A2K Symposium: How Fractal Inequality Challenges the Unity of A2K

The edited collection Access to Knowledge in the Age of Intellectual Property is an extraordinary achievement. Many essays offer models of engaged scholarship. The book as a whole reminded me of what Ian Shapiro described as problem-driven (rather than method-driven) scholarship. Shapiro argues for the superiority of “problem-driven over method-driven approaches to the study of politics,” making “the case for starting with a problem in the world, next coming to grips with previous attempts that have been made to study it, and then defining the research task by reference to the value added.” He argues that “method-driven research leads to self-serving construction of problems, misuse of data in various ways, and related pathologies summed up in the old adage that if the only tool you have is a hammer everything around you starts to look like a nail.”

Problem-Driven Research

By contrast, problem-driven work tries to reason about a puzzle, injustice, or inequality, by drawing on the full range of methodological resources developed by social scientists. Krikorian and Kapczynski welcome the perspectives of health workers, activists, social critics, and academics. All the contributors think critically about access to knowledge, unshackled from disciplinary blinders that can lead to what C. Wright Mills calls “abstracted empiricism.”

The A2K paradigm addresses a very large issue: access to knowledge writ large. For A2K activists and academics, there are common problems besetting individuals in both the developed and developing world, who all find themselves hemmed in by patent, trademark, and copyright laws. As the introduction puts it,

In a hospital in South Korea, leukemia patients are expelled as untreatable because a multinational drug company refuses to lower the price of a life-saving drug. Thousands of miles away, a U.S. group called the Rational Response Squad is forced by the threat of a copyright lawsuit to take down a YouTube video criticizing the paranormalist Uri Geller. Could we—should we—see these two events, so seemingly remote from one another, as related? Yes—or such is the premise of a new political formation on the global stage, one that goes under the name of the “access to knowledge movement”—or more simply, A2K.

A2K is an emerging mobilization that includes software programmers who took to the streets to defeat software patents in Europe, AIDS activists who forced multinational pharmaceutical companies to permit copies of their medicines to be sold in South Africa, and college students who have created a new “free culture” movement to “defend the digital commons”—to select just a few. A2K can also be seen as an emerging set of theoretical commitments that both respond to and reject the key justifications for “intellectual property” law and that seek to develop an alternative account of the operation and importance of information and knowledge, creativity and innovation in the contemporary world.

On the one hand, I find this type of parallel very appealing. We are in an era of globalization which tends to fragment the interests of labor across national, ethnic, and class lines. A2K envisions the unity of consumers. Given the shift from producerist to consumerist economic models, advocates need to develop a theory and practice of social justice from the user’s perspective. The old paradigm was a just wage; a new model of distributive ethics might instead focus on providing certain social minima, particularly those which can be copied at zero marginal cost.

Divergent Problems in the Developing and the Developed Worlds

Few should quarrel with efforts to provide knowledge-based goods for free (or very cheaply) to the world’s bottom two income quintiles. At present, that 40% of the world’s population can barely access more than one percent of global product. Their purchasing power is often exhausted by the provision of bare necessities. You can’t squeeze blood from a stone, and while there is some evidence that charging a nominal amount for mosquito nets makes people value them more, you can’t have too many such initiatives in the developing world without ruining their ostensible beneficiaries. When it comes to educational supplies and medicines, there should be a norm of charging (if at all) based on “ability to pay.”

My only reservation about the terms of this tactical alliance arises out of my study of inequality and the digital labor movement described by Trebor Scholz. Many Silicon Valley gurus have declared that we live in an age of “free.” Artists are supposed to give away images of their paintings; writers are supposed to make everything they do available for free online; journalists are to be replaced by hordes of citizen reporters who describe events, as they see them, in their twitter feed. In an unfortunate metaphor deployed by one law professor, content is mere “paint” to be organized into “pictures” by the truly creative force of computer-driven aggregators and taste makers.

I am afraid that if the normalization of “free” is a goal of the access to knowledge movement, it may contribute to unfortunate background economic trends that could liquidate many knowledge workers. I am all for uncontrolled access to software, journalism, and any other product with zero marginal cost of copying, once the underlying social problem of providing food, shelter, transport, and healthcare has been solved for all those working in such fields. Until then, it makes a great deal more sense to me to tax the likes of John Paulson to help pay for access to drugs, news, and education in the developed world. In other words, if anyone has to give something up in order to promote access to knowledge in the developed world, the first to sacrifice should not be those scrabbling for a living as newspaper writers or designers.

Among the top 15,000 taxpayers in the US in 2005, the average tax return reported $26 million of income, and the “Fortunate 400”–the 400 households with the highest earnings in the U.S.–made on average $213.9 million apiece. (The cutoff for entry into this group was a $100 million income.). Taxing that group more fairly—and indeed anyone making over $250,000 a year—could create the type of economic security in the US that really lets creativity flourish. Just ask JK Rowling!

To conclude: I’m completely on board with the A2K agenda for the developing world. I also think the movement has a very important role to play in encouraging sequential innovation and the freedom of individuals to tinker in various cultural and technical contexts. I just worry about creative individuals and knowledge workers someday finding that social norms of “sharing,” “generosity,” and “compassion” leave them in the same disprivileged position that “unpaid laborers” in the home (most of them women) have suffered for centuries.

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