I’ve read two articles in the last 24 hours that seem profoundly important. Both of them suggest that we are a somewhat lazy species—we aren’t really interested in putting in the hard work to change the world. The first article entitled Infinite Stupidity, by the great evolutionary biologist, Mark Pagel. Read the whole piece, but here is his thesis.
A tiny number of ideas can go a long way, as we’ve seen. And the Internet makes that more and more likely. What’s happening is that we might, in fact, be at a time in our history where we’re being domesticated by these great big societal things, such as Facebook and the Internet. We’re being domesticated by them, because fewer and fewer and fewer of us have to be innovators to get by. And so, in the cold calculus of evolution by natural selection, at no greater time in history than ever before, copiers are probably doing better than innovators. Because innovation is extraordinarily hard. My worry is that we could be moving in that direction, towards becoming more and more sort of docile copiers.
If only a few people in the society have to be innovators and their innovations flow more from ideas than massive factories or deployed capital, then maybe we should be a little more protective of intellectual property. I’ve been having a battle with the Copyleft mob on Twitter (@JTTaplin) over an interview of the doyenne of copying as art, Nina Paley.
“Intellectual disobedience is civil disobedience plus intellectual property,” Paley explained. “A lot of people infringe copyright and they’re apologetic … If you know as much about the law as, unfortunately, I do, I cannot claim ignorance and I cannot claim fair use … I know that I’m infringing copyright and I don’t apologize for it.”
Ms. Paley cannot claim fair use, because she copies whole sections of other artists work to construct her “original” work. I may have been a little rough with Paley over what she claims to be art, but the main point is that to call this act of theft “civil disobedience” is an insult to Thoreau, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. What human right is Paley asserting with her civil disobedience? The right to steal other artists work? I don’t get it.
That brings me to the second article, written by one of my favorite writers, John Ralston Saul. Saul is wondering why so little has been accomplished in the half century of the environmental movement. And like Pagel, he reaches the conclusion that we would rather let someone else do the hard work.
We believe we live in an era of facts and of proofs. Yet what we don’t feel able to take on has little to do with those facts and proofs. It has everything to do with a failure of imagination.
The first error has to do with misunderstanding the nature of power. The environmental era mirrors almost exactly that of the rise of the NGOs. Why? The central characteristic of the globalist era is that we came to believe the power of the citizenry had been weakened by the power of economics. We gradually accepted that the power of national politics was therefore limited. It followed that the power to ignore the public good was international and amorphous in the sense that it had to do with broad economic assumptions. In that case, the best way to fight back was also international. And since there were no international representative legislative institutions devoted to the public good, well then, we would devote ourselves to creating institutions that would set the global agenda, our contemporary NGO army.
These new institutions would not have actual power – the power to act. But they would speak for us all, for the shared public good. And those devoted to the international economic interests would have to listen. We convinced ourselves that the persistent sound would be too loud to be ignored by those with power.
Except they didn’t listen to these NGOs. And they didn’t – don’t – have to listen. After all, economics is power. Real power. The NGOs – the new institutions of the public good – have only influence. Influence can have periodic successes. But this is a weak hand to play if you have other options. Imagine if the tens of millions of hours devoted to influencing power and opposing power had been devoted to taking power. Imagine if the millions of NGO members had joined political parties and virtually taken them over. That is how change is actually made – through political parties, elections, governments and laws.
Think about the Occupy Movement last year. What if all that energy had gone into taking over local Democratic Parties and reinvigorating them with young voters? What if all the culture-jammers who got so upset about SOPA had actually gotten involved politically? But it’s so much easier to sign an online petition.
Pagel may be right that we are engaged in a devolutionary infinite stupidity. But ultimately Saul has the more important point. Economics is power and the only way to counter the control of the 1% over government is to engage in electoral politics. If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.