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We live in a world where many people (lawyers, mainly) are gainfully employed in the business of protecting ideas and the distribution of ideas around the world. These protections, mainly trademarks, copyrights and patents, form a huge body of law known as Intellectual Property or IP. The concept is that if you come up with an idea, you can protect it from rivals, thereby giving you a chance to profit from it. Protecting your idea means that you can recoup the (often sizable) investment that you might spend on bringing that idea to fruition. Without IP, the fear is that others would steal your great ideas without putting in the hard work and you would think twice about coming up with an idea ever again. Innovation would be stifled and progress as we know it would come to a grinding halt. 

Such fear is often a load of bollocks.

In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the contrary argument is in fact the case. IP often does more to strangle innovation than it does to protect it, and in a world where everyone is talking about innovation as the key ingredient of success in the 21st Century, that’s a problem.  

Silicon Valley is probably a case in point: although there are plenty of lawyers making a tidy sum from IP issues around the Bay Area, nevertheless it’s acknowledged that protecting ideas is not that big of a deal. You join another company with my ideas today, I hire you back with their ideas tomorrow . That’s pretty much the way it goes. Things move far too fast to be worrying about court cases. The Valley’s success, it has been argued, is precisely because there is much freer movement of ideas there than elsewhere in the world.

There are now companies that exist purely to buy and hoard patents: this is a complete abuse of patent law and hugely damaging to companies that want to try new things. Patent law is so often the last refuge of the uncompetitive.

Copyright, in the digital world, is a nonsense. Digital products copy themselves easily. That’s their nature. That’s what they do. Attempts to limit this ability piss off customers and positively entice people to pursue alternatives. Even when ideas and products are shared freely it is still possible to make money. Just ask Google.

Even the world “Intellectual Property” is a bit of a misnomer in the digital world. Property implies zero sum: if I have it, you don’t. It implies constrained supply – there’s only so much to go around. But the “problem” with digital (and with ideas, generally) is that it’s unconstrained. It’s infinite. You can have as much of it as you wish, with no fears that it will run out any time soon. I give you one, I still have mine. That’s the beauty of ideas.

Today’s IP situation is a lot like the world before free trade, when countries used to impose stringent tariffs on imports to protect their native industries. Unfortunately, however, such logic hampered trade and kept people poor (because tariffs worked in reverse). It was only when protectionism was eliminated within market blocs that economies began thrive.

Reducing or even eliminating IP in certain areas would have a similar, if not even greater effect on competition and innovation. I foresee a time when IP in its current form will be dead and people will shake their heads at the lunacy and lack of vision in our era. Hopefully I’ll still be around to see it happen.

Whereas the 20th Century dealt with the rise of mass-production, it appears that a big theme of the 21st Century will concern mass-customisation. The basic idea is that the organisations that succeed are those that are best able cater to the multiple specific tastes and whims of different individuals in the most efficient way. 

Current examples of mass-customisation include clothing, footwear, helmets, computers, jewelry and printing. All fairly low-key stuff. It’s possible however that we all could be driving around in custom cars, drinking custom concoctions at the bar – exactly matched to our taste buds, and receiving custom prescription drugs exactly suited to our individual genetic makeup. The possibilities are endless and perhaps a bit frightening if taken to the extreme – custom pets and even custom babies perhaps?

Mass customisation applies not just to products, but also to many services we take for granted. From mobile phone plans to travel to insurance, we already experience a great many options so that we can choose something that best fits our lifestyle. Supermarket loyalty cards are used to generate unique discount plans for each shopper. There is even a trend towards personalisation in education, so that children get an education that is best matched to their innate interests and abilities. Many services, from utilities to postal services to taxation, are wide open to future mass-personalisation. 

So here’s what got me thinking: might mass-customisation help to deal with the problem of criminality? For centuries, the blunt instrument of choice has been the prison sentence. While it no doubt has its merits in some cases, it fails in terms of recidivism rates and ultimately it has not succeeded in making a meaningful dent into crime rates within society. Yes, there are alternatives such as electronic tagging, suspended sentences, barring orders, fines and community service, but even so, prison still remains the number one deterrent.

There is something very Victorian about the concept of prison – it is where someone goes to “learn a lesson” and “pay back their crime to society” – to reform their evil ways, as it were. It all sounds very good, if only it were true. I am deeply skeptical that meaningful reform is possible for most people in a prison environment. It seems to jar with what we know about human psychology. The motivations that put people in jail are so different in each case. It could be poverty, boredom, accident, self-expression, anger or even cold-blooded sadism. To me, prison seems like a “one size fits all” solution that, while effective in some cases, is absolutely useless for many other situations because it fails to take account of individual motivations and values. I sometimes wonder if, 500 years hence, our descendants will look on modern prisons in the same way our current generation recoils from the brutal ways the authorities dealt with miscreants in the sixteenth century.   

Enter the world of personalised and customised sentencing. If we had better information on an individual’s background, genetic, personality and psychological makeup and the means to efficiently design responses to criminal behaviour on a case by case basis, could we come up with more effective solutions, thereby driving crime rates down to nominal levels? The suspicion is that, by gaining a better understanding of what drives individual motivations and how an individual’s behaviour is affected by the environment in which they operate, we might come up with approaches and responses that prevent these behaviours in the future. 

Answers that might emerge could include drugs, implants, educational or psychiatric responses, targeted interventions, and in more serious cases, physical exclusion. Maybe it might just be as simple as specifically targeted drugs, who knows?  

I wonder though, if the means were there to implement it, would society be willing to support it? Even if customised sentencing showed huge drops in criminality, it would still require a big change in thinking. A very large section of society continues to demand longer and harsher prison sentences often as a reaction to the injustice of the original criminal act. Harsher sentences don’t seem to make society any safer. (If this were the case, surely the USA, with its large prison population, would be the safest country in the world). In a mass-customised world, prisoners would be given punishments matched to their psychological makeup and circumstances that would ensure a) that the perpetrator does not re-offend, and b) that the perpetrator understands and regrets their actions. It may not deal so well with a victim’s or society’s desire for revenge. Customised sentencing might mean that the best response for a murder, in one case, is drug therapy, whereas a vandal might require a long-term barring order or deep psychological treatment for something relatively minor.

So, customised sentencing may be both a panacea and a headache. It could offer a world with much less crime, but there are social and ethical issues that will need to be dealt with.

What do you think? Is this a pipe-dream? What other benefits or problems do you see? I’m interested in your views.

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