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.

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