Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Sharing is Caring - Privacy is Theft.

"Share on Keyboard" by GotCredit is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Knowledge as a Public Good?!

“We ought to be [...] making knowledge a free good”, urges Keith Griffin (2003) in his paper Economic Globalisation and Institutions of Global Governance. (a)
And Eamon Bailey, one of the Three Wise Men in Dave Eggers' dystopian novel The Circle, asks, “in this short life [...] why shouldn’t everyone have equal access to [...] the knowledge of the world?” (b)
Let us begin discussing the issue of treating knowledge as a public good by deconstructing the latter. 
By definition a “pure public good” is non-excludable and non-rival; now, for the non-economists among us, what does that mean?
  • Non-excludable means quite literally that no one can be excluded from consuming the public good; it is accessible to everyone. 
  • Non-rival means that me consuming the public good does not lower the utility you derive from the consumption of the same good; there is no first-come-first-serve experience.
A classic example for a pure public good are street lights: we can all walk on the pavement and make use of them guiding us through the night and the fact that others are walking under the same street lights as we are does not make them less useful. 
However, life is not always as easy as that; enter: the Tragedy of the Commons. For those of us who are not really comfortable with this concept, described in the 1960s by Garrett Hardin, here is a brief explanation.
Picture a common land which can be used by everyone. If you were a farmer, you would want to graze as many of your cows on there as possible. Well, unsurprisingly, your fellow farmers would want to do the same. But if you all did, the combined amount of cattle would exhaust the pasture and destroy it in the long run. Excessive use of a shared resource can bring about negative externalities. Long story short, the Tragedy of the Commons conceptualises the short-term interest of the individual versus the long-term welfare of society at large. 
A very relevant and topical example: climate change and the overfishing of our seas.

Now, in order to avoid this dilemma that tends to occur with public goods, there are barriers to entry which either occur naturally (think traffic congestion) or which are constructed by us (think entry fees). See the chart on the right for a classification of goods.
goods matrix.jpg

So,where would we put knowledge on this grid? 
Wikipedia lists knowledge as an example for a public good, do we agree?
Let us investigate the “purity” of knowledge as a public good. 

First of all, we need to ask whether knowledge is a rival good.
Does me knowing something makes knowing the same thing less useful to you?
If you enjoy “intellectual superiority” and like to be the know-it-all, then probably yes. But from a more serious perspective, no. Two people sharing the same knowledge creates a breeding ground for even more knowledge. It feels redundant to provide arguments, so let me remind you that it was Watson AND Crick who discovered DNA - not either Watson or Crick.  

Moving on to the second characteristic, we need to ask whether we can we exclude people from knowledge. Spoiler: this post was written by someone who has taken out a tuition fee loan to go to university. Well, yes obviously, there are ways to exclude people from learning new things and extending their knowledge. And whilst university may be technically free in other countries, textbooks are pretty much equally expensive no matter where you study. Which brings us to another way of excluding others from knowledge: copyright. Whilst I very much agree, that any sort of contribution or discovery should be attributed properly to whoever it is stemming from, I also agree that more open ways of licensing, such as Creative Commons offer great opportunities for sharing and remixing of resources. And it is through sharing and exchange of knowledge that we learn, is it not? 
As Griffin points out, “the function of copyright legislation clearly has shifted from stimulating innovative works to protecting the income generating power of intellectual property”. I like to call this the crux of copyright; we need to find a way of protecting someone’s intellectual property without shutting others out, without “depriving them of something they have a right to. Knowledge is a basic human right. Equal access [...] is a basic human right.” (b)

So where do we stand then? 
Does knowledge fit the criteria for a public good? 
It does not. 
Knowledge may be a non-rival good but it is not a non-excludable good. Referring back to our goods definition matrix, one might even argue that knowledge is like pay TV or a fancy club - if you are privileged enough, you have access to it.

But let us imagine knowledge was a public good. Public goods can be exploited because selfish individuals can free-ride. I still get to breathe better air even though I drive to work by car whilst my colleagues cycle. And I still have access to openly licensed work even though I keep all my work to myself. And sooner or later, others will realise that and jump on the free-riding bandwagon until the race to the bottom is in full swing.

Should knowledge be a public good, or is it good that it currently is not?
Is sharing really caring?
Over to you. 

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a Griffin, K. (2003). Economic Globalisation and Institutions of Global Governance. Development and Change, 34(5), pp.789-807.
b Eggers, D. (2014). The Circle. 1st ed. Penguin. 
[note: the title "sharing is caring - privacy is theft" is also taken from Eggers' novel]