Moglen, Eben - It’s a difficult moral problem, explaining why you deny others what you value highly and could provide to them for nothing

Excerpt from Moglen, Eben - Free and Open Software: Paradigm for a New Intellectual Commons - Law of the Commons Conference 20090313

The most important unchangeable reality about human societies heretofore is that every human society since the beginning, whenever that was, has wasted almost all the brains it possessed.

It is, of course, something so natural to us that it strikes us as an odd aperçu when we meet it, but of course we know that it is true. We know that it is true, and that there wasn’t any way to prevent it from being true, even as we know that it’s an injustice. A deep injustice.

So let’s begin by recognizing, as Laura Nader was urging us to do, that one of the great problems about injustice is that, like power, it is most effective when it can succeed in remaining invisible. And one of the best ways of being invisible is to be something that everybody knows, but you can’t do anything about it, so you might as well forget. And so we forget – as we tend to forget every day when the newspaper isn’t headlined with the 50,000 children who starved to death yesterday – we forget that one of the fundamental characteristics of human societies heretofore has been their wastage of human brains. And I go around, and I say to people “How many of the Einsteins who ever existed were permitted to learn physics?”. And people think “Well, maybe one, maybe two – maybe Isaac Newton was another Einstein…” but of course the answer is “Almost none”. So few, in fact, that we know the names of them.

Which, had we educated all the Einsteins in the world, in physics, since the beginning, we couldn’t do, because there would be so many of them. And what we think of as the extraordinary characteristics of genius are primarily merely the selection function applied to human diversity, through radical injustice in access to the ability to learn. Which means, of course, that we know that – smart guys as we all are – we are really only the fraction of the smart guys in the world who’ve been allowed to learn anything, in a world where there are six billion people, most of whom will never be able to go to school. And their brains will starve to death.

So the basic question – now that our attention is concentrated on one of those obvious things that we don’t think about very much – so the question now is “Can the network be used to change that, for the first time in the history of human societies, and if it were used to change that, what would it be like?”.

This is the introduction to the free software movement. This is the purpose of the free software movement. This is the aim not only of the free software movement, but of a large number of the other things we are doing that arise from the fact that the digital revolution means that knowledge no longer has a non-zero marginal cost, that when you have the first copy of any significant representation of knowledge – whatever the fixed cost of the production of that representation may have been – you have as many additional copies, everywhere, as you need, without any significant additional costs.

The non-zero marginal cost quality of all the things we digitize, which – in the society we are now building – is everything we value, because we digitize everything we can value, right down to how we fit in our jeans, right? In the world where we digitize everything of value and everything of value has been digitized, a moral question of significance arises:

When you can provide to everybody everything that you value, at the cost of providing it to any one body, what is the morality of excluding people who cannot afford to pay?

If you could make as much bread, or have as many fishes, as you needed to feed everyone, at the cost of the first loaf and the first fish plus a button press, what would be the morality for charging more for loaves and fishes than the poorest person could afford to pay?

It’s a difficult moral problem, explaining why you are excluding people from that which you yourself value highly and could provide to them for nothing.

The best way of solving this moral problem is not to acknowledge its existence, which is the current theory. Right? The current theory in force takes the view that industrial society lived in a world of non-zero marginal cost for information – information and the ability to learn had to be embedded in analog things: books, recordings, objects that cost non-zero amounts of money to make, move, and sell. Therefore, it was inevitable that representations of things we value would have significant marginal costs. And in economies operating efficiently and competitively, – or for that matter, efficiently and non-competitively – there would still be some cost that somebody has to pay at the other end to receive each copy of something of meaning or value, unless there is somebody available to provide a subsidy. And since that was the 20th century reality, it was appropriate to have moral theory which regarded exclusion as an inevitable necessity.

The discussion, of course, was about scale. “Ought we to find ways to subsidize more knowledge for more people?” And the United States became not merely the wealthiest and most powerful country, after the Second World War, not merely the indispensable or inevitable country, it became the intellectually most attractive country because it heavily subsidized the availability of sophisticated knowledge to people who could make use of it, even people who came elsewhere from poorer societies, or who had not the money to pay. And after the Second World War, in the G.I. Bill, the United States took a unique approach to the age-old problem of how to reduce social disorder after war time through the demobilization of a large number of young men trained to the efficient use of collective violence – a thing which is always worrisome to societies, and which typically produces repression movements post-war, as the society as a whole tries to get back its leverage over those young men – the G.I. Bill was a radical, and indeed productive approach to the problem, namely send everybody to as much education as they want to have, at the expense of the state, which is grateful to them for risking their lives in its defense. A splendid system; on the basis of that, and the provision of tertiary and quaternary education to the talented elite of the world, the United Stated government built a special place for its society in the world, as throwing away fewer brains than its power and importance would otherwise have tended to indicate it would do.

But we are no longer talking about whether we can save people, identified as the elite of other societies, from the ignorance to which they might otherwise fall prey, through enlightened federal spending. We are talking about eliminating ignorance. We’re talking about addressing the great deprivation of knowledge of everything of use and utility and beauty from everybody, by building out the network across humanity, and allowing everybody to have the knowledge and the culture that they wish to obtain. And we’re talking about doing that because the alternative to doing that is the persistence of an immoral condition.

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