Communicator (communicator) wrote,

You kids get off my lawn

You often read, on the Internet, a notion that 'property' is a natural or elemental relation between an owner and an object of ownership. This is a founding principle of libertarianism, and underpins distinctively Anglo free market neoliberal economics theory. On the contrary I think ownership is actually a secondary social relation, and has different meanings in different societies (the two main alternatives being pastoral/nomadic and agrarian/imperial I think).

The principle of conservatism is that 'the natural order is the moral order', and thus the uniquely modern state of unmediated ownership is seen as natural, as pre-governmental, as pure - and as the basis of moral order.

My feeling is that modern Anglo notions of ownership arose as a result of the outreach of English-speaking colonialism across the globe. To the colonists the new lands were unowned, as there was no existing social obligation to the savage or barbarous inhabitants. This very new conception of a-social ownership without responsibility has now been turned around to be a primal or natural state, which government and society 'interferes with' in a harmful and unnatural way.

Now there is a new frontier - the Internet - and property here is different again. It is very bound up with social role, kudos, personal reputation. Ownership may be less significant than right attribution. Reproduce my work, but attribute it to my online i-d. It's an utterly different paradigm - almost the reverse of colonialist/capitalist land-stripping.

Author Mark Helprin has written a defence of the old paradigm significantly called Digital Barbarism. Here is an excerpt which I could almost have designed as an parody of the fundamentalist 'ownership' paradigm.

His argument is that intellectual copyright, far from being weakened by the new digital world, should be strengthened and made infinite and perpetual (literally, he thinks it should endure forever). I call it fundamentalist for a reason - like religious fundamentalism it is a reaction to change by becoming more extreme and rigid.

Anyway, this has turned into a mega-post. Here is a rebuttal of Helprin by a champion of the new paradigm - Larry Lessig. Tellingly it is vital, well written, fun.

Here in contrast is a turgid defence of Helprin by Ross Douthat. Tellingly (again) although it's all about the importance of ownership of ideas it begins with a yawn-inducing appropriation of this excellent xkcd cartoon. And he doesn't give it a proper attribution. What could be a clearer demonstration that the old paradigm is tone-deaf to the new?

All links courtesy of this crooked timber thread.

ETA And there's a metafilter thread here.
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