Not Access to Knowledge, but Capability to Use Knowledge!

I attended a meeting called A2K (Access To Knowledge) held at Yale last year (Conference Wiki).   I got to hang with some friends whom I admire, like Yochai Benkler (one of the organizers) and to get to know some remarkable people, like Shay David – a clear and articulate thinker who has since visited us in Canberra.

For all the quality at the meeting, I was somewhat disappointed that there was an exclusive focus on ‘making information available’, but no one was talking about the Elephant in the Room, namely the extraordinary restrictions that were developing on the ‘capability to make use of that information’.

It shouldn’t have been surprising I suppose, for a group of academics – for indeed it was pretty much all academics save perhaps me and the janitor – to not be worried about constraints to the creation of tangible economic value – the core of innovation, as it is generally outside of their purview. But it was nonetheless greatly unsettling. I find the simple thought experiment that comes from testing hypotheses in physics to be a useful exercise.

If you’re proposing a course of action, it is instructive to imagine it succeeding (testing the hypothesis at the limit cases), and asking what consequences would eventuate. In the case of universal access to information, let’s imagine all information is available to everyone, everywhere, at no cost. What then?

Well, ultimately there is no impact of that information on our lives until it is ‘converted’ into products or processes. And the ability to ‘convert’ knowledge, what I call the ‘capability to use knowledge’ is associated with barriers, the most prominent one these days being patents. Thus, if you control by patent (or other means) the permissive use of a process of actually making a drug based on some scientific information; or making a crop based on rice genome information; or making a diagnostic for cancer based on clinical data, then you have effectly co-opted and obtained exclusive control over the value of the entire supporting body of ‘public’ information. So that ‘public information’ only there as a publicly funded (or publicly sanctioned) subsidy of the value proposition for those who control its further development into economic outcomes.

One Response

  1. Tim Roberts says:

    Incontrovertible (if readers think otherwise, let’s hear them controvert it!). Knowledge is of aesthetic value only unless applied (I’m not knocking aesthetic values, but there are others, and application develops knowledge further). But you need an incentive for application – the possibility of profit. Without this, investment will not be rewarded, and so is not sustainable. Governments are not good innovators, partly because they don’t have the requisite variety. You need a large number of competing approaches, most of which will fail (compare genetic mutations). Monopoly impedes this, however it arises. So the trick is to have patent rights of proper (‘Goldilocks’) scope, and a broad exemption for research. How to do this is left as an exercise for the reader.