Chapter 9, section 3

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John Stuart Mill, On Liberty |Table of Contents | Chapter 9: Summary
Discuss Information-Embedded Goods and Tools, Information, and Knowledge


Chapter 9 Justice and Development, Section 3:

Information-Embedded Goods and Tools, Information, and Knowledge

Introduction

Chapter 9

Liberal Theories of Justice and the Networked Information Economy

Chapter 9, section 1

Commons-Based Strategies for Human Welfare and Development

Chapter 9, section 2

* Information-Embedded Goods and Tools, Information, and Knowledge *

One can usefully idealize three types of information-based advantages that developed economies have, and that would need to be available to developing and less-developed economies if one's goal were the improvement in conditions in those economies and the opportunities for innovation in them. These include information-embedded material resources - consumption goods and production tools - information, and knowledge.

Information-Embedded Goods

These are goods that are not themselves information, but that are better, more plentiful, or cheaper because of some technological advance embedded in them or associated with their production. Pharmaceuticals and agricultural goods are the most obvious examples in the areas of health and food security, respectively. While there are other constraints on access to innovative products in these areas - regulatory and political in nature - a perennial barrier is cost. And a perennial barrier to competition that could reduce the cost is the presence of exclusive rights, mostly in the form of patents, but also in the form of internationally recognized breeders' rights and regulatory data exclusivity. In the areas of computation and communication, hardware and software are the primary domains of concern. With hardware, there have been some efforts toward developing cheaper equipment - like the simputer and the Jhai computer efforts to develop inexpensive computers. Because of the relatively commoditized state of most components of these systems, however, marginal cost, rather than exclusive rights, has been the primary barrier to access. The solution, if one has emerged, has been aggregation of demand - a networked computer for a village, rather than an individual. For software, the initial solution was piracy. More recently, we have seen an increased use of free software instead. The former cannot genuinely be described as a "solution," and is being eliminated gradually by trade policy efforts. The latter - adoption of free software to obtain state-of-the-art software - forms the primary template for the class of commons-based solutions to development that I explore in this chapter.

Information-Embedded Tools

One level deeper than the actual useful material things one would need to enhance welfare are tools necessary for innovation itself. In the areas of agricultural biotechnology and medicines, these include enabling technologies for advanced research, as well as access to materials and existing compounds for experimentation. Access to these is perhaps the most widely understood to present problems in the patent system of the developed world, as much as it is for the developing world - an awareness that has mostly crystallized under Michael Heller's felicitous phrase "anti-commons," or Carl Shapiro's "patent thicket." The intuition, whose analytic basis is explained in chapter 2, is that innovation is encumbered more than it is encouraged when basic tools for innovation are proprietary, where the property system gives owners of these tools proprietary rights to control innovation that relies on their tools, and where any given new innovation requires the consent of, and payment to, many such owners. This problem is not unique to the developing world. Nonetheless, because of the relatively small dollar value of the market for medicines that treat diseases that affect only poorer countries or of crop varieties optimized for those countries, the cost hurdle weighs more heavily on the public or nonprofit efforts to achieve food security and health in poor and middle-income countries. These nonmarket-based research efforts into diseases and crops of concern purely to these areas are not constructed to appropriate gains from exclusive rights to research tools, but only bear their costs on downstream innovation.

Information

The distinction between information and knowledge is a tricky one. I use "information" here colloquially, to refer to raw data, scientific reports of the output of scientific discovery, news, and factual reports. I use "knowledge" to refer to the set of cultural practices and capacities necessary for processing the information into either new statements in the information exchange, or more important in our context, for practical use of the information in appropriate ways to produce more desirable actions or outcomes from action. Three types of information that are clearly important for purposes of development are scientific publications, scientific and economic data, and news and factual reports. Scientific publication has seen a tremendous cost escalation, widely perceived to have reached crisis proportions even by the terms of the best-endowed university libraries in the wealthiest countries. Over the course of the 1990s, some estimates saw a 260 percent increase in the prices of scientific publications, and libraries were reported choosing between journal subscription and monograph purchases./4 In response to this crisis, and in reliance on what were perceived to be the publication cost-reduction opportunities for Internet publication, some scientists - led by Nobel laureate and then head of the National Institutes of Health Harold Varmus - began to agitate for a scientist-based publication system./5 The debates were, and continue to be, heated in this area. However, currently we are beginning to see the emergence of scientist-run and -driven publication systems that distribute their papers for free online, either within a traditional peer-review system like the Public Library of Science (PLoS), or within tightly knit disciplines like theoretical physics, with only post-publication peer review and revision, as in the case of the Los Alamos Archive, or ArXiv.org. Together with free software and peer production on the Internet, the PLoS and ArXiv.org models offer insights into the basic shape of the class of commons-based, nonproprietary production solutions to problems of information production and exchange unhampered by intellectual property.
Scientific and economic data present a parallel conceptual problem, but in a different legal setting. In the case of both types of data, much of it is produced by government agencies. In the United States, however, raw data is in the public domain, and while initial access may require payment of the cost of distribution, reworking of the data as a tool in information production and innovation - and its redistribution by those who acquired access initially - is considered to be in the public domain. In Europe, this has not been the case since the 1996 Database Directive, which created a property-like right in raw data in an effort to improve the standing of European database producers. Efforts to pass similar legislation in the United States have been mounted and stalled in practically every Congress since the mid-1990s. These laws continue to be introduced, driven by the lobby of the largest owners of nongovernment databases, and irrespective of the fact that for almost a decade, Europe's database industry has grown only slowly in the presence of a right, while the U.S. database industry has flourished without an exclusive rights regime.
News, market reports, and other factual reporting seem to have escaped the problems of barriers to access. Here it is most likely that the value-appropriation model simply does not depend on exclusive rights. Market data is generated as a by-product of the market function itself. Tiny time delays are sufficient to generate a paying subscriber base, while leaving the price trends necessary for, say, farmers to decide at what prices to sell their grain in the local market, freely available./6 As I suggested in chapter 2, the advertising - supported press has never been copyright dependent, but has instead depended on timely updating of news to capture attention, and then attach that attention to advertising. This has not changed, but the speed of the update cycle has increased and, more important, distribution has become global, so that obtaining most information is now trivial to anyone with access to an Internet connection. While this continues to raise issues with deployment of communications hardware and the knowledge of how to use it, these issues can be, and are being, approached through aggregation of demand in either public or private forms. These types of information do not themselves appear to exhibit significant barriers to access once network connectivity is provided.

Knowledge

In this context, I refer mostly to two types of concern. The first is the possibility of the transfer of implicit knowledge, which resists codification into what would here be treated as "information" - for example, training manuals. The primary mechanism for transfer of knowledge of this type is learning by doing, and knowledge transfer of this form cannot happen except through opportunities for local practice of the knowledge. The second type of knowledge transfer of concern here is formal instruction in an education context (as compared with dissemination of codified outputs for self-teaching). Here, there is a genuine limit on the capacity of the networked information economy to improve access to knowledge. Individual, face-to-face instruction does not scale across participants, time, and distance. However, some components of education, at all levels, are nonetheless susceptible to improvement with the increase in nonmarket and radically decentralized production processes. The MIT Open Courseware initiative is instructive as to how the universities of advanced economies can attempt to make at least their teaching materials and manuals freely available to teachers throughout the world, thereby leaving the pedagogy in local hands but providing more of the basic inputs into the teaching process on a global scale. More important perhaps is the possibility that teachers and educators can collaborate, both locally and globally, on an open platform model like Wikipedia, to coauthor learning objects, teaching modules, and, more ambitiously, textbooks that could then be widely accessed by local teachers

Industrial Organization of HDI-Related Information Industries

Chapter 9, section 4

Toward Adopting Commons-Based Strategies for Development

Chapter 9, section 5

Commons-Based Research for Food and Medicines

Chapter 9, section 6

Commons-Based Strategies for Development: Conclusion

Chapter 9, section 7

Chapter 9: Notes

Chapter 9: Notes

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty |Table of Contents | Chapter 9: Summary
Discuss Information-Embedded Goods and Tools, Information, and Knowledge