Wednesday, November 26, 2008

$ H2O & IP

After much pondering over what are the greatest inventions of history, I’ve settled on these three: Money, Water, and Intellectual Property (a.k.a. $H2O&IP). These inventions blow my mind in their complexity, success, and in the hope they provide me for the potential of humanity.

There were many other truly amazing candidates I considered for greatest invention ever, such as the wheel, the screw, the electric grid, the scientific method, the transistor, or FedEx. But those all seem like things that any entity with intelligence would have come up with eventually. $H2O&IP, however, require not just an intelligent being but a whole society of intelligent beings acting together, seeing beyond short-term self interests, and fore-seeing how collaboration on something bigger then themselves can benefit all.

$ ~ Money:
    Money is not really worth anything, intrinsically, beyond whatever heat its paper incarnation may generate when burned. It’s “value” lies only in a group agreement (or “shared delusion” if you prefer) that it has value. Before the shared delusion called “money” was invented, you could only expect to barter what you immediately had for what your immediate neighbor immediately had, which was probably not much different than what you had. After money was invented, you could use tokens to trade for very different and specialized items near and far (both in space and time). I can only begin to understand what advances in society this one invention made possible; I’m sure that without money we’d all still be scratching out a mere subsistence.

    What makes money work is that we trust that the various I.O.U.s that represent “money” will be repaid by responsible and trustworthy parties. In the U.S., for example, the primary value of a dollar lies in a worldwide understanding that the U.S. federal government will generate a finite amount of dollars (and thus a fixed scarcity) and that it won’t lie about that amount.

H2O ~ Water:
    I know that humans did not invent the combination of one oxygen with two hydrogen atoms, that’s not what I mean by honoring the invention of water. What I honor is the invention of trenches, canals, reservoirs, treatment, recycling, and the rest of the infrastructure that leads to water being widely available to many many people all year round. In many cases we’ve reached an extreme where we can get water delivered directly to our own faucets and time of day or night, and it’s drinkable, and it’s very cheap.

    What makes this all possible is the foresight of many people who preceded me and many people I share my community with. The farmers upstream of me limit their water use so there’s some left for me, and those farmers trust those upstream of them to limit their own use, and they trust the state to maintain the reservoirs and dams. I trust my own and surrounding cities to manage the water treatment. I trust the great bulk of society not to poison my water. Future generations trust mean not to drain their aquifers.

    I just went to the sink, one of many in my house, and got a fresh drink. That’s amazing!

IP ~ Intellectual Property:
    I can create an idea and own it! This little blog posting, for example, is mine; I and only I get to decide what can be done with it. How did a society of individual self-interested automatons ever get so communally wise that it saw the benefit of protecting ideas and even the wispiest expression of those ideas?

    IP, which is a term for honoring one another’s creative process as much as we may honor each other’s possessions, has led to a richness and quality of things and non-things beyond whatever I would have imagined had someone come to me, centuries ago, with the notion that people’s ideas could be protected as property. Who was smart enough to foresee that, and how was the rest of society smart enough to see it too?

    There’s nothing easier to duplicate than another person’s creative output, be it a story, song, drawing, or device—so easy that there’s no way to enforce the honoring of these IP rules. And yet, we as a society have agreed to respect the wishes of the creators. We have agreed that the world can be trusted with our ideas.

What these inventions have in common, beyond the incredible foresight and intelligence that was necessary to come up with them in the first place, is trust. Without a fundamental trust in our societies, governments, and basic institutions—without a fundamental trust in each other—these inventions could not exist.

Today I give thanks, and what I’m thankful for today is that I belong to a humanity that had both the intelligence and trust to invent $H2O&IP. Mostly I’m thankful for the trust of my fellow humans.

Sometimes it is hard to feel as good about society. Sometimes the basic trust falls apart, which you can follow in stages through the loss of these greatest inventions. First comes the loss of IP (if the society had advanced to that stage at all). Then comes the breaking down of the water supply. Then comes the collapse of the monetary system (usually through astounding inflation and eventual worthlessness of the currency). We can find examples all over the world of countries, including my own, in various stages of this decline. These are signs of how much the people in that society have lost their basic trust of each other.

We, as a species and as a society, invented $H20&IP, so I remain hopeful we won’t lose them.

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