Archives for the month of: September, 2014

During a recent conversation, I found a directly relevant analogy that might make sense to non-creative people, just as it’s already a self-evident fact of life for you and me.

Why can artists rightfully expect to be paid for their work?

Often, the damage done by piracy is brushed aside with glib arguments like, “well, if your work is good enough, people will pay for it.” The conclusion that “if you’re not getting rich from your work, maybe your work just is just no good.” The insinuation is that anyone who isn’t making massive money from their art is some kind of “dilettante” who needs to admit their lack of skill and quit whining about their inability to get paid like the superstars do.

One part of that argument is true. The vast majority of artists aren’t at the top of their field. By definition, most people won’t be the best in any field, because the realm of the best is reserved for a small number of individuals who are better than most of the others.

The problem with that perspective is twofold:

1. In reality, most people aren’t the best at anything.

Telling artists that they need to be the “best” before they can expect to be paid is shown as false when applied to the rest of the workforce. If you work a nine-to-five, are you one of the top performers in your field? Is there even any way to quantify that distinction reliably? If not, why do you expect to be paid for your work?

If you’re not a CEO of a Fortune 50 corporation [or for that matter, if your employer doesn’t perform at that level], you should expect to give your work away for free and go compete for a “day job” in some other market sector.

Right, that sounds pretty ridiculous — and that’s exactly the logic used against artists when people want to justify stealing their work.

There’s a further technology-based implication that you’ll see further down.

2. Practically no one who is a novice in any field will be the “best” right from the start.

If you look at any high-achiever, you’ll see that they probably weren’t amazing for the first five to ten years of their time in the field. Everyone from Bob Dylan to Albert Einstein has to sink time and effort into learning, studying — and crucially, making mistakes — for years before they attained sufficient ability to be considered great.

The ‘Genius’ Fallacy

Geniuses aren’t born; they’re made. A prodigy may have higher innate aptitude than the average person, but if they don’t spend years honing that capability, they’ll get nowhere — just like the average person who gives up before manifesting any ability at all.

Roughly, ability consists of strategy and experience.

If your strategy points you in the wrong direction, no amount of experience will overcome that fundamental error — Da Vinci could build flying contraptions for decades, but without the idea of some sort of engine to power them, his ideas never left the ground to become the empirically-based science of aeronautics.

Experience is necessary to take part in the domain such that your skills improve over time. Even more important, experience enables the creation of better strategies. An expert knows how to detect patterns more quickly than a novice, and the ability to detect patterns is a process that is impossible to shortcut beyond a relatively low level.

Regardless of aptitude, everyone has to put their time in before becoming proficient at any complex skill.

What this means, then, is that if you only pay someone when you think they’re the “best”, you’re actually stifling everyone else’s ability to reach and overcome the plateaus along the path to skill. Simply put, if an artist (or scientist, or engineer) has to spend large amounts of time trying to merely survive, the amount of time and focus they can use to improve their skills will necessarily be foreshortened. This results in a general drain of ability in the domain itself. Skill-building falls prey to time-shortage, and with it comes the inability to amass the experience required to reach high levels of proficiency. If no one can make a decent living creating art, the emergence of new great artists erodes as well. And then we’re left with pop-culture icons whose music consists of over-autotuned voices and shallowly looped samples; adults who unabashedly prefer fiction written for teenagers (the young adult genre); and derivative visual media that is too inept and afraid to do anything new. Eventually, advertising is the only “artform” left standing, mainly because it sells.

Information Wants To Be Free? Your Boss Just Said The Same Thing About Your Job

The mercenary approach taken by music/movie/book pirates in regard to the arts is a mirror image of the corporate disdain for human labor. Many people are justifiably afraid of the fact that mechanization and artificial intelligence are starting to outpace the human ability to re-train and compete. At some point, machines will almost certainly be able to perform the vast majority of jobs that require repetitive cognitive or physical labor.

What we’re seeing now is that corporations are replacing people with robots or intelligent software systems. In the remaining workforce, employers are increasingly hiring only the most overqualified applicants and forcing them to work harder for stagnant wages. This is exactly the same mentality that the average piracy-loving consumer takes when using technology [i.e. the Internet] to steal works from artists with the justification that, “if your work was as good as the best artist out there, I’d gladly pay for it. You’re only ‘good’, though, so I’ll encourage you to become ‘great’ by only paying those who’ve earned that ‘best-in-class’ status.”

The corporate earnings machine now uses the power of technology in order to force the average person to either be the “best” or face inevitable obsoletion (or in the interim, minimization of their prospects for earning a sustainable wage). From unpaid internships to forced overtime, we all have to contend with the idea that either you’re an elite member of your profession, or you don’t deserve to make a living. And it’s all packaged with the bright branding of “positive thinking” in which we’re tantalized by fantasies of a wonderland where we’re all winners, only we’d work just a little faster while smiling harder and desperately denying that ninety-nine percent of us are actually falling farther and farther behind.

Exceptionalism Has A Name, And Its Name Is “Machine”

It’s a sort of cold consolation, then, that when a generation of artists finds themselves unable to make a living wage, it’s only a decade or two before the same ideological axe falls on the hand of the average man and woman. The fallacy of exceptionalism doesn’t incentivize better work. It incentivizes a mercenary mentality that uses technology to increase “productivity” while enslaving and eventually discarding the humans whom that technology was originally designed to serve.

This isn’t an engineering problem of computing power, or false Social Darwinist arguments about “the natural evolution” of progress, or some alarmist propagandizing about the decline of man and the rise of machines. This is a human problem of how we decide to deal with questions about the nature of value, and how we decide to approach those questions as a society. From artist to salaryman to CEO, the “superstar mentality” that only rewards those at the top will eventually create a world where the majority are trapped at the bottom. Every time you pirate a song from an independent musician, steal a book from an self-published author, or pilfer a film produced by a small studio, take note of the fact that your mercenary mentality toward art will one day come back to haunt you — and unless we collectively change our actions, that day of reckoning may come sooner than you might think.

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An incredible gratification awaits both authors and readers when everyone finally figures out a workable alternative to Amazon’s always-predatory pricing schemes. The window of opportunity is closing as Amazon finds new ways to choke pennies from every transaction while phrasing it as a “win-win” for everyone.

Just Listen to Jeff

Imagine that, according to Amazon, your three hundred-page novel is worth approximately three dollars and forty cents. Then you’re informed that the best way to gain more sales is to cut your price to $0.99.

How does that evaluation take place?

First, Amazon has to convince you that your work is worth less than four dollars.

Then Amazon tells you to reduce your price to less than one dollar, on the “reasoning” that your bargain-bin pricing will “make up for itself in sales”.

Is it true? Yes. But only because you first accepted a system that gives you no other way to distinguish your work aside from gouging the price.

Welcome to Amazonland, Where You Work For (Nearly) Free

That’s the problem with selling based on “percentage of margins” and telling yourself to be excited at “percentage of increase”. You’re accepting a system that gouges you from the start, then feel proud when it gouges you further and each buyer essentially rewards you for cutting out your own eye. Yes, it’s a “”win win” — until you realize that you just lost $2.41 per sale and gained zero repeat business unless you keep discounting your work in order to keep “winning”.

Price-cutting schemes only make sense if you can create repeat customers by contacting them in the future with offers that make up the prior loss. You’ll slowly bleed to death as a writer if you believe that readers will automatically search you out six months from now (or whenever your next work is published), solely because they liked your previous story. If you don’t have name-brand recognition (i.e. mass marketing and professional PR from a traditional publisher), you’re just another e-book writer-wannabe living a delusion fueled by Amazon’s easy-upload platform.

That’s fine, if you’re just writing as a hobby. Maybe your work really is worth less than a dollar and three bucks really is an inflated amount. But if your work is worth more than bargain-basement prices, accepting Amazon’s price-cutting scheme (designed to benefit them, not you) ultimately creates readers who become well-conditioned cheapskates waiting for the next sale (and posting about it to their friends on sites like Reddit), and writers trapped in the basement of endless downward bargaining.

Amazon can hold your head under the water for as long as they want, because you don’t really have a choice. That’s the real reason why a viable alternative is so important.

Bezos Monopoly Logic

Defenders of price-cutting often use the dysfunctional old “work hard, be smarter than everyone else, and you’ll magically come out ahead” argument, applied to Amazon.

Sorry, but, no.

First off, gouging your own prices for “special visibility” is a bad idea. You’re undercutting yourself for the sake of finding readers who already devalue your work. If they wouldn’t buy it at the regular price, the problem won’t be solved by slashing the price — to the contrary, the problem worsens because people learn to wait until they can snipe your book at a bargain rate.

Secondly, you’re using Bezos Monopoly Logic with jargon like “we have to keep the margin low”. Meanwhile, who sets the margin? Amazon.

Amazon drives the price point into the ground by automating everything to the extreme, abusing and demeaning the workers toiling in their distribution centers, and decimating the market by conditioning their customers to seek the lowest price just as ruthlessly as Amazon sets that price. They’ve even got customers to parrot Besosspeak about “keeping margins low” and aiming for “as little money as possible” in order to beat the “competition”. There is no competition doing anything like Amazon’s predatory pricing policies. Why? Because Amazon took the first-mover advantage in the 1990s and built out a massive infrastructure to destroy every market sector they entered. It’s been their purpose from day one, which is the real reason why their margins are so low. The problem isn’t “competition”. The problem is Amazon, competing against itself to create margins that absolutely no one can make money from unless they’re Amazon. That evolutionary process is also known as wholesale destruction, not creation of value for anyone but Amazon.

Biting The Bezos Bullet

In the Bezos model, the customer “wins” at the expense of the author (and everyone else selling on Amazon). When prices are low, authors’ work is devalued. This forces everyone to accept an artificially deflated market value for their work. Authors trade the traditional publishing system’s journeyman wages for the Amazon system’s crooked marketing scheme. Both of them screw the author. In the long run, Amazon may be the worse option, as the only way to gain visibility is through cutting your price and hoping for the best.

I’m glad that some think it’s nice for authors to make less money while customers save on every book, but the ease of “publishing” (i.e. basic formatting, then uploading to Amazon’s cloud) is part of the problem, not the solution. Actually, the problem is that Amazon doesn’t have an effective way of separating hobby-writers from people whose work is worth more. That’s the initial confusion that leads people to mistakenly believe that they have to gouge their prices in order to get anyone to notice their work. Price is perception, not “objective reality” — so if everyone is dumped in the bargain bin, better writers have no means of clawing their way out, while mediocre writers get to feel special for getting to “publish” at all. That makes it less likely for anyone to do well — or even to be found in the first place — unless they find an alternative to Amazon (which is what we need regardless in order to escape an otherwise-inevitable monopoly).

The second problem is Amazon itself, which uses the lie of a “democratic self-publishing system” to justify cutting all prices to the bone in order to drive more readers to their website. If you think Amazon exists to make you happy, you’re deluding yourself. Their profit model is based on creating a monopoly by decimating prices on everything.

In the short term, yes, that’s awesome for the customer. When customers are lured into Amazon’s web over the long term, you see physical locations closing, mom-and-pop stores of all kinds are destroyed, and the Amazon monopoly can do whatever they want because everyone has to play by their rules. And very soon it will be too late for anyone to get a foothold and change things because the startup costs of fighting Amazon, combined with customers’ blind expectation of basement-level pricing, will have become impossible to reverse in favor of a pricing model that fairly compensates producers and creators without over-compensating the digital middleman.

Workers of the World… Prepare For Mandatory Overtime (Pay Increase? Optional.)

I’ve found that non-creative people often have a hard time imagining that creative work actually has any value at all. So here’s a comparison that speaks directly to the nine-to-five mentality:

An analogy to this is the average worker taking on overtime hours in order to make extra holiday money. If everyone in the office does the same, eventually the boss sees the bump in productivity and is loathe to lose it. In a tight job market, the boss might not raise wages — instead, he or she decides on a new rule called “mandatory overtime” that all workers are forced to obey. The value of overtime becomes folded into the daily work expectation and you no longer have control over your time. The forty-day workweek becomes a de facto forty-five hour week.

Then a recession called Amazon hits and you suddenly have to work a hundred-hour week just to keep your job. And then, since you have no leverage as a worker, Boss Amazon decides that they will no longer pay you for overtime, since they have to “keep the margin low” in order to “beat the competition”. You can’t see the competition because the competition is actually the shareholders for Amazon, seeking an endless green arrow soaring off the top of the balance sheet. There are no other jobs in a monopoly economy, because the actual competition has already been destroyed. So your only option is to work harder for Boss Amazon and pray that your wages won’t be reduced to zero — at which point you’ll have no choice but to accept outright slavery.

Dodging The Win-Win Head-Fake: Creating Alternatives To Amazon

This is why price-cutting is possibly the worst way to get more sales, and why Amazon is possibly the worst offender in its crusade for a monopoly in all areas that it enters. Since we know that markets tend to crush competition on the way to monopoly (and customers will happily enjoy lower prices regardless of the predatory reasons for those prices), maybe antitrust legislation is the only way to stop Amazon from eating the world. In the meantime, I hope that authors can somehow show readers that the lowest price isn’t always the best deal, especially when the author loses, the customer “wins”, and Amazon ultimate owns everything and everyone in its path.

There’s a certain hidden document on the Web, far beyond the clutches of Google, that purports to teach us all a set of “unknown” truths about the world as it is today.

That document uses the tired-yet-reliable analogy of humans enmeshed in a “Matrix” that entraps and enslaves us all.


Note: come back later for the completed version; this is an early draft (maybe).

But there is a way out of the Matrix, they say. Escape! Be your own personal Thomas Neo Anderson! Dodge bullets! Find the world’s only sexy PVC-clad uber-hacker girl who can “hack the IRS D-Base!” Defy death, proclaim God Mode, and literally fly on the superheated power of your own transcendant super-Neo ego!

Or you could sell psychedelic drugs and sit behind your computer monitor on an encrypted IRC channel until you fall asleep every night, waiting in desperate futility for a fateful visit from the mystically nonexistent White Rabbit.

Which option is a more likely mirror for reality?

You Are The Matrix…?

There is no Matrix. At least, not the fabled territory that most try to map directly onto our “real” social world.

The Matrix is not government, or capitalism.

The Matrix is human society itself.

This is the “software” running inside our own minds, software that creates and sustains (or apathetically perpetuates) government and capitalism. Government feeds our desire to follow leaders; consumer capitalism speaks to our appetite for status, codified and symbolized through the objects we can purchase and proudly display to our peers.

Even if one society is destroyed, a more sophisticated society reboots itself from the ashes of its obsolete predecessor. The fundamental principles are as unchanged as the structure of our paleolithic brains.

Inequality is built into how humans perceive themselves and each other — it is intrinsic (coming from within our brains and minds), not extrinsic (the result of some external entity oppressing us). As long as we are driven to compete against each other, we will continue to create stratified societies where the winners take all and the losers (somewhere between fortyseven and ninetynine percent of us) will struggle merely to survive.

Easter Egg: A Hidden Gift From Smith To Morpheus, For All Of Us

This was the real purpose of Agent Smith’s speech to Morpheus: the first iteration of the Matrix was a paradise.

Humans rejected it in favor of a simulation that looks like the modern world as it is today [which is even more dystopian than the present-day of 1999, the year in which the Matrix was set].

No Mister Anderson… don’t blame capitalism

The Matrix is not capitalism. Civilization throughout history has been built on inequality. The “land of the free”, the United States of America, is built unequivocally on genocide of Native Americans, slavery of Africans, indentured servitude of Chinese, internment of Japanese, oppression of the Irish, and ostracism of Jews. The entirety of Europe stands on a legacy of world war, and before that, a succession of tyranny leading back long before the Enlightenment. Much of Asia, with its fetishized pseudo-exotic mysticism for all who live outside it, is a hive of post-feudal xenophobia that necessitates perpetual simmering conflict.

Capitalism is a product of humanity, not an evil set upon us from elsewhere. It flourishes because it appeals to greed, which is as natural to humanity as the twisted philosophies that spring from it — from Manifest Destiny to Kamikaze and all shades in between. All political religions begin with us, and are sustained by us.

Silly Neo… Mr. Smith isn’t the government, either

Corporate capitalism and the governments it owns (including American democracy and increasingly, Chinese communism) are one and the same. Greed rules all.

Escaping The Matrix: Quick, I Need An Exit…! Or Do I?

The only way to truly “escape” the Matrix is to exit from society entirely.

Live on a mountain by yourself or with as many people as will follow you there.

This is the real-world equivalent of “Zion”, the world beyond the Matrix and far from Machine City.

The average person would not want to live in “Zion”, as was depicted by the traitorous character Cypher, who wanted to be not just an average person, but “someone important… like an actor”. An actor: one of those glittering objects of envy who become famous for pretending to be other people for a living. A pretender.

In the real world of today, there are over a billion Facebook Junkies gasping for each other’s attention with every status update. Many of them not only want to be the Alpha Animal in their mass media-fueled consumerist fantasyland, they also strive to be Youtube Superstars and trending Reality Celebrities with an endless feed of self-obsessive selfies and egotistical memes.

Do You Really Want To Exit The Matrix?

The door is right here, and this is the key.

If you continue to live in a house or apartment where there is flowing water, working electricity, trash disposal and emergency medical services, the Matrix still has you. And you have… McDonalds and Starbucks.

No one “subverts the Matrix” by pretending that information is free. As we all live in a capitalist system [given that capitalism has effectively taken over the world], taking things without paying is simply called “larceny” or stealing.

A man in trenchcoat and dark sunglasses walks into a convenience store. The man takes a candybar from an open box next to the checkout counter, then turns to leave the store. The clerk overseeing the automated self-checkout line says, “hey, you have to pay for that!” The Man says, “no, can’t you see? My hand is invisible because I’ve stepped outside the Matrix!” Clerk says, “you still have to pay for that candybar!” Man retorts, “no, can’t you see? The candybar is invisible, too, because I hold it in my hand, and I’ve stepped outside the Matrix!” Clerk explains while pressing the silent alarm, “no, you’re standing in a convenience store and you just stole a candybar!” The Man mumbles to himself with a sick bemused grin, “well, you’re either one of us, or you’re one of them.”

In the Hollywood version of this story, The Man pulls out a submachine gun and shoots the clerk to death. In the real version, two mentally disturbed teenagers at Columbine high school performed a similar act of “liberation” that resulted in the deaths of thirteen people and their own suicide. Wearing t-shirts that read “Evolution” and “Wrath”, their unifying ideology seemed to be that “Getting attention by becoming notorious is better than being a failure.”

The reality of the Matrix is that Neo and his grim cohort were actually psychopathic terrorist murderers with a complete disregard for human life.

They used a primitive — in the parlance of Hollywood, “high-concept” — mentality of “us versus them” to justify murdering untold hundreds of people in the name of their righteous cause.

Matrix Convolutions

As the plot thickens, the true point is often lost.

The true “hero” of the Matrix was Morpheus. And Morpheus, both in the Matrix and in Zion, was regarded as most likely insane.

Morpheus had previously found several other “proto-Neos”, but they all failed (and presumably were killed).

Most critically, Morpheus was eventually captured by the Agents, tortured by them, and, in the real-world version of the story, would almost certainly have been imprisoned for life. He may even have been set free — only to be murdered later, quite likely by a missile shot from a drone [as machines so often do our governments’ killing for us now].

How did Morpheus learn of the Matrix’s existence in the first place? If the Matrix is all-encompassing for those within it, then the Matrix must also have been Morpheus’ source of intelligence. Maybe he first saw the Matrix in the plot a multi-million-dollar movie. But, no, that would be too silly even for Hollywood… yet oddly not too silly for the many who take the Matrix as a kind of field guide to reality.

If Morpheus had learned that the Matrix is intrinsic to the human mind rather than created by machines, would he have taken the fundamentalist zealot’s path that he did? The Columbine killers were obviously mentally ill, but without the trigger that also set fragile-minded Morpheus on a murderous crusade, would their fate have also turned out differently? To be clear, neither the movie nor the message are to blame. Truly, there is no blame to be cast, but rather, a question about the switches that can be flipped in susceptible minds.

Likewise, as we see with the “hidden” version of this document, a perversion of the idea of “free” flourishes among those who are dazzled by Hollywood and seduced by overcomplicated pseudo-egalitarian ideologies.

Information created by humans is no more free than water or electricity.

Scientific knowledge is more valuable when all can access it. Still, the scientist needs some sort of wage in order to be able to live while pushing the envelope of human knowledge, skill and ability.

The products of other types of knowledge [music, film, visual arts, etc.] are the same way.

“I torrented this movie a couple of months ago. I watch it at least twice a week because the special effects are cool, but it totally isn’t Oscar quality and the script could be better, so why should I pay for it? By not paying now, I’m actually telling the movie people to do better next time. Then everything will be Oscar quality. Yay!”

“I downloaded this music album just recently, but I wouldn’t call it one of my all-time favorites, so why pay for it? The artist gets more exposure this way, too, so it’s kind of like I’m doing them a favor!”

The essence of both science and creativity is experimentation. Scientific progress and creative exploration are iterative, evolutionary processes that far more often result in failure than success. If we punish failure by cutting off scientists’ and artists’ ability to continue their work by devaluing it to become a mere hobby, we cripple the creative process of science and art itself.

Most computer programmers create free software in order to build their reputation — so that they can eventually land a paying job writing software. The philosophy of free software, then, was never designed to be applied to movies, books or music. And that is largely why it fails, instead exposing the ones who parrot its corrupted version as a cover-up for their desire to take all while giving back nothing.

Side note: the film “the Matrix” itself would never have been made, and another film of its quality has not been made since, without the crucial support of the (deeply flawed as it is) Hollywood system.

Until we have working alternatives to the existing system, destruction in the name of freedom is simply obliteration without the counterbalance of creation to save us from suicide.

Ending At The Beginning

The true meaning of revolution is that the cycle ends where it began

How do you truly “unplug” from the Matrix? A few suggestions:

  • Recognize that society is the “Matrix” and that the average person is the one sustaining it (including those who steal while regurgitating the pirates’ propaganda that information should be “free”)
  • Recognize that the government is not the problem
  • Recognize that capitalism is not the problem
  • Recognize that if you believe that either government or capitalism are the problem, your only solution is to exit the nation-state and/or leave the financial system entirely
  • Recognize that if you choose to reap the benefits of living in the “Matrix”, your denial of its fundamental attributes [i.e. the exchange of money for goods and services] is only hurting other people who are also trying to survive, advance science and push forward creatively in this system
  • Recognize that if you remain inside the Matrix, you are one of Us Humans (not “Agents” or “Them”). Our only viable option is to work together to change the Matrix, not turn guns on each other (or figuratively do the same by stealing from each other) or commit random-yet-premeditated acts of larceny — leading even to murder.

The Matrix is not outside us. The Matrix is within us. The only way to destroy the Matrix is to change ourselves and create a better Matrix. At the best, we create an alternative that eventually supercedes the existing system. At worst, we continue down the existing path to oblivion and hasten our collective demise. “Freedom fighters” who indulge the Morpheus/Neo Delusion turn a blind eye to economic, political and social totalitarianism that strips us of our desire for privacy while selling our digital identities to the highest bidder. Such isolating “freedom” turns us on each other with false doctrines like “if you have nothing to hide, you have no need for privacy” and equally false reactionary mantras like “information wants to be free”.

There is, has never, and never will be, anything gotten for free in this world. The sooner we all realize that “free” is yet another scam that steals time and energy (therefore, life) from all of us, the more quickly we’ll create a system that can help us all live better lives in the real world rather than construct psychotic fantasies like the Matrix. Leave the Matrix where it belongs — in film, in video games and in cautionary science fiction stories. Sometimes a metaphor is just a metaphor, and sometimes a great movie is just a great movie. Eschew the Polyanna Positive Thinker’s helium-brained need to blame the creators of entertainingly instructive make-believe dystopias. Columbine wasn’t the Wachowski siblings’ fault, any more than rock-n-roll is to blame for hippies selling out their values in exchange for a spot in the corner office. It’s time to finally wake up from “the Matrix”, and at long last, rejoin the real world before it’s too late. We simply can’t afford a cynical “cyberpunk” version of the Age of Aquarius.

The Power Of The Matrix Is Within You. The Question Is How You Use It.

The question is not “can you escape?” The challenge is “what can you create?”

If you believe that the answer to the challenge of “what can you create?” is “nothing”, then do us all a favor: turn off your television, press “pause” on the movies and learn, learn, learn until you can bring a skill to the table that Humanity truly needs (and if you still feel the unstoppable urge to pick up a submachine gun to prove your allegiance to Zion and independence from the Matrix, put on your sunglasses and trenchcoat and try “flying” from the ledge of a tall building instead).

We need all the help we can get to repair the damage some of us have already done, to prevent more destruction, and to bring us all to a better future. We can’t last much longer with primitive tribalistic “us versus them” pathological ideologies and apathetic acquiescence that amounts not to rebellion, but to “more of the same”. Morpheus was wrong. In the real world, none of us can dodge bullets. But then, Morpheus was also right: the Matrix truly is inside your own mind. And your mind is the place where the battle is fought. From there, the choice is yours.

Lively conversation ensued following the previous entry (“A Network, Not A Market: If the Internet is now the mother of all information, has she begun to eat her children?”). A few people asked questions like the following:

Why is science included along with music and art? No one can illegally download science like they can pirate a film, song or book.

At the moment, I was stumped. Why did I write that bit about science? It was odd because clearly science was included for a reason. A moment ago, the long-simmering answer to that question popped back into mind and demanded that I write this entry. Here’s the answer:

First of all, science can be “pirated”. One example is hacker/activist Aaron Swartz, who was legally hounded until he committed suicide in 2013. It’s a case worth reading to see how the criminal justice system can be used to serve the egos of those who operate from within it, and the destructive power that can be wreaked against those who oppose it.

Second, someone mentioned that as science becomes more complex, there have been no independent scientists of merit science Einstein. Collaboration is necessary, so the line of thinking goes, and therefore, questions of information ownership are moot. Individual access to scientific data doesn’t matter because individuals can’t do anything particularly interesting with the data, anyway.

That’s also wrong. Two recent examples are J. Craig Venter, whose team sequenced the human genome. The other example is named Elon Musk, whose cars you might have heard about (a hint as to his “outsider” status in the auto industry is evident by the company name “Tesla Motors”). I’m sure there are innumerable other examples of individual inventors who do great things outside the scientific mainstream (like the fifteen-year-old inventor who invented a possible test for pancreatic cancer).

More and more private corporations are locking the results of their research away under patents — for example, the patenting of individual genes. This has the potential to cripple the work of individual scientists, force others to spend exorbitant amounts to access scientific information (at least thirty dollars per article to access many journals), and prevent many others from even entering their fields by “monetizing” curiosity in ways that no sane person would pay for.

In the case of science, then, stealing data (a la Swartz) is still wrong. The problem, much like it is in the other creative industries (if there’s such thing as a creative industry, science and engineering must be counted among them) is that taking the wrong action against a wrongly-designed system doesn’t justify the action. To create a better outcome, we need to work to create viable alternatives to the existing system itself. The dystopian worlds that science fiction writers (including myself) envision can be averted if we decide to take a different path, and decide to walk that path rather than wait around to read about it.