile endeavor; just an expensive one. The question is: how can we make mining cheaper for the same amount of gold?Or, rather, does the existence of IP make science more or less costly for the amount of genuine innovation obtained? I'm suggesting the latter.


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