Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Intellectual Property Barbarians at the Gates

I had a truly grand time reading Adam Kirsch's piece about Karl Kraus in the October 23 issue of The New York Review. My greatest regret is that my command of German is far too weak to really negotiate, let alone appreciate, all of the linguistic hoops through which Kraus could jump. However, now that all of the German sources are available online, this may be just as well: Were my German up to the task, I might well end up spending the rest of my days indulging in Kraus' texts and lose track of all of my other pursuits!

Like his contemporary, Robert Musil, Kraus was meticulous about language. Both of them believed passionately that the decay of the proper use of language was an omen of the decay of the culture speaking that language; and this is a torch (out of deference to the title of the periodical for which Kraus served as sole writer and editor) that I have tried to carry in my own modest way, particularly in taking on topics like "The Illiterate Blogosphere." It is in the spirit of that torch that, in my recent piece about C. Wright Mills (whom, fortunately, I can always read in English), I referred to the phrase "intellectual property" as "that ne plus ultra of linguistic barbarisms." One might say that Kraus and Musil saw the need to conflate the metaphorical sense of barbarity in that use of the word "barbarism" with the literal sense. The "modern" generation of barbarians would storm the gates of even the most securely established institutions, which is basically how fin de siècle Vienna saw itself, armed not with weapons of mass destruction (which would assume new meanings with the development of new technologies) but with the power of language deceptive enough to influence behavior without ever communicating anything with clarity. Whether or not the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire can be attributed to a phenomenon as simple as people no longer knowing what they were talking about within all the different strata of society can be debated among historians; but it does not take much to leap ahead one century and view the damaging effects that neglect of the proper use of language have wreaked on just about every institution in the United States over the last eight years. The concept of intellectual property impacts a relatively small slice of the population; but we can view it as the tip of an iceberg big enough to sink the Titanic (or, if you prefer, the global economy).

I write all this as background to my interest in reading Andrew Keen's latest Great Seduction post, based on an interview with King's College Professor David Llewelyn. Llewelyn is currently writing a book about intellectual property entitled Invisible Gold, in which the theme of "IP balance of payments," based on the commoditization of intellectual property, figures heavily. Here is Keen's basic account of Llewelyn's message:

Llewelyn explained to me that there is a quartet countries -- USA, UK, Japan and Sweden -- currently carrying what he calls an "IP balance of payments surplus". Every other country in the world, then, is carrying an IP deficit -- meaning that they are importing more IP protected products than they are exporting. As Llewelyn suggested, this is the real "battlefield" of the 21st century, where countries will either invite or cheat economic death. He explained that high growth countries like China, India and Korea are all challenging the dominant quartet and it's from this international war over IP that the next generation of global economic powers will emerge.

Llewelyn also suggested that the we are all, as individuals, participants in a kind of Darwinian IP struggle for survival. The next frontier, he explained, is in the development of branded individuals who will use IP law to protect their unique identities in the digital economy. …

Just as countries have an IP balance of payments, so individuals too carry either a surplus or deficit of IP. The new global elite of the 21st century will, of course, have the healthiest surplus.

One does not have to read as assiduously as Kraus or Musil to see this for the double-talk it really is. At best it may stand as a validation of Marx' principle that tragedy is repeated by farce. We are currently living in a tragedy brought on by, among other factors, the commoditization of debt, through which pieces of paper that were basically IOU notes immersed in a sea of incomprehensible legalistic jargon were being traded as facilely as pieces of paper that alleged (through a comparable sea of incomprehensible legalistic jargon) to represent a "share" of a corporation like General Motors. As I pointed out in one of my comments on The Great Seduction, in another setting this would have been as farcical as the antics in David Mamet's play Glengarry Glen Ross; but none of us would be laughing because we have all become victims. However, as victims we are likely to be safely detached from the absurd antics of the farce that Llewelyn is readying for Wall Street; if we play our cards right, we may well be able to enjoy a good belly-laugh at the expense of those whose reckless thinking reinforced by slovenly language games (so abused that they must have set Ludwig Wittgenstein spinning in his grave) wreaked such havoc on our personal financial resources!

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