Monday, 24 June 2013

Mine, mine, mine: Cultural evolution and intellectual ownership

Ever since the early crowds have welcomed the Internet into their lives (or the other way around – I'm not sure which is host and which is guest), people have been saying that intellectual ownership needs to change.

Recently, I've noticed ownership is already changing. The driving force is not legal redefinition, but economical gain.

Physical vs. Intellectual Ownership
Personally, I've always found the concept of intellectual ownership rather puzzling. The 'intellectual' units that we're talking about aren't singular objects that can be owned the way I own my bicycle. Intellectual property can take many shapes – from tunes and catch-phrases to clothes fashions and production methods. What they have in common is that they exist through replication. Think about it: it's meaningless to establish who the intellectual owner is of something that's not worth repeating.

Cultural Evolution
Parallel to genes, Richard Dawkins calls these non-genetic cultural units of replication “memes”, and of course they're subject to variation and selection as well as replication.
As possible roots for the word 'meme', Dawkins refers to
  • the Ancient Greek 'Mimeme' (from μιμέομαι, “to imitate”, “to mimic” or “to follow another's example”)
  • the English 'memory' and
  • the French word même (“same” or “alike”).
But how do we identify that two utterances are the same meme – or, in other words, the same intellectual property?

It's not just the variation bit that I'm talking about, although apparently a misquote such as “Do you feel lucky, punk?” still counts as Dirty Harry. Dawkins emphasizes that when a meme is transmitted from one brain to another, that doesn't mean that both brains show the exact same neural configuration. Two nightingales 'have' the same meme when they sing the same melody, even if the neural configurations that make them sing that melody are vastly different.

What is “the same” or “alike” in two copies of one meme? How can they be identified? What is the magical connection between a printed sentence and the spoken version of it? A phrase and its translation?

Legal Context
The legal experts don't worry about this though. How they do it, I don't know, but they've managed to identify plenty of intellectual thieves.

The different way of existence (replication rather than durability) makes ownership of memes quite difficult. When I buy a computer game, it's not the same as when I buy a can of tomato soup. Yes, I own the disc, but somehow, I don't own the game. Actually, perhaps it is the same as when I buy a can of tomato soup. I can buy the soup, but that doesn't mean the recipe becomes mine.

Digital Hoarding
Despite the fact that most of us aren't the legal owners of songs, movies, books and games, we act and speak as though we are. “I have the latest album of Radiohead on my laptop,” and “I'll give you Call of Duty tomorrow.”
In the golden days of illegal torrents, a lot of people around me became digital hoarders – they collected more music on their computers than they could listen to if they would do nothing else for the rest of their lives; more terabytes worth of films than their entire music collection and more games and software than they'll ever use. Why would they, if the files weren't even theirs? It's hard to explain, but in a way, there is a stronger sense of possession when we steal files than when we pay for them.

Pack-rat Traps
Software corporations know this, and they're changing the way we interact with them because of it.
In an attempt to make Photoshop and Illustrator theft-proof, Adobe's new range is Creative Cloud (CC) rather than Creative Suite (CS). You don't pay a fortune in order to own your own copy of the software. Instead, you pay a monthly subscription fee of fifty dollars to be allowed to use the software.
We don't buy games for the new XBox, we pay for the right to play them once.

A lot of people are upset about these changes. But just like the crowds have learned to pay for songs in the iTunes store or on Spotify rather than download them with torrents, the crowds will get used to it.

The End of Self-Storage
Whether we're the legal owners or not, we tend to store writings, songs, films and images at home or at work. When I was eighteen, I still went as far as printing my favourite email conversations so that I could keep them in a folder under my bed. I was afraid that Hotmail might go bust or lose my letters.

Like most other people, I no longer feel the need to download emails etc. onto my own hard drive. I trust that Gmail and Hotmail will be there as long as I need access to my old emails. In fact, they are a lot better at looking after my files than I am myself.
  1. I don't have access anymore to the files I saved on old floppy discs – even if they hadn't corrupted over time and even if I had a floppy drive, I wouldn't have WordPerfect to read the files.
  2. I can't watch films that I recorded on videotapes anymore.
  3. Neither my previous nor my current computer has a CD/DVD-drive, so I don't even have access to any of the CD-R backups I made.
  4. My dad has had to re-install Windows on his desktop computer several times and wiped everything I had saved on there.
  5. I still have access to everything I ever saved in my Gmail, Facebook and Dropbox.

When I won an iPad in a competition, I figured it would be great for working on my novel in transit, so I looked for a word-processing app. This is when I first noticed that intellectual ownership doesn't just need to change, but is actually changing. OpenOffice, I discovered, isn't available for iOS, and there were no free equivalents that lived up to my needs. All free apps, including Google docs, require you to be online in order to amend your files. Which means that I wouldn't be able to work on my novel without a WiFi connection. Not great, considering the fact that I was hoping to write on the underground. In the end, I had to dish out twenty quid for Quickoffice Pro, because it was one of the very few apps allowing me to store files on my iPad rather than online. Even Apple's Pages only works if you sign up for iCloud.

We are losing the need to have a physical connection with our intellectual property (or loot). More and more, having access to it with any device is replacing having it on one specific device.

The mystery of identity of memes is now combined with their loss of anchoring in our material lives. A significant shift indeed. 

No comments:

Post a Comment